Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The End of Japan


I was in O'Hare International Airport waiting for a plane on March 11, 2011 when I learned that Japan had been hit with a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and an accompanying 27 foot tsunami that morning.  On CNN the talking heads were going on and on about Japan's marvelous disaster preparedness; how with only minutes notice they had evacuated coastal towns so that only 1,000 people had perished.

Then they showed arial footage of entire villages that had been washed away, and I knew that it was all a lie.

Emperor Akihito (right) appeared in a television
address this week; the first TV appearance by an emperor
since Hirohito announced Japan's surrender in 1945.
It should come as no surprise that the government of a culture obsessed with surface appearances would even try to put a positive face on an Act of God. To not ask too many uncomfortable questions, to accept the status quo, to not rock the boat; these are the bedrock virtues of Japanese society.

Of course the Japanese are people too. Their society has its problems and their government experiences scandals and corruption like any other; but they, more than any other nation, have perfected the art of putting on a smile and pretending that it never happened:

Sumo wrestling is not corrupt. There are not hundreds of thousands of Japanese boys who won't leave their bedrooms. The nuclear power industry is fine.

These are things that the Japanese have chosen to believe, little white lies that help their society to function smoothly. But now some of these little white lies are growing and darkening, and they may not be prepared to face up to them.

Last year revelations came to light that Japan was 'missing' hundreds of its centenarians - those elders whose remarkable longevity has boosted Japan's average lifespan for years. It's funny when their government fails to count as deceased an elderly woman whose last known address was turned into a park in the 80's. When that same government is unable to count entire coastal towns swallowed by the sea, then it's tragic.

That initial 1000 person estimate has been steadily revised upward as the week has progressed. Currently the death toll sits at 25,000. Assuming the Japanese government is continuing its traditional pattern of releasing ridiculously conservative estimates, we can expect even this horrifying number to climb.

The shock to Japan's society, economy and infrastructure will be huge.

The Japanese economy flatlined in 1991 and has never recovered. In the face of these doldrums they have financed their standard of living by taking on massive quantities of debt. Their total debt was set to climb to 228% of their national GDP this year without taking into account this disaster.

The Japanese government has this immense debt because of a pool of willing lenders: their own people who are famous spendthrifts who save a much larger proportion of their incomes then Westerners typically do. But the government's generous funding from thrifty housewives may be about to run out.

It's not clear how Japan will finance the immense disaster recovery.

That's to say nothing of the unfolding nuclear power disaster.

As I write this there are three active Japanese nuclear reactors on the fritz and at least one dormant reactor with severe problems in its spent fuel pool.

Whether or not the Tokyo Electric Power Co. is able to ultimately prevent a nuclear disaster on a level with Cherynobyl, these events will leave a deep impression in the national psyche. The Japanese have the dubious distinction of being the only nation ever to have nuclear weapons used against them. They have an understandable horror of nuclear power: their society's so-called 'nuclear allergy'. Now they truly face the sum of all their fears.

This time it is not an external threat being imposed by a foreign enemy.  This is a nuclear disaster of their own making. Japan is going to have deal with a cultural identity crisis in the wake of this disaster.

Japan now faces simultaneous threats to its infrastructure, its economy and its society. We have to ask seriously if Japan, as a nation, has the reserves of will necessary to weather this crisis.

Two very good books on Japan that I have recently read are Shutting out the Sun and Dogs and Demons. Both depict a society in decline: one that is addicted to the status quo, one that has one of the world's lowest birthrates, one with a rapidly graying society where young people cannot find a job. Michael Zielenziger paints vivid portraits of young men who have simply fallen through the cracks of their social networks and confined themselves to their rooms, emerging only at night if ever. Alex Kerr draws striking images of a construction industry run amok, paving over beaches and mountains to give its vast labor force something to do. Japan is an island chain with deep societal problems. Kerr forecasts a slow decline into oblivion for Japan, a society gradually dwindling to irrelevance. But history should teach us that no nation gets to die in its sleep.

This disaster will do one of two things for Japan.  On the one hand, it could be the wake-up call that that country needs to galvanize it into real change. But it could also be the real beginning of the end, the collapse of the entire elaborately constructed house of cards. Either way, Japan post-tsunami will not be the same as Japan before. Change is coming.

The Japanese need to remember that they are not as isolated as they like to think they are. They may be a graying society, but they are surrounded by young and restless Asian tigers: China, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea. They were never going to be allowed to sleep in peace, even before mother nature took its course.

Reality has finally caught up with the Japanese. The facade has been torn down and washed away. They can wake up and face the truth and save themselves or they can be washed away while they cling to the tattered shreds of their imaginary dignity.

Time to choose, Japan.

18 comments:

JB said...

Wow

Anonymous said...

Great article.

Anton Tykhyy said...

Missing old people and sumo corruption were all over Japanese-language TV last summer, literally day after day. Also featured were child abuse, political scandal (the Ozawa one) etc. I don't know and don't care what kind of trash does English-language media feed to its consumers.
You read Dogs and Demons, fine. Alex Kerr is a nostalgic romanticist who went all over Japan to collect that stuff. Next week, go visit the ruins of Detroit.
And quoting Daily Mail for Japanese death toll numbers? Give me a break.

Basically what I can make from your post is that you (as many other commentators) want very badly for Japan to stop being different, to become another USA or Great Britain, with the ultimately unimportant difference of language and racial type thrown in for an exotic touch. Moreover, you deny them the responsibility for their and their nation's fate and want them to want this thing. Care to explain why?

Anonymous said...

@Anton Tykhyy-you make it sound like being English-centric is bad thing. one could argue that the reason Tokyo was surpassed as a world trading center by Hong Kong and Singapore is because more people there speak English fluently.

Anton Tykhyy said...

@Anonymous: being English-centric is OK. Desiring everyone and every country to become like what certain English-centric circles imagine they should be, desiring them to desire this and proactively pushing them in this direction is not so OK.

Tom Noir said...

Anton, you read a lot into my intentions for someone who has never met me. I like this part:

you deny them the responsibility for their and their nation's fate and want them to want this thing. Care to explain why?

Just to be clear, you want me to defend a position that YOU claim that I hold?

I'm open to discussion with someone who makes reasonable arguments, but you're assuming a great deal about the motives of someone who you've read one blog post by. Haven't you got anything better?

Anton Tykhyy said...

@Anon: I have to correct myself, read "Universalist-centric circles".

@Tom: I may be wrong, of course. I even explicitly said "what I can make from your post", which kind of admits that whatever conclusions I might make, they come from my reading of this post and not, say, from having met you in person. However, I believe your post gives some grounds for my conclusions. You say "Japan needs...", "Time to choose, Japan", "Japan is going to have deal with a cultural identity crisis in the wake of this disaster" (do Japanese know about this?), "these events will leave a deep impression in the national psyche" (how do you know, are you Japanese?) and "We have to ask seriously if Japan, as a nation, has the reserves of will necessary to weather this crisis." "We"! Who's this "we"? And should "we" answer this question in the negative (you kind of imply this by the tone of your post), what should "we" do? Send over a new General McArthur?

PS: "This is a nuclear disaster of their own making." — ultimately yes, but this particular one is of American designing and American building.

PPS: you misspelled Chornobyl and aerial, and spendthrift is the opposite of thrifty.

Anton Tykhyy said...

@Anon: I have to correct myself, read "Universalist-centric circles".

@Tom: I may be wrong, of course. I even explicitly said "what I can make from your post", which kind of admits that whatever conclusions I might make, they come from my reading of this post and not, say, from having met you in person. However, I believe your post gives some grounds for my conclusions. You say "Japan needs...", "Time to choose, Japan", "Japan is going to have deal with a cultural identity crisis in the wake of this disaster" (do Japanese know about this?), "these events will leave a deep impression in the national psyche" (how do you know, are you Japanese?) and "We have to ask seriously if Japan, as a nation, has the reserves of will necessary to weather this crisis." "We"! Who's this "we"? And should "we" answer this question in the negative (you kind of imply this by the tone of your post), what should "we" do? Send over a new General McArthur?

mulp said...

Why can't you simply say "it is a time for the Japanese to get real and hike their taxes instead of pretending to loan their money to government so they can get it back in the future"?

Clearly the Japanese people are willing to sacrifice personal consumption and give their money to their government as well as the US government in exchange for debt they can't reasonably cash in (it would change the exchange rates and drive up their cost of living). It would be more efficient to give the money to government in higher taxes and then invest the remainder in private investment to utilize the great national infrastructure Japan has bought with debt. Too much of the debt funded capital, from efficient transport to college educated unemployed, is under utilized, and needs more of the savings of the Japanese to be used to employ these assets productively.

The Japanese seem to better at implementing American ideas, like Deming in decades past, and now those of American anti-tax conservatives who claim to be against big government but that since Reagan have never failed to increase borrowing to expand government spending.

Philo said...

Japan seemed pretty dynamic in the early 20th century. It seemed pretty dynamic as it recovered from its defeat in WWII and became a manufacturing behemoth. Then it lost its way around 1990. What happened? (You mention defects, but every society has defects. I'm asking for some longitudinal perspective.)

Andrew said...

Sorry, but this is nonsense.

It's easy after a big event in a culture you don't live in to write something like: "This is huge. The country will have to change forever. And I (from my armchair) know exactly why, and can predict it."

But much of the time, these snap judgements are wrong.

So here's my (equally childish, shallow) snap judgement: Japan will not fall apart. It will carry on being a complex, impenetrable, successful, unsuccessful, aging society.

kurt9 said...

A counter argument:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/the-myth-of-japans-lost-decades/71741/

Luc said...

Well Tom I do know you a bit and I was about to comment in the same line as Anton, but he did it before and better than I could. I really read the same argument in your post: the Japanese are in trouble because of their own fault. You don't blame the earthquake/tsunami on their culture (some have though), but somehow the mess they are in is to blame on their culture of keeping up appearances.

What are in your view the benefits of this culture? How did it help them so far?

And thank you for the thought provoking posting :)

Luc

Tom Noir said...

@Luc: good question.

Well most obviously the Japanese are being very orderly and not rioting in the streets, looting, etc. Their civility and calm even in the face of extreme disaster is well known, and justly so. They are also hard working and diligent. When they put their mind to something, like rebuilding their economy after WWII, they can do it. They will need all these traits in spades after this, to be sure.

But through all these events it is my impression that they have never learned the value of questioning the status quo, and I fear that that will be their undoing in the end.

I definitely don't blame the tsunami on them. I can't imagine any country, however organized, being able to do much with ten minutes warning against a ten meter wall of water. But I think their disaster response will be far more effective if they are not in denial about the gravity of the situation. This concern was really the genesis of my post.

@Mulp: It's a fair argument. I guess the current system frees the big Japanese corporations from a heavy tax burden though?

Tom Noir said...

@Kurt9: Thanks for the link, that is a pretty interesting counter perspective on the Japanese economy.

Luc said...

Tom, for me it is really an open question whether combinations of the elements you describe are possible. Like you I'm part of a culture which values being open and transparent. Japan is different and that has its advantages. Is it possible to keep this awesome calmness and discipline and at the same time being more open? I just don't know.

Anton Tykhyy said...

they have never learned the value of questioning the status quo, and I fear that that will be their undoing in the end
There you go again. Remember Matt. 7:1-7:5!

Cynthia said...

What concerns me are the 450,000 people living in the rubble of northern Japan and the farms there that are now radiactive. There should be an international effort to bring these people somewhere they can live decently. If the US were smart, we would hand over Detroit to these 450,000 people as an independant colony of Japan as a 100 year lease. The UN in NYC and the Indian reservations in the US are automous, so why not Detroit? In one year the Japanese would make Detroit the richest, best educated city in the country.

I would also like to point out that just because a people do not like to scream and mouth-off, does not mean they are not fully aware of their problems.