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Japan’s crisis of ambivalence

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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

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

39 Comments
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I really liked this article, well done. :) I would have loved to have visited Japan to see what it was like back in the 80s. You always hear about the bubble and how Japan was like some fabled utopia back then. All those stories about people buying soap with gold flakes and spending obscene amounts of yen on taxi rides and the like. I'd love to know how society has changed/improved since then. All you hear about is 'Japan in decline' etc etc. Any users on the site who lived in Japan then? What was your experience? Really looking forward to the rest of the articles by the way.

4 ( +7 / -3 )

I dont think I have much to say about this since I don't live in Japan or am a specialist in anything but I must say that I really enyojed reading this article and It really got to me! I may sound like every other "Japan nerd" when I say this but to me Japan will always be the greatest thing even if the future economy, society or other decides otherwise. It will always make me feel happy and lift me up when I'm at the bottom. Living there or not.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

One of the better written articles on the site, I'm guessing the original article was much longer and JT asked you to shorten it?

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Had visited a few times in the late 80's and then moved here in '91 and it was almost like everyone was high all the time. 10,000 yen bills were almost used like 1,000 yen bills. There were perfectly fine appliances just left on the corner of roads for anyone to take - friends joked that they furnished their apartment in just 3 weeks of waiting and walking around picking up stuff. No one cared. But the flip side of this "bubble" was the waste. Used to go to restaurants and see people order 6 dishes for 2 people and throw out 70% of the food - that was a crime in my opinion! And while salaries were high, everything else was expensive, too, so it wasn't too different in terms of the purchasing power of today, I guess. Oh and TV after 9 PM was risqué to say the least! Used to be a great show on weekdays called "11 PM". And the last 10 mins of "Vocabulary Tengoku" were highly "educational". And the commercials were full of Hollywood stars peddling you name it. Now we just have Tommy Lee Jones' coffee commercials - which I love BTW. And except for some news programs, I haven't watched Japanese TV for close to 10 years. Oh well - from the comments on JT, I doubt I missing anything.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

No, we didn't.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well done JT, this is how it is supposed to be done.

You have an author who really seems to have expertise in an area, really writing an interesting article about his area at of expertise. Backing it up with interesting tidbits of facts (with references).

Please use this as 'template' for future JT Expert articles.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

amen with all the above, well written and interesting article. love this: "try to see Japan for the first time again" I miss that feeling sometimes. Its an amazing feeling.

5 ( +7 / -2 )

You can get that 1000 yen cup of coffee in Shinjuku. There's a shop right outside of Kabukicho, a street down from the HUB. It comes from a percolator and is nothing special, and there are no non-smoking areas. I made the mistake of going in while waiting for a friend to get off work.

The owner appears to be in his late 60s, so I imagine he, and his store, are both relics of the bubble era.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@ Godan, so in respect to free household appliances, the country really was a utopia back then! That era still sounds so unreal though, it was like Japan was under a spell back then. A

Are there any good bubble documentaries online?

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Great, meaningful article. Thank you, Eddie Landsberg and JT.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@Oginome - There were no 100 yen shops. Gyudon places were for men only - never saw women in them. Heck seeing a woman smoke in public was about as common as finding a real estate agent who would deal with a non-Japanese person. And a tattoo - forget about it! Times were very different. God! I sound like an old geezer reminiscing about back in the day! :-(

As for "utopia" - that I don't know about it. There was a weird double standard for sure when it came to non-Japanese. You'd be wined and dined by Japanese friends, heck even by more or less complete strangers. Had my share of free beers just chatting to guys in bars, yakitori shops, jazz bars, etc.... That hasn't happened in a loooong time! But step into a real estate agency, some restaurants, even barber shops and you would suddenly hear English spoken - "no gaijin" was a common mantra. Don't get that often now.

As for the documentary, sorry I have no idea. But if there was one, I am sure it would be a hit for Japanophiles around the globe.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

I think that those of us who've managed to live here for some time will collectively agree that the go-for-broke 'bubble' era spirit is not at all far from the surface of any successful, or affluent or nouveau riche Japanese -- and indeed is a mode that they can go into with very minimal concern for a semblance of financial prudence, and with a certain glee, as long as they have the fiscal wherewithal.

Am I wrong? One often gets the impression the currently widely embraced national thriftiness is assessed by many as really little more than a temporary precaution at an inconvenient time, akin to being asked to wait a bit until your new pair of $2,500 Cole Haan shoes gets delivered to the shop. I sense the wild and crazy 'bubble' esprit remains very much alive and well, although for the time being on a much more modest and less widely practiced scale, yet just below the surface, waiting for the next chance on the horizon to spring up -- like Esther Williams from the depths.

It's not an issue of any lesson having been learned.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

Nothing earthshaking here, but not bad either. I'm guessing Landsberg is an American, which accounts for the many comparisons of Japan here with the USA regarding work hours, suicide, etc. But the USA is the undoubted oddball and outlier among wealthy, developed countries. Large numbers of Americans are known for espousing a vitriolic, pathological hatred of government that citizens of EU countries, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Singapore, etc. find mystifying. Cross-national comparisons of Japan with other rich countries that aren't so downright bizarre like the US would be more useful. After all, Japan has national health care--putting the country squarely in the company of "normal" wealthy nations.

"To the typical Japanese person, Japan is a small island—it is all they ever had and all they will have."

I'd like to think that the typical Japanese person is aware of the fact that their country once possessed far more than the 4 main Japanese islands. Japan is the only non-Western nation that acquired an overseas colonial empire in modern times. Korea, Taiwan, South Sakhalin, MIcronesia--Japan once had all of these places.

-3 ( +4 / -7 )

Enjoyed this article. 1000yen cup of coffee not so uncommon though, usually 1050 including tax. Just look around omotesando.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Thank you everyone for your kind compliments.

@masswipe For the record, although it is true that I'm an American, the reason I compared the standard of living to the US is because US, China and Japan are the top three largest economies in the world, and Americans have traditionally believed themselves to have the highest standard of living in the world. -- Your observations on America's view of its own government is also an interesting point. The story was shortened by myself, and in its original length also included a comparison to the typical American and Japanese person's view of government which according to the OECD survey are pretty much the same.

For the record, I have really bad ADHD and praise the team of editors who worked on editing my inevitable goofs, while presenting the article as I wrote it, and I appreciate everyone's feedback. I've been a reader of JT for years and am happy to now appear in it. As an aggregate

original content provider of hard news, culture and opinion, there is no website that beats JAPAN TODAY and I'm proud to be part of it.

Off to SENDAI... Cheers!!!

9 ( +9 / -1 )

Not bad-there are a couple of misconceptions though. One is the calcium deficient diet;the cause of the bowed back is due to constant bending over, not a calcium deficiency. Another is how colorful Japan's stations are-to me they are generally forgettable. Also, I would argue that Japan has a higher suicide rate than officaial figures show. In a land as mountainous as Japan is I would bet that there are 100s of bodies just waiting to be discovered out there.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

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.

I also enjoyed the article a lot but disagree with this - I think Japan's not far into the 3rd turning or 'Unravelling' phase of the generational cycle. It'll be a good 10-15 years before a real crisis mode sets in. Lets face it if you can have an earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis and still people remain pretty ambivalent about life, you're not anywhere near a crisis phase. Compare to the US, Europe etc which are about a turning of out phase with Japan and have now moved into that crisis mood.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

@kurisupisu True about the suicide. About the bending over... this has been debated and I've actually looked for statistics and consulted with a researcher who's actually studied the problem of bone density in Japanese women but could not conclusively answer the question. The general cultural belief is that it was from bending over in the rice fields; however, it can be observed in many shitamachi (working/poor) obasan who never worked in the rice fields... Another cultural belief was that popularity of Western Tables and Chairs are the reason for the elimination of the phenomena... all of this information is purely anecdotal. It would be an interesting topic for a story though!!! :D

2 ( +3 / -1 )

An intelligent, non-superficial article. More like these, please, JT!

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Well researched and written article.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

The great thing in Japan during the 17 years I have lived here, the prices have gotten cheaper, much cheaper and that we only pay 5% sales tax compared with 20% back in the UK.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

The best thing that is missing nowadays is 'Juliana'. Japan changed when it closed down. Still, I remember 20 years ago, Lasagna was unavailable. I was so happy when they started selling it. People used to throw their trash out of the car as if that was a normal gesture. You could go shopping and leave the engine of your car running. Too many rules here and there nowadays. I think that Japan was much more fun back then.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

wow, am i happy to have a completely different view of japan. your view is ultra-depressive, it only contributes to create more anxiety. i find that this is a great country, with survivor spirit, no matter what happens. these are bad times, but it can be worse. the japanese cup is more than half full, rather almost half empty.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

This is a great article Eddie, well written and reading it put me back to when i first came here just at the end of the bubble, most of those things you write about were still evident and plentiful. Your article got me thinking about those early days so much. This would have to be one of the best articles on JT, I look forward to reading more from Eddie.

Good Stuff.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Interesting, but the change and innovation you crave simply won't come, at least not at the rate and extent which Japan needs. For one thing there is the aging population, for another the way in which youth and youthful energy are marginalized and emotionally castrated by the system. Japan's worst enemy is its own national character.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

As a Japanese woman who experienced the bubble era and is now experiencing this economic downturn , I think this article gives a unique perspective to us Japanese, saying we should stop to think whether what we think unhapiness now is really worth our anxiety or commiting sucides . After reading , I came to feel Japan 's crisis lies not so much in economy ; it rather lies in our mentality,which can be said as our ambivalent state of mind. This articles implies we still have hope, if we look back to our past wisely,and see ourselves as we are,we might be able to get a hint to what direction we should go to. I am looking forward to reading more of this series of articles.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

Great article. Eddie is dead on on most of the points. As a newbie in the 90's, the most revealing thing for me was the astronomical salary for level entry job in the finance industry. For me it was insane.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I agree with Eddie Landsberg that Japan isn't in a permanent state of decline ( and neither are the "old " economies of US and Europe ) . At the moment all the emphasis is on emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, etc. and although they will continue to grow, their rate of growth will slow at some point. It will take time, but it will happen. People, everything in life is cyclical. Things will begin to even up and improve, believe me.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Very interesting article. I think there is too high wall among each generations in Japan, preventing each perspective from amalgamating with each other. Today, those who create the criteria for seeing Japan's condition is "dankai" generation, who experienced the pinacle of Japan, bubble era. Thus, they tend to regard Japan as deteriorating, compering to the past. However, those who are around 20-year-old and below, so-called "yutori" generation, have never enjoyed that. Ever since they were born, Japan has been struggling with recession, so for them, recession would be normal condition. I think when they, in turn, will create the criteria, Japanese people would not be as negative for the condition as present.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

It's so rare to see such a great article. Thanks, Landsberg!

Oh, and if you're really feeling nostalgic for that 1000 Yen coffee (or 800 Yen tiny glass of cola), try any of the fancypants cafes near Hiroo station. (This is one of the reasons I try not to venture into Hiroo.)

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I arrived not long before the author and have noted many of the same changes - another of which was the paucity of imports and their price. Mom and Pop shops dominated and the middle men made a fortune; stores sold artificial OJ because tariffs on real oranges were so high; foreign meat was unavailable; even clothing was mostly domestic. The relaxation of this regime caused huge temporary short-term pain - some of which still continues, as with "shutter dori" - but it's hard to say it wasn't worth it. Japan today is not much more expensive than the US, save for food.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Nice anecdotal stuff. A good gig if you can get it.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Kindly forgive my possible thickness, but I really don't understand what all the hoopla is about. This is a very mediocre piece, at best, full of non sequiturs (starting with the very first two paragraphs) and sweeping, often incorrect, generalizations.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Kindly forgive my possible thickness, but I really don't understand what all the hoopla is about. This is a very mediocre piece, at best, full of non sequiturs (starting with the very first two paragraphs) and sweeping, often incorrect, generalizations.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Japan has one major weakness that's not shared with other OECD nations, its white-collar workforce isn't internationally competitive apart from manufacturing industries. Their level of written and verbal communication in English is abysmal. Neither critical or creative thinking seem to govern the course of strategic management planning, instead they've got this collective-hive mind obligatory unanimous consensus mentality going on since the 1930s. This country is pretty much boned.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

One of the better written articles to appear in this space in a long, long time. Certainly, there are volumes more you could write on the subject and this could quickly become a major book. But, I understand the need for space. For the venue, well done, Eddie.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@Sandra Caraan: what you told...it's what I feel too. :D

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It takes lots of discipline and dignity for the middle class society to get there and yet not satisfied with their way of life and health. I guess this high expectation drives many people to the edge. ' Don't worry be happy '

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It takes lots of discipline and dignity for the middle class society to get there and yet not satisfied with their way of life and health

I think that's the way it is for a lot of people all over the world, Karen. People put all their energies into improving their lives and that of their children, working hard, education, social mobility and all the rest. And yet when they finally reach the fabled 'middle class', they find they're not happy. The reason? Materialism and status will never be the conduit to achieving happiness, even though coming from a comfortable middle class background is a good springboard for people to try out new things and find out what happiness is for them. I'm glad lots of young Japanese today are foregoing the salaryman route. Japan is probably a more interesting, flexible place today that it was in the bubble, but that doesn't mean I still wouldn't have loved to have visited back then to see what it was like.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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