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.