The 46,000 dollar gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is a pretty clear sign that Japan is a rich country and its residents are well off. People are right to think that differences in wealth are the lowest here of all the advanced countries (not counting Scandinavia), but even so, there are extremes.


As an ambassador, I of course mainly got to know rich people. Perhaps the event most acutely seared into my memory was my acquaintanceship with the son of the founder of one of Japan’s iconic electronics giants. A competing electronics firm bought up a major Japanese ski resort. That was quite enough to set off my acquaintance (a passionate skier), who bought up the whole mountain he regularly traveled to by helicopter for his own skiing, and built the most extravagant network of ski trails and facilities ever to exist. The mountain, which has been verified as seeing 9 meters of snowfall a year, offered excellent snow and ski slopes as late as early May. Granted, it was no longer possible to glide up to the ski storage room at the five-star luxury hotel. Instead, we had to be satisfied with traveling by ski lift. The participants in the “ambassadors’ ski competition” were received the evening before the event with a garden party that included live music and fireworks, and where the waiters offered Château Lafitte wines to the battle-hardened guests, who were nonetheless suitably impressed by this level of hype.

It was actually my career change that allowed me to discover the other extreme, the dire poverty that many people, and not just the clearly visible homeless ones, have to contend with.

rich poor

Another rich friend of mine devotes a truly sizable portion of his wealth to an incomparably worthier cause. The Mitani family owns Mitani Sangyo, a mid-sized trading house with about 2 billion dollars a year in turnover. The founder – the father of the current President and CEO – set up a foundation that provides scholarships to students in the Ishikawa prefecture, where the company headquarters is located, and in the Toyama and Fukui prefectures, which together make up the Hokuriku Area. The scholarships are granted to talented students whose circumstances would not allow them to continue their studies, or whose families would have to make extraordinary sacrifices to keep them in school.

At my friend’s request, I spent ten years as a member of the foundation’s board. Our five-member board decided on the scholarships each year. Students from the three prefectures could request support to enroll in Japanese universities or in a local higher-level secondary school. Detailed documentation verified their school grades and their families’ finances. They also submitted essays describing their goals in life. By reading the material submitted by the 60-80 applicants each year I learned more about Japanese society in those ten years than in the previous thirty, and I had actually lived in Japan for eight of those!

Divorces, accidents, illnesses, unemployment – there always were reasons, but it was still a shock to see the pittances that numerous Japanese families had to survive on. Almost all of these students held down a job while attending school. In a best case, the scholarship would allow the student to work a bit less while going to school, giving him or her more time to study, or possibly enough time for sports or a hobby.

The social safety net is woven differently in Japan than in Europe. It relies to a much greater degree on self-initiative, on families, and on support by relatives. This is a good part of why it has traditionally had one of the lowest unemployment rates of all the advanced countries, since there is almost always a small business or a farm owned by a relative that offered help to a troubled family. However, the scholarship applications illustrate that the holes in the system are growing.

When reading what the applicants say about their goals, I came to realize that they were very much aware of their own responsibilities towards themselves and society. Many want to work for the “public good”.

My rich friend is also concerned about the future of the region and the country in other respects. A few years ago he established a sister-foundation, offering funding for research and development projects.

It deserves special mention that neither foundation serves the interests of the founding business (the articles of association of the foundations very specifically ban them from serving the business). Perhaps someday we too will get to the point where more successful people think in terms of “benefiting the public” and there will be a higher level of solidarity and willingness to lend a helping hand within families and among relatives...