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FADING TRADITIONS

For better and worse, the unrelenting demands of a global economy are chipping away at some of the world's cultural delicacies. Two readily come to mind: Spain's siesta and Japan's keen sense of social kinship.

This is a rude awakening for both countries.

The Spanish custom of pausing in mid-afternoon for a three-hour meal and snooze is gradually yielding to the harsher expectations of multinational corporations and of other European Union countries with a less divided workday. The outside world seems to have interpreted the siesta as laziness rather than a healthful interlude in the day's activities, a time to return home for a hot lunch, a short nap and a chance to chat with your spouse.

Spaniards themselves, especially younger city-dwellers, seem to have drifted away from the ritual on their own, not because they disdain the siesta but because it's no longer practical. Suburban lifestyles now require long, hard commutes. Women have joined the work force in large numbers. Indeed, the economy is churning as Spain, traditionally one of Europe's poorest countries, tries to catch up to its northern neighbours. Last year it created 400,000 new jobs, more than any European country.

Japan's story is quite different. A slumping economy has led some companies to shed the tradition of lifetime employment and salary increases based on seniority; they've adopted instead a more competitive system tied to individual performance and personal merit. This is a radical turn. The Japanese have long stressed the value of the group and the notion that sameness (or the perception of it) contributes greatly to a social harmony that should be cherished.

But the government, too, has contributed to wider disparities by trimming income tax rates for the wealthy in hopes of jump-starting the economy. Increasing numbers of homeless people are now seen in Tokyo's public parks. Social thinkers in Japan worry that growing inequality may lead to petty crime, intolerance and the erosion of a national character trait sometimes called amae — a sense among Japanese of mutual dependence or, as the noted psychiatrist Takeo Doi described it, "to presume upon another's benevolence."

Thus Japan, renowned for fierce external competitiveness, adopts a more dog-eat-dog attitude at home. And Spain stifles a yawn to join the rat race.

It's well and good to celebrate a global economy that continues to expand abundance for more of the world's people. With more than a billion people still living in the most terrible poverty, there is still a great deal of boat lifting required of that global economy. With the lifting will come inevitable change. And yet it's still proper to pause and mourn the loss of such traditions as the siesta. It's proper also to continue asking if the world can't find a way to have economic prosperity without quite so much cultural destruction.

The search for such balance is an urgent and noble task.