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?


3 thoughts on “Big in Japan: “Neither a commodity nor human”

  1. And not just a Japanese problem, but a sentinel example of the ‘grey tsunami’ hitting the demographics of the industralised world…

    • No, it is not just a Japanese problem but is acutely a Japanese problem today – more than anywhere else (yet), hence my referring to it as a test case, even though the results won’t be quite applicable elsewhere because systems and cultures are nothing alike. But in some ways something might be replicable/something to learn from.

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