Turning Japanese: learning to love stagnation?
For the current 'stagnation' season of The Long + Short, we commissioned an essay from the Tokyo based writer Roland Kelts on life in Japan. Given that the country has been dealing with a stagnant economy for more than two decades, we thought it might be instructive to take a look. Here's the opening of the piece. You can read the full story at thelongandshort.org.
I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, mostly Tokyo and New York and a few other American cities, several times a year. The contrast is jarring. Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure creaky, and basic services like ground transportation chaotic and unreliable.
I steel myself before landing, my mind tallying variables and unknowns: will my luggage land with me and emerge on the dingy carousel? Will the taxi service I booked online in advance arrive on time, at the right terminal, or at all? Will traffic be an impediment to my destination?
And then there’s the view. Whether it’s the outskirts of Queens on the way from New York’s JFK airport, or the fringes of the Los Angeles highway off-ramps by LAX, everything seems a bit run down and decrepit.
Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled merely minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading upon touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration, and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of, and nothing is broken.
As I ease into town, usually via the limousine bus service, the sidewalks outside are teeming with well-dressed urbanites heading home from work or out to restaurants, everyone in motion with purpose and meaning.
But that’s not what the papers say. Japan has seen over two decades of a stagnant-to-recessionary economy since its 1989-90 juggernaut bubble burst. It has become the world’s economic whipping boy, described repeatedly as ‘the sick man of Asia’, incapable of revival, doddering off into the sunset.
Reports of Japan’s societal stagnation are no prettier. Stories about the country’s ageing population and plummeting birth rate abound – with the latter hitting a record low last year amid dire predictions of a disappearing Japan. At current rates, demographers estimate that the overall population will drop 30 million by 2050.
Japan’s 2014 fertility rate is low – 1.4 births per woman – but David Pilling, former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, notes that South Korea’s is lower; and that those of other developed countries, from Taiwan and Singapore to Germany and Italy, are similarly low.
“Much of the world is going Japan’s way,” says Pilling. “If Japan is doomed, so are many others.”
However, Pilling adds, the alternative isn’t necessarily better. “Can we really only conceive of a successful economy as one where the population increases year after year? By this measure Pakistan and many African countries should be screaming success stories. They’re not.”
Japanese men and women, meanwhile, are tagged as ‘sexless’, caught up in a celibacy syndrome (sekkusu shinai shōkōgun) that has both the married and the single declaring their lack of interest in sexual relations.
Japan’s young shut-ins (hikikomori) are socially withdrawn digital hermits, self-confined to their bedrooms, video games and online chats. The so-called herbivore/grass-feeding men (soushoku danshi) avoid competition in any arena, romantic or professional. Their female counterparts greet them with a shrug, collect their paycheques and dine out with their girlfriends.
Intuitively, this entropic, shrinking, even disappearing Japan shouldn’t look and feel as good as it does. To visitors, expats and residents alike, Japan is still one of the richest, most civilised and convenient countries in the world. There should be potholes in its streets and pickpockets in its alleys. Shops, restaurants, bars and factories should be darkened and idle. Its trains should be late, the passengers poorly dressed and busking for change.
The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of the safest major cities in the world put Tokyo on top, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, at number three. While smaller and mid-sized Japanese cities betray some of the conventional signs of economic hardship (boarded-up storefronts and sparsely populated shopping malls ), in a world beset by rising fanatical violence and rancorous racism and inequality, safety is nothing to sneeze at.