Big in Japan: “Neither a commodity nor human”


In high school in the late 1980s, we still thought Japan was going to take over the world. Yeah, that really was a worry. Japanese money was flooding into the US and snapping up US landmarks… and this really freaked people out. The response, on the West Coast at least, was a resounding, “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Many of us enrolled in Japanese-language classes (and Japanese was introduced in schools all over the West Coast – if not elsewhere in the US). It made sense – Washington state, for example, had a huge trade relationship with/dependency on Japan and a very large Japanese-descended population. In the heyday of the “Japan-is-taking-over frenzy”, not only were language classes offered but Japanese-language camps (yes, camps!), competitions and exchanges (and scholarships/sponsorships for said exchanges) were everywhere. I myself attended two of these language immersion camps in two successive summers. And I hate camp(s). I went on an exchange. I bought into the whole thing! 頑張ってください!

The trouble was… Japan was already on the decline. Its economy basically started sinking and has never done much since (other than stay afloat).

とても 悪い こと/Totemo warui koto (Very bad thing)

Add to this the dueling challenges of prolonged economic stagnation and a rapidly aging population that is coming nowhere near to being replaced, Japan is a society that is facing unusual problems (unusual both for Japan, culturally, and for the first society/test case to step into this world of the potentially catastrophic consequences of negative population growth).

Almost every day I read something about Japan that seems very un-Japanese… or something that makes the country feel like a dying entity (e.g., traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) that had been owned and operated by a single family since the year 718 or something (actually there is a documentary about it) faces its demise), mirroring its greying population.

Getting away with it

Despite the cultural/traditional mandate to revere one’s elders, which is especially prevalent in a country like Japan, being old in modern Japan reflects anything but reverence. Not because reverence and respect is in short supply but because the elderly demographic is growing at a breakneck pace and has not reproduced enough to create a social safety net that cares for the oldest, and possibly most vulnerable, in today’s Japan.

Similarly, the tradition of taking care of your parents has fallen by the wayside as working-age adult Japanese people are busy and feeling tremendous pressure. Younger working-age adult Japanese face the uncertain work environment and unemployment that the rest of the industrialized world has long lived with. (Japan used to be the pinnacle of “lifelong employment”.) The introduction of uncertainty has added to the pressure at both ends – middle-aged Japanese people who struggle to care for both parents and children, often opting out of having children at all because of the economic and social uncertainty.

And where has this whirlwind of conditions led?

Cradle-to-grave poverty

As a teenager, attending my Japanese immersion camps and later wandering the streets of affluent districts of Tokyo, I never would have associated words like “poverty” with Japan. It may not score high in individualism or personal space, but Japan did not just seem “safe” to me in every sense of the word – it exemplified and was the bedrock of “civilized behavior” and “social safety” – or so it seemed. That is, if you left your umbrella behind or lost something, you would probably get it back. And if you fell on hard times, you would probably find a way out (although this latter point is, admittedly, not something I know a lot about – I do not think the Japanese system was ever a “generous social welfare” state in the Scandinavian model; I do think, though, that it was less likely to let large swathes of the population fall through the cracks, largely due to corporate paternalism. What happened, then, when corporations cracked as the entire economy went into recession? Japan had to deal with something that most industrialized countries had experienced many times, but Japan did not have a culture for or contingency plan to weather). Yet, this all-around safety seems to have been an illusion – or at least an illusion whose grains of truth only applied when the machinery of the economy was functioning at full performance. The effects are not insignificant.

Been caught stealin’… once or twice or 40 times

My first introduction to Japanese poverty came in the form of several articles appearing that chronicled the growing problem of geriatric shoplifters. Apparently “hungry pensioners” account for 35% of Japan’s shoplifting and have a high rate of re-offense, landing them in prison repeatedly, which – on balance – might make more economic sense to a pensioner who is living on the annual USD 6,900 state pension. This falls at least 25% below the subsistence level.

Add to this end-of-life poverty the revelation that early-life/childhood poverty in Japan is a growing problem:

“Official figures on child poverty were not even published until 2009. They show that the rate of (relative) child poverty—defined as the proportion of children in households with income after tax and transfers of less than half the national median household income—rose from 11% in 1985 to 16% in 2012, one of the highest rates among OECD countries. The gap between well-off and poor children is more pronounced in Japan than in America, and not far off levels in Mexico and Bulgaria, said Unicef last month.”

In my wildest nightmares, I’d never have pegged productive-yet-tranquil Japan, once envied for its model-society credentials, as having the “highest rates of child poverty among the world’s developed nations, according to a UNICEF report unveiled Thursday, which ranked the nation 34th out of 41“. Not only, then, are the elderly suffering, but many of the youngest members of society are not getting a good start, which is bad in any case but all the more dire considering Japan’s population crisis. With nowhere near enough babies being born to replace the generation that is dying out now, the society can ill-afford creating a “lost generation” from the babies who are born.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant

By the same token, Japanese society can ill-afford the burdens of its rapid, collective aging without examining finding adequate solutions. They may just be temporary, Band-Aid style fixes – it took a long time for the foundations of Japan’s stability to crumble to this level, and it will take time to fix (should the problems be fully acknowledged and addressed) – but at least something’s got to give.

After all, Japan is facing a crisis that combines a whirlwind of immediate, physical problems and long-term public policy issues. An immediate shortage of people/workers, particularly critical in terms of caretakers, nurses and others who will largely care for the elderly, is high atop that list. But the country faces both the aforementioned problem of overtaxed family members who are unable to care for parents, and has a closed and difficult (dare I say racist/xenophobic/exclusionist?) immigration policy that makes it challenging to bring immigrants to Japan to pick up the slack. Even if the Japanese were willing to bring in skilled workers to manage this shortfall, who really wants to go to Japan to work in these capacities? Japan is a difficult and unwelcoming society to live in as a foreigner, the language can be difficult and working with the older part of the population could magnify the language gap even more – on top of which, the yen isn’t the strongest or most attractive currency. None of this dangles the carrot of opportunity for potential employees and much-needed caretakers.

Doomo arigatoo, Mr Roboto

If people refuse to come, then, the Japanese will do what they have always done best: automate. In an article that questions “Immigrant or robot?”, it sounds like robots are Japan’s answer. (I’m terrified of robots, but that’s another story.)

Seniors are dying alone. Japan is out of workers and uncomfortable with foreigners. But there is one last option — robots.”

But the coming robot army of carers is still not practical and not enough. They’ve been trying to make a useful robot for years but do not come up with something that really replaces a human. A robot may be able to lift a person, but it cannot combat one of the most pressing issues: loneliness.

I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

The elderly in Japan are committing suicide or in some cases succumbing to dementia (and accidentally killing themselves, as was the case for a man struck and killed by a train whose family was almost held liable for the costs related to the fatal accident). Or worse yet:

“There is also a growing number of households where one elderly person is looking after another in need of nursing care.

Just last month, a 71-year-old husband was arrested for killing his wife who had dementia. “I got too tired from looking after her,” he confessed, according to local media. “I wanted to take my own life, too.”

It was not a one-off tragedy. And they are the real people behind some staggering statistics about Japan’s ageing and shrinking population.”

Stuck in the middle with you

And the middle generation – the stressed-out, economically insecure, middle-aged children of the poorly-cared-for elderly and parents of the decreasing number of children? Pulled apart, stretched too thin, hopeless, and experiencing greater income disparities and job insecurity than ever before.

What a drag it is getting old: The inhuman question

I wonder, as I reread the poem, “My Imperialism” from Japanese poet Ryuichi Tamura, what he might have said about all of this. He introduced a sharp, cynical tone to Japanese poetry, and his focus on capturing the harshness of life, of aging, of generational gaps in understanding, all feel fresh again, if they were ever dated. It’s just that the struggle goes on, and grows more acute.

In “My Imperialism”, he wrote (emphasis in italics mine):

“We must enslave the natives with our poems
all the ignorant savages under sixty
plagued by a surplus of clothes and food
when you’re past sixty
you’re neither a commodity
nor human”

He seems to mock and be resigned to the idea of aging and the nostalgia that accompanies it, but what would he say to the growing trend of “kodokushi” (lonely death) that awaits a Japan that will, by 2060, be populated at a full 40% by over-65s?


High, Low and In Between: The Multiplying Gift of Music


Capping off a week in which I was obsessed with thinking about, talking about and listening to music, I finished the work week (almost – still have Friday to get through) watching the film Les choristes. A perfect finale.

I thought about and discussed genius songwriters this week – focusing in mostly on the late, great Townes van Zandt and to a lesser degree, Robyn Hitchcock (whose duet of van Zandt’s well-known “Poncho and Lefty” with Grant-Lee Phillips I stumbled upon the previous week).

I met someone who has placed van Zandt (rightly) on a songwriting pedestal. A songwriter’s songwriter. The striking thing, for me, though, was in exploring how each of us – and by extension, how anyone – discovers music. Discoverability is a lot easier these days – easy to spread and share. Not quite so much in the “old days”. This led me to thinking about the web music weaves – the intricate web, unique to each of us – making up the soundtrack of our lives. The web also has a kind of reach – one piece of music or musician leads us to their influences or contemporaries. It was in this way that I discovered Townes van Zandt myself back in 1990.

I had fallen under the dreamy spell of the Cowboy Junkies’ album The Trinity Sessions and, being too young, could not attend their first show in Seattle. When they came back in early June 1990 (hear me let out a sigh here – I am 26 years removed from this – “who knows where the time goes?”), I begged my parents let me attend (luckily they did). The Junkies were touring with Townes van Zandt – my first introduction to him. Since then I’ve devoured his discography, and have seen its presence proliferate in film and TV soundtracks ever since.

The woven web was taking on new parts – the initial discovery of the Cowboy Junkies had first led me to the Velvet Underground (as the Junkies gained their biggest ‘fame’ from their remake of “Sweet Jane”). I had known of Lou Reed earlier, but mostly only having heard “Walk on the Wild Side” a few times and seen him a few times on a brief and more mainstream path in the 80s. And from the Junkies, things moved on to Townes.

Thinking about all of this, I reflected, and wrote to an acquaintance that “one of the most beautiful things about music is its ability to not just endure and bring people together or even its transformative power but its “introductory” powers. That is, you hear something that means something to you… but it does not stop there”. In fact, it never stops. The web continues to multiply.

The 50-somethings


When exactly is it that most men hit the point of peak entitlement, non-listening, world-class dullards and yet, despite being more closed off to the outside world and the most out of touch they have possibly ever been, feel perfectly comfortable being outlandishly demanding?

It’s a slow process, perhaps simmering within them for their entire lives.

A friend and I discussed her observation (and I agree) that many men we know (mostly men in their 50s) are mind-numbingly boring, selfish and self-involved conversationalists who are so lacking in self-awareness that they don’t realize they have monopolized the one-sided conversations they start with the most boring of rambling. My friend is a social woman and tries to engage everyone in conversation, which I admire but also cringe at, knowing she will end up in more than her share of these time-suck monologues. I have no small talk wizardry at my disposal so avoid this kind of stuff as much as I can. Most people are boring, in the end. I have often found myself in challenging and awkward social situations, where I overcome my aversion to idle chitchat – at considerable pains – and want to almost congratulate myself that I kickstarted a conversation, only to hate myself for bothering minutes later when someone starts talking ad nauseam about himself, his stodgy perspectives, insipid opinions and lifeless hobbies. Conversation thus becomes tedious, drudgery… and work. And the monotony is wearisome.

But these guys were certainly not born this way? Before they hit 50, and found themselves on the loose in the world as single men again for the first time in years, they did manage to get married and have families.

One friend told me recently about how hard marriage is. The man she fell in love with was gregarious, outgoing, curious, adventurous – always looking for new things to try. And these were the qualities that attracted her, the things they had in common. He was the life of the party and could win anyone over because he’s so talkative; in fact, he dominates every conversation with his stories and opinions. He had life experience and adventures to share, though, and stories with which to regale even the most reluctant listener. With each passing year (click the link for Gavin Ewart‘s “Short Time”, brilliant poem on self-deception) though, he has grown less adventurous, more closed-off and closed-minded. But he still turns on the charm in social situations and dominates the conversation. For how long, though, will it seem charming, as the ratio of adventures/new stories dwindles versus the urge to dominate, and eventually tyrannize, the conversation?

I started wondering if this is the trajectory of the 50-something man. Not every man has been quite as witty or engaging as this friend’s husband, but is there something to the idea that as these guys’ experiences, influence and curiosity diminish in breadth, reach and frequency, everything about them becomes more limited in scope? And for men who dominate conversations, they reach this period of just-beyond middle-age and do not realize they aren’t the life of the party. My theory here could be way off, but isn’t there a correlation here? These guys, if they ever had “it”, have lost it – and they and their wives are no longer in the same place… for the same old reasons. One changed, and the other didn’t.

What gets me, though, is that these 50-something men often get divorced but then don’t even question or evaluate how it all broke down. Could it have anything to do with the fact that every time they opened their mouths, they showered their wives with routine, interminable selfishness? And if that assertion is anything close to true, wouldn’t it make sense that they might recalibrate before striking up conversations with new people (whether colleagues or dates or potential partners)? I keep running into this exact scenario – sometimes being met with obliviousness (I could walk away and these men would continue to babble), sometimes being met with absolutely foul, sour and hideous behavior and insults (and here I mean real nastiness). Either way, this demographic – maladjusted pricks and dicks (of any age) – isn’t one I am keen to be around.

The heavy burden of the ingénue … and the old hag


I used to work somewhere where the chief editor, who was and is a great writer, wrote or edited a lot of articles, often on short notice. This usually led him, last minute, to groping for a word to describe a preternaturally talented, unusually gifted musician. He always landed on “ingénue” even though he was almost always writing about a male musician. I brought up the misuse every time (as copy editor/proofreader), and he’d answer, “Oh, really?” And then substitute “ingénue” for “wunderkind”. Every time. I think of this every time I see the word “ingénue”.

This also springs to mind every time I read an article about women over 40, for some reason. Particularly when I read about actresses over 40 who opine (if not complain) about aging and the bitter, brutal competition they face in Hollywood. Or women who have fallen victim to the sad, repetitive story of being cheated on/thrown aside for the much-younger nanny. (Amy Schumer poked fun at this trope in a recent Inside Amy Schumer sketch – in the end, the “nanny” doesn’t need to be a hot, young, naive woman. Men are pigs, as the sketch posits, and will stick it in any available hole.)

A recent article about (almost-unknown) actress Lauren Weedman (I remember her well from two shows that missed their mark despite starting with promising premises – Hung and Looking. I eventually came to hate-watch Looking because its promise was so squandered in my mind). Her husband cheated with a young nanny, and she divorced him. Weedman put a comical spin on her suffering:

“There’s something so damn interesting and damn depressing about men being attracted to much younger and naive women. Leaving behind their old, aging, bossy wives—like that old biddy Gwen Stefani. Just today I read that the definition of “ingénue” was a girl that was young and naive. My entire life I’d thought that it meant “young and pretty.” It never dawned on me that naive was a selling point.”

And that’s just it, isn’t it? “Ingénue” does not really mean what people think it does.

It’s not as though some of these over-40 women feeling the short end of the stick today were not once the pretty ingénues themselves.

Thus when I read an article in Salon recently that discussed Amanda Peet‘s frank article on aging in Hollywood, I could not help but think … isn’t that just what happens? The younger, fresher faces float in and seem effortlessly to usurp yesterday’s crop of ingénues?

You’d think so, but check out what Peet wrote:

“Recently, I was told I was ineligible for a movie because I wasn’t “current” enough. I’m constantly pushed out by younger talent, like Alicia Vikander. You might think, Wait, she’s 27 and a gorgeous movie star, and you’re 44 and a low-tier, TV-mom-type; you’re not in the same ballpark. But she is squeezing me out. She’s in the hot center and I’m on the remote perimeter. The train has left the station and I’m one of those moronic stragglers running alongside with her purse caught in the door. Everyone’s looking at me like, Let go, you bullheaded old hag! There’s no room for you.””

Even swallowing the idea that, yeah, she’s in mom-role territory and should not have to be competing against women 20+ years younger than her for those roles, this is ridiculous. In the real world where I live, we want to think (and are led to believe) that there’s this inclusive space for everyone (and as the article points out, there are the Helen Mirrens and the Charlotte Ramplings of the world – eternally graceful and untouchable, which give the illusion that women of a certain age are more than welcome on the silver and tv screens. But are they?). Still, I’d argue that the Peets of the world had their day – and perhaps pushed over-40 women off the platform before their time.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you’re on the other side of 40 (even if the whole Hollywood circus is becoming more incredulous in its casting. Yes, a 27-year-old should definitely play the mother of a pre-teen just because a woman in her 20s is photogenic – who cares about reality?).



On the warmest, brightest day I’ve seen since last spring, I hide in the darkness of my bedroom, working and watching tv shows. Lost causes have spiraled into further loss-making territory; old connections, long ago severed, take on more permanent disconnection when I learn they’ve moved on to greener pastures. Is that enigmatic? It gives me pause to reflect on my choices – how I chose the life I have and my independent place in it. I don’t want something different but can still wonder how different it might have been.

Does that mean that there are not occasional, but cold, empty days?

Is there such a thing as “natural” Cheetos?

Change could not come at a better time.

nationality musical chairs


It has been pointed out to me that if worse comes to worst, a Scottish man I have known for about three years and I will soon be completely different nationalities than we were when we met.

If America goes the way I fear, I may not be American any longer.

If Britain exits the EU, he will become Irish (although not renounce his UK citizenship).