Japan was the future but it’s stuck in the past – BBC

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An aerial shot of Tokyo Jiro Akiba/ BBC

In Japan, houses are like cars.

As soon as you move in, your new home is worth less than what you paid for it and after you’ve finished paying off your mortgage in 40 years, it is worth almost nothing.

It bewildered me when I first moved here as a correspondent for the BBC – 10 years on, as I prepared to leave, it was still the same.

This is the world’s third-largest economy. It’s a peaceful, prosperous country with the particular longest life expectancy in the world, the lowest murder rate, little political conflict, a powerful passport, and the particular sublime Shinkansen, the world’s best high-speed rail network.

America and Europe once feared the Japanese economic juggernaut much the same way they fear China’s growing economic might today. But the Japan the world expected never arrived. In the late 1980s, Japanese people were richer compared to Americans. Now they earn less than Britons.

For decades Japan has been struggling with the sluggish economy, held back by a deep resistance to change and a stubborn attachment to the past. Now, its population is both ageing and shrinking.

Japan is stuck.

The future was here

When I arrived in Japan for the initial time in 1993, it wasn’t the neon-lit streets of Ginza and Shinjuku that struck me — nor the wild “Ganguro” fashion of the “Harajuku” girls.

It was how much richer Japan felt than anywhere else I’d been in Asia; how exquisitely clean and orderly Tokyo was compared to any other Asian city. Hong Kong was an assault on the senses, noisy, smelly, a city of extremes – from gaudy mansions on Victoria Peak to the “dark satanic” sweatshops at the north end of Kowloon.

In Taipei, where I was studying Chinese, the streets thronged to the particular sound of two-stroke scooters spewing acrid smoke that enveloped the city in a blanket of smog so thick you could often see barely two blocks.

If Hong Kong and Taipei were Asia’s raucous teenagers, Japan was the grown-up. Yes, Tokyo was the concrete jungle, but it was a beautifully manicured one.

Meeting point for punk and rock musicians in Harajuku district in Tokyo, Japan in 1998.

Getty Images

In front of the Imperial Palace within Tokyo, the skyline was dominated by the glass towers of the country’s corporate titans – Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Hitachi, Sony. From New York to Sydney, ambitious parents were imploring their offspring to “learn Japanese”. I had wondered whether I’d made a mistake plumping for Chinese.

Japan had emerged from the destruction of World War Two and conquered global manufacturing. The money poured back into the country, driving a property boom where people bought anything they could get their hands on, even chunks of forest. Simply by the mid-1980s, the joke was that the grounds of the imperial palace in Tokyo were worth the same as all of California. The Japan call it the “Baburu Jidai” or the bubble era.

Then in 1991 the bubble burst. The Tokyo stock market collapsed. Property prices fell off a cliff. They are yet to recover.

A friend was recently negotiating to buy several hectares of forest. The owner wanted $20 per square metre. “I told him forest land is only worth $2 a square metre, ” my friend said. “But he insisted he needed $20 the square metre, because that’s what he’d paid for it in the 1970s. ”

Think associated with Japan’s sleek bullet trains, or Toyota’s “just-in-time” marvel of assembly-line manufacturing : and you could be forgiven for thinking Japan will be a poster child with regard to efficiency. It is not.

Rather the bureaucracy can be terrifying, while huge amounts of public money are spent on activities of dubious utility.

Last year, I discovered the story behind the particular stunning manhole covers in a little town in the Japanese Alps. In 1924, the fossilised bones of an ancient elephant species were found in the nearby lake. It became a symbol of the town – and a few years ago, someone decided to have all the manhole covers replaced with new ones that would have an image of the famous elephant cast in the top.

This has been happening all over Japan. There is now a Japan Society for Manhole Covers that claims there are 6, 000 different designs. I understand why people love the covers. They are usually works of art. Yet each one costs up in order to $900.

A manhole cover showing the elephant

It’s a clue to how Japan has ended up with the world’s largest mountain of public debt. And the ballooning bill isn’t helped by a good ageing population that cannot retire because of the pressure on healthcare plus pensions.

When I renewed my Japanese driving licence, the particular exquisitely polite staff shuttled me from eye test to photo booth in order to fee payment and then asked me to report to “lecture room 28”. These “safety” lectures are compulsory for anyone who’s had a traffic infraction inside the previous five years.

Inside I found a group associated with disconsolate-looking souls waiting for our punishment to begin. The smartly-dressed man walked in and told us our own “lecture” would begin in 10 minutes and last two hours!

You are not really required to even understand the lecture. Much of this was lost on me. As it droned within to its second hour several of my classmates fell asleep. The man next to me completed a rather fine sketch of Tokyo tower. We sat bored and resentful, the clock on the wall mocking me.

“What’s the point of it? ” I actually asked my Japanese colleague when I got back again to the office. “It’s punishment, right? ”

“No, ” she said laughing. “It’s a job creation scheme for retired traffic cops. ”

But the particular longer you live here, even the frustrating bits turn familiar, even endearing. You start to appreciate the quirks – like the particular four petrol station attendants who clean all your car windows while they fill the tank and bow in unison as you depart.

Japan still feels like Japan, and not a reproduction of America. It’s why the world is so thrilled by all things Western, from the powder snow towards the fashion. Tokyo is usually home to superlative restaurants; Studio Ghibli makes the tour’s most enchanting animation (sorry, Disney); sure, J-pop is usually awful, but Japan is definitely undoubtedly a soft-power superpower.

The geeks and oddballs love this for its wonderful weirdness. But it also has alt-right admirers for refusing immigration and maintaining the patriarchy. It is often described as a country that will has successfully become modern without abandoning the ancient. There is some truth to this, but I’d argue the modern can be more a veneer.

When Covid struck, Japan closed its borders. Even permanent foreign residents were excluded through returning. I called upward the foreign ministry to ask why foreigners who’d spent decades in The japanese, had homes and businesses here, were being treated like tourists. The response was blunt: “they are all foreigners. ”

A hundred and fifty years after it was forced to open its doors, Japan is certainly still sceptical, even fearful of the outside globe.

The outside factor

I remember sitting in the village hall on the Boso Peninsula on the particular far side of Tokyo Bay. I was there because the village was listed as endangered, one of 900 in Land der aufgehenden sonne (umgangssprachlich). The old men gathered in the hall had been concerned. Since the 1970s they had watched young people leave for jobs in cities. Of the 60 left, there was only one teenager and no children.

“Who will look after our graves when we are gone? ” one elderly gentleman lamented. Taking care of the spirits is serious business in Japan.

Yet to me, a native of south-east England, the death of this village seemed absurd. It has been surrounded by picture postcard rice paddies and hills covered in dense forest. Tokyo was less than two hours’ drive away.

Japanese farmer

Jiro Akiba/BBC

“This is such a beautiful place, ” I said to them. “I’m sure lots of people would love to live here. How would you feel if I brought my family to live right here? ”

The air within the room went still. The men looked at each other in silent embarrassment. Then one cleared his throat and spoke, with a worried look on his face: “Well, you would need to learn our way of life. It wouldn’t be easy. ”

The village was on the path to extinction, yet the thought of it being invaded by “outsiders” was somehow worse.

A third of Japanese people are over 60, making Japan home to the oldest population in the world, after tiny Monaco. It will be recording fewer births compared to ever before. By 2050, it could lose a fifth of its current population.

Yet its hostility to immigration has not wavered. Only about 3% of Japan’s population is foreign-born, compared to 15% within the UK. In Europe and America, right-wing movements point to it as the shining example of racial purity and social harmony.

But Japan is usually not as ethnically pure as those admirers might think. There are the particular Ainu of Hokkaido, Okinawans in the south, half a million ethnic Koreans, plus close to a million Chinese. Then you will find Japanese children with one foreign parent, which include my own three.

These bi-cultural kids are known as “hafu” or halves – a pejorative term that’s normal here. They include celebrities and sports icons, such as tennis star Naomi Osaka. Popular culture idolises them as “more beautiful and talented”. But it’s one thing to be idolised and quite another to be accepted.

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If you want to see what happens to a country that rejects immigration as a solution to falling fertility, Japan is a good place to start.

Real wages haven’t grown here in 30 years. Incomes in South Korea plus Taiwan have caught up and even overtaken Asia.

But change feels distant. In part it’s because of the rigid hierarchy that determines who holds the levers of power.

The old are still inside power

“Look there’s something a person need to understand about how Japan works, inch an eminent academic told me. “In 1868 the Samurai surrendered their swords, cut their hair, put on Western suits and marched into the ministries in Kasumigaseki (the government district of central Tokyo) and they’re still there today. ”

In 1868, fearing a repeat of China’s fate at the hands associated with Western imperialists, reformers overthrew the military dictatorship of the Tokugawa Shogunate plus set Japan on a course of high-speed industrialisation.

But the Meiji restoration, as it’s recognized, was no storming associated with the Bastille. It has been an elite putsch. Even after a second convulsion of 1945, the “great” families survived. This overwhelmingly male ruling class is defined by nationalism and the conviction that Japan is definitely special. They do not believe Japan was the aggressor within the war, but the victim.

Slain former prime minister Shinzo Abe, for instance, was the son of a foreign minister, and grandson associated with another prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi. Grandpa Kishi has been a member of the particular wartime junta and had been arrested by the Americans as a suspected war criminal. But he escaped the hangman and in the mid-1950s helped found the particular Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan ever since.

Some people joke Japan is an one -party state. It isn’t. But it’s reasonable to ask the reason why Japan continues to re-elect a party run by an entitled elite, which yearns to scrap American-imposed pacifism, but has failed to improve living standards for 30 years.

During a recent election I drove up a narrow river valley cut into the mountains two hours west of Tokyo – LDP nation. The local economy depends on cement making and hydropower. In a tiny town I met an elderly couple walking in order to the polling station.

“We’ll become voting LDP, ” the husband said. “We trust them, they will take treatment of us. ”

“I agree with my husband, ” his wife said.

The couple pointed across the valley to a recently-completed tunnel and bridge they hope will bring more weekend tourists from Tokyo. But it’s often stated the LDP’s support base is made of concrete. This form of pork-barrel politics is one reason so much of Japan’s coastline is blighted by tetra pods, its rivers walled with grey concrete. It’s essential to keep the tangible pumping.

Elderly Japanese men play a board game during Covid

Jiro Akiba/ BBC

These rural strongholds are crucial now because of demographics. They should have reduced as millions of young people moved to cities for work. But that never happened. The LDP likes this that way because it means older, rural votes count more.

As this older generation passes, change is inevitable. But I am not really certain it means Japan can be going to become more liberal or open.

Younger Japanese are less likely to be married or have kids. But they are also less likely to speak a foreign language or to have studied overseas than their parents or grandparents. Just 13% of Japanese managers are usually women, and fewer than one in 10 MPs.

When We interviewed Tokyo’s first female governor Yuriko Koike, I actually asked her how her administration planned to help address the gender gap.

“I have two daughters who will soon graduate from university, inches I told her. “They are bi-lingual Japanese citizens. What could you say in order to them to encourage them to stay and make their careers here? ”

“I would tell them if I can succeed here, therefore can they, ” she said. “Is that all you have? ” I thought.

And yet, despite all this I am going to miss Japan, which inspires in me both enormous affection and the not-so-occasional bout of exasperation.

On one associated with my last days in Tokyo, I went along with a group of friends to a year-end street market. At one stall I rifled through boxes of beautiful old woodworking tools. A short distance away a group of young women dressed in gorgeous silk Kimonos stood chatting. At midday we squeezed into a tiny restaurant for the “set lunch” of grilled mackerel, sashimi and miso soup. The food, the particular cosy surroundings, the kindly old couple fussing more than us – it experienced all become so familiar, so comfortable.

After a decade here I have got used to the way Japan is and come to accept the fact that it is certainly not about to change.

Yes, I worry about the future. And Japan’s future will have lessons for the rest of us. In the age of artificial intelligence, fewer workers could drive innovation; Japan’s aged farmers may be replaced by intelligent robots. Large parts of the country could return to the wild.

Will Japan gradually fade into irrelevance, or re-invent itself? My head tells me personally that to prosper anew Japan must embrace modify. But my heart aches at the thought of it losing the things that will make it so special.

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