I can't claim to speak as an expert on Japan, but I thought that some might be interested in reading my thoughts on things Japan could improve. This is staggered with the publishing of my list of 8 unmistakable pleasures of Japan.
I have every reason to believe that the Japanese are very hard workers. I saw plenty of it when I was there. The trouble is, this does tend to cut in a bit on the whole social aspect of life. Now, I'd been told, never you fear, the Japanese are great for night life - and indeed did my heart feel a great bouncing joy upon hearing it, for I was never one to turn down the pleasures of the nocturnal existence.
Bollocks. The Japanese are no more for the nightlife than the southern California suburban Arizona-like hell from which I came. Most of the attractions close at 5:00 in the summer, 4:00 in the winter. Trains stop running in the rural areas around 10:00, and in Tokyo at 11:00. Trains from Santa Clarita (aforementioned Dante's Pit) go that late to Los Angeles (aforementioned place of terrible public transit) and back. After dark, nothing happens. There are a few 24-hour convenience stores, coffee shops, and even a sushi bar or two, but all that hard work usually means that the Japanese worker gets out of work, goes home, and goes to bed.
This also leads to another criticism. I believe that Japanese social life is more stratified than the social life in just about any other country I know. From a very young age, Japanese children are assigned grade expectations, athletic expectations, and leadership expectations by their society. Those with high grades, especially in math, are expected to go into business. In business, their social life will consist of those they work with. In many cases, this will exclude even wife and family, who will be left to have other social lives in the absence of the father. Salarymen rarely have the opportunity to socialize with anyone outside their own company, and I think this is not only a human tragedy (which is really the more important point) but also (and sadly, this is the point where I might garner some attention) an economic tragedy.
Where do you think most invention comes from? In a phrase, the collision of two previously unassociated ideas. This occurs when you are dealing with life outside of your normal sphere of work. Now, certainly, one can maintain an inventive class and a worker class, but at what human cost, and cost to invention?
This brings me to my last point in the social life of Japan - they are very hard workers, but I honestly think this results in a loss of productivity. I honestly don't think the average US worker is a very hard worker. This can at times be a true detriment to them, as it can result in intentionally looking for a job where they don't have to think or operate as more than a human calculator - but in some cases, in fact, in many cases, this means that they work very hard to do less work, using the time and materials they are given to build a system in which less human effort is required.
It's kind of strange that the system most addicted to human labor - the Japanese system, which still employs elevator button-pushers, is the one most heavily researching robotics, but don't be fooled. Robotics, in Japan, are nothing more than one more thing to spend human labor-hours on, to be the hardworking society that they are. The Japanese could invent machines that would take care of man's every need, and they'd still hire someone and pay them to watch those machines all day long.
Now don't get me wrong-in some ways, that's a far more humane approach than the US' approach, which seems to be, build the machine, and then fire the person who built it, stop paying whoever it replaces, they can both starve because they didn't have the foresight to manage the advertising plant that markets the machines - but the point is that both systems are inhumane. Japan could invent more, could do more, and yes, could relax more (which might actually result in them doing more) and it's that system I'm talking about now.