On the Death of Japan

Everywhere you look, people say Japan is dying. The Economist says Japan is dying. Curators say Japan is dying. The numbers say Japan is dying.

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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15 Responses to On the Death of Japan

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    “In some ways, it’s long overdue. Japan is dying because it’s doing the right thing.”

    Like your posts, Eryk, but you lost me there. Very nihilistic. And of course the data is subject to interpretation, but I wouldn’t say everyone in Japan is comfortable and happy. Because of the aging workforce and cultural norms, often a bulk of the work and responsibility falls to the younger adults who ARE trying to make it in this world.

    • owwls says:

      Ah, I didn’t mean to say it’s death was overdue because it was “doing the right thing”. I meant to say that this kind of self-examination of the culture is long overdue, but that it is coming way too late.

      I would never say everyone here is happy! I think, as you say, there is a very bleak world view and a very nihilistic one at work in the culture (particularly in the people making culture). I’m not a fan of it, by any means, but it is definitely a theme in a lot of grown-up manga and anime and many movies… there’s a darkness in a lot of the art coming out of Japan right now.

  2. What’s Japan’s take on immigrant labor? Wouldn’t it be necessary if people aren’t having kids, just to keep everything running?

    • owwls says:

      I talked about this in my sumo post, of all places, but basically the Japanese are not open to foreign labor. There’s a nursing shortage here already, given the large number of elderly people who need in-home care, and there are a huge number of eligible nurses from the Philippines or Malaysia applying for jobs here. But Japan makes it really, really difficult for anyone to stay here for more than three-five years, and only about 50,000 foreign workers are allowed in each year (to leverage the population decline, it would need 650,000 more): http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/03/world/asia/03japan.html

      So, this is often assumed to be a joke, but Japan is designing elder-care robots, which is one of the reasons why the robotics industry in Japan is so focused on doing “impractical” stuff like walking up stairs while carrying trays or playing violins (manual dexterity), instead of “useful” stuff like rolling on heavy treads carrying machine guns: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12347219

      This is why there are no Japanese-manufactured robotic workers to turn the knobs and dials or test the radiation levels at Fukushima. The industry isn’t really looking at robots for military or disaster deployment because Japan has neither on a scale that justifies the investment. On the whole, though they’d market that as a byproduct. They want a machine that can change sheets and bedpans.

  3. R says:

    Interesting post but whenever I see these doom-and-gloom comments, I have to say that I generally don’t agree. Many governments and news agencies that say country X’s population is decreasing or increasing is only collecting and reporting a statistic. It actually doesn’t say what is the “ideal” population — that is, the population where a country has a population where there isn’t a big gap between the have and have not’s. Japan’s the size of California and has few natural resources. How many can it support? No one asks this question since it is easier to stress the population decrease.

    Yes, there is an aging population and at some stage — perhaps one or two generations later — the number of senior citizens will match with the number of workers. Having heaps of children because otherwise “Japan will die” isn’t necessarily a good thing. Japan will also die if there are too many people. China and India, with its billion people, have problems now and its problems are just going to increase and negatively affect its neighbors as they make a grab for natural resources.

    As for immigration, as much as that would work in an immigration-based country like the USA, it probably wouldn’t work for Japan. Those of us who have an interest in the country love the mono-cultureness of Japan. I think Japan would be less of a tourist attraction if each shrine had a Chinese and an Italian restaurant next to it. Without immigration, the USA would just have native indians…Japan’s different.

    As for the nursing shortage — sorry but I also don’t agree with your comments. Sorry! If I had parents who were in their 60s or 70s, having nursing staff would be good but if the staff aren’t native Japanese speakers, it’s pretty pointless. I’m not talking about understanding standard Japanese; but understanding elderly Japanese. It very difficult to comprehend!

    Sometimes I wish that countries like the USA was more strict with its language requirements. Multicultural or not, it just makes things easier for police, doctors, government staff, teachers, etc. if there is only one language to worry about. I mean, there are already people that are illiterate that we should be worrying about.

    Just my 2 cents…but well done with putting up your article in the first place. I gave you many reasons to delete my post; hope you don’t. :-)

    • owwls says:

      Your post is delightful, thanks for taking the time to make compelling arguments!

      And in fact I agree with your thoughts on defining an ideal population. Right now, most people look at population as it relates to GNP/GDP. The national debt may also be a problem, as the government cares for elderly with a disproportionate number of youths paying into the income tax base. The first part – GNP/GDP – doesn’t really concern me much, since a shrinking population may sustain its quality of life, particularly in a country with as much nature and science investment as Japan. Doing more with less is what Japan has done for centuries, I think it will continue.

      But the debt crisis is a concern. I can’t say I understand this on its own terms in Japan (perhaps you could enlighten me) but I can relate it to a similar “crisis” in the US, in which the aging baby boomer population has paid into social security with a shrinking support base. So, the government expects to pay billions to support the elderly as they start to retire, with fewer kids paying into the system. Is this what Japan’s system looks like? If so, a 7-to-10 ratio is a little scary to consider.

      I’m not sure what you disagree with on my nursing shortage comments, as I didn’t really state an opinion. I just outlined the choice Japan is making. I respect the Japanese “monoculture” (I am well aware of the problems of diversity, though as an American I am sort of born into emphasizing its riches). If Japan wants to protect its culture it is going to have to sacrifice its quality of life. I don’t really see any other way to do it; either Japan brings in foreign labor, or it doesn’t. If it brings in foreign labor, then the monoculture gets watered down; if they don’t, then elderly people aren’t going to get the care they need. Unless robots fill the gap, but the elderly don’t seem to like that idea, either!

      And as an expat in Japan, I absolutely miss the diversity of the States. Linguistic diversity may be a headache for government, but on the plus side we have really awesome burritos. :) [Though of course I don’t suggest it as a “solution” for Japan. The issue is far too complicated for me to solve on a blog :)]

  4. Alex says:

    According to surveys in japan, most of the young men and women WANT to start a family and WANT to get married……

    • owwls says:

      Most, sure, but a staggeringly high number do not, and another very high number are doing nothing to achieve those goals. Though, of course, you can take these surveys with a grain of salt. I think the rise of this asexual counterculture in such numbers is certainly noteworthy.

  5. Joe says:

    Trends do not tend to continue linearly over decades. The population may have shrunk in the last twenty years, but it is impossible to predict whether it will in the next twenty or forty.

    And as for predictions about 2150, consider how much Japan has changed in the last 150 years, and how unpredictably. We can’t even predict one year in the future with any confidence, never mind 20 or 150.

  6. Kaley says:

    In a Geography class I took they said that it is standard for population to drop once industrialization really settles in a nation. Families no longer need multitudes of children to upkeep farms and do hard labor. In Europe you can see similar trends of declining populations. If you look here at the data gathered by the World Bank http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.GROW?order=wbapi_data_value_2009+wbapi_data_value+wbapi_data_value-last&sort=asc (which I sorted in ascending value for the year 2009) you’ll see that the countries at the top of the list (lowest growth rates) are typically the more developed, richer nations. Whereas the countries at the bottom of the list are the poorer, less developed countries.

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