Friday, May 10, 2024

Japan - a lesson in life and technology

Remember when Japan was the exemplar of Capitalism? We were all urged to learn Japanese. It is now seen as a frail economy.  The yen's plunge to a fresh 35 year low against the dollar makes things cheap here and could result in a resurgence of inflation via higher costs for imports of food and energy.  Japan is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, plastic is used everywhere and it still has significant coal production. It now plays little role in Foreign affairs and you rarely hear the Japanese voice on global issues. Yet it is still an astoundingly vibrant and beautiful place. So, how has Japan managed to keep going in the face of mounting debt? They use a scheme of monetising government debt, where the Bank of Japan purchases government bonds to finance the government's spending needs. 

Once a tech giant in cars, robots and games consoles, it also seems to have lost its innovative mojo. China looms large over its shoulder and the ‘robot’ stuff I saw was dated. Tech means toys here, with vast emporiums for toys and kids’ tat, entire shops with toy vending machines. 

One wonders at the effects of a culture of extreme conformity. There is barely a surface that does not have a sign telling you want to do, where to go and what to buy, even multilingual announcements telling you not to speak into your phone on the Metro, people guiding you with batons. The upside is the polite, quiet, calm, safe, aesthetic, almost serene environment, even in an immensely crowded city like Tokyo. It is a frictionless city, easy to move around, no hassle.

The downside, I can only guess, but I’m told a suffocating sense of personal, peer and parental pressure. The Lolita Gothic girls, the 2 or 3 hour hotel rooms for sex (they’re everywhere), used by couples who don’t have privacy at home, the almost pathological use of smartphones - standing, sitting or walking, people are staring at their screens. Howard Rheingold wrote about this in the 90s, when Japanese kids adopted the cellphone faster than any other nation on earth, as they had little privacy and saw it as a social release. Its success came though consoles and games, also the mighty Sony.

One symptom of its problems, and what you don’t see, are the ‘hikikomori’ who never leave the house, not just the young and not just young men. They spend months and years in their home, often in one room, with no social contact, like post-modern hermits. The causes seem to be a tendency toward conformity and collectivism, some autism, overprotective parenting, a pressured educational system, housing supply and now a problematic economic system. 

The most widely reported cases of hikikomori are from middle- and upper-middle-class sons, who refuse to leave the home, often after experiencing a traumatic episode of social or academic failure. They often start by refusing to go to school. Co-dependency between mother and son, known as ‘amae’ is also a problem. People are looking inwards not outwards, avoiding social situations. 

Japan now has one of the oldest populations in the world, with a huge number of elderly citizens and low birth rate. This has led to a shortage of workers and increased costs for welfare, healthcare and pensions. A draconian nationalist immigration policy means no relief.  Jonathon Haidt has talked about similar problems in the US and we see signs of this in many countries. This sense of an educational system that was full of promise and expectation but results in disappointment is what Turchin calls the over-production of the elite. The giving up on having children, a retreat into one’s self, is a worrying sign for any society.

One caveat. Having read MacFarlane’s excellent ‘Japan Through the looking Glass’, I’m aware of seeing only the surface. This is a complex culture with complex problems. It is easy to see the flaws and not admire the, albeit subtle, depth of Japanese culture, especially from more bellicose cultures that worship individualism. The place and people are amazing.

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