There is a strange paradox here in Japan.
Tourists and foreigners come over for the first time amazed at the country’s incredible infrastructure and cool gadgets, appliances and conveniences. Yet many Japanese people themselves just don’t seem so happy.
Having lived here many years, I too have felt myself wisped into the post-bubble era emotional melancholy. I remember the days when people seemed to throw money around like it was as equally replaceable as spendable. I remember how many visiting English teachers were amazed that Japanese people would throw out year-old TVs and appliances to the curb simply because newer models had come out and they’d gotten them. And I remember a much flashier era when only brand would do and terms like “thrift” and “100 yen” were definitely not to be associated with Tokyo – home of the 1,000 yen cup of coffee (a mythological beast, which quite frankly speaking, I never experienced… 700 yen yes, 1,000 yen, no.)
But as I get depressed, I sometimes nudge myself by taking random train rides, sort of a spiritual mecca and and try to see Japan for the first time again, or at least as if I was a tourist and not a person who remembers the decadent affluence of the bubble. I remind myself how despite being in the midst of a period which has been dubbed “the 20 Lost Years,” Japan is still one of the most affluent places on earth -- in fact, even today it is ranked 11th in the world in terms of health, education and living standards.
Japan’s trains in themselves make a good argument. I’m not a train spotter – but you don’t have to be one to occasionally see some marvel of design fire past you and go “woaaaaaaaaaaah…” and as you ride them and look at the window, it is hard not to be amazed at the endless marvels of the city – some which consist of modern architecture, other historic clay room houses and Buddhist temples, and yet others, large digital TVs and billboard displays. Each station is almost like the panel of one of Japan’s manga, with its dizzying artwork, jump off the page onomatopoeic sounds and fanciful storylines.
In taking these trips, I remind myself how Japan still has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, its hoard of aging "oba-san" on "mamacharis" seeming quite "genki," even well into their 70s. Gone in recent years are the ancient "oba-san" with the kimonos and walking sticks literally bent over in half from the calcium deficient diet of times past.
New skyscrapers are popping up here and there too -- the Tokyo skyline and landscape is ever changing and has been since it was called “Edo” and constantly catching on fire and having to be built anew. There are high-tech toilets, elevators that talk, manga museums, even something called AKB48 – which to be honest, I haven’t quite figured out.
Despite all of this, plenty of reason for anxiety exists. Well known is the political unrest and economic turbulence. Japan, which hasn’t seemed to have gotten over the departure of the quirky and flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi has had six prime ministers in five years. Japan seems to know it needs reform, but isn’t sure of the reformer it needs.
Anxiety of the salaryman
Of all people, most anxious is the Japanese salaryman, once symbolic of the ideal “Ward Cleaver” like Nipponjin everyman.
Salarymen, once guaranteed employment for life and corporate welfare from cradle to grave, now live in fear of corporate downsizing and can’t look forward to their bonus as they once did…
A common Japanese custom involves the head of household handing over his monthly paycheck to his wife who then dishes out his allowance from it. A recent study conducted by the Shinsei Financial Company shows that the Japanese salaryman’s allowance is now the lowest it has been in three decades, and half of what it was during the height of the bubble. The once heavy drinking salaryman who was compelled to drink with his colleagues nightly and rarely came home sober or before midnight is now lucky to go out barely three times a month after work and has little more than 1,210 yen per day pocket money.
This same Japanese salaryman, who’s so intimately felt the pinch of the economy via his shrinking pocket money, also knows about the ominous economic indicators. He knows about Japan’s rapidly aging population and how it’s creating a rapidly shrinking consumer and labor force. On top of this, he knows that China, Japan’s historical rival (and possibly his own company’s), has bypassed his country as the second largest economy in the world just as at the same time his country’s credit rating has just been downgraded. He also looks with envy at his Asian “economic tiger” peers whose pack Japan once lead. Japan’s inflation-adjusted per person income is now bypassed by Singapore, Hong Kong and most recently Taiwan.
Still, despite a major spike, crime is relatively low. Surveyed, most people feel safe (though less safe than in the past.) Japan is also sometimes mythically described as “the great middle class society” and the unemployment rate although high by post war historical standards is still about half that as of the United States and Canada.
Japan’s crisis of faith is most apparent in a recent survey released by the OECD which revealed when Japanese people are posed the question, “How satisfied are you with your life?” -- only 40% of Japanese people surveyed compared to 59% in other countries and 70% of Americans claim to be satisfied. Even when asked, “Do you consider yourself healthy?” only 33% of Japanese said compared to 90% of Americans said yes. (This is somewhat hard to believe considering Japan’s healthy diet of fish and tofu compared to America’s hot dogs and cheese burgers.)
The paradox is befuddling: A country that has repeatedly rebuilt itself from typhoons, fires and earthquakes, rebuilt after near total annihilation after World War II, is not as rich as it once was, but is still rich and vibrant is occupied by a gloomy populace who don’t seem to optimistic about the future.
Japan’s unhappiness: Not so easily explained.
When I first came to Japan during the tail end of the bubble, if I had been asked why some Japanese weren’t happy, it would have been easy to understand ... cramped living and long working hours, but since “Tokyo no Kogaika” has begun, the suburbanization of Tokyo. I live in one such area, complete with sports stadium and American malls. Gone also are the wood infested shacks with the "dani," the outdoor toilet shacks and no showers that were especially common up until the 1960s. The wooden houses with the clay shingled roofs gave so many Japanese cities their charm, yet trapped and burned so many to death when they lit up as a result of fires and earthquakes are now mostly gone, mostly as a result of revised building codes since the 80s and especially since the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Less work, more play
In terms of work, Japan, once the land of "karoshi" (men who lived and died for their company and literally worked themselves to death), is very different. The typical Japanese worker now works an average of two weeks less per year than his American counterpart, placing the Japanese worker at an average of one week below the OECD average, and American one week above it. In comparison, the Japanese worker spends a slightly less of his day working and more playing than the average American. And with Cool Biz, work is more fun. In fact, the Japanese “straight jacket” of times past seems almost one of another era. I sometimes wonder if young Japanese barely 10 years younger than me realize how many more freedoms they have than the generation just 10 years older than me. (For kids, the Japanese school week has been reduced to 5 days a week; 20 years ago, the typical Japanese student spent 100 hours a month attending juku, it is now down to 50 – and in one survey, 42% even confess to not studying at all.)
But then there are the suicides
Suicides have peaked over the past decade to about 100 or so a day. All of us who live here and ride trains have come know the meaning of “human accident” as it flashes on the monitors on our delayed train. It lets us know that the tracks are being “cleared.” America has about 35,000 suicides a year. Japan has a similar number, but with only half the population.
The National Police Agency’s numbers and other studies seem to show a clear correlation between suicides and the economy -- yet I often ask myself: If the economy is what drives people over the edge, why doesn’t the U.S. which has a HIGHER unemployment rate, have a higher suicide rate?
A study conducted by Yokohama City University Medical Center offers one possible answer. It shows that 95% of patients assessed who were brought into their emergency room were positively assessed as having a psychiatric disorder. At least one other study in Japan correlated these figures. Studies in the West have shown that at least 90% of people who die from or attempt suicides have at least one other mental illness. Others have shown up to 98% (mood disorders being most common.)
In other words, in times of an economic downturn those suffering from stress due to loss of work, for example, become most vulnerable to shortcomings in the country’s mental health system. Now, as a result of the social and economic impact of this crisis, Japan is in the midst of a decade-plus long mental health and educational reform movement.
And so, I present to you Japan – a society in transition, with greatness admired by the world (*statistically speaking the number of people studying Japanese is skyrocketing), yet a people full of anxiety and animosity wondering if their best days, both the glorious past and the great economic bubble are behind them. As to the question, “Why is Japan so unhappy?” I’d replace the word unhappy (and lost) with ambivalent. And this is where the study of Japan becomes most interesting.
To the typical Japanese person, Japan is a small island -- it is all they ever had and all they will have. Naturally, an uncertain future can result in a frightening feeling. Yet we can study other periods of Japanese history that lead to similar bouts of existential fright, most notably the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships. We find that such periods spurred Japan into periods of crisis and political turmoil followed by periods of rapid, historically unprecedented change and innovation. For the most part, this is the story of Japan. Now, Japan seems to be in the midst of yet another one of these cycles.
And it is here where I begin a series of articles that aim to tell the story of a Japan in a period of both ambivalence and change. Historically informed, my hope for Japan’s future is positive, yet emotionally attached, I too feel the anxiety, and in writing these articles by eliciting the opinion of experts from a wide variety of fields, I can make greater sense of where Japan is today, where it comes from, and where it is likely to head in the future.
I hope you enjoy the results.© Japan Today