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Japan brings back the salarymen to revive the spirit of a generation

Every day, in every way, Japan is becoming more and more fascinating. The second biggest economy in the world may still seem to be stuck on the rocks of deflation, but even the European newspaper articles that try to convince us that we are not heading in the same direction simply make us more and more certain that we are. What with the Nikkei index of Japanese stocks at a 20-year low, trading at less than a quarter of the volume that the bubble reached as long ago as 1990, the Japanese economy has been stagnant or shrinking for more than a decade. Its once dynamic corporate sector is now choked with heavily indebted property, retail and construction companies that are suspended in undeclared insolvency, and too many bad debts and too few customers to borrow from banks that have £250 billion bad debt provisions of their own to worry about. No wonder business commentators here in Britain and in the United States have started to talk about a second Great Depression.The whole thing holds a gloomy fascination everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, except in Japan itself.

There, far below the stultifying cloud base of the faltering macro economy, a feverish culture of inventive design has come into being, its growing number of exponents cheerfully working long hours in cramped innovation centres, producing such marginally marketable novelty items as the portable diagonal zebra crossing, the Golf Hoe (weed your garden while practising your swing), and the 360° panoramic camera (no more appearing twice in the school photograph).

Of course these are frivolous toys, but they sell well and cost little.

It is well known in our globalised world that anything can be sold to anyone - not only to Americans, as was formerly believed, even though they are still the best bet, as the successful marketing of the Japanese start-up Quake Secure, now a Los Angeles company that lashes down heavy furniture to stop it crushing you in an earthquake, goes far to prove.

But this is not the usual Japanese way. Over there it is the triumphant struggle that wins the praise and admiration, not the social or economic value of the project as in former ages. To ram this point home to the listless youth element in the post-bubble economy, there is a special weekly television programme called Project X: Challengers. Its aim is to foster among the young freelance teenage inventors and entrepreneurs of the innovation centres something of the spirit of the generations who rebuilt Japan after the Second World War and brought about the miraculous economic growth that followed it. Better yet, it wants them to see their 100th Game Boy-derived interactive video game counterpart to the design of a hydroelectric dam or the VHS standard video format that their salaryman grandfathers and fathers spent much of their working lives perfecting for little or no reward.

The show itself uses old film clips and presenter interviews to identify the technological miracle in question and describe how the most difficult problems were overcome and by whom, and ends with the unsung salarymen responsible trooping onto the stage amid the tears and applause of the audience. If the actual protagonists have died, members of their families or colleagues come forward.

Project X: Challengers has succeeded in the almost impossible task of finding a strong following among young and old viewers in Japan, and it has led to spin-off books, strip cartoons and DVDs as a result.

Its popularity seems to be based on a widely shared Japanese admiration for singleminded dedication to a long and complex task, whatever its nature, and also to the ability to make decisions, a freedom that hardly exists in Japan today.

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