There is no dispute that the Japanese get older as the children get scarcer: Ten people die for every 7 babies born.
And Japan is dying in a particularly heartbreaking way: A nation that has done everything right and yet seems to be dying of loneliness.
In Nagasaki City, the population is so old that some department stores have eliminated their children’s sections. Retail space for strollers and maternity dresses now display wheelchairs and canes. The streets are clean and free of graffiti, hipsters or sneaker shops. You’ll find used Frank Sinatra types in the record stores instead of that vinyl Justice import.
Nagasaki sits on the west side of Kyushu, which is also aging. A recent government survey put the number of Kyushu’s “Critically Depopulated Communities” (cities or towns where more than half of a population are elderly) at 2,094, up by over 400 since 2007. That’s 2100 cities where the elderly are the majority.
Kids leave. They go to Fukuoka, the second-youngest major city (and the second-fastest growing city) in Japan. Some go to Osaka or Kyoto.
But if you start looking for the kids, you’ll realize that most of them just never get born.
Most of us never get born.
What happens to a country that knows it is dying?
People are always worried about dying. Every generation hatches some new scheme to live forever and every generation fails. The kids grow up thinking it might work until grandpa dies. Then the kids start rethinking his strategy.
Old ladies, long dead, had hoped they could be immortalized in poetry so beautiful that people would be moved for generations. Now the words are incomprehensible: Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
No one takes solace in poems anymore. Write a poem and a smart girl is likely to flinch. The effort is endearing, though. Never don’t write a poem for the girl.
The new great hope is computers. The Library of Congress is archiving our Tweets. Fleeting whimsy forever. My love, I Tweet thee.
New art changes everything, because it’s a new way to live forever. Shakespeare wasn’t famous for his plays, he’s famous for inventing them. Immortal artists didn’t do something well. They invented something else.
But if you tell an artist it’s all been done, they get mad.
“No way. This is different. This time we’re gonna live forever.”
We still remember moments when a new tragedy dwarfed some earlier horror: famines, wars, holocausts. We call that history. After emerging from certain death, the human spirit erects a signpost, “We fought death and won.”
Beating death even once is a big deal. You may as well brag about it, and the rest of us will pay attention for a couple hundred years. We’d be happy to beat death once, too.
So we write, we sing, we paint, we record. This has been the tactic of every dead guy for the past 3000 years. Some of those guys got lucky. Most of us don’t.
Japan has already stopped. Faced with the slow death of their island, the artists aren’t preparing their triumphant signposts. They’re leaving.
They’re leaving, and so new music is being performed by computer-generated speech programs portrayed at concerts by holograms.
There is a revolution underway in Japan, but it isn’t concerned with falsely grabbing at immortality. It’s about abandoning the body altogether.
The Herbivore Revolution
The revolution in Japan is asexual. The academics call them “herbivorous girly men.” Herbivores, as in vegetarian, which is deeply tied to Japanese spirituality. But also herbivorous for renouncing the flesh of women.
These men don’t play sports or slave away in competitive careers. They wander around the countryside with cameras or start funky used clothing boutiques. They’re finding themselves instead of a date.
In some ways, it’s long overdue. Japan is dying because it’s doing the right thing.
The numbers, if true, are frightening:
“About half of Japanese men aged 20 to 34 are unmarried and only 20 percent of them have girlfriends. Thirty percent, according to Professor Yamada, have never had a girlfriend in their lives. For a country like Japan, which already has a shrinking population, this is a disaster.” – The Sunday Times
Japan: A nation of boys and girls who have given up on touching each other, with national consequences. A nation of boys afraid to make the first move.
Meanwhile, educated women are postponing babies. Babies are career killers. Employers don’t pay for day care and don’t keep your job empty while you’re off raising your kid. National health insurance doesn’t cover the costs of having a baby, because babies are elective. Under Japan’s psuedo-feminist revolution of the ’80s, women can finally expect romantic love and independence. Marriage and babies take it away.
But no one has told the endangered carnivorous men of Japan. The new women baffle these men. It’s like boys were raised in the ’60s while girls were raised in the ’80s.
So the boys are pioneering virtual reality porn and computer-assisted air dolls who are less emotionally complex than real women. Japanese condom manufacturers saw a 40 percent drop in sales since the Internet came to Japan*.
Eventually you won’t even need sex to have sex. A revolution.
Surely, you say, this is unsustainable. Some biological imperative will eventually force a carnal counterstrike? Surely someone in this country wants to live forever?
Maybe. But Japan isn’t facing the kind of crisis that makes it want to fight. It’s not a famine, it’s fatigue. Everyone is comfortable and happy. The happiest people in the country are the youngest – the people who aren’t reproducing, who are independent, shunning their gender roles and finding their way independently without relying on relationships.
A shocking 84 percent of single people in this survey said they simply weren’t doing anything to find dates.
It’s liberating. Look at the alternative:
Many are not interested in the act of confessing their love to girls, out of fear that doing so would make them psychologically disadvantaged. – Japan Times
A dignified culture that refuses to endure the indignities of dating.
And so it is dying.
Epilogue: The End of Japan
Sometimes I have visions of Japan in 2150 A.D. It’s a country of golden shrines and red gates and robots shaped like girls the color of porcelain. Their roles are to care for the last survivor of Japan’s long, dignified history of decline.
Some boy born in 2050 A.D. sits in a room doing paperwork while robots run car factories, load the boats, build TVs and manage a national economy because that’s what they their creators made them for.
Third-generation Japanese Americans bring their children for a Obon pilgrimage and attend to family homes maintained by robotic servants, or see Shinto ceremonies performed by androids with blank faces.
The old man, the last living man born in Japan, finishes his paperwork and retires to a bath drawn by a dutiful plastic servant, eats a meal served by a dutiful plastic servant, and then settles into bed where he drifts quietly into the last dream of his life.
In the morning, the plastic servants lift him to the plastic priest for cremation, where android hands pass his bones to each other with long metallic chopsticks.
And forty days later, everything in the country stops.
The photo used as a header image comes from the amazing collection of Okinawa Soba on Flickr. You can see more here.
*= Condom sales have dropped 40 percent since 1992, but the birth control pill was legalized in Japan in 1999.
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