Roland Kelts wonders whether Japan-style stagnation would really be so bad in the west.
by Roland Kelts
I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, mostly Tokyo and New York and a few other American cities, several times a year. The contrast is jarring. Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure was creaky and basic services such as ground transportation were chaotic and unreliable.
I steel myself before landing, my mind tallying variables and unknowns: will my luggage land with me and emerge on the dingy carousel? Will the taxi that I booked online arrive on time, at the right terminal, or at all? Will traffic impede me on my journey?
And then there’s the view. Whether it’s the outskirts of Queens on the way from New York’s JFK International Airport or the fringes of the Los Angeles highway off-ramps by LAX, everything seems a bit run down and decrepit.
Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading during touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of and nothing is broken. As I ease into town, usually on the limousine bus service, the streets outside are teeming with well-dressed urbanites heading home from work or out to restaurants, everyone in motion with purpose and meaning.
But that’s not what the papers say. Japan has experienced more than two decades of a stagnant-to-recessionary economy since its 1989-90 bubble burst. It has become the world’s economic whipping boy, described repeatedly as “the sick man of Asia”, incapable of revival, doddering off into the sunset.
The reports of Japan’s societal stagnation are no prettier. Stories about the country’s ageing population and plummeting birth rate abound – with the latter hitting a record low last year amid dire predictions of a disappearing Japan. At current rates, demographers estimate that the overall population will drop by 30 million by 2050.
Japan’s 2014 fertility rate is low – 1.4 births per woman – but David Pilling, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, notes that South Korea’s is lower and those of other developed countries, from Taiwan and Singapore to Germany and Italy, are similarly low. “Much of the world is going Japan’s way,” says Pilling. “If Japan is doomed, so are many others.”
However, Pilling adds, the alternative isn’t necessarily better. “Can we really only conceive of a successful economy as one where the population increases year after year? By this measure, Pakistan and many African countries should be screaming success stories. They’re not.”
Japanese men and women, meanwhile, are tagged as “sexless”, caught up in a “celibacy syndrome” (sekkusu shinai shokogun) that has both the married and the single declaring their lack of interest in sexual relations. Japan’s young shut-ins (hikikomori) are socially withdrawn digital hermits who confine themselves to their bedrooms, video games and online chats. The so-called herbivore or “grass-feeding” men (soushoku danshi) avoid competition in any arena, be it romantic or professional. Their female counterparts greet them with a shrug, collect their pay cheques and dine out with their girlfriends.
Intuitively, you might think that this shrinking, even disappearing Japan should not look and feel as good as it does. To visitors, expats and residents alike, Japan is still one of the richest, most civilised and convenient countries in the world. There should be potholes in its streets and pickpockets in its alleys. Shops, restaurants, bars and factories should be darkened and idle. Trains should be late and the passengers poorly dressed and busking for change.
The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of the safest major cities in the world put Tokyo on top, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, at number three. While smaller and mid-sized Japanese cities betray some of the conventional signs of economic hardship (boarded-up storefronts and sparsely populated shopping malls), in a world beset by rising fanatical violence and rancorous racism and inequality, safety is nothing to sneeze at.
In his 2014 book Bending Adversity, Pilling grapples with the cognitive dissonance at the heart of 21st-century Japan: is it a harbinger of global stagnation? Or is it a model of global sustainability? In the book’s most-quoted passage, a British MP, on arriving in Tokyo in the early 2000s and surveying its lively environs, is reported to have said: “If this is a recession, I want one.”
I caught up with Pilling, who is now based in Hong Kong but frequently returns to Tokyo, to ask if he has had a change of heart about the resilient, sustainable Japan that he outlines in his book. He remains deeply sceptical of the knee-jerk pejoratives associated with stagnancy.
“Do rich societies really need to get richer and richer indefinitely?” he asks. “A lot of improvements in standard of living come not through what we normally consider as growth but through technological improvements.”
Pilling considers Japan’s stagnant years as a time of remarkable domestic growth, if not the kind associated with standard economic measurements such as GDP. “Many would agree that the standard of living, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, has improved significantly in the so-called lost decades. The city’s skyline has been transformed; the quality of restaurants and services improved greatly. Despite the real stresses and strains and some genuine hardship, society has held together reasonably well. If this is what stagnation looks like, humanity could do a lot worse.”
What makes one society hold together “reasonably well”, while others fail? You have only to look to the Japanese language for insight. Common words such as ganbaru (to slog on tenaciously through tough times), gaman (enduring with patience, dignity and respect) and jishuku (restraining yourself according to others’ needs) convey a culture rooted in pragmatism and perseverance.
After the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, the international media were awash with stories about the dignity and almost superhuman patience of survivors, many of whom peacefully waited hours in single-file lines for relief supplies, only to be turned away in the frigid weather and asked to try again the next day. No one rushed to the front; no one rioted. In shelters, meagre foodstuffs such as rice balls were split in half or into quarters to make sure that all had something to eat.
Nearly everyone was on the same page: Japan’s population is 98.5 per cent Japanese, as defined by citizenship. While ethnic diversity has its advantages (and some academics point out that, when you analyse the population’s regional roots, Japan is quite diverse), a set of common cultural values, instilled from birth, may strengthen resilience in the face of crisis and adversity.
The journalist Kaori Shoji tells me that having little to hand and learning to make the most of it are essential components of the Japanese character. “The Japanese temperament is suited to dealing with poverty, scarcity and extremely limited resources. If [the American commodore Matthew Perry’s] black ships didn’t show up [to open Japan to western trade] in the 19th century, we’d still be scratching our heads over the workings of the washing machine or the dynamics of a cheeseburger. On the other hand, with . . . centuries of frugality behind us, we have learned to be creative. Frugality doesn’t have to mean drab stoicism and surviving on fish heads.”
Japan’s stagnation, pilloried by economists and analysts in the west, may turn out to be the catalyst for its greatest strengths: resilience, reinvention and quiet endurance.
Until a couple of years ago, I lectured Japan’s brightest and best at the University of Tokyo. My Japanese students were polite to a fault. They handed their essays to me and to my teaching assistant with two hands affixed to the paper, as if they were handling sacred artefacts. They nodded affirmatively when I asked them if they had understood what I’d said, even when they hadn’t. They were never late to class and they never left early.
When I pressed them on their future plans, however, they expressed a kind of blissful ambivalence. “I’d like to help improve Japan’s legal system,” Kazuki, a smart and trilingual student from Kyushu told me. “But if that doesn’t work out, I just want to be a good father.”
Sayaka, a literature major from Hokkaido, asked me if I understood her generation’s dilemma. “We grew up very comfortable,” she said. “We learned not to take risks.”
The lack of risk-taking – anathema to today’s “fail-fast” Silicon Valley culture – would seem to indicate stagnation writ large. But what if it’s a more futuristic model for all of us, even superior to Japan’s sleek, sci-fi bubble-era iconography: all hi-tech and flashy yen but no soul?
The Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato, a columnist for the New York Times, sees a radical example in Japanese culture that he describes as a model of “de-growth”, of returning to other measures of growth that transcend stagnancy, focused instead on quality of life.
“The shape of wisdom as well as self-worth has drastically changed,” he tells me at his office in Takadanobaba, north-west Tokyo. “We can point to periods of change: the late 1980s with Chernobyl, or the early 1990s with the end of the USSR and communism, or the early 2000s with 9/11. And finally, the early 2010s, with 11 March 2011 and Fukushima Daiichi.”
Kato sees our world as one of fundamental transition, from dreams of the infinite to the realities of the finite – a transformation that Japan grasps better than most. “I consider younger Japanese floating, shifting into a new qualified power, which can do and undo as well – can enjoy doing and not doing equally.”
I ask him if Japan’s model of stagnancy as strength can educate the rest of the world in the possibilities of impoverishment. “Imagine creating a robot that has the strength and delicacy to handle an egg,” he says. “That robot has to have the skills to understand and not destroy that egg. This is the key concept for growing our ideas about growth into our managing of de-growth.”
Handling that egg is tricky. A spike in volunteering among young people in Japan after the nuclear disaster suggests that, despite the global hand-wringing over their futures, they are bypassing the old pathways to corporate success in favour of humbler forms of participation.
In 2005, the Tokyo University graduate Mitsuru Izumo, who had a cosy law firm gig in his lap, left to found a start-up, Euglena.jp – a way of feeding the world’s poorest using algae hybrids. A Keio University graduate is now selling stitched bags from Ethiopia. Haruka Mera of the website Ready For? is thriving by facilitating global crowd-funding campaigns for Japanese start-ups.
Mariko Furukawa, a researcher for the Japanese advertising firm Hakuhodo, thinks that the “think small” mentality of young Japanese is turning stagnancy into sustainability. She cites the proliferation of agri-related start-ups – peopled by young Japanese who are leaving the cities for rural environs, despite the low returns, and who don’t seem to care about globalisation.
“These small techs should really add up to something and we may be able to replace [stagnation] with new innovation, not necessarily new technology,” Furukawa says. “I think the Japanese ability to innovate in such things is very strong. And so, because these city planners and urban designers are talking about downsizing the cities, wrapping up into smaller furoshikis [rucksacks], so to speak, the awareness is there; they know what needs to be done. In this sense, we may be at the forefront of developed economies.”
Furukawa notes that many European nations facing similar dilemmas don’t have the same tools to address them. “Europe has been suffering from low growth. But I don’t know if they are that innovative at new ways of living.”
Japan’s Blade Runner image of yesteryear – a futuristic amalgamation of hi-tech efficiency coursing through neon-lit, noirish alleyways in sexy, 24-hour cities – was really a blip in the nation’s history. Today, the country is more about quality of life than quantities of stuff. In its combination of restraint, frugality and civility, Japan may serve as one of our best societal models of sustenance for the future.
Roland Kelts is a contributing writer for the New Yorker and the Japan Times and the author of “Japanamerica” (Palgrave Macmillan)