• Japan in the Slow Lane

    May 5, 2023

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    Posted in: Other Ideas

    If you are one of the handful of people who really miss 2020, you’d do well to head to Japan as I did, a land where time stood still.

    Everyone here (and by that I mean every single person and most children) wears a mask against the seemingly omnivorous threat of Covid. Yes, it is still here, or so we are told even before arrival where to obtain an e-visa one has to upload proof of vaccination and answer a strict list of questions, any one of which could end your trip plans should you answer “yes.”

    The law (or is it social pressure? No one needed to do much to encourage Japanese people to be somehow even cleaner, and there are no Karen-sans here, they’d have nothing to yell about) requires masks everywhere all the time indoors, but almost everyone wears one inside and outside. Businesses are prepared to lend you a paper version should you have forgotten yours (no one has yet) and character-decorated cloth types go for about $10 in drug stores and the kind of random products stores Japan’s current economy seems based on.

    In addition to masking, signs everywhere admonish you to keep social distance in public places. It makes sense in waiting areas where every other seat is blocked off with a sign but less so on the trains and subways where a full-body rub seems to come with the ticket. That it makes no sense makes no sense, except when you realize sensical change is not what Japan is about.

    The joke is in 1985 Japan looked like the year 2000, the future. Today, on a visit in 2023, Japan still looks like the year 2000. Not much changed along the journey. If someone remakes Bladerunner the future it would seem is based on a proliferation of escalators and expansive seating/waiting areas in bank lobbies. Those building-sized video screens the L.A. of the future featured in Bladerunner no longer serve up hot geisha girl images but a silver haired couple video chatting with their stock advisor about holding instead of selling for another month.

    Japan is getting too old. The child crisis which began in the go-go 1980s when having kids would have interfered with making money and taking expensive foreign trips has come to fruition, or rather anti-fruition: Japan is on the path to extinction. A third of Japanese people are over 60, making Japan home to the oldest population in the world, after somehow Monaco. It is seeing fewer births than ever before. By 2050, it could lose a fifth of its current population. That figure is closer to a reality than an estimate.

    You would think such a dire situation would provoke change and in almost any other nation on earth you’d be right. But Japan does not like change and so there are no campaigns (as in Singapore) to encourage marriage, and follow-on campaigns to encourage having children. Day care is still as expensive as it is to come by, and “having someone else raise your kids” is still a stigma. Working mothers are seen as desperate (their husbands obviously a failure) or selfish.

    The most obvious answer, immigration, is shunned. The fear of foreigners runs deep in Japan. “Why not admit some foreign IT people? Some senior care nurses from the Philippines?” I asked one educated Japanese. “Well, they’d stay here and this would slowly not be Japan anymore.” Barely three  percent of the country’s population is foreign-born, compared to over a quarter of Americans. Thoughts on race are common enough you’d hate to label some gigantic portion of the country racists. It is the way it is, most would say, shikatta ga nai, nothing can be done. Japan does not care for change.

    Covid is in a way a made-for-Japan disease, a solid excuse to slam the doors to the country shut without heaps of international scorn. At the height of the Covid mania, even foreigners with permanent residence in Japan (home, car, job, etc.) who were unlucky enough to be caught outside the country were barred from reentry for weeks. Pressure finally caused the Japanese government to reluctantly yield to reality.

    So what is being done about the childless society problem? Japan is making old people more comfortable in their isolation. Where it once resisted necessary accommodations for handicapped people, escalators and elevators are now being retrofitted. Handicapped people are “others” in Japanese society and despite international pressures there was little drive to open the country up for them. The elderly, Japanese through and through, are different in a place where age is revered, even if there are fewer around to do the revering. Maybe robots will fill that gap.

    You want accomodation in the meantime? In Tokyo street crossings have countdown lights so you know how much time you have to get across, plus beeping sounds and timers. There are more public toilets and benches. All the buses kneel and the new type taxis can easily accommodate walkers and wheelchairs.

    To keep old people busy, there are all manner of make-work jobs waving traffic through an intersection or pointing out empty parking spots. It is in the end such a Japanese way of dealing with a problem, making massive yet superficial changes while ignoring the fundamental end-of-days scenario unfolding. If the band playing as the Titanic sunk wasn’t Japanese they should have been.

    But what about _____? Fill in the blank with any current American problem and Japan seems like heaven. Homelessness? You see a few sad winos in train stations but they are silent and neat with their belongings. Crime? As close to zero as possible given 12 million people live in tight proximity to one another. Drugs? See crime, above. You can never write Japan off, but you do need to look below the surface to understand her.

    The thing is people seem to like it this way. Japan has had almost no social unrest in modern times, and it has as close to a one party system in national politics as you can get without looking at that of its neighbor in North Korea.

    A writer for the BBC in an otherwise thoughtful article on Japan explained that the party in power is known as the “concrete” party not only for their basic political strengths but because of their ability to devolve make-work construction projects out to the smallest voting districts, dropping in from Tokyo jobs and money accordingly.

    With Japan’s non-proportional representational system, those small districts carry as much punch at the voting booth as do areas many times their population in major cities. Concrete buys votes, you see it everywhere with unnecessary bridges and tunnels, and riverbanks lined with sturdy walls that would hold back a deluge if one were suddenly to appear in the middle of nowhere. Concrete is a visible symbol of power and as it dries solid, a symbol of unchange. This is going nowhere, it’s big and heavy say the retaining walls.

    But perhaps the symbology is wrong, and the solidity of concrete largess from the central party is not the right interpretation. What if we see the concrete as nothing more than superficial? Most of it poured is designed to hold back water, to keep nature in its place. But concrete works on one time scale and nature another. What if the concrete was just there to mask over a more fundamental problem, like providing extra seating areas instead of addressing the child problem?


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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      At the risk of pointing out the obvious, not so long ago the ticking population bomb was an over-crowded earth that could not support its current population. Perhaps Japan is the canary in the global warming mine. Unless the human race greatly decreases its population, Mother Earth will do it for us. Diseases are natures’s self-defense mechanism to thin the population.

      05/6/23 10:00 AM | Comment Link

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