Japan: A Love Song

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For the past few decades, Japan has been known for its stagnant economy, falling stock market, and most importantly its terrible demographics.

For almost three decades, Japan’s GDP growth has mostly been less than 2%, has been negative for several of these years, and has often hovered close to zero. The net result is that its GDP is almost the same that it was 25 years ago.

The stock market index (Nikkei 225), which at the beginning of 1990 stood at 40,960, is now less than half that, despite a 27-year gap. Malinvestments in infrastructure and cross-holding of shares among companies, and the resulting crony capitalism, get a lot of the blame for draining away Japan’s competitiveness. Confucian culture is blamed for a lack of creativity and an environment in which wrongs done by senior officials go unchallenged.

You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

But the real problem of Japan is supposed to be its demographic meltdown. The population is falling and the proportion of old people is increasing. The median age is 46.9 years and increasing, and the elderly dependency ratio is 42.7%. By 2050, Japan’s population is expected to fall to 109 million from the current 127 million, while the dependency ratio will continue to increase.

Major media publish regular reports about the Japanese refusing to have sex, and the large number of people in their forties who are still virgins. The “vagaries” of Japanese sexual life amuse outsiders. Manga (comics) and anime (animation) cater to fantasy by creating virtual worlds. People play pachinko (an arcade game like pinball, also used for gambling) for 18 hours a day. Girls in cute uniforms entice customers into maid-cafes, or perhaps to date joshi kosei (high school) girls. You can pay money to lie on a bed with a girl who does no more than hold your hand. There are vending machines that dispense used panties.

The unemployment rate is a mere 3%, and during my recent visit to Japan most companies told me how extremely difficult it has become for them to find recruits. Japan refuses to admit refugees or migrants, which in today’s world is seen as extremely close-minded, perhaps even bigoted.

In the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking.

All the above appear in the international media as something very unfavorable about Japan. International organizations beg Japan to listen to tearjerking stories about Syria and Libya, and to show compassion. The Japanese are constantly reminded that if they want their old and infirm people to be looked after, they must allow immigration. While the population of Canada is 21% first-generation immigrant, and Australia 26%, Japan is still 98.5% ethnically Japanese. The two largest ethnic minorities — Korean and Chinese — make up less than 1%. Japan simply does not want outsiders.

When I was doing my MBA in the early 1990s, people looked up to Japan. In retrospect we can see that the country’s economic growth and stock index were peaking. Opinion pieces on the outrageous price of real estate were common. At one point, the assessed value Tokyo’s Imperial Palace grounds was higher than that of the entire state of California.

In my MBA classes we heard lectures on Kaizen and other Japanese practices, terms that hardly find mention in the media these days. We were constantly reminded of how well the Japanese work in groups, and how this should be implemented in the West.

So which is true? The romanticized portrayal of the ’90s, when Japan was seen as the solution to the world’s problems, or today’s dismal caricature, in which Japan is part laughingstock and part rapidly declining society headed toward self-destruction?

From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

In both cases, in my view, the world has looked for mere rationalizations, rather than dissecting the underlying issues.

I am a huge fan of Japan. In Japan I see the future of humanity. Perhaps Korea and China should be included in that vision of the future. South Koreans and Chinese — who might superficially dislike Japan — have eagerly copied Japanese ways. Japanese products are sold in abundance in East and Southeast Asia. All the way to Malaysia and Singapore, people look for models to Japan and now increasingly to South Korea, which copied its economic miracle from Japan.

Blaming the Japanese for not being innovative is a distortion of reality. An American geologist with whom I recently spent a couple of days in Japan called the young Japanese “young Einsteins,” while showing me an innovative product that a large Japanese company has developed. From factory floors to homes, robots have made huge inroads into the Japanese society. They might even nullify the risk that the country may lack workers.

Japan has produced a mind-boggling array of international brands: Toyota, Sony, Citizen, Canon, Hitachi, Komatsu, Nikon, Panasonic, Toshiba, Honda, Seiko . . . the quality, perfection, passion, devotion, and mindfulness that these brands embody are hard to beat. And it’s not just the brands. Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

Politeness is one of the major pillars of any civilization. It shows respect for the other individuals, and it reflects how people live, work, and engage with others. And Japan is among the politest societies in the world. There are seven possible conjugations for most verbs, depending on how polite the speaker wants to be. I have traveled a lot on Japanese trains, and not once did the person sitting in front of me fail to ask my permission before reclining his seat. They ask, despite the ample leg space provided in these trains. When they arrive at their destinations, they always set their seats straight and organize the magazines as they were when they arrived.

Quality, cleanliness, and attention to detail is everywhere in Japan. Only a very few countries in Europe enjoy similar levels of devotion to excellence.

I cannot remember when my train was ever late, even by a minute. In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and increasingly in China, even in crowded subways, people mostly do not use the seats at the entrance of the compartments, so that they are always available for pregnant women and the elderly. The seats remain empty because travelers don’t want to embarrass any pregnant women or old people who may arrive later, by vacating the seat in their presence. No one talks on his phone or plays music using a speakerphone. Mostly people don’t even talk. They are at peace even on the subways, their ears unviolated by the noise of others.

I try my best to be polite, but Japanese beat me every single time. One must try to understand the mind and heart that they put into their work, and how they respect their clients. By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Japan was almost completely destroyed in World War II, and rose from the ashes through sheer willpower. It is a country whose heartfelt honesty, respect, and integrity I am in love with.

A few months after the Tsunami of 2011, I visited the area around the town of Sendai, which had been devastated. There had been no — zero — rioting or robbery. People hadn’t begged the government for help; within months they had fixed up the place themselves. Piles and piles of crushed cars stood in neat heaps. Where the houses once stood had been cleaned up. Roads had been constructed so that a new city could grow up around them. Only someone without a heart could have kept from crying to see what a group of proud people can achieve.

By presenting this kind of model, Japan has exported for free its civilizing culture to any society that is prepared to learn it.

Throughout the world, many groups complain about the historical injustices that “they” (actually their ancestors) faced. In 1945, Japan stood extremely humiliated and virtually destroyed. But ask Japanese about their sufferings of those days, and you will very likely get a blank stare. Proud people do not blame their past for their present.

Japan is still 98.5% Japanese. Is that inward-looking and racist? Maybe that is the wrong question. Multi-ethnic societies have worked virtually nowhere in the world. People who arrived in Europe as long as 1,400 years ago — Romani gypsies — are still a separate community. As a group, they are not only unassimilated; they haven’t integrated with the mainstream ways of life. People tend to get ghettoized on racial, religious, or linguistic lines. That has been the history of North America, Europe, and other parts of the world. Japan has avoided all of the associated social problems — including that of crime and terrorism — that today afflict the developed world.

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended. Late at night, young women can walk the streets alone, unaccosted, even in the areas controlled by Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Six-year-old kids can be seen crossing the road all alone.

Japanese bureaucracy is believed to be slow and an impediment to innovation. It is hard to measure how much more bureaucratic Japan is compared to other developed nations, but the Economist’s crony-capitalism index puts Japan — again quite contrary to popular beliefs — better than the USA and the UK.

Is it at all possible that a counterfactual narrative was constructed by the leftist social justice warriors who control the media, to pressure Japan into doing the bidding of pro-multicultural, pro-diversity international organizations?

Crime is virtually unknown in Japan. No one locks his bicycle, and people often leave their belongings — including purses — unattended.

An outsider does react with shock to some of the images of anime and manga, and the idea of buying used schoolgirls' panties in vending machines. But the reality is that sexual perversion is not unique to Japan. In the West the law is so strict that a lot of perversion remains hidden. But one does get a glimpse of what so many western men look for when they go to Thailand and surrounding countries, and to Latin America.

What I find impressive is that what Japan does is right in your face — Japan is like the Amsterdam of Asia.

Forty-two percent of men and 44.2% of women between the age of 18 and 34 years are said to be virgins, a statistic one often reads in the international media. But this statistic pools together a broad band of ages. There is nothing unusual — or even wrong — about 18-year-olds being virgins.

Another often quoted number is that one out of four Japanese over the age of 30 years is still a virgin. This is wrong, for the data applies only to unmarried people, yet the word “unmarried” is often left out. Eighty-six percent of men and 89% of women eventually marry. So the correct estimate of virgin Japanese over the age of 30 years is less than 4%, far less than the media would have you believe.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies.

Are single mothers and promiscuity really the metric of a better society? Western media seem to suggest this is so. There is indeed a correlation between being conscientious and shyness in sexual matters. Only 2% of Japanese children are born outside marriage, compared with 40% in the UK and the US. This is to be celebrated, not ridiculed.

There is really not much about Japan’s demographics that is abnormal. The country's native birth rate compares well with that of other wealthy economies. There is indeed a problem in that Japanese live longer, surviving into their unproductive years farther than people elsewhere — hence the high and growing dependency ratio. This is a problem, but it is a problem of success, not of failure.

I cannot but wonder if Japan is demonized for refusing to promote immigration or promiscuity. In my view it is perhaps the best large country in the developed world — for exactly the reasons it is, ironically, demonized for. My Japanese friends tell me about the inhibitions that kids develop under a very strict social structure, but for me as an outsider — a gaijin, literally “not one of us” — it is hard to understand Japan’s social dynamics completely. Japan indeed has its problems, but they are far outweighed by the great goodness of the place. It is one of humanity’s finest accomplishments, which should be celebrated not just by Japanese but by everyone.




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Visitor

Japan, as a moat-country following WW2, would never have developed modern manufacturing methods without the imported assistance of American Edward Deming. His methods of statistical analysis of process controls, along with Joe Juran, were accepted by Japanese manufacturers looking for a path forward, and were rejected by the dominant Americans. What resulted became the Toyota manufacturing system that American manufacturers have yet to match (but are getting closer). A homogeneous population is easier to get marching in the same direction than a multicultural population such as America.

Visitor

In the past I've enjoyed Mr. Bhandari's travel pieces, and while I find much still to relish here, I'm afraid that a number of his conclusions here strain credulity.

First, as to the question, is Japan "inward-looking" and more especially "racist," the answer is, emphatically, even brutally "yes." However polite the people on the train were to Mr. Bhandari's face, it is a certainty that they remarked among themselves about his ethnic characteristics (perceived or actual) thereafter. And even that tolerance would disappear quickly, replaced with icy

Second, the success of many Japanese companies worldwide — seemingly paradoxical in the midst of a culture which so strongly values ethnic tribalism — is not the function of that tribalism, but rather of the constitution drafted after World War II, Article 9 of which forbade the government from keeping a standing military, or from using war as a means of settling international disputes. Military spending drains not only money (in the form of "broken windows" on a scale even Bastiat could not imagine) but also innovation, routing many of a nation's brightest minds toward endless preparations for war. Freed from this burden, Japan's brightest turned toward other innovations instead, fostering a culture of invention that fed on the Japanese people's longtime insular (i.e., island-based) practice of appropriating other culture's basic achievements and feverishly perfecting them.

(That said, there is nonetheless a complacency that has settled in, with many companies relying on generous government bailouts, funded by continual pump-priming; hence the enormous debt load of the country. But that problem is hardly unique to the Japanese, it's just more acute there at the moment.)

This constitutional achievement, unparalleled among the world's foremost nations, is in grave danger now however, thanks to tShinzo Abe, the same man whose "Abenomics" (reheated Keynesianism) has helped grind the economy slowly to a halt. Abe, like many before him, sees in wartime industry and the preparations for it an answer to economic slowdown, and crucially an answer which places the government rather than the inventor (or even the zaibatsu) firmly in the center of production.

This shows the danger of a resurgent chauvinism and ethnonationalism in Japan. International trade and the lack of a military outlet for state aggression has kept patriotic fervor at bay, but it is never far from the surface in Japan, and Abe (like many of his fellow leaders elsewhere in the region and world) has proven eager to exploit it. As shown by his denial of the degradations forced by the Japanese Army on the "comfort women" they enslaved in their occupied territories, and his tacit approval of school curricula (administered at one point by his wife) referring to Koreans as "dirty" and encouraging witch-hunts to sniff out any hint of Korean or Chinese ancestry, Abe is the modern-day embodiment of the national spirit that once moved Japan to become a highly aggressive military empire. Absent the sort of world economy enabling the peaks of 1980s/90s trade, there is no guarantee such days will not return.

A note on crime: yes, it is very low in Japan. But the national pride in having such low crime statistics creates an incentive for many police departments to find other ways to classify certain incidents, such as attributing possible murders to suicide (contributing to Japan's very high suicide rate) or refusing altogether to investigate sexual assaults (in particular, molestations on that supposedly very safe and orderly subway).

There is much more that could be said on many issues here; Japan is not easily assimilable to the experience of any other nation (except perhaps those which would have preferred to know a lot less about them in their expansionist phases). However, it is distressing to see a libertarian publication run a piece by a libertarian-leaning writer so eager to sing the praises of states based on national ethnic purity, which by design deny individual rights to a minority of their citizens in a manner that should be objectionable to lovers of liberty. It's symptomatic of a disturbing trend in which extremists try to appropriate the term "libertarian" to cover their protectionist, know-nothing agendas.

The degree to which Japan is successful is the degree to which they have opened themselves up to international trade and relations with the outside world; the degree to which they are precarious is the degree to which they have folded in on themselves, propping up dying corporations at the expense of ancestry-tainted newcomers. One would hope they would choose the former path, but the drift of recent history suggests otherwise—and if Japan returns to its ways of the early 20th-century, Mr. Bhandari should prepare for a very different type of welcome on his return, or more likely no welcome whatsoever.

Fred Mora

Visitor,

You make a well-argumented point. However, one can admire an aspect of a country without proclaiming it to be an example for the whole world. For example, I admire the European engineers and managers who created the Arianespace space launch consortium, but I'd not praise the incestuous relationship between governments and large businesses that you see in most of Europe.

I believe you can admire some aspects of Japan -- or any country -- without feeling the impulse to completely endorse all of its culture. Baby, bath water, etc.

Visitor

It is kinda hard to at least not to respect that intriguing quirky nation isn’t it? They seem to have the uncanny ability to recognize and adopt what is necessary to survive and prosper and yet preserve and maintain a significant part of what makes them distinctive while being able not to get caught in every single delusional obsession sweeping the western world, though not all of them. It is refreshing to read an article that is not rehashing the same old clichés that everybody wants to believe.

Can’t help passing a few of my own random remarks on the subject and points raised:

-Everybody suspects that Japan is a bit crowded ( Just a few years back It started counting down from a peak of 128 million people on the territory the size of Montana - or California if we took the chunk the size of West Virginia out of it.) What is not so common knowledge is that over 60 percent of that sliver of land is so mountainous as to be virtually undevelopable. They are cutting some mountaintops and filling the valleys with the material gained but it is not cheap. So that leaves us with about the size of Iowa for the 127 million Japanese (Iowa has 3 million good souls) to build their houses on and use as a base for world industrial domination in multiple industries and serious competition in most others. I’ll leave earthquakes and tsunamis greatly complicating everything out for now)

Japan would be undoubtedly better off if its population could stabilize somewhere between 80 to a 100 million. Still large enough to enable its own cultural survival in a modern homogenizing world and remain an influential player on world stage, having their weight felt, being able to sustain its technological edge but also finally gaining some elbow room. How many Americans would like being able to shake hands with their neighbors just by both leaning out the windows of their million dollar mini homes or to have to prove they have a place to park a car before they could purchase one or pay $ 3500 or so for safety inspection every three years. (obviously designed to discourage car ownership - and it works , after six years the cars aren’t generally worth recertifying and are often shipped pronto to Vladisvostok in Far East Russia- though this whole problem could be solved soon by rentable self driving cars)

-If Japan’s -especially the working - population is decling but its economy grows by 2 percent then the economy “actually grew” by more than 2%. If some comparative country’s population grew by 3% and it’s economy by the same percentage did it really “grow” at all ? It’s weight on world stage may have increased but it’s citizen are just running on a treadmill. If absolutely nothing improves but there are more mouths to feed and bodies to build a shelter for where exactly did any progress happened?

Allow me to illustrate. When under President-ess Chelsea with Bernie’s minions controlling the House & Senate the U.S. will finally decide to become a new Canadian province as the best way to join the progressive world and to have a true single payer health care system will anybody ever say that the Canadian economy “grew” more than tenfold?

By the way Japan’s health care is incredibly cheap by US standards. I mean even if you walk in as a foreigner without insurance you can pay for a lot almost out of your pocket. Don’t have a clue whether or thru which back door it is subsidized.

-Why do people always insist after insanely overpriced stock and real estate markets lead to (cause) a crash that that we should get back to those numbers as soon as possible as if those inflated values were some measure of normalcy or true value? I think Japan will be served well by letting the craziness of the 1989/90 go. I haven’t checked it in a while but some years back the more free market economies of Hong Kong , Singapore and Taiwan were outperforming South Korea, with its heavier government hand in promoting its industrial giants in GDP per person race, but that being said there is a number of big worldwide known Korean companies everybody is aware of while most people would struggle to name a single company from the other mentioned tiger economies. Given that the giant global companies are increasingly carving up and influencing the world for themselves( and not necessarily in a market friendly ways) I am not entirely sure if that fact should be summarily dismissed.

I have found architecture a fairly good indicator for judging countries' comparative ascendancy or decline. On that note anybody who thinks that Japan is in decline and cannot go there to see for himself would be well served to at least check the Bing’s Bird’s View or similar Google app. The inspiring modern architecture alone tells a different story on several points you raised in your article. Actually, apart from England most of American and continental Europe’s modern architecture compared to almost anywhere in Asia’s booming economies look pretty dismal or at least uninspiring, Well at least that is my opinion and I am sticking to it.

-Calling the Japanese Koreans a minority is a bit misleading.. Most of them are second,third or multiple generation of Koreans who originally came to Japan when Korea was their colony, usually don’t speak any Korean, are indistinguishable from locals and are Koreans mostly in the sense like when mosaic obsessed Canada publishes statistics of their German,Ukrainian or Swedish Canadians. But Asia is not America so here is the kicker that will drive the proponents of the multiculti tenet that all cultures are the same insane.

I have it on good authority that in order to gain Japanese citizenship one has to accept a Japanese name (i.e. change his own) It may seem to violate some humanrightisms, but aside from that I think most people will understand the sentiment behind it.(That alone is not Japan specific. It is also the way in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and probably elsewhere too-apparently not everybody got the memo that valuing your own culture is a no-no.) What I find a lot harder to wrap my head around is the fact that apparently most native born, thoroughly assimilated Japanese Koreans who have never been to Korea refuse to do so. And if that did not make you sit down please do it now,because I don’t want you to get hurt. For in order for them to travel they need a passport of a country they are citizens of ,which as mentioned above, is not Japan. That means they have to visit an Embassy of their ancestors mother country which somehow has to keep track of whether they actually came from there and then if everything checks out, issues them a passport. But don’t get up yet, the punch line is still coming . Because You know of course, that we have two Koreas right? And they both refuse to issue a passport to some vagabond unless his progenitor in the time of Babe Ruth provably packed up his bags in some quaint little village that unequivocally falls under their current jurisdiction.( I would hate to be born in what today is the DMZ- Demilitarized zone between the two worlds or Iron Curtain on steroids.) I hope you did not get up yet because now I want you to imagine that perhaps you are the first person in three generations interested in traveling abroad and therefore in need of a passport. So you comb the attic and raid your grandmothers dusty chest to fish out some long yellowed scrolls only to have the basic prerequisites to go begging the beloved leader Kim Jong-Un’s emissary at the local embassy whether he would be so kind as to issue you a passport and that you promise to honestly represent and protect the good name of the people’s republic and its heroic leader at home and abroad. Now wouldn’t you change your name?

Fred Mora

Mr. Bhandari,

I always appreciate your article for the unique perspective they provide, and once again, you deliver.

I am not surprised to learn that a gaijin visiting Japan found that what "everybody knows" (translation: what the media repeat) about Japan is wrong. It made me question what other lies I have swallowed in spite of my cautiousness. It shows that when exposed to a gushing firehose of falsehoods, you can't avoid some of the swill.

American media can pooh-pooh Japan all they want. When it comes to likelihood of survival, the Anglo-American sphere's prospects are actually worse than Japan's.

Western society's worst problem is well-known: Our civilization is undermined by its own elites, who are eager to replace it with something that will turn out to look like either Venezuela or Iran. Japan, at least, does not seem to have that problem.

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