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    Japan in its dotage

    Zak, who comments here frequently and has a good (if on-again-off-again) blog here, sent along a link to this article. It’s a response, in part, to a Mark Steyn column from a little while back. It also seems to think it’s offering a reassuring alternative to the standard line about how Japan should provide for its future, which is characterized thus:

    In response to the increasing average national age, money-minded people push for privatization, pension reform, greater per-worker efficiency, less protection, greater ambition. (Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is of this school. Whether he’ll call for immigration reform is another matter; some say Japan’s amazing new caring, sharing domestic robots have a less-publicized function: to forestall the need to bring Filipina maids and nurses into Japan.) In this view, changing demographics mean that life must get harder, more ruthless, more efficient.

    Harder and more ruthless? Well, okay, I guess you could put it that way. I don’t see what the crime is in increasing worker productivity, especially given Japan’s current level of same and the potential for technology to help. And privatizing social welfare programs does mean that people are more responsible for taking care of themselves. Some might find that more liberating rather than harder.

    Not everyone agrees. The soft approach is summed up by Japan’s burgeoning Slow Life trend. Ironically for a movement that seeks to shift the social focus from money to quality of life, Slow Life has its roots in marketing. In 2001 prefectural governments, chasing the “green yen” of eco-tourism, began advertising campaigns using the slogan “Ganabaranai! — Don’t go for it!” Attempting to lure stressed city dwellers to their rural regions (no doubt on high-speed trains sporting the Koizumite slogan “Ambitious Japan!”), the prefectures devised an eight-point Slow Life Manifesto that stressed nonacademic, noncompetitive lifestyles — walking, wearing traditional clothes and eating food made from local ingredients; durable and sustainable building construction; forestry; respect for the old; self-reliance and living in accord with the rhythms of nature.





    I’m not just saying that as a confirmed urbanite. Who knows? Maybe in forty years my idea of happiness will be living out in the sticks in a thatched hut with a firepit for a stove, communing with the crickets and affectionately straightening Atsushi’s obi before sending him off once a week to walk to the co-op for rice. Stranger things have happened.

    Additionally, the Slow Life movement, as described in the article, does make a few good points. Urban Japan is not just kinetic; it’s downright stressful. And Japan, for all its vaunted love of nature, hasn’t been kind to its own countryside in the process of industrializing and becoming rich. And the post-war economy stuffed as many workers as possible into an Organization Man mold that doesn’t fit many of them; understandably, many young people are deciding to trade down on money so they can get more leisure time (or do work they find stimulating). Japan is a mature, affluent economy, and it’s perfectly natural for people to start thinking about quality of life rather than subsistence and the reconstruction of basic infrastructure.

    But the idyll depicted in the article leaves a lot of key points out; and I fail to see how its origin in marketing is in any wise “ironic,” given the way it seems to wed a flashy surface come-on to a lack of substance. For one thing, third-rate countries may have delicious food and breezy, non-competitive lifestyles, but they also often have sucky, innovation-free health care (no small consideration in an aged society). Also, you know that rather large country over there? Yes, CHINA–that’s the one. No one expects it to attack Japan next week, but enmities in this part of the globe are ancient and deep-running, there are developing economies around that are competing for resources…and I’m not at all sure Japan will find itself able to do without a strong, first-rate defense system if it just announces to the rest of East Asia that everyone in the archipelago is going to devote himself to growing leeks and raking sand from here on.

    There are more basic problems, though. Momus (and, to the extent that he’s roped in, Ryuichi Sakamoto) seems to assume that we’re in a position to get complacent and say that Japan has Achieved Enough and we should just be happy with it and even pull back a bit. The article considers no factors that could be driving Japan’s current economy but competitiveness and money-madness–no natural human curiosity…no need for a variety of possible ways of life to be available for individuals to choose from…and no sense of the way people with funky, undemanding occupations still enjoy and depend on things produced by workaholics, or at least by people who are willing to take more structured jobs. Respect for age is a great thing, but many of the protections civilization provides against nature and human depredation come from rambunctious, thrill-seeking, resilient youth.

    Therefore, while whether Japan is doomed if its population decreases as predicted is obviously an open question, fantasies like those mentioned in the Wired article don’t seem likely to pan out:

    Some saw the Slow Life movement as a passing fad, but five years on magazine racks tell a different story. On a recent visit to an Osaka bookstore, I saw a plethora of new magazines using phrases like “slow living,” “self-sufficiency” and “natural life” in their titles, all stressing “lifestyles of health and sustainability.” As I flipped through them, recurrent themes appeared in the photographs: huts in the forest, wooden furniture (with discreet Apple computers), sleep, wabi sabi patina, simplicity, bare light bulbs, baking bread, little-house-on-the-prairie Puritan style [What on Earth is that supposed to be?–SRK], rustic Okinawa, bathing, artisanship, older Asian lifestyles, slow food, organic vegetables and a pervading urban longing for the rural.

    Ah, yes, “self-sufficiency.” It’s worked so well for the DPRK, after all. (Speak of population decreases!) And those Apple computers you can pay for with a truckload of home-grown eggplants and run on…uh, where is the electricity supposed to come from, exactly? We’ll need it for the lightbulbs, too, bare or not; but something tells me these Slow Life people aren’t big on engineering new power plants. And the robots, come to think of it.

    I think it’s wonderful that Japan is rich and that people are making trade-offs that allow them to enjoy life more. It seems to me to be going a bit far to act as if the decline in population were some kind of spiritual opportunity in disguise, though.

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