Category Archives: Demographics

In praise of…Optimists

The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. … If you interviewed someone who recently opened an Italian restaurant, you would not expect her to have underestimated her prospects for success or to have a poor view of her ability as a restaurateur. But you must wonder: would she still have invested money and time if she had made a reasonable effort to learn the odds—or, if she did learn the odds (60% of new restaurants are out of business after three years), paid attention to them?

The Engine of Capitalism, in Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

A shaggy dog story

Dusk rolled down the shutters of the day as we were botanizing inland of the Okhotsk Sea on an old dirt-track logging road, Route 1055, in the borderlands between Monbetsu and Okoppe. Our supposed destination that evening, the windy city of Wakkanai at the northernmost tip of mainland Japan, lay still over 200km and at least three hours’ away. As usual, we were running late.

“How about going back to Monbetsu and getting up early to knock off the drive?” optimistically volunteered Dr. T, who in his natural habitat is rarely known to rise before ten.
“Why don’t we try and get halfway up the coast?” I groped on the map for a settlement of any size. “Say to Esashi?”
“Will there be anywhere to stay?”
“There’ll be somewhere,” I replied without conviction.

The Osaki Ryokan had been built not long after the war, volunteered a scion of the extended family who run it, and it showed, in the time-burnished floorboards and the plywood doors to our rooms.

“Are those where they keep the dead relatives?” quipped Dr. T, pointing to the row of chest freezers. To judge from the glimpse I had later of the family drawing room, with its row of severe oil portraits of deceased forebears above the fireplace, hung at an angle so they frowned down on the living, it was a plausible enough hypothesis. Dr T. declared that he needed an hour to process the fruits of the day’s pillaging and made it my mission to scout out somewhere to eat—and, more importantly, drink.

It was Saturday night but the streets of Esashi, famous—if famous for anything—famous for its kegani horsehair crabs, were deathly quiet, as quiet as the graves in which many of its residents already have one foot. You don’t by now, I’m sure, need me to rehearse the demography, but I will anyway: 1970 population 15,800; 2010 population 9,100 (down 42% in 40 years); projected 2035 population 5,900 (down another 36% in 25 years).

“It’s crunch time now for Japanese politics,” bellowed the enigmatic because unsponsored sign above a shop that, the two wall-mounted pillboxes hinted, had just made it into the age of the credit card. Was this a heartfelt cry from a lone individual, sick of petty politicking far to the south? What, if any, thoughts or actions was it intended to provoke? And how soon, exactly, was now?

Plaster and signboards were falling away to reveal the ancient woodwork below: this had once been a ceramic-ware store, but half of the Aegean sailboat sign had vanished. The sake-swilling pot-bellied tanuki badger reminded me of Dr. T—and myself.

There was something starkly heads-and-tails beguiling about the Suntory Bar Toi et Moi.

Back to the quest: spatters of chuckles and cackles filtered out through the cracks in a few red-lantern joints, but these joints I rejected, knowing of Dr T’s intense predilection for the alcohol of the grape over the grain. Almost next door to the ryokan, though, was a restaurant whose name, 4Quattro, betrayed Italian pretensions and the presence of wine. Inside was a revelation: the interior had plainly been very recently and very expensively kitted out in a chorus of chic beiges and blonde woods, with Marcel Breuer cantilevered-steel and cane-backed Cesca chairs from the heyday of Modernism (yes, I confess to a chair fetish), expansive tables with immaculate white tablecloths and dun under-tablecloths, and sensitive spot and recessed ceiling lighting. The assemblage would not for a moment have looked out of place in one of the world’s major metropolises—indeed, it would put many restaurants in many of them to shame.

4Quattro was run by a young local couple, perhaps on the cusp of their thirties, with gender roles entrenched: he manned the counter and cooked, she, baby strapped to breasts, flitted around the dining area, toting the near-unreadable moveable feast of the day’s handwritten blackboard specials. In the depraved lands from which Dr. T and I hail, she would be filed as a “yummy mummy” or more crudely as a MILF. The Esashi Tourism Board (yes, such a body exists), does 4Quattro no favors and underscores the highly gendered nature of the Japanese dining experience by making reference to a “chic interior perfect for women”. For a while, we had the restaurant to ourselves, but maybe a dozen diners had come and mostly gone, all but a couple of them female, by the time we drunk-tumbled out.

We were more interested in matters oenological than gastronomical, and the wine list—red or white, glass or bottle—was a let-down, but Dr. T, more of a globe-trotting gourmand than I, declared the grilled sea bream to be as fine as anything routinely rustled up in the better kitchens of London or New York. How long, I asked mummy, had they been open? About eighteen months. I didn’t have the heart to ask her to estimate her chances of surviving the next eighteen.

Subsequent investigation, courtesy of the Food Business Research Institute and other luminaries, suggest that the Japan bar and restaurant bankruptcy rate is only half that of the US, with a fifth of those founded in the three years previous to 1999 (but a quarter of rameneries and the like) having gone out of business. This might, paradoxically, be due to the greater caution of the Japanese entrepreneur. Still, the industry is contracting, with the number of bars and restaurants peaking at a scarcely credible 846,000 in 1991 (one for every 150 or so people) and falling to a still staggering 673,000 in 2009 (down 21%) and the market value peaking in 1997 at Y29.0trn and falling to Y23.6trn in 2010 (down 19%), a decline in both nominal and real terms, and 4Quattro is a very unlikely restaurant (in 2006, only about a tenth of all restaurants were classified as Western) with very high overheads in a very unlikely place, from whose already threadbare catchment area we can exclude the old, the young, the poor, the fisherfolk, and most men. I wouldn’t want to wager on 4Quattro’s chances of long-term survival but I am selfishly grateful for the optimistic bias of its instigators, even though that bias may ultimately come at great personal cost.

Furiously botanizing, toward Hamatonbetsu up the Okhotsk coast we trundled, as backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

**********

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they really are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Wake Wakkanai, or Cinema Paradiso, Hokkaido style

Although Wakkanai (from the Ainu yamu wakka nai, the swamp with the cold drinking water) features in all the best guidebooks, few Westerners ever make it there for the night. How few? In the year to end-March 2012, 30 Britons, 18 Germans, 123 Americans, 25 Canadians, and 46 Australians (ever the adventurers), that’s how few, according to the city’s preposterously comprehensive website.

“Everything’s brand new!” exclaimed Dr. T, gesturing with an arc of the arm at the 12-storey ANA Hotel (1994) and the sparkling station complex, which had been razed and rebuilt since my last visit three years before. “I’m beginning to suspect that Spike has been spouting guff all this time about the decay of rural Japan.”

Dr. T claims to be a depressive realist, usually prefacing references to optimists with an Anglo-Saxon expletive, but I was beginning to suspect that he had an unacknowledged streak of optimism buried deep within. Or that he was falling under the spell of the Potemkin Village bias that is one of Kahneman’s profoundest insights: What You See Is All There Is, or WYSIATI to its friends. Or that he simply delights in winding me up.

As Dr. T sieved fruit and catalogued the day’s plunder, I moseyed around the glossy new station.

Tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Give up? Allow me. Where do I start? First off, there’s noone on the bus. Not too surprising, you might think—it was a seven on a Sunday evening after all, and this could be taken as a sign of prosperity. Fair enough, let’s move on. Second, there’s only one taxi in the ranks; that there is one at all is a triumph of hope over experience, as the next—and last—train is not due in until 22:47, nigh on four hours’ maudlin wait away. Third, there is absolutely noone about, in vehicle or on foot. Fourth, and most intriguing, is that little neon-orange sign that blares out the single, magical word “CINEMA”. No, I tried to wrestle-reason with myself, no, no, noooo, surely nobody, however beholden to the opiate of optimism, could have… But they had.

I bought a platform ticket and eyed the timetable. Eight arrivals a day, eight departures a day, the last of which, the 19:24 to Horonobe, 60km to the south and with a 2010 population of 2,700, was idling away its last moments of leisure before chugging off. There were no passengers.

Later I was to discover that in fiscal 2009 Wakkanai station served just 266 train embarkers and disembarkers a day, that this number was down by a quarter in five years, that the platform count was reduced to one from two in the 2010 remodeling, and that the station, home to massive marshalling yards as late as the seventies, cannot now muster even a single set of points. To channel my imaginary potty-mouthed Jewish grandma superhero: and on this facelift you spent exactly how much?

About $50mn. Sorry grandma, I just couldn’t help it. B-b-b-but, I didn’t spend much of my money, please understand, most of the construction was financed by bonds and subsidies, so the bill will fall on future generations. “Putz!” Thwack! “Owww!”

Before I talk you (and myself) through the minutiae of the economics of movie theaters in Japan, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the (other) streets of Wakkanai, the ones that Catherine the Great—and Dr. T—didn’t see. Let’s start with a couple of aerial views, looking north from downtown.

The gaps that make the chessboard, now gone to grass or gravel, many being hawked as pay-by-the-month parking spaces, are empty lots filled with the specters of torn-down buildings—central Wakkanai was sardine-packed tight in the sixties—and give the district the air of a scaled-down rustbelt inner city in the US, although without the gun-toting, crack-peddling hoodlums. Level the many disused or underused buildings and the chessboard would open up further.

This grotty gem of a multi-tenanted zakkyo building, where we dined at the appropriately named Karaku (“Flower Pleasure”) on sashimi, is more representative of the architectural jewels of downtown Wakkanai than the new station complex.

Two very drunk men from the suburbs of Tokyo, celebrating their liberation from salaryman serfdom at sixty with a whistle-stop road-trip circuit of Hokkaido, discussed past and future routes with a passion I would not have been able to predict it was possible to possess. On noticing us, the more voluble of the pair established our native place and raised a wobbly glass.

“Aaah, Igirisu, totemo ii kuni da! Ōshitsu ga aru kara! Japan, ōshitsu! England, ōshitsu! Very good!”
“What’s he saying?”
“He’s saying that England and Japan must be united in friendship because of their royal family and imperial household.”
“Why on earth does he think that?”
I was tempted to offer a republican toast, “Up the ōshitsu!”, but restrained myself.

Suddenly, the man’s face grew serious. He uttered a guttural growl and fell off his barstool.

To the right of Karaku is a bar emblazoned with declarations of fan fervor for four of Hokkaido’s pro and semi-pro sport teams: the Nippon Ham Fighters (baseball), Consadole Sapporo (soccer), Levanga Hokkaido (basketball), and Espolada Hokkaido (futsal). Sport fans are prey to the most optimistic of biases—the blind conviction, in the face of often onrushing lava streams of evidence to the contrary, that this season the pennant will come to its rightful home—but aside from the Ham (or the Meat Packers, as their sponsors unromantically call themselves in English), who are a regular presence in the Japan Series, the performances of this quartet must test the sunniest of dispositions. Consadole Sapporo oscillate between the first and second divisions, have never won anything other than promotion, and are about to be demoted to the second, demotion determined more swiftly than it has been for any J-League team, on a current record of played 29, won four, drawn two, lost 23, and a -49 goal difference. Levanga Hokkaido have only once tasted more victories than defeats in the five seasons since they were formed, have finished last twice and second-to-last twice in the eight-team Japan Basketball League, and started the 2012-2013 season with five straight losses. That the team features a guard who is 42 years old does not inspire confidence for their prospects. Espolada Hokkaido finished last season in ninth place in the ten-team Futsal League. Testosterone levels in the bar must be semi-permanently depressed.  

Out-of-the-way spots like Wakkanai are the last bastions of that endangered species, the unchained coffee shop. The intense slab-serif font is for me a madeleine ticket back to childhood.

Fancifully, I like to kid myself that the blue-bonneted woman waiting for the bus in Wakkanai, 2012, is the child in this photo, waiting for the bus in Wakkanai half a century before, and that the bus, like Godot, never came—and never will.

It’s the contrast between public-sector affluence and private-sector squalor, precisely the opposite of what prevails in the West, that’s so mesmerizing. To drape this trio with a negligee of statistics, the number of shops in Wakkanai fell by a quarter between 1999 and 2007, the number of people they employed fell by close to a fifth, and their aggregate annual sales fell by a sixth.

Historically, the Wakkanai economy rested on three planks: the fisheries, farming, and tourism. The fisheries were the first to be hit, with the Soviet Union’s 1977 imposition of a 200 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone; the catch fell by four-fifths between 1976 and 2008 and its value by two-thirds. The implosion of the fisheries coincided with the population peak in 1975, at 55,500. By 2010, the population had fallen by close to 30%, to 39,600, due mainly to an exodus of young people in search of work. If you are going to run a successful cinema, young people are what you need, and Wakkanai does not have many of those, or at least not nearly as many as it once did: the population of 15-29 year olds more than halved in the three decades between 1975 and 2005 and fell by more than a quarter in the decade between 1995 and 2005 alone. As measured by production value, farming—mostly dairy cattle—peaked in 1985 and has been gently ebbing ever since, with the number of farm households falling by a third between 1990 and 2005. Fickle tourism stepped in to fill the breach.

That this ghastly 1952 trawler owner’s residence has been turned into a museum should be enough to convince that Wakkanai itself is bereft of tourist charm: its appeal lies chiefly as a portal to the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, and in particular the volcanic-dramatic  island of Rishiri, seen here at dusk.

Wakkanai then fell prostrate victim to one of the cruelest and oddest of boomlets, the remote island boom (離島ブーム) of 1998-2002. The total tourist count, including day-trippers, peaked in 2002 at 818,000 and fell 43% to 456,600 in 2011, while the total number of nights spent in Wakkanai accommodation peaked in the same year at 473,700 and fell 25% to 356,500 in 2011, as tourists were lured away by whatever the TV wide-shows told them was hot that season. In 2002, Wakkanai was declared a kaso chiiki, a district of underpopulation, and by 2007, according to an admittedly unsourced comment at the Wakkanai Wikipage, 29.9% of Wakkanaikers were telling municipal pollsters they either wanted to move out of the city or were actually planning to do so.

“And into this you built not just a cinema, but a miniplex with three screens and 250 seats?”

On the day after I returned to Tokyo, an optimistic article in the Nikkei—and the Nikkei, which sees its primary responsibility as being to rustle those pom-poms as a cheerleader for corporate Japan, always likes to look on the bright side of life—enthused about how entrepreneurs are endeavoring to infuse fresh life into smaller cinemas, defined here as ones having fewer than five screens (a category into which T-Joy Wakkanai most definitely falls) by making them more distinctive, but even the optimism of the Nikkei could not disguise the bleakness of the outlook for smaller cinemas, whose nationwide screen-count, it reported, had fallen by 60% in the last decade, from around 1,250 to 500. Another Nikkei article I unearthed revealed that annual ticket sales had been pancake flat at 160mn-170mn last decade, before cratering to 145mn in the crisis year of 2011. As go ticket sales, so go box office revenues, which held steady at around Y200bn for a decade before slumping to Y180bn last year.

“And into this you built a miniplex and have the temerity to charge Y1,800 ($22.50) a ticket, when incomes in Wakkanai are half those of Tokyo, where tickets cost the same?”

My rule-of-thumb—whence it came I know not—has always been that no cinema, either miniplex or multiplex, is viable in a Japanese city with fewer than 100,000 potential cineastes. Was I right, though? Anoraks on and away we go! There are only three places on Hokkaido with fewer than 90,000 people that have cinemas: Wakkanai, Nayoro (31,000), home to a magnificent 1973 single-screen flea-pit, the Nayoro Daiichi Denkikan (the Nayoro Number One Electric Pavilion, 名寄第一電気館), named in tribute to the first cinema in Japan, and Urakawa (14,000), home to the 93-year old, 48-seat Daikokuza (Big Black Theater, 大黒座), both of which are firmly on my next Hokkaido itinerary. In contrast, everywhere with more than 90,000 people has at least one multi-screen movie house.

Anorak aglow with excitement, I expanded my unscientific analysis to 10 randomishly chosen ruralish prefectures and found just four cinemas in places smaller than Wakkanai: two were in the suburb-shadows of biggish cities, one was a 96-seater relic in the Tochigi town of Motegi (14,000), and one a true mystery. (If anyone can explain why there is an eight-screen, 1,494-seat multiplex in the Ishikawa city of Kahoku [34,000], do please get in touch). Between them, these 10 prefectures have 46 cities with populations between 40,000 and 90,000, but just six have commercial cinemas. However, there are only five cities with more than 120,000 folk that are cinema-less, the largest being Ashikaga (152,000) in Tochigi. My rule-of-thumb, it turns out, was more or less on the money.

There are two ways of forensically examining the viability of a cinema: from the inside and from the outside. Not having access to the books of T-Joy Wakkanai, which is owned by a subsidiary of one of the old Golden Age Big Six movie studios, Toei, we’ll have to go for the outside approach. Time to brush up that kindergarten maths… T-Joy manages to squeeze 20 showings out of its three Wakkanai screens (wring that asset dry!)

Theater 1: 66 seats, seven showings = 462 people/day
Theater 2: 86 seats, six showings = 516 people/day
Theater 3: 98 seats, seven showings = 686 people/day
Total: 1,664 people/day

At the 2010 census population of 39,600, it would take just 24 days for whole of Wakkanai to go to the cinema once. Assume 1.33 cinema visits a year, the national average of late, and it would take 32 days for the whole of Wakkanai to complete the ritual of its annual movie excursions. What happens in the other 11 months of the year?

Alternatively, look at it like this: 1,664 seats/day x 365 days a year = 607,360 people/year capacity; with 52,669 visits @ 1.33/year = seat occupancy rate of 8.7%.

So now you know: if you turn up one icy February day in Wakkanai, when the wind chill makes it feel like twenty below, and fancy catching a matinee, you probably won’t need to book ahead. Whoever said that Spike serves no practical purpose?

Eight point seven percent. That is a vanishingly low occupancy rate for a bums-on-seats operation: hoteliers, railway operators, and airlines only stop sweating and start smiling when their occupancy rates hit 60%-70%. As it turned out though, I had more to learn about the business model of the movie world, and learn it I did, from Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, by Harold L. Vogel, writing here of the US:

It can be determined that in 2009, the maximum theoretical annual gross, based on 39,717 screens, was about $286 million per day or about $104 billion per year. The industry obviously operated well below its theoretical capacity, because there are many parts of the week and many weeks of the year during which people do not have the time or inclination to fill empty theater seats: in 2009, the industry’s average occupancy rate per seat per week was roughly 2.3 times, and box office receipts of around $10.6 billion in 2009 were thus only around 10.2% of theoretical capacity.

So T-Joy Wakkanai might after all be only a percentage point or two from normality—and, presumably, profitability! Don’t get too optimistic. This begs the question of why small-city Japan isn’t stuffed to the gills with miniplexes, to which my best, uninformed, answer is that the economies of scale only kick in at above, say, a 500-seat, five-screen level: much of what little money there is to be made from showing movies comes from the food and beverage (F&B) concession, with its 80% (my guess) cola and popcorn margins, which can be run by one uneconomically for 100 punters or economically for 500. (Should you be interested, by the way, T-Joy Wakkanai is hiring for its F&B concession, although at the low end of the Y680-Y850 hourly wage range, it will take you more than two-and-a-half hours to coin the dough to watch a flick). And what of the future? The projected 2035 population of 26,700, which may need to be cut given recent rates of outflow, and only one cinema visit a year yields a seat occupancy rate of 4.4%, at which point, presumably, T-Joy would pull the plug—although subsidies (and parent earnings) can soothe the sting of failure for so long…

Back in the sixties, Wakkanai had four cinemas—here you can see the Wakkanai Nippon Gekijo in all its tatty glory, showing a 1961 Michael “play it, Sam” Curtiz/John Wayne oater, The Comancheros (no wonder so many with a shred of sense gave up on the movies)—but the last one closed its doors in 1988, done in by the usual suspects.

All that was left, then, was to track down the optimists behind the cinema revival. They had, I figured, to be local, and they had to be dreamers.

Yukihiro Fujita, chair of the company, Saihoku Cinema (a consortium of eight local construction companies), that administers the nuts and bolts of the miniplex, and Ippei Takahashi, the president, first meet in 1992 when Takahashi, who was running a video rental store, calls on Fujita, the boss of a construction company, Fuji Kensetsu, to expand his store. Takahashi had long been hurt by criticism that he and his ilk had killed the cinema, while Fujita was shocked when his young son misidentified the local culture center as a movie theater. In 2001, the pair take undubbed anime movies without subtitles to Sakhalin, where they receive a rapturous reception from the local children, and they awaken to the presence of cinemas everywhere on the island. What exactly happens next is glossed over in the sole interview with them I was able to dig up, but with Fujita the chair of the Wakkanai Construction Association and thus a pillar of the community, it’s not hard to imagine. Fujita claims that breakeven comes at 60,000 bums-on-seats a year (so I was, gratifyingly, not at all far off in my guesstimate), which would require 1.5 cinema visits/year from the good burghers of Wakkanai, but he defines the catchment area as anywhere within a 90km radius of Wakkanai, in which 78,000 live, and aims for annual attendance of 100,000. Much as I sympathize with the aspirations of the optimist, I struggle to conceive of anyone in, say, Esashi making a 180km round-trip on roads treacherous with ice half the year for the disposable visual and auditory pleasures of—what’s on this week?—The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games, or Bayside Shakedown: The Final.

Yet on they dream, the optimists, and on they build.

**********

The evidence suggests that an optimistic bias plays a role—sometimes the dominant role—whenever individuals or institutions voluntarily take on significant risks. More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Bitter oranges

“There’s a place just over the road that’s calling itself a bistro and looks like it’ll have a decent enough supply of Chateau Chunder.”
Dr T’s Aomori City hotel room floor was strewn with scores of seed-filled Manila envelopes, while the bathroom floor had sprouted a muddy volcano of soil, leaf-litter, and amorphous forest detritus. Had the room been fitted with ceiling-embedded surveillance cameras, he would have faced instant arrest as a one-man mobile drug laboratory.
“With you in ten!”

Bistro Daidai, we learned at the end of yet another wine-trodden evening, was named after the bitter orange (aka 橙, “the climbing tree”, Citrus aurantium var. daidai, Seville orange, sour orange, bigarade orange, and marmalade orange). Why, I never got so far as to ask. It had three tables seating four and half-a-dozen seats at the counter. We were the first customers that Friday night. There were three twentysomethings behind the counter, a woman and two men, one of whom cackhandedly spilt wine all over the table—and me. The table was mopped clean and toweled dry but I was left with bruise-blotched trousers. How long had they been open? About four months, came the reply.

Dr. T grew glum. “You know, we don’t do these micro-restaurants in the UK.” Dr. T likes to claim that sauce-soaked years of depression have dulled his sense of empathy, but as a former junk-bond analyst well versed in the ways and woes of troubled enterprises, a man who once described himself in an essay titled On Optimism as “Mozart to the Salieri of really bad decisions”, a twice married (“the triumph of hope over experience”) part-owner of a London trattoria, and a (necessarily optimistic) nursery entrepreneur who flirts with failure the way a lothario flirts with the ladies, I could tell that, as we wolfed down pâté de campagne that would not have disgraced a prix fixe menu in the Dordogne, he was sizing up the bistro’s chances of survival—and was pained at the message the mental spreadsheet sent.

Conversation turned to the contrasting approaches to bankruptcy in the US, the UK, and Japan, with Dr T sagely concluding that the UK offers the worst of all worlds: in the US the banks are quick to call in loans but there is little stigma attached to bankruptcy, in Japan there is stigma but the banks are infinitely forbearing, while in the UK the banks are brutes and the stigma remains acute.

Later, alone, I cradled a glass of red up to one of the city’s busiest intersections and loitered awhile, tallying up the percentage of taxis with passengers this Friday night—about one in ten. It was hard, I felt keenly, to be optimistic about the fate of Bistro Daidai. 

To the outsider, Japan, with its stratospheric suicide rate and sober demeanor, is not obviously a hotbed of optimism, and indeed the Japanese delight in telling pollsters that they will cede to noone in their pessimism about their nation’s prospects, but I would invite you to take the three case studies above, and the optimism embedded in the sundry acts of creation, as evidence, albeit fragmentary and partial, to the contrary. This should come as no great surprise, though, as psychologists and neuroscientists have made great strides in recent decades in the study of the enigma of optimism, and the evidence is mounting that we have been hard-wired by evolution to be genetically (more or less) optimistic. Here’s Tali Sharot, neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, on our ingrained propensity for optimism:

How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost one in two tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.

Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases—and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes—all strongly support this hypothesis.

Perhaps you’re an optimist—or at least some of your best friends are optimists (likely). Perhaps you think that tomorrow really will be better than today, and the day after tomorrow will be better still (unlikely), or that, like Charlie Brown, this time Lucy really won’t take away the football at the last moment (very unlikely), or that the Japanese stock market really will one day recapture its Bubble luster (still more unlikely). [Finance industry wisecrack: “What’s the definition of an optimist?” “A Japanese equity portfolio manager who irons five shirts on a Sunday night.”] Perhaps even I, guilty as I am of entrepreneurial acts, perhaps even I am an optimist. If you are an optimist, then I wouldn’t want you on my team if I were planning something novel and resource-intensive—bring me the morose and misanthropic. But praise be heaped on the shoulders of those who sacrifice their wealth, if not their health, to bring us, however fleetingly, eateries where none, in a world of depressive realists, would be, and on the shoulders of those who conspired to restore the simple magic of projector, screen, and dark expectant hush to a struggling city at the end of the world.

Spike: The weekend wrap

[Welcome to a new, occasional Spike feature, inspired by links kindly sent by readers that weren’t getting a sufficient airing, as well as by the miscellany of articles, graphs, book excerpts, and academic papers that I run across that don’t fit neatly into the mosaic of a regular Spike piece. I’ll try and keep the writing breezy and newsy, so as to be able to complete it over a glass of wine—or just conceivably two—on a weekend evening.]

Everyone, including me, seems to be an amateur demographer these days. It behooves us amateurs to occasionally listen to the professionals, and one such is Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the formidably right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI). There are two sides to Dr. Eberstadt: the first is the uncontentious descriptive demographer with a powerful turn of phrase. He casts an unsparing eye over Japanese demography in his most recent piece, Japan Shrinks, in the spring 2012 edition of The Wilson Quarterly (link here, reading time approximately 15 minutes). Much of what he says is familiar enough territory to regular readers of Spike, but it’s always refreshing to have the demographic picture painted so forcefully and accurately. It’s also good to be reminded that Japan, of course, is not alone in being at the apex of a momentous demographic transition and that Germany, indeed, arrived there earlier: interestingly, the German expression for the phenomenon, schrumpfende Gesellschaft, or shrinking society, has a close parallel in Japanese, chijimu Nihon, or shrinking Japan, the title of a recent series of NHK programs on the implications of population aging and decline, although the phase is not yet in very common currency, perhaps because of widespread denial and perhaps because, unless you live on the furthest flung fringes, the shrinkage is not yet obvious. Dr. Eberstadt also throws out the odd intriguing comment that calls for further research, such as the observation that there is a “near perfect correlation between the demise of arranged marriage in Japan and the decline in postwar Japanese fertility”.

Japan’s demographic issues pale in comparison with those of Russia, and for a better understanding of those, I highly recommend Dr. Eberstadt’s 2011 article in Foreign Affairs, The Dying Bear: Russia’s Demographic Disaster (link here, approximately 30 minutes). Here’s a taster:

By various measures, Russia’s demographic indicators resemble those in many of the world’s poorest and least developed societies. In 2009, overall life expectancy at age 15 was estimated to be lower in Russia than in Bangladesh, East Timor, Eritrea, Madagascar, Niger, and Yemen; even worse, Russia’s adult male life expectancy was estimated to be lower than Sudan’s, Rwanda’s, and even AIDS-ravaged Botswana’s. … The country’s fateful leap backward in health and survival prospects is due to an explosion in deaths from cardiovascular disease and what epidemiologists call “external causes,” such as poisoning, injury, suicide, homicide, traffic fatalities, and other violent accidents. Deaths from cardiovascular disease and injuries account for the overwhelming majority of Russia’s spike in mortality levels and for nearly the entire gap separating Russia’s mortality levels from those of Western countries. At the moment, death rates from cardiovascular disease are more than three times as high in Russia as in Western Europe, and Russian death rates from injury and violence have been stratospheric, on par with those in African post-conflict societies such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Is there an elite on earth more cravenly corrupt and more openly contemptuous of its subjects than the Russian oligarchy?

The other side of Dr. Eberstadt is the prescriptive, rather than the descriptive, demographer, the opponent of Al Gore and other neo-Malthusian proponents of population stabilization—whom he damns as the “old anti-natalist crowd”—the self-appointed flayer of supposed shibboleths about the determinants of fertility rates and other population nostrums such as “overcrowding”, on display best in his 2002 AEI essay Population Sense and Nonsense (link here, approximately 20 minutes). I happen not to share his sunny demographic optimism, but it’s always constructive to read the well-rehearsed views of an adversary, even when you can drive a coach-and-horses through their lacunae, and also to be reminded of the root cause of the 20th century global population explosion: it was “not because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits—rather, it was because they finally stopped dying like flies.”

Remaining on demographic turf, my chart of the week is below (click on it for a clearer resolution). It shows nothing more—or less—than the Japanese total fertility rate by prefecture at selected intervals from 1925 to 2010. For what is merely a collection of 765 numbers ranging from 6.47 (Aomori, 1925) to exactly 1.00 (Tokyo, 2005) in a grid, this chart provides the flab-bellied armchair demographer with a feast of fascination and speculation.

Start at the very bottom row, which is the nationwide figure, and note that the fertility rate has been rising off the 2005 low. Memo to self: remember to haul out the BS detector every time I hear someone talking about Japan’s “falling birthrate and aging society”—they are either ignorant, lazy, or deliberately trying to mislead.

Moving up a row: Okinawa. Why is it such a perennial fertility outsider, going from having the second lowest fertility rate in 1925 to the highest fertility rate for every single survey year from 1970 to 2010? Is this somehow a legacy of the 1945-1972 US occupation?

Moving up to the top seven rows, which show Hokkaido and the six prefectures of Tohoku, why is the 2010 fertility rate so generally low, with Hokkaido, Miyagi, and Akita being three of only four rural prefectures with rates below 1.30 (the other is Nara), why has their bounce off the 2005 low been so weak (indeed, it hasn’t occurred at all in Akita and Yamagata, where the fertility rates have continued to decline, the only prefectures aside from Yamanashi for which this is true), and what are the implications for post-earthquake recovery?

And finally, note that the prefectures with the highest fertility rates (over 1.6) are all in Kyushu (Miyazaki, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima), and that of the 13 prefectures with fertility rates over 1.5, all but two (Fukui and Fukushima—all those once stable nuclear power industry jobs?)—are in the west of Japan, which all things being equal, would suggest a barely perceptible but relentless shift in the population center south and west, as is occurring in the US.

Finally on the demographic theme, another chart, this one home-made. It occurred to me, rootling through the data last week, that the population tipping-point was creeping ever closer to the capital, so I ran for myself the numbers on the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, the shutoken, for which I used the 2005 and 2010 census data and the April 2012 population estimates (suikei jinko) that are compiled, I believe, by each and every municipality, based on the census and simply adding or subtracting births, deaths, in-migrants, and out-migrants (demography, although important, is not by any means rocket science…) As for accuracy, we can be sure that next to all births are registered and that all deaths—apart from the odd mummified centenarian whose avaricious relatives want to continue claiming the welfare benefits of the deceased—are registered. Some inaccuracy may result from underreporting of changes of domicile, however, so a measure of caution is warranted. Nevertheless, the results speak of a momentous change afoot.

October   2005 October   2010 April   2012  %   chg
Yamanashi 884,515 862,772 852,855 -1.15%
Gunma 2,024,135 2,008,170 1,994,309 -0.70%
Tochigi 2,016,631 2,007,014 1,993,283 -0.69%
Ibaraki 2,975,167 2,968,865 2,945,505 -0.79%
Saitama 7,054,243 7,194,957 7,204,353 +0.01%
Chiba 6,056,462 6,217,119 6,195,643 -0.34%
Kanagawa 8,791,597 9,049,500 9,052,730 +0.00%
Tokyo 12,576,601 13,161,751 13,182,509 +0.01%
TOTAL 42,379,351 43,470,148 43,421,187 -0.01%

The real surprises here are Kanagawa (Yokohama and its hinterland) and Tokyo itself, whose populations were not projected to peak until 2015 and 2020, respectively, and it may be that we are still a few years away from the Great Stall. It may equally well be, though, that the last six months or so has seen a definitive end to the thousand years of expansion in which an anonymous fishing village was plucked from obscurity to become the largest city in the world by the early 18th century and again, after World War II, the largest megalopolis and the most intense concentration of wealth the world has ever seen, with an economy twice the size that of the nearest challenger, New York, an economy that would, were it independent, give it a GDP about the size of Russia.

I learned a neat little demographic trick this week: how to use the Rule of Seventy (the natural log of two is 0.693) to calculate a population’s halving (or doubling) time. For Yamanashi, the most rural and most demographically challenged prefecture in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area, for instance, the maths looks like this: 69.3 ÷ ([-1.15% ÷ 18] x 12) = 90.4 years. For Akita, the prefecture where population decline set in first (1980), has been greatest (-15.1% from peak to date), and is steepest, the time to halve is currently 58.6 years. (Note that in the case of a population with rising net mortality, time to halve in years is not static, but contracts as the decline accelerates).

Well, that was rather dry, wasn’t it? Time for lashings of humor and violence. Here’s an assortment of titles of self-help books inspired by the Japanese mob: Yakuza Techniques for Overcoming Business Hurdles through Successful Speaking and Listening (2006), Modern Yakuza Tips for Making Cash (2008), Choosing your Man: Yakuza Tips for Telling a Winner from a Loser (2008), Management Skills of the Yamaguchi-gumi (2005), and my personal favorite, Yakuza Techniques for Dealing with Complaints (2010). Initially, I had a hard time believing these books really exist, but a moment at amazon.co.jp was enough to convince—and there are dozens of other self-help books out there with similar titles. Which goes to underscore what has been long known—that there are too many books being published, and too many self-help books in particular.

These come from a nothing short of brilliant survey of the current state of the Japanese mob by Andrew Rankin, a PhD student (but with a 20-year stint in Japan behind him) at my alma mater, Cambridge University, whom I recently contacted having been misled by the Internet rumor-mill into believing he was writing a new biography of Yukio Mishima. He’s not, but the translation of a Mishima biography penned by Tokyo Deputy Governor Naoki Inose is due out in November.

The two-part yakuza survey is here and here but needs a solid hour of concentrated attention. If you don’t have the time to spare, here’s the summary: less money, less power, less violence, more ingenuity, staying parochial, getting older, going deeper underground, fewer tattoos, and lots fewer missing pinkies. Like Mr. Rankin, I can’t help but feel the yakuza crackdown of the last decade or so is potentially counterproductive: would you rather have organized crime—and the Japanese mob has historically been supremely organized—or disorganized crime? I’d go one wholly speculative step further, too, and say that the crackdown is but one more manifestation of an incipiently totalitarian state that brooks no serious opposition to its crushingly rigid and drearily passé petit-bourgeois ideology.

Causing a bit of a media brouhaha in recent days has been a report, Global Japan: 2050 Simulations and Strategies, by the 21st Century Public Policy Institute, a public policy think-tank (dread words!) affiliated with Keidanren, which for those not in the know is a pro-business lobbying organization akin to the Confederation of British Industry in the UK or the Chamber of Commerce in the US. The link is here (approximately 10 minutes). The eccentric English (“if perchance financial collapse does occur”) suggests that, for all of the hot air about internationalization and globalization, no native speaker had a hand in its production. The two key takeaways are that the debt-to-nominal GDP ratio sails blithely past 300% in the early 2030s and on up to around 600% by 2050, even if the consumption tax is doubled to 10% by fiscal 2015, and that under all four scenarios, even the rosiest, GDP turns negative by the decade from 2031 to 2040. That rosiest scenario sees women’s labor force participation rate rise to rank on par with that of Sweden, and indeed, the very first (nebulous) policy recommendation is: “Promote labor participation of women and the elderly, and strengthen the workforce from young to senior workers.”

Keidanren may be practicing what it preaches about labor force participation by the elderly—shaggily-eyebrowed Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura is a sprightly 74—but as for labor force participation by women—at least in roles less menial than pourers of tea and makers of photocopies—not so much. Of the 18 chairs and vice-chairs, how many are women? Ah yes, none. Of the 17 chairs and vice-chairs of the Board of Councillors? None again. Among the 108—108!—chairs of policy committees, we might hope to find at least a token woman, right? Wrong. As a wag once quipped of Japanese corporate boards, the higher echelons of Keidanren make a Brigham Young University graduation photo look like a Benetton ad…

That alone is enough, I think, to cast doubt on the rosiest scenario and reason to expect a post-growth society to set in, to the delight of the degrowther advocates of décroissance, sooner rather than later, perhaps as soon as the coming decade. As is the overall quality of the report, with the strident alarmism—Japan is going to lose developed country status, Japan is going back to the Third World!—of the first slide undermined by the last slide, which has Japan sandwiched between the UK and Germany in 2050 per capita GDP. Presumably the alarmism is designed to foster public backing for the Keidanren agenda, but it’s hard to see what it contributes to the public debate, save to expose the think-tank’s vacuity. Still, as a friend forever likes to remind me when I point out the pointlessness of much developed-nation economic activity, we all have to put food on the wolf and keep the table from the door.

To return to demography (not that we ever really left it), here’s a demographic quiz. There’s a free lifetime subscription to Spike for the closest answer! (Oh, wait…) At the 2010 census, there were 253 cities across the nation with populations under 50,000. They form the backbone of rural Japan, ranging in size from Masuda in Shimane, at 49,925, to poor old Utashinai on the Sorachi coalfields, at 4,390, less than half the size of the next smallest city, and from Wakkanai, at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, where the population has fallen by about a third from its 1975 peak, to Ishigaki, south of Taipei, where the population rose by about a third from 1970 to 2010 (trite moral of the story—people prefer living in subtropical paradises to wind-blasted and snow-swept fishing towns). Here’s the question: since the 2010 census, how many of the 253 have experienced population growth? (And no, the answer’s not none).

Finally, the photos of the week. One of the consequences of stopping shopping, as I did many moons ago, is that you eventually run out of clothes, which is inconvenient, as nudism as a hobby can only be practiced in the summer months, and also of footwear, so lately I have been down to three pairs: work shoes purchased around 2004, hiking boots purchased around 2002, and these Indonesian-made Nike trainers, purchased around 2000.

Tiring of gluing and regluing the soles to the uppers, I surrendered last weekend and splashed out on some new ones. Allow me to do something endearingly characteristic to animist societies such as this one, and address these inanimate objects directly with a funeral oration before consigning them to the incinerator of history.

So, dear shoes, I bid you a big old otsukaresama—you must be tired—and thank you so very much for carrying me to every single place that Spike has visited, to the northernmost, easternmost, southernmost, and westernmost tips of mainland Japan, to Brunei and to Bali and—many times—to Britain, for the untold millions of footsteps we have trodden together, for protecting my feet from snow and slush, from torrents and rivers of rain, and from mud and rubble, to name just a few of the host of threats to which an unshod foot is prey. You’ve had a hard life in my hands, I know, but I’d like to think it was a long and fruitful one. Goodbye, my faithful friends, goodbye.

Next time, there’ll be no demography, I promise. Until then…

Iida: A twitch at the curtains

That summer feeling
Is gonna fly
Always try and keep the feeling inside
Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning
And magic eyes to read between the lines

Teenage Fanclub, Sparky’s Dream, 1995

Geologically, Iida is a place where the bedrock of life’s banalities lies much closer to the earthen surface of works and days than it does in the painted face of the big smoke, which makes her a more honest, death-embracing locus, but she was not somewhere I could hold on to for very long. I treat Iida nonetheless as my furusato hometown, though no parents, siblings, or relatives wait for me there, and truth be told I’m a neglectful lover, rarely returning now. It was with a touch of trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation from Old Bill, fellow Withnail & I obsessive, connoisseur like me of quality knobs (this one a Bakelite beauty from Sato Parts),

electronics tinkerer extraordinaire,

self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne (aka 凛, Rin, “dignified”) and Hannah (aka 花, Hana, “flower”) to visit for a sultry September weekend.

We set off on a road tripette in Bill’s lesbian-beloved Subaru Forester, with Lynne, buried in a book, on the back seat. This being rural Japan—and Nagano Prefecture in particular, I can’t help but feel—we were soon in the realm of aerial roadways to heaven

and tunnels

and bridges

to absolutely nowhere at all.

There’s something of a cheap optical illusion and something crassly Freudian about the tunnel and the bridge. Unoriginally, I want to scrawl under the photos in a “steady, painstaking, artificial script”, “Ceci n’est pas une rue”, and be rewarded for my efforts years later with an explicatory and adulatory essay by some soixante-huitard philosopher replete with talk of unraveled calligrams and negations multiplying themselves. To me, at least, the bridge is violent, the hillside vulnerable; the tunnel, its mirror image, is patient, the river ready to be bridged. As they are near neighbors, separated by only a few dales and folds, the bridge and the tunnel could perhaps get it together on an Internet dating site for large ferroconcrete structures.

To return to the mundane: all three form part of what one day, my son, my daughter, will be the San’en Nanshin Expressway, a 100km link between Iida in the interior and Hamamatsu on the coast. The project was given the green light back in 1983; the aerial interchange and the bridge have been in a state of Viagric erection since 1994; only a dozen or so kilometers have so far been completed; much of the rest is scheduled for completion in 2016 or after; and a few crucial sections have no schedule for construction at all, which means they are unlikely to be completed until the mid-2020s, fully four decades after the project left the drawing board of some faceless committee. As a friend loves to say, in Japan we take the long view. The expressway traverses terrain that is about as hostile to the dreams of road-builders as any on the planet, as hereabouts the Japan Median Tectonic Line meets the Fossa Magna, with the trickiest sections costing around $30mn a kilometer and the bill for the whole expressway set to come in somewhere north of $2bn. The leisurely construction schedule testifies both to the unimportance of the road—denizens of Iida can already access Nagoya in two hours and Tokyo in four—and pinched budgets for megaprojects such as this.

The road’s boosters, which encompass the whole of “official Japan” from the Ministry of Concrete—sorry, I’ll read that again, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport—on down, make claims for it alternately nebulous and suffused with the finicky precision of the bureaucrat: of the Iida portion, completion will mean that 88% of outlying towns and villages will be able to reach the city center by car in the event of rainfall of 100mm or more (which must occur, ooh, half a dozen times a year), up from 71% currently! And for this you want me to pay $2bn? Opposition to the road is inchoate, disorganized, confined to the odd squawk of a taxpayer on obscure bulletin boards. Make no mistake, my son, my daughter: the men from the ministry (no women there) will have their way, the bulldozers and pile-drivers and excavators will prevail, bridge will meet tunnel (and maybe fall in love), the San’en Nanshin Expressway will be built.

Our destination was the hundred-soul hamlet of Shimoguri, fancifully known as “the Tyrol of Japan”, the last stutter of civilization in the Southern Alps before boars and eagles and bears take the place of humans at the apex of the food chain, seen fragmentarily here looking north toward the 3,000m peaks of the Akaishi Mountains. 

One blogger, something of an authority on out-of-the-way crannies, calls Shimoguri “the backwoods at the back of beyond” (僻地の中の僻地), and once, before the arrival of the roads—the good roads—in the late 1960s, it might have been. Now it is scarcely an hour from the center of Iida and indeed, courtesy of a 2005 municipal amalgamation, lies within its precincts. So the city stretches its claws out into the country. Nor is it, as he claims, “Japan’s last hidden spot” (日本の最後の秘境), if such a chimera exists: tourists far outnumbered locals when we were there. Still, it’s an otherworldly place, accessible only up and down and around a vertiginous single-track lane 10km long, with fields of cabbage and potato and buckwheat so steep—up to 38 degrees steep—that they have to be tilled from above to stop the soil slipping irrecoverably down the slopes.

We traipsed out through a sad stand of plantation pines, shot through with the slenderest bolts of amber and rapacity, dead to birdsong and itself, for the money shot—our rapacity—of Shimoguri in the glaresquint sunlight.

Architecturally no gem, largely rebuilt after the tarmac was laid, Shimoguri looks best from afar, though it does have some top sheds, the plank-knots a Braille from tree to forester.

Humanity has been fossicking around these valleys for millennia, the archaeological record shows, the earliest modern trace an inscription on a temple bell from 1460. But Shimoguri, school-less since 1980, is locked in a bloody bout with custom and its trainer, time, a bout it is all but bound to lose this coming century.

On the way back, we detoured to the feted baby village of Shimojo. I’d told Shinako we would.
“I hear the birthrate’s really high there.”
“Yeah, but there aren’t any jobs, so everyone has to commute into Iida.”
Guess I wasn’t the only hard-boiled straight-talker in town.

Overheated hacks prone to hyperbole have showered garlands on Shimojo, calling it “the miracle village” (奇跡の村), “a model municipality” (モデル自治体), and “the village where Japan’s future can be seen” (日本の未来が見える村). It’s attracted praise from across the ideological spectrum, from the Japan Communist Party to the right-leaning Nikkei BP, and even won a hat-tip from The Economist in its latest special feature on Japan in November 2010. What’s all the fuss about? Simply this: as the nation’s birthrate cratered to an all-time low of 1.26 in 2005, Shimojo’s was rising, to 2.04 on average between 2003 and 2006, tantalizingly close to the replacement rate and as high as anywhere on mainland Japan. (And yes, the corollary is that not a single municipality on the mainland then had a birthrate above the replacement rate).

Shimojo’s path to celebrity status begins back in 1992, with the election as mayor of one Kihei Ito, a gas station owner, who professed himself appalled by the sloth and inefficiency he uncovered in the village administration. To instill in the flaccid pen-pushers the rigors of the private-sector ethos, so the party line goes, he packed them off to wait on customers at a home improvement center in Iida, humiliating them with their dismal sales performance in comparison with regular employees. To cut spending, the bureaucracy was allowed to wither on the vine through natural attrition, ultimately reducing the number of officials per 1,000 head of population to half the national average and the bill for their salaries by a third from the peak. To free the village from the vicious debt cycle of subsidies (補助) paid for through the issuance of muni bonds (地方債) paid for in turn by tax grants from the state (交付税), Shimojo forewent 1990s luxuries such as the installation of a full underground sewage system, opting instead for much cheaper septic tanks. In a bid to further prune expenditures, one that carries the firm smack of Soviet collectivism, Mayor Ito had his villagers do their own road repairs and build their own roads, especially the farmer’s tracks that lattice the paddies, with the council providing only the cost of materials.

All this thrift was to transform the village’s finances. Bear with me on a brief geeky foray into the intricacies: in 2009, there were 1,749 municipalities across the nation, and lacking a lucrative tax base of the sort provided by, say, the headquarters of a major corporation, Shimojo remains dependent on tax grants from the state, ranking a lowly 1,489 nationally in its fiscal strength index (財政力指数), a measure of a local authority’s own revenue raising ability. But by recurring expense ratio (経常収支比率, very roughly fiscal resources allocated to recurring expenses divided by recurring fiscal resources), a metric of a local authority’s fiscal flexibility, Shimojo ranked seventh nationwide, and by bond expense ratio (実質公債費比率, very roughly muni bond servicing costs divided by general fiscal resources), Shimojo ranked an astounding fourth, behind only three central Tokyo wards.

With the money saved, Mayor Ito set about on phase two of his grand scheme, the audacious “village population doubling plan” (村民倍増計画), which to any Japanese of a certain age would carry overtones of the 1960 “income doubling plan” (所得倍増計画) of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, achieved in a mere seven years. Step one was to build cumbersomely named “housing to promote the permanent residence of young people” (若者定住促進住宅). The first three-storey, twelve-unit block went up in 1997, but by Mayor Ito’s account, he slipped up in accepting a state subsidy of half the cost of construction, a subsidy that came with all sorts of inconvenient notions of justice and fairness attached: the right to live in the apartments was decided by lottery and a number of them had to be set aside for low-income families. Well, that was sure to bring in all sorts of undesirables! The good mayor was careful to build the next nine blocks with the village’s money alone, so he could attract only “quality young people” (質のいい若者), ones willing to participate in extra-curricular activities such as the volunteer fire-brigade and village events in that deliciously voluntary-compulsory way I long ago pinpointed as a defining national characteristic.

Notwithstanding the onerous free-time obligations, the mayor’s offer was for many too good to refuse—spanking new 63 square meter (680 square feet) two-bedroom apartments with two parking spaces for Y35,000 ($450) a month, half what one would cost in neighboring Iida, and the applications flooded in. There was more pro-natalist largesse on the way, too: a 20% cut in kindergarten fees, a children’s library with some 7,000 volumes, and free healthcare at any hospital in Japan up to the last year of junior high school. “It’s great,” one young mother of two told the reporter from Akahata (“Red Flag”), the Japan Communist Party rag, in 2005, “We can take the kids to hospital even if they’ve just got the sniffles”, a comment sure to strike unintended fear into the hearts of the opponents of unmetered medicine everywhere. The population of the village, which had peaked in 1950 at around 6,500 and fallen to a low of 3,859 in 1990, began to inch higher, reaching 4,241 in 2006. Mayor Ito had done it! Earnest delegations poured in from every corner of the land—250 alone in the three years to 2009—to study the “miracle village”. It’s impossible to know precisely what lessons they took away, but the national birthrate began to crawl like a toddler higher off the 2005 low, and Shimojo in its own infant way may be fractionally responsible.

We parked up outside one of the breeder blocks, a nondescript dun-colored slab with no trace of the rustic that could have fallen off the drawing-board of any architectural practice in Japan after an hour of slipshod draughtsmanship. While there were no real live children around—perhaps they were at hospital with the sniffles—there were at least traces of them, in the shape of plastic toys in bright made-in-China primary colors stacked under stairwells. A lightly modded Chevy Astro van spoke of the presence of members of the Yankee subcult, renowned for their proclivity to procreate early and frequently (and often in the van), in contradistinction to most of the rest of the nation, which procreates, if at all, little and late. In retrospect, knowing what I do now of the Shimojo story, the block had the stench of the factory farm about it, the odor of the illiberal conceits that lie behind all such crudely gerrymandered attempts to manipulate populations up or down, and, in Mayor Ito’s welcome mat laid out only at the squeaky clean feet of “quality young people”, just the faintest trace of eugenics.

Of late though, some of the sheen seems to have come off the mayor’s great experiment. The population is on the slide again, down to 4,105 as of November 1, and the village website lets on that a few of its apartments are vacant and available to “married men” (妻帯者, itself a superbly gendered expression, combining characters for “wife”, “bind”, and “person”). Sexual minorities, of course, need not apply, though they would no doubt return the insult, had they the grotesque misfortune to be born in Shimojo, by fleeing at the earliest opportunity. It’s not hard to discern what lies behind the flagging of the baby revolution: the village has in essence been filching the youth of Iida, which itself finds it has fewer and fewer of them, due to a demographic profile that’s been described as “waistless” (寸胴型)—missing the middle—and only so many of them will accept the trade-off between cheap accommodation and soporific, stultifying, and claustrophobic village life under Mayor Ito’s paternalist eye.

What worlds can we see in Shimojo’s grain of sand? Three, I think. The first is that the village was lucky to have the autonomy to do what it did. The great Heisei merger boom slashed the number of villages nationwide from 568 in 1999 to 184 today, of which a staggering fifth (35) are in Nagano, even though it accounts for less than 2% of the population, testimony maybe to a stubbornly independent local streak. The second is that there exists across swathes of primarily rural but also urban Japan both a dyed-in-the-bone conservatism, here to be seen in the disrespect paid to the bureaucratic clerisy, and—ignoring the contradictions for a moment—an almost Tea Partyesque resistance to state (federal, in a US context) “interference”. The third is that however valiantly Mayor Ito and his village have fought against population decline, its forces are destined to overwhelm them, not merely because they are 4,000 pitted against 128 million, but because all the fevered construction of an environment purportedly friendly to childrearing misses the larger point, which is that until hiring is more equal in every regard, workplace regimens are redesigned from the ground up around the needs of working mothers, and women’s careers are not deep-sixed by childbirth, there will be no baby-strike solution in sight. Not something an old duffer oyaji like Mayor Ito could be expected to comprehend.

En route home, we passed Iida City Hospital.
“That’s where I’m going to die.” From others’ mouths this would have come with the tonally different melancholies of the honorable exile, the ambiguous émigré, the despicable expatriate.
“No, no,” I strove to reassure him. “I’m sure a clean swift stroke will get you in your bed.”
A little later, I gestured sweepingly at a clatter of drive-ins, superstores, and car dealers on the main suburban drag.
“You know, I don’t remember this in the slightest.”
“Perhaps there really is a God after all.”

We headed back to Bill’s own Iida satellite village, Toyo’oka (population 6,797), whose much-mocked (by me) motto is “early to bed, early to rise, breakfast”. Perhaps it sounds better in Japanese: hayane, hayaoki, asagohan. Ah, no. There are few distractions to ruffle the determinedly diurnal lifestyle to which the motto exhorts the populace: a beer or two and banter to warm up the evening at a snakku bar, some late-night slapstick on TV, or perhaps a midnight loiter on the aluminum bench by the ashtray at one of the two 24/7 convenience stores.

I delved into the statistics of disruption: there were 16 traffic accidents reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, one roughly every three weeks, most of which will have been no more than fender-benders. There were 23 crimes reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, some of which at least will have been of the order of radishes pilfered from a field, 33.73 incidents per 10,000 people, ranking the village 1,534th out of 1,749 municipalities (lower is safer) in a fierce contest for uncriminality in which several municipalities went entirely crime-free.

Nevertheless, Toyo’oka has a permanently staffed police substation (豊丘村警察官駐在所), to which I believe three constables are assigned, giving each one roughly one crime every six weeks to investigate. The average annual pay of a Japanese police officer was Y7.7mn (almost exactly US$100,000 at the current rate) in 2007, so with overheads it is fair to assume that it costs very roughly $500,000 a year to investigate the two crimes a month that plague Toyo’oka.

There are a quarter of a million stalwart women and (mostly) men in the thin blue line keeping us from anarchy across the nation, one for every 500 people, so the vipers’ nest of vice and sin that is Iida (population 104,668) has perhaps 200 officers (and an annual wage bill of around US$20mn). As far as I can tell, ten crimes were logged in the Iida police blotter in November this year: five thefts of bags, purses, or cash from cars, two burglaries in which cash was stolen, a theft of a moped, a theft of a pair of gloves from an office, and a theft of a grating from a “facility”. Small wonder, then, that out in the provinces more than 10 hopefuls vie for every police officer post.

The terrible tranquility engendered by the lust for order makes the Ina valley a wonderfully untroubling and untroubled place to raise The Mikan Sisters.  

But as with everything, there is a quid pro quo. A wag once described the then faded-to-scruffy English seaside resort of Brighton as a place that “always looks as if it is about to help police with their enquiries”. Well, behind the privet hedge, Iida is the hand twitching the net curtains at the window with the neighborhood watch sticker, ready to turn in the hoodlum likes of Brighton to the authorities at the first hint of trouble.

Bill does his best to puncture the boredom of smugness with tacks of wit. He took a dubious phrase from a previous post of mine, “chapatsu slappers” (women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair), shortened and Japanesed it to “chappa surappa”, and taught it to his daughters, who now with glee will point to some hapless stiletto-heeled, bustiered, and chestnut-locked lass and shout in unison in their perfectly modulated Japanese, “Are wa chappa surappa?” Is that a tart? No one understands, though, and the tranquility seeps back to stifle once more.

You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

With its mizuhiki cord craftwork and its puppet festival, Iida is not short of cuckoo clocks of its own. While the relationship between crime (presence or absence thereof) and culture (presence or absence thereof) is no doubt not as easily mappable as the words Orson Welles put into the mouth of Harry Lime in The Third Man imply, it’s fair to say that the cafés of Iida do not hum to the sound of aspiring scriptwriters crafting screenplays on their laptops, that the bars of Iida do not throng with bien-pensant wannabes deep in debate over polymorphous perversity (“No, no! Gender is a performative construct!”), the role of crocodiles in the Mesozoic ecosystem, or the proof of the Poincaré conjecture, fair to say that the air of Iida is not febrile with intellectual ferment.

We girded ourselves with barrel-bottom sake for “a brief nocturnal sample of the delights of Iida’s nearly extinct nightlife.” I was keen to renew my acquaintance with Cock,

a subterranean izakaya pub offering “multinational home cooking”, whose matchbox I treasure, much frequented by the in-crowd long ago, but we found its space had been usurped in 2006 by a hip-hop emporium, Club Rulez, so there was to be no Cock for us in Iida that night.

We dined on butter and batter with an old mutual friend in an almost chic restaurant whose other patrons, without exception, were Japanese men with Filipina consorts. The talk was of shrinking pay packets and shrinking enrolments, old bangers bought on the never-never, and diminished expectations—harsher winds blowing in the heartland.
(to be continued)

In praise of… The worst hotel in the world

It was getting late that Sunday evening, and I was in sore need of a bed. The lights had been defiantly out at the place I had been hoping to stay, so I set wearily off down the truck-choked and traffic-light-infested Rte 254 in southwest Gunma, past empty coin-op laundries and soulless convenience stores, detouring into the decrepit center of the old silk-mill city of Tomioka in fruitless search of lodging before pitching up on the outskirts of charmless, anonymous Fujioka, a place best known for its expressway junction, where to my delight that neon-starved night the Business Hotel Fujioka was putting out just enough illumination to capture a traveler’s tired eye, and I swung into the almost deserted parking lot, half of which had returned to grass, with mounting anticipation.

Of the mah-jongg club Tenho (“Heavenly Hand”) and the yakiniku grilled meat restaurant Yacchan to which the eager arrows of the signs pointed there proved to be no trace. The proprietor sat slumped in a stupor on a slate-grey vinyl sofa, transfixed by the television, in a cavernous lobby of such transcendental aesthetic horror that I was spellbound at once, sent into a trance of rapture by the ocean of aquamarine linoleum and vast wall-embedded canvases of flower-filled fields and mysterious mountainscapes.

I opened with my usual patter about not having a reservation but wondering if a room was available; unsurprisingly, one was, although it took a little pantomime of perusal of a dusty ledger to confirm this. Board, breakfast, and evening meal, all for Y4,725 (about $60)—cheaper than even the cheapest budget chain hotels.

“You can eat over the road,” he said, gesturing at a noodle joint called Hime Ramen (“Princess Ramen”).
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“No.” That seemed implausible in a city of nearly 70,000 people. “Besides, they don’t just do ramen. They’ve got all sorts of good stuff. Here, I’ll show you to your room.”
He led me on the aquamarine linoleum, now a river, down a short musty corridor of concentration-camp gloom to the last cell on the right.

From having observed down the years how hoteliers like to fill their rooms, I realized I was the first guest that night. A fragment of Larkin came to me with a jolt.

“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.”

The room was an airless cube. A lone blue plastic hanger dangled on one of a row of hooks while a shoehorn swung like a hanged convict by the door. Some madman, perhaps the proprietor himself, had chosen to embed a picture of a Mediterranean harbor filled with gin-palace superyachts in the wall above the coin-op television.

Perhaps the same madman had painted the fluffy white clouds in the style of Tiepolo on the ceiling.

More Larkin surfaced, and I dared not draw back the drapes.

Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered.

There was no washbasin and no toilet, no shower and no bath.

“Bathroom’s down the hall,” he said, gesticulating. “Better use it tonight. It’s not open in the mornings.”

Across the road at Princess Ramen a raucously drunken party was in full swing.

I was ushered into a backroom across wine-red linoleum, sticky to the sole, which in well-trodden spots had been worn away to the concrete below. It occurred to me that I had stumbled on an ecosystem every bit as imperiled as a tract of montane rainforest in Costa Rica: the last vestiges of a working-class culture that some might call slovenly and others carefree, whose denizens are itinerant salespeople, suitcases forever in hand, forklift drivers in pallid green overalls, and factory girls in hairnets, a culture that is being chopped down by the buzz-saws of deindustrialization, globalization, and digitization just as remorselessly as it is anywhere in the well-off world.

Flashing an angelic milk-white smile, a young and strangely androgynous waiter, scion of the ramen family, brought a beer. For the first time in my life I was flummoxed in the act of gender identification. I was seized with the sense that I was overlooking something obvious, such that if a companion had been with me, he or she would have laughed at my incomprehension. Peanuts arrived in a bowl bearing the insignia “Dinnerware Adam & Eve”, which at first I misread as “Dinner with Adam & Eve”. What would have been served, I wondered, and who would have been on the guest list. The menu prodded the peruser to three dishes, two of which were katsudon pork cutlets on rice, one man-sized, said the menu, and a smaller one for the ladies. In keeping with the spirit of androgyny I ordered the smaller.

Out the front, the football was blaring away but the backroom television was tuned to a program commemorating the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, at the heart of which was the tale of a solitary sailor in the port of Kesennuma whose ship was forced by tsunami tides to trace an infinite loop around the harbor for hour upon hour on a Viking inferno of a jet-black night sea ablaze with debris kindled by spilt diesel. Sleep would not easily be bought tonight, I knew, as the partiers out front cackled and jabbered on.

Back across the road, the proprietor was in a conspiratorial huddle with a policeman standing by a cop car, devil-red lights whirling in stony silence. Yet again up stole the guilty wash of nebulous criminality that has dogged me as long as I can recall, a secular sibling of the doctrine of original sin that might have been instilled by a pedophile priest but—to my recollection—wasn’t.

“Everything okay?”
A couple of nods and grunts.

A single gunmetal-grey door divided the hotel and the bowling alley. A solo bowler occupied a middle lane of the aquamarine paradise, the clanging of tumbling pins rattling off the vault and walls.

Turning to go back through the door, I ran face-to-face into a torn poster, terrifying in its wholesome antiquity.

In the room, I lay on the bed looking up at the fluffy white clouds and struggling to remember the last verses of Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, but “one hired box” was all that came to mind. Through the tissue-thin walls a latecomer in the next room coughed gutturally and hacked up phlegm, which he must, I imagined, have spat from the window, as there was no washbasin and no toilet and men around here are not known to swallow their sputum.

To distract myself, I constructed a narrative for the hotel in my head: it had been built at the very fag-end of the seventies just as the first expressway crept toward Fujioka and the city boomed in anticipation. And here it had remained, trapped in a glow of seventies amber, as the expressways crept past, north and northwest, on to other, more glamorous destinations, and the dreams of the city wilted.

Fitful sleep on polycotton sheets atop a lumpy mattress with a saggy pillow was punctuated by dreams of ledges and precipices and chasms, but it was morning soon enough and I stumbled bleary out to breakfast.

A rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“you’ve got to keep yourself beautiful”) doing a passable imitation of a burly drag queen doing a passable imitation of a rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“just tell yourself you’ve got gorgeous lips”) sat slouched in front of the television, stubbing her fag out and snapping to something like attention on my approach. She might have been in her mid-forties, about my age.

In the deserted dining-room, a half-formed meal for one—me—sat on a flowery tablecloth overlaid with thick plastic sheets, replete with all the melancholy of a condemned prisoner. An emaciated half-moon slice of the sorriest factory ham lay uncomfortably on a bed of grated cabbage (I knew how it felt) next to what once had been scrambled eggs—a scrambled egg—but were now hardening, graying, chilling pellets fit only for fish food. Three bowls were flanked around, one of slimy kamaboko fish paste confections, one of gunky natto fermented soybeans, and one of the cheapest daikon radish pickles, almost as pink as candy-floss and packed, no doubt, with as much artificial coloring. There were no condiments and no chopsticks, no paper napkins and no toothpicks, at least not within reach. The art of this meal, I decided, would be to eat as much as I could to save loss of face but not so much as to gag. Into which circle of hell had I plunged, I wondered, and for what misdeeds.

Fag-ash Lil loitered.

“Help yourself to rice. I’ll get the miso soup.” She retreated into the Stygian depths of the kitchen. The insides of the rice-cooker were rimed with scorch marks and dusted with flakes of papery rice like dead, sunburned skin. And voila, the meal was complete.

“Your Japanese is really good.”
“I studied it at university,” I lied.
“You must be smart, huh? Japanese is really difficult.”
You seem to be making a reasonable fist of it, I wanted so much to say.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m researching the Shimo Nita War”, I lied.
“The Shimo Nita War? There was a war in Shimo Nita? Just down the road? How come you know about it and I don’t?”
“It was a very small war. About 148 years ago.” Not bad off the top of my head—it was 147 years ago.
“Where have you come from, anyway?”
“England,” I lied.
“England? They speak English there, don’t they?”
“Yes.” There was a limit to dissimulation.

She retreated into the kitchen again. I mixed the ham and eggs deep into the rice and wolfed it down. The gloopy fermented soybeans, which should have come as light relief in a meal of this caliber, were leathery and long past their sell-by date. She returned to hover.

“France?”
This had me baffled for a moment.
“No, England.”
“Oh, England.”
“Yes, England.” A question hung pregnant in the air.
“Are cigarettes expensive there?”
“Ooh, very. About a thousand yen a packet. It’s the taxes, you see.”
“Hmm, really?” She nodded sagely, satisfied with this short account of the depravity of foreign lands, and retreated once again across the Styx as I longed for the waters of Lethe.

The Business Hotel Fujioka is not, of course, the worst hotel in the world, nor even the worst hotel in the developed world, although by some chalk it’s the worst developed-world hotel at which I’ve ever stayed (and one of the most wonderful). Such judgments are wholly subjective, anyway, and what is heavenly to one will be hellish to another.

Nevertheless I ask you to raise a shot glass of methylated spirit or lighter fluid, if you please, ladies and gentlemen, to the glories of the Business Hotel Fujioka and to the people who make it tick, in a toast to its demise, for it will all be gone to grass before a generation is out, and the world will know its like no more.

Back home, I looked up the last Larkin verses and shivered, as always, at the tortured conditional of the syntactic climax:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread 

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know

Holiday in Fukushima: To the zone of exclusion

It’s time to taste what you most fear,
Right Guard will not help you here,
Brace yourself, my dear,
Brace yourself, my dear,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
It’s tough kid, but it’s life,
It’s a holiday in Fukushima,
Don’t forget to pack a wife…

(With apologies to The Dead Kennedys)

 Japan’s Golden Week break in late April and early May is often a wash-out: the four national holidays regularly fall in part on a weekend, the roads seethe with epic bumper-to-bumper jams, hotel rooms are scarcer than hen’s teeth, and even if you finally reach your chosen destination, queues of hours for the attraction are inevitable if it is at all popular.

This year augured better, though: the national holidays distributed themselves beautifully across the calendar, meaning a whole week off could be had for the price of a single working day’s vacation, and the national mood of self-restraint in the aftermath of the disaster was leading the media to predict that traffic volumes would be down by a third to a half. It was time, I decided, to leverage these fortuitous circumstances. Where would the roads be most deserted, where would the hotels be emptiest, where would the queues be shortest, I mused. It was time, I decided, for a holiday in Fukushima.

An accident on the elevated expressway out of the capital brought an hour of almost total immobility, with the trucks thundering past on the inbound lanes causing the ancient, rickety structure to vibrate like an endless earthquake. Eventually we were unshackled, and heading north was like rewinding the clock of spring: while the new verdancy in Tokyo was already dazzling, here the landscape was draped in tentative greens and the delicate pinks of cherry trees.

Few vehicles were left on the expressway as the border loomed. Welcome to Fukushima, said the sign, with inauspiciously high waves menacing a lighthouse, and welcome to Iwaki, where the Hula Girls were born.

Fukushima has been cursed by the decision of a nameless apparatchik or faceless committee many decades back to name Fukushima Daiichi and Daini not after the city, town, or village where they are located, as all but one of the nation’s 15 other nuclear power plants are, but after the whole of the prefecture. Had the decision fallen differently, the litany of nuclear tragedy would read Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Okuma, but now the entire prefecture and its two million inhabitants are tainted by association, a contaminated brand.

Iwaki is huge—at some 60km north to south and 40km east to west, it’s as large as a small English county, and its very northernmost fringe intrudes into the 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi. Like many a Fukushima municipality, it’s an artificial creation, in this case the 1966 amalgamation of 14 cities, towns, and villages. Once a coal-mining region, it has made a relatively successful transition to industry and tourism since the last mine closed in 1976. The first port of call was to pay my respects at the spiritual home of those Hula Girls, Spa Resort Hawaiians.

The cladding around the new hotel going up on the hill lent it an unfortunate resemblance to one of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The sign to the right announced that the resort would be closed for a while, due to the March 11 earthquake and to another earthquake that had escaped my attention, the April 11 Iwaki aftershock, which turns out to have been an M7.0 temblor directly under the city—just another flick of the catfish’s tail.

Overshadowed by the kitschy glamour of Spa Resort Hawaiians, the neighboring hot-springs district of Iwaki Yumoto has been moldering away for years. Almost all of the hotels were closed, the notices on their doors citing the earthquake and aftershock, with some throwing in “harmful rumors” or “reputational damage” (風評被害), one of the expressions of the moment, for good measure. Traces of a grimier past were not hard to come by: what might have been an old collier’s house stood across the road from one of the largest hotels.

Another expression of the moment, “ganbaro” (がんばろう or ガンバロウ or 頑張ろう), which might be rendered as “hang in there” or “tough it out”, was much in evidence. Here an image character, Tairamon, encourages Iwaki, while a hand-drawn sign encourages Yumoto.

Down at the port of Onahama, a convoy of volunteer buses was parked in serried rank as streams of people who had sacrificed their vacations to help out in any way they could carted debris out of La La Mew, a fish market, gift center, and restaurant complex, and I felt the first prickings of guilt. Fortunately I found company with other rubberneckers watching dockside salvage operations, a man perched precariously on the stern of a sunken vessel.

No matter how many video clips of tsunami inundation you can brace yourself to watch, no matter how many survivors’ tales you can bear to hear, nothing prepares your senses fully for the experience: at Onahama it was the stench that was overpowering, first the acrid taste of spilt diesel on tangy salt air, then the stinking assault of rotting fish, now the rank odor of toxic garbage fumes. Although the waves had reached only a couple of hundred meters inland here, barely crossing the portside dual-carriageway, on the unlucky side of the road the Onahama Tourist Center had been eviscerated, its entrails carried who knew where. 

The details appalled: the exuberantly colorful albacore on the side of a fishing boat,

the acres of railroad tracks, their ballast replaced by sea-disgorged sand and stones, and the untouched cement works, with its neat piles of coal, in the backdrop of the carnage.

Located on a sea-jutting wharf, the aquarium Aquamarine Fukushima is the jewel in Iwaki’s tourism crown, and its post-earthquake travails bear uncanny animal kingdom parallels with the woes of Fukushima Daiichi. Flooded throughout the ground floor by the tsunami, its backup power generators kicked in to power up the indispensible filtration systems while the big beasts—sea lions and walruses, seals and otters—were evacuated to other aquariums, as were the piscine stars of the show such as gar and greeneye, but the diesel for the generators and the food for the fish ran out, leaving 200,000 marine organisms of 750 species dead in oxygen-starved tanks.  

Chastened, I turned inland and stopped for a snack at a Seven-Eleven to make my first, very modest, contribution to the revival of the Fukushima economy. An old woman cried from back of the store, “Earthquake! And I’ve only just finished cleaning up!” to a tremor I failed to feel. Some people were still jumpy.

Heading north up the coast, at the places where the road was forced by topography to hug the sea, the devastation was callous in its capriciousness. Fate had been too cruel: one house furthest from the shore in a cluster of a dozen stood untouched, while its companions sat back on their haunches or listed like fish with swim-bladder disorder. Houses sheltered by a headland lay a stone’s skim from scenes of utter destruction. The new things pained the most: a brace of freshly built homes, their first-floor guts ripped out, a pin-fresh hotel with deep scars and smashed windows. No more photos, at any rate not here, I told myself, as a man strapped into his camera strode gleefully off to capture a car upended and tossed, with almost wanton whimsy, into a paddy.

Route Six runs for some 350km up the Pacific coast from Tokyo to Sendai, but it pierces the heart of the zone of exclusion at Futaba and it’s no longer possible to get to Minami Soma from Iwaki. I turned right and headed north toward Fukushima Daiichi.

(Observant pistonheads will notice the car in front of me is a Nissan, as are the two minivans facing camera behind the Nissan dealership—that’s because Iwaki is a Nissan town, being home to the Nissan plant responsible for the VQ engine series, which featured on Ward’s annual 10 best engine list for 14 straight years from 1995 to 2008.) 

Soon it was goodbye Iwaki and hello Hirono—crossing the border meant I was now a couple of kilometres inside the 20km-30km radius from Fukushima Daiichi that was initially designated as the “stay indoors” zone (室内避難区域) until the boundaries were redrawn on April 21, leaving the whole of Hirono but none of Iwaki in the “prepare to evacuate in an emergency” zone (緊急時避難準備区域).

Some lazy hacks have taken to calling everywhere along the Fukushima coast from Minami Soma in the north to Iwaki in the south “nuclear ghost towns”. They’re not, but Hirono is, and I hope never to see another one in my life. No rampaging steers running wild here, no cows lying dying in barns, no dogs turning feral as there are in the 20km zone of exclusion; this had been an orderly departure, leaving in its trace only silences and absences—of cars from garageless driveways, of washing from steel clothes poles, of people from the tidy sidewalks. Every roadside enterprise, from humble ramen stand to ubiquitous convenience store, was locked and deserted. What, I wondered, would an observer catapulted forward in time from two months ago (has it really only been two months?) make of this post-apocalyptic scene.

As so often, it was the signs that were most poignant. One on a hillside proclaimed that Hirono was the town, by virtue of its southerly location, that announced the coming of spring to the north-eastern Tohoku region, while another called for support for the women’s soccer club Mareeze (yes, it’s a portmanteau of “marine” and “breeze”) of Fukushima Daiichi operator TEPCO—like the string of four pure-play nuclear seaside towns to the north, Hirono is a TEPCO company town, thanks to its mixed gas and coal thermal power plant.

Welcome to Hirono, says this sign, a town where you can meet others through soccer—Hirono is home to J-Village, the first national football training facility. It claims that Hirono, too, is the hometown of children’s songs—the two to which it refers, known by every child throughout the land, being The Dragonfly’s Glasses, written by a local country doctor, and Steam Train, whose connection with Hirono rests on a tenuous lyrical pun. Still, every little town must have its little claim to fame.

By the town hall, an elliptical message: everyone participates, a healthy town.

Dylan was drawling, “Only one thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long” over the stereo as I parked up awhile to watch a procession of olive drab armoured personnel carriers, adorned with white bibs reading “disaster dispatch duty”, and police riot buses, windows begrilled, roll in from the south, realizing with mounting consternation that the buses were from Nagoya and other far distant places. Admittedly, there have been many reports of burglaries and even the odd mugging of an ATM within the zone of exclusion, but does it really take the whole of the nation’s boys in blue to restore law and order to a few rural towns? Or were they, I wondered, streaming in for slyer, more sinister purposes, to make recalcitrants among the workers for TEPCO and its subcontractors toe the radiological line?

Route Six was blocked at the 20km limit, as expected. A cop waved traffic off to a diversion to the right and I found myself facing the twin chimneys of the otherwise invisible power plant, not a comforting sight.

Another diversion, this time to the left, and I wound up at J-Village, requisitioned by the state soon after the disaster as the front-line base for the nuclear drama.

TEPCO and subcontractor workers at Fukushima Daiichi get three days R&R here after three days on site, although as according to its own website, J-Village has no running water, it’s unclear how much rest or relaxation anyone might get.

And this was truly the end of the line: I was now 9km south of Fukushima Daini and 20km south of Fukushima Daiichi. Entry forbidden by the Basic Law on Disaster Response, Article 116, Paragraph 1, Item 2, threatens the sign, violators may be punished. With a Y100,000 ($1,250) fine or—more likely—a month in chokey, say the media, and not fancying 30 days in the slammer—prisons hereabouts are no holiday camps, by all accounts—I resolved to venture no further. In a van by the sign, a bunch of Hitachi Transport System employees—what were they doing here—were nodding off or dozing on as a busload of hired hands from general contractor Taisei shipped out of J-Village. Everyone, but everyone, was wearing facemasks, fine for pollen allergies but as likely to stop radiation in its tracks as a picket fence would a bull elephant in heat. A cop car cruised past, sirens silent but lights ablaze, eyeing me suspiciously. Perhaps because of an overdose of Kafka—at least a sievert’s worth—at too impressionable an age, I’ve always feared groundless arrest and prosecution, and although I wasn’t committing any illegal act, my presence, I felt, was no longer required. Life was turning into the first reel of a low-budget sci-fi gore fest, and I had lost the desire to stick around to find out what happens next.

On returning home, I discovered the depth of the Faustian compacts in which these Fukushima seashore towns had engaged with TEPCO. While the prefectural average per capita income in the year to end-March 2009, the latest year for which data are available (Japanese-only link to a mine of fascinating Fukushima factoids here), was around Y2.75mn ($34,000 at the current rate), it was Y5.65mn (over $70,000) in Hirono, by far the highest in Fukushima, and Y4.85mn (over $60,000) in Okuma, home to most of Fukushima Daiichi. In the sublimely implausible event that Hirono and its 4,500-odd inhabitants were to declare independence, it would rank somewhere above Switzerland and below Norway as one of the nominally half-dozen wealthiest nations on the planet. Remember that the next time you fork over for your electricity bills, Tokyoites.

The nuclear shoreline is also impervious, it would seem, to the vicissitudes of recession. While the rest of the prefecture—and the rest of the world—were left reeling in wake of the global financial crisis, the Soma district (essentially the Fukushima coast minus Iwaki) was clocking up gross product (i.e., GDP at a local level) growth of 6.4%, a figure that would not bring dishonour to the average emerging economy.

This bastion of electric wealth is unlikely to see its fortunes crumble anytime soon. While TEPCO is seeking a 20% cut in its peons’ pay and the toothless in-house union has folded its hand without a whisper of dissent, the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and, as now seems likely, Daini, will provide decades of arduous but lucrative work, while the five generators at Hirono will be even more pivotal to keeping the lights on in the capital.

I headed northwest, inland, to the city of Tamura then backtracked east, so I was now due west of Fukushima Daiichi and closing in on it, my destination a celebration of all things coleopteran and the rhinoceros beetle in particular, Kodomo no Kuni (“children’s country”) Mushi Mushi (“insect insect”) Land, whose attractions include the Rhinoceros Beetle Mansion and the Rhinoceros Beetle Natural Observation Park.

Lying just 33.4km west of Fukushima Daiichi, Mushi Mushi Land had gamely struggled on after March 11 until, bizarrely, someone realized around a month later that eight households in the area were inside the 30km zone and the city mandated the evacuation of the whole district. This much I knew in advance, but the word was that somehow the on-site accommodation facility, Sky Palace Tokiwa, was still open. Many of the backroads leading to Insect Land had been ripped asunder by the earthquake, however, the signposts were unhelpful, and dusk was stealing in, so with reluctance I gave up my quest to spend the night in coleopteran company.

Just down the road I found a ramshackle single-storey hot-springs hotel, Kanda no Yu, an agglomeration of at least eight wings, ells, and extensions of varying age. The proprietress—let’s call her mother—seemed to take a shine to me.

“Have you come to volunteer?” Again the twinge of guilt.

“No, I’ve come to support Fukushima. And to do a little research.”

Raucous laughter emanated from a party in the interior.

“It’s getting pretty lively back there.”

“Yes, the cherries are in full bloom. It’s the first booking we’ve had in quite a while. Since…” Her voice trailed off.

“I had hoped to stay up at Insect Land, but it seems to be all shut down.”

“Is it? That is a shame. The beetles are just coming into season now, too.”

Grandmother gave me the once-over with a beady eye as I carried my bags in. Somehow I found myself looking up with her at a swallow’s nest in the eaves.

“It’s a swallow’s nest.”

“Yes, I see. But the swallows haven’t come back yet, have they?” I knew as soon as I blurted this out that the conversation had taken a wrong turn.

“Of course they have!” she said in high dudgeon, pointing to a trace of swallow droppings below the nest. “You don’t think we’d’ve left the shit there from last year, do you?”

Dining options in the center of Tamura were limited. I settled on a counter perch at this branch of Hakkenden (“legend of eight swords”), a kushiyaki chicken-on-a-stick chain. A lanky black-uniformed dude with a scraggly goatee, pierced nose, and an indecipherable and amateurish monochrome tattoo above his right wrist proved to be a disciplined twirler of the chicken batons on the charcoal and won my heart when he flipped the bird in some style to a customer acquaintance, the first time I’d ever seen the middle finger given on these islands. A queue of blossom revellers—no sombre self-restraint here—built up outside the restaurant. “Japan,” I thought to myself, “there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Back home, I wasn’t so sure. Like the rest of Fukushima, which is set to lose a fifth of its folk in the coming quarter century, Tamura is in dire demographic trouble. The population, heading south to 40,000, is already a quarter below the 1970 level and fell by 6.5% from 2005 to 2010 alone, outpacing the predictions of the demographers due mainly it seems to a tumbling birth rate, and is likely to fall by another quarter by 2035. Agriculture is in a state of collapse: while there were 11,000 farmers in 1985, only 4,400 were left on the land by 2005, perhaps because one of the primary crops is uncompetitive leaf tobacco, the sole and increasingly reluctant buyer of which is the former cigarette monopoly, Japan Tobacco.

As with Tamura, so with Hakkenden, a brand of a listed restaurant operator, Marche, which has some 850 restaurants, directly run and franchised, in various formats, around the nation. While Marche sales hovered around Y19bn-Y20bn ($235mn-$250mn) from 2002 to 2007, they have plummeted in the last five years. Marche is aiming for sales down 13% to Y13.5bn ($170mn) in the year to end-March, a target it will be lucky to achieve, as sales in the first three quarters of the fiscal year were down a calamitous 18%.

Back at the inn, the maid fussed, cautioning of morning chills, as I marvelled at the room’s tiny and prehistoric CRT TV. There was a choice of TEPCO reading matter—a hardback propaganda manga from a decade ago, “Environment company TEPCO: Together with wisdom to a living future”, and the latest edition of Nikkei Business magazine, whose cover bore a picture of TEPCO president Masataka Shimizu bowing and the stern Dostoyevskian legend “TEPCO: Crime and punishment”—but I was too tired for either. Serenaded by a sublime chorus of frogs, pebbly then tremulous, I fell asleep 35km and, according to my roadmap, three traffic lights due west of Fukushima Daiichi to my first ever nuclear nightmare, in which a vitrified radioactive waterfall atop which I was standing was about to melt.

Before breakfast next morning, I took a stroll around Tokiwa, the dusty corner of Tamura where I had pitched up, enraptured by the consumer electronics shop,

the ironmongers,

and the vendor of salt and Subarus (said the sign),

before coming across a photographer’s studio with something I’ve been longing to unearth—a two-digit phone number.

Around the corner of the shop lay a feast for the amateur iconographer.

All new cars, exclaims the ad for a driving school at the top. New that is, if a 1962 Nissan Cedric qualifies as new. The deeply faded wooden plaque pronounces the store owner to be a member of the Japan Photo Culture Association, which still exists, while below that there’s evidence that the phone number on the front of the studio hadn’t seen time lop a digit off.

On and on through Tokiwa thundered the trucks of the military and the police, bearing tell-tale number plates from Yokohama, Gifu, Toyama, anywhere but here, on their terrifying way to Fukushima Daiichi.

As I prepared to leave after a hearty country breakfast, mother pressed a couple of onigiri rice balls into my hands.

“For lunch. Made with mushrooms freshly picked from the hills.”

I accepted, embarrassed. Later I wondered whether this was some obscure trial of courage—or foolhardiness. Still, what’s the odd kilobecquerel between friends? I had one—just the one—for lunch. A little salty, perhaps, but delicious.

Amakusa: Islands of dread

As is commonly known, the term karayuki-san is a contraction of karahitoyuki (a person going to Kara, i.e., China, or abroad) or karankuniyuki (going to China, or a country overseas). It refers to the overseas prostitutes who, from the final stages of the Tokugawa shogunate in the mid-nineteenth century through the Meiji period (1868-1911) and until the middle of the Taisho period (1912-1925) at the end of World War I, left their native country behind and traveled north to Siberia or continental China, or south to the various countries of Southeast Asia, to sell their flesh to foreigners. These women came from all over Japan, but it is said the vast majority came from the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula.

 Sandakan Brothel No. 8, Tomoko Yamazaki (1972)

Some places are born cursed, while others are cursed by the whims of history. It has been Amakusa’s tragedy to suffer both fates. Amakusa’s woes began at birth, in the course of the Paleogene, 65mn-23mn years ago, as volcanoes shaped the islands over millions of years and cursed them with a thin gruel of a soil, fit for millennia only for the coarsest barley, until the arrival of the hardy sweet potato from the New World in the 16th century. Rice never made it to the islands until the advent of cheap phosphate fertilizers and improved strains in the 20th century. The convoluted currents created by the tortured ria coastline of west Kyushu conspired to keep the bounty of the ocean unfishably far from shore. Besides, Amakusa had been blessed with only one good natural harbor, at the port of Ushibuka in the remote southwestern corner. Nature’s cruelest trick, though, was to make Amakusa islands at all: the two principal and most of the eight minor islands are separated from each other by the narrowest of channels, never more than a few hundred meters wide, and the island nearest the mainland is scarcely more than a skimmed stone from it. But islands they are, and the straits and seas that engird them were to keep them isolated for centuries—and in many ways still do.

The first man-made misfortune to befall Amakusa was the arrival of proselytizing and trading Portuguese-sponsored Jesuit missionaries on Kyushu in the middle of the 16th century. Jewish-born Jesuit missionary Luis de Almeida (1525-1583) pitched up on Amakusa in 1569 and swiftly won converts to the faith, including local daimyo lord Konishi Yukinaga (小西行長, Don Agostinho, (1555-1600). Konishi made the fatal error of backing the losing side at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), a fight that was to determine the fate of the nation for the next two-and-a-half centuries, and was executed for his pains, his demesnes being awarded to the Lord of Karatsu, Terazawa Hirotaka (寺沢広高, 1563-1633), a lapsed Christian, whose first act was to have the islands surveyed so they could be taxed to within an inch of their lives to fund the construction of his self-glorifying Karatsu Castle. Christianity, subject to intermittent prohibition from the late 16th century, was finally banned outright by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1614. Fierce persecution of recalcitrant Christians became the rage: on the Shimabara Peninsula to the north of Amakusa, the daimyo Matsukura Shigemasa (松倉重政, 1574?-1630) proved partial to boiling them alive in the scalding springs of Mount Unzen.

Stirrings of revolt began to brew among dispossessed masterless samurai, oppressed peasants, and repressed Christians, culminating in the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion (島原天草の乱) of 1637-1638, the very last uprising of any size in pre-modern Japan. The rebellion was led by a charismatic 15-year old, Masuda Tokisada, (益田 時貞, 1621?-1638), who took as his nom de guerre Amakusa Shiro (天草四郎literally “the fourth son of Amakusa”), in tribute to the prophecy of Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-1552) that a “fourth son of heaven” would lead the conversion of Japan to Christianity. The rebellion culminated in a five-month siege of Hara Castle on the Shimabara Peninsula, defended by some 35,000 rebels, ultimately no match for the besieging forces, who came to number some 120,000 men. Every last rebel was executed and the severed head of Amakusa Shiro taken to Nagasaki, where it was displayed on a pike, in awful warning of the folly of insurrection, until the flesh fell off.

All of this is familiar enough to the history books; there is a solid account of the rebellion, albeit one narrated from a Catholic perspective, here. What is less well known is the fate of Amakusa in the wake of the revolt. The islands, deemed too overrun with malcontents for daimyo rule, were made “heavenly territory” (天領) under the direct jurisdiction of the shogunate. A new magistrate, sent to administer them, appealed for a lighter tax burden, was rebuffed, and disemboweled himself. The population of the islands had been halved by the rebellion, from around 16,000 to 8,000: Tomoko Yamazaki notes that, “in the villages close to the Shimabara Peninsula, it was unusual to see smoke rising from a human dwelling.” To repopulate Amakusa, the shogunate instituted a resettlement policy, forcing peasants to move there from elsewhere in Kyushu and using the islands as a dumping ground for unwanted convicts, ne’er-do-wells, and other undesirables.    

The result was a population explosion unparalleled anywhere else in the nation in the Edo era (1603-1868). While the population of Japan remained almost unchanged over these two-and-a-half centuries, Amakusa’s soared. It regained the level of the 1637-1638 rebellion in 1659, then swiftly doubled, doubled again, and doubled yet again.

1691: 34,357

1746: 74,650

1784: over 100,000

1794: 112,000

1818: 132,200

1832: 143,041

1868: 156,161

1924: 195,344

1955: around 240,000

So unfolded one of the world’s first encounters with a very contemporary, if barely acknowledged problem: overpopulation. By the dawn of modernity at the Meiji Restoration in 1868, more than 150,000 souls were coaxing the most impoverished of existences out of the mostly rocky, barren, and mountainous lands of an archipelago with a total area of only around 1,000km2.

It was into this world that Osaki, the child-prostitute who is the subject of Tomoko Yamazaki’s Sandakan Brothel No. 8, was born in or around the year 1900. The daughter of a farmer father who gambled his land away and died young and a mother who abandoned her three children on remarriage, Osaki was born on the very lowest rung of society:

There were days when I would have nothing to swallow but water from morning ’til night. Even when noon came around, or when the sun had set, I still hadn’t even had the neck of a sweet potato to eat. … By the time winter arrived, the barley box and the potato tub were empty, and days would go by when not only was there no barley gruel, but we couldn’t even sip potato broth.

The karayuki-san prostitutes derive their name from the girls and women of the Amakusa islands and the Shimabara Peninsula, who, once the travel restrictions of the Edo era were lifted in the 1870s, poured first into Nagasaki as the maids and mistresses of wealthy Chinese merchants, on occasion travelling to China with them as concubines. From these origins, the karayuki-san trade came to encompass much of East and Southeast Asia, extending as far as Siberia and North America. At its peak around 1910, there were perhaps some 30,000 Japanese women—almost all from Amakusa and Shimabara—working overseas as prostitutes everywhere from Rangoon to Mukden, San Francisco to Vladivostok, compared to only around 50,000 prostitutes in the home islands.

After many adventures, much exploitation, and some loving bonds forged, Osaki is discovered, now well into old age and back in the Amakusa village of her youth, by a young Tokyo ethnographer and feminist, Tomoko Yamazaki, in 1968, four years after the Tokyo Olympics and the year Japan overtook West Germany to begin its 42-year reign as the world’s second largest economy. This is how Yamazaki describes their first encounter, in a tiny restaurant in the tiny port of Sakitsu: 

She had already finished her rice and was using a toothpick as she drank tea. … She was of slight build, and about one meter and thirty or forty centimeters tall. Her entire body was thin and frail, her arms and legs no more than chicken bones. She wore a faded blue skirt with a well-laundered shirt, and on her feet were a pair of worn rubber thongs…

Withdrawing a slender pipe from a cloth bag and pulling a partly smoked cigarette out of a pack of Shinsei, she stuffed it into the pipe bowl and began smoking. As she contentedly exhaled pale purple smoke, she reached out for the three ashtrays in the small shop and, collecting the smudged out cigarette butts one by one, she knocked off the ashes and stuffed them into the Shinsei pack.

Due to an extreme tobacco shortage during World War II and shortly afterward there were a number of people who would pick up cigarette butts dropped by others, but today, no matter where you went, you would never even hear that sort of thing mentioned. Yet here, right before our eyes, was an old woman totally engrossed in collecting cigarette butts.

 A railway line was laid out up the Uto Peninsula to the now sweetly slumbering town of Misumi, the gateway to Amakusa, as early as 1899, but never extended further, and Amakusa remains about the most populous place in Japan outside Okinawa to be bereft of the pleasures of rail. Utterly deserted and overrun with grass and weeds, Misumi station had, like many a rural terminus does, a mournful end-of-the-pier feel.

The five short bridges needed to connect Amakusa to the mainland were finally built in 1966, largely depriving the railway of its raison d’être. Freight services were halted in 1982, expresses in 1986. Passenger volume fell by more than 40% between 1986 and 2007 and the line loses more than Y30 for every Y100 it generates in revenue.  

It was with some shapeless trepidation that I crossed the first of the five bridges to Amakusa.

Immediately I was stricken with the apprehension that something, somewhere, was wrong.

The shops in the strip-malls of the first island, Oyano, wore jaunty expressions. Where was the spectral gloom for which I had come in quest? And why, I wondered irritated, does a “London” bus always turn up in the unlikeliest of locations, in this case with its downstairs windows papered over with a London evening newspaper from just months before?

This Leyland Atlantean from 1981, GSC655X, once pounded the stately pavements of Edinburgh and York and as recently as February was kitted out in slate blue and white livery. But why was the URL for a Japanese restaurant in London’s West End and the phone number for an Amakusa stationer’s, neither of which were called Sophie’s Kitchen? This was not the last of the islands’ mysteries that was to prove unfathomable.

After peaking in 1955 at close to a quarter of a million, Amakusa’s population went into precipitous reverse, as youngsters flooded off the islands in search of work at lathe or till or jackhammer, falling to around 173,000 by 1980 and almost halving to below 127,000 in the summer of 2010, already back to the level of the early 19th century. From here it is poised to fall by more than a third over the next quarter century, to perhaps 80,000 in 2035, the mid-18th century level. Further out the demographic crystal ball grows murkier, but it is at least conceivable that Amakusa will return to its population level at the time of the 1637-1638 uprising by the end of this century, completing an extraordinary half-millennium of rise and decline.

While once beset by the burden of too many mouths to feed, the whole of Amakusa is now deemed by the state to be a zone of underpopulation (過疎地域), a designation that covers an astonishing 50% of the land area of Japan, if only some 6% of its people—although this is bound to rise in coming years, as the avenging angels of depopulation sweep down from the mountains to lay claim to ever larger conurbations. 

Overpopulation has a biological definition—the number of people exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat—but underpopulation, at least in a Japanese context, is more of judgment call. The word for underpopulation (過疎) only appeared in the language in 1966, and it was initially defined as falling population densities, ageing, and a growing difficulty in maintaining established lifestyle patterns as the result of a declining population.

The population of the islands’ largest constituent municipality, Amakusa City, is falling faster than any other city of its size (50,000-100,000 people) in Japan, tumbling by more than 8% between 2005 and 2010 alone, due to a combination of continued outmigration by the young (there were 1,031 17-year olds but only 396 19-year olds in the city in 2005), a birthrate that has in recent times fallen below even the already low national average (there were 1,088 14-year olds but only 740 babies under one in the city in 2005), and a high and rising elderly ratio (nearly a third of everyone was over 65 in the city in 2005).

But where were the ruins?

It’s not that there weren’t any: this blot on the seashore landscape of a ryokan hotel had seized up some years before. In the lounge, slabs of green leatherette armchairs, as listless as caged big cats, bore the crinkled imprints of posteriors of yore and the sturdy ashtray stands beside them still held the last guests’ stubbed-out butts. Eerily, the ghost of the ryokan website still haunts the cobwebbed corners of cyberspace, not updated since at least 2004.

Ruination had not taken hold in the way I had expected, though. Ruinology—the divination and detection of ruins—is an imprecise discipline, more art than science. As populations tip lower (and the population is falling in 535 of Japan’s 786 cities, 639 of its 757 towns, and 154 of its 184 villages), the first rubble generally builds in downtown shopping districts—the dead don’t spend—followed by the humbler sort of roadside pit-stop—the dead don’t eat—and the gasoline stand—the dead don’t drive. It takes truly monumental population loss, however, for housing to fall into shell-shocked ruin.

Amakusa’s other city, Kami Amakusa, is a good illustration of this. Its population, 51,000 in 1960, had fallen to 32,500 by 2005, yet the number of households rose to 11,400 in 2005 from 10,200 in 1960, as the average number of people per household fell from over five to under three. By 2035, though, when Kami Amakusa’s population is projected to fall to around 18,000, the ruination will be general. A parallel story plays out on the national stage: although the population started its long slide in 2005, the number of households does not peak until 2015, at about 50.6mn, and even by 2030 is barely back to its 2005 level. Take heart, though, connoisseurs of ruin: in part because of the geographical mismatch between supply and demand, the total housing stock is expected to reach 60.4mn units in 2015, meaning that a staggering 9.8mn houses and condominiums, or 16% of the total stock, will lie vacant or derelict across the land (aside from a clutch of of holiday homes).  

On the shores of Shimabara Bay, I was joined for lunch by the signed poster of a singer of enka folk ballads, a local boy made good.

Born on Amakusa in 1971, Ryuji Hamasaki worked after graduation from high school as a salariman at an electrical design firm for many years before chucking it in to serve as an apprentice to a famous songsmith, Toru Funamura, and finally releasing a debut single in 2005 under the stage name Amakusa Jiro (天草二郎, “the second son of Amakusa”), in tribute to Amakusa Shiro, the leader of the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion. Those legendary lines of William Faulkner, about a very different time and place, sprang to mind: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The moral rectitude of the balladeer’s hairstyle, which could have been cropped into its just-so contours at any time over the last half-century, is underscored by the catch-copy:

こんな時代に律儀な奴!!

An honest fellow for times like these!!

The poster is for the debut single, Amakusa Katagi (天草かたぎ), which might be rendered, with a nod to Billy Joel, as Amakusa State of Mind. The lyrics cover familiar enka tropes, a formulaic directory of expressions and images designed to summon forth instant nostalgia for the hometown—in this case, it’s the cold comforts of sake for the sons of fisherfolk marooned in Tokyo, who recall fondly the house on the cape, the drying persimmons, and of course mother, while bewailing the impossibility of return—but it ends with an ambiguous couplet that departs from the familiar

赤い血潮の
天草かたぎ

and which could be interpreted in two ways: “Hot-bloodedness/Amakusa state of mind”, which is in all likelihood what the lyricist intended, or “Red rivers of blood/Amakusa state of mind”, in a nod to the islands’ blood-soaked past.

Crossing from Kamishima, the upper island, to Shimoshima, the lower island, I paused awhile in Hondo, the largest town on the archipelago, replete with a 24-hour drive-in McDonalds, a Uniqlo, pachinko parlors with giant LCD screens, gaudy car dealerships and all the other delights of the contemporary urban experience. This has been post-war Japan’s great genius, to spread the light of a modicum of prosperity to even the most benighted places of the land.

Downtown, however, the Gintengai shopping arcade, finished in 1973, was more exquisitely deserted than any I have ever strolled.

The entranceways to the arcades were adorned with monstrous signboards featuring collages so nightmarish they would scare the most determined shopper away.

While perhaps only a third of the stores had given up the ghost, doom hung heavy in the air for the rest.

One of the survivors was a rare combination these days, and one that might require elucidation for younger readers: an independent retailer of compact discs. Compact discs, familiarly known as “CDs”, were optical discs used to physically store digital data, often music, and independent retailers were those not affiliated to any larger chain.

Being a stick-in-the-mud technophobe, I only have a CD player in the car, and it so happened that I was after a particular CD—Lily of da Valley, an album of metal-tinged candle-in-the-air hip-hop anthems by Dragon Ash, not out of any longstanding affection for the band but because a few days earlier I’d bought a T-shirt designed by leader Kenji Furuya and in an inversion of the usual process (“You loved the songs! Now buy the T-shirt!”) wanted to hear the music.

I was in luck; it was in stock. Behind the counter stood a graying woman in a cardigan.

“This is Japanese music, you know?”

Does she, I wondered, ask the obverse of a Japanese customer buying a Beatles album.

“Yes, I know. In fact, I’m wearing a Dragon Ash T-shirt.”

She peered blankly at the T-shirt, which bears the opening line of William Blake’s Lily:

The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn:
While the Lily white shall in love delight,
Nor a thorn nor a threat stain her beauty bright.

Across her face, the waters of cognition receded from the shores of reason. Snapping back to the present, she mumbled, “That’ll be Y3,045 ($36.50), please.”

No wonder piracy is killing music. She entered the purchase in pencil in a ledger, as I strained to read it upside-down and tally up her sales: over Y20,000 ($240). Not bad for mid-afternoon, I thought, and then realized this was the total for the week to date. It was Thursday.

Still the nagging feeling that something was wrong was dogging me.

The real reason I had come to Amakusa was the discovery that in the January 2010 Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport land price survey, the price of residential land had fallen faster at two locations on Amakusa than anywhere else in provincial Japan—down by 16.1% and 15.8%, following declines of 14.4% and 15.2% in 2009, when they ranked third and first fastest fallers.

In the aftermath of the housing bubble across the West, drops of a third or so in couple of years might not sound exceptional, but residential—and commercial—land prices have been falling across provincial Japan without interruption since 1993, with the regional residential average down by nearly two-thirds from the peak. The situation is not so different in the big cities—Tokyo residential land prices are 40% of their 1991 peak and commercial land prices just 25%—but there were glimmers of stabilization in 2006 to 2008, hopes snuffed out for now by recession. No such hopes were sparked across provincial Japan: you don’t have to be familiar with the theory that the worth of a piece of land is the discounted present value of its future cash flows nor an expert in hedonic regression analysis to sense instinctively that land price stability remains a distant daydream across swathes of the nation.

Amakusa, though, was playing hard to get: while Hondo had the odd roped-off gas station, pumps pulled out like so many rotten teeth, and its share of shuttered curbside laundromats and patisseries and dry cleaners, the blight was not as dismal or general as I had expected. What I needed, I decided, was a real estate agent.

Half of Mori Fudosan’s window was taken up with rental apartments, priced in the Y30,000-Y50,000 a month ($350-$600) range, which would consume a fair chunk of an Amakusa salary—and you would obtain scant gratification from living in any of them. While Japan excels at food porn and fashion porn, it cannot but help falling flat on its face when it comes to property porn.

Mr Mori, in his fifties, and his comely twentysomething daughter betrayed no foreknowledge but also no trace of surprise when I told them of Amakusa’s latest claim to notoriety. To what did they ascribe the plunge in the price of land, I asked.

Immediately Mr Mori took charge and launched into a tirade against the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) administration.

“Things might be all very fine for you folk up in Tokyo, but we’ve got nothing to survive on but construction down here.”

He was clearly a fervent believer in concrete over people rather than the DPJ slogan “people over concrete”. Certainly, dotted around Amakusa were hoardings demanding more roads, including one that fancifully demanded a bridge, which would need to be at least a couple of kilometers long, to the island of Shishijima (pop. 1,050 and heading in only one direction). These hoardings often sign off with “this is the ardent desire of the people”, although as they are erected not by people but by bureaucrats, it’s hard to be sure how ardent the people’s desires are. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the DPJ had only been in power for only four months when the land price survey was conducted and that even the most ham-fisted bunch of merry incompetents could not have contrived to send the price of Amakusa land spiraling lower in such a brief spell.

“What we need is an expressway to the mainland.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the “straw phenomenon” (ストロー現象), whereby improved transport infrastructure paradoxically causes the district it was designed to invigorate instead to atrophy, as people and life are sucked away to the big city bright lights which burn with even greater luster, just as a drinker drains a glass, means that an expressway is the very last thing Amakusa needs.

“What about tourism?”

“Oh, that’s a non-starter. We’ve got nothing to see, well, nothing special anyway, nothing people elsewhere don’t have themselves.” Amakusa’s brooding past does indeed hang heavy over the islands like a malignant vapor; tales of insurrection and execution are not the stuff of holiday postcards home.

“Jumbo Ozaki [94-time Japan Golf Tour winner] was going to build a resort here, but it all came to nothing.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was probably for the best, as Jumbo declared bankruptcy in 2005, with liabilities of over Y5bn ($60mn), due to a string of golf course development failures.

“They tried cultivating olives, too, but that didn’t work out either. The boars ate all the olives.”

I thanked the Moris for their time. They had plenty of it; in the half-hour I was with them, no phone rang and no customer darkened their door.

Changes in the price of land are best thought of as a subspecies of inflation (or deflation, which is only a subset of inflation). Large moves in either direction, like inflationary and deflationary spirals, are best avoided, as the West has learned to its great cost over the last decade.

Japan’s Bubble, though, was almost an order of magnitude greater than anything seen in all but the frothiest property markets of the West: from 1974 to 1991, the price of land essentially quadrupled in Tokyo and tripled nationwide, with the price more than doubling in Tokyo in just two years, from end-1986 to end-1988. The US median house price, by contrast, took a decade, 1997-2006, to rise to $250,000 from $150,000.

While the run-up in land prices teased some nasty creatures from the woodwork, such as the jiageya land shark mobsters who specialized in turfing folk off their land or out of their homes to make way for redevelopment projects for rapacious realtors, the achingly long descent has on balance produced more, and more enduring, pain. The one thing that can be said in its favor is that growing affordability has lured people back to city centers: the population is rising in all but one of Tokyo’s 23 wards. On the debit side, many buyers were trapped at the top and are sinking further underwater two decades on. Even those who bought on the way down must confront the ugly reality that real estate is now not in any way a store of value, but, due to falling land prices and built-in housing obsolescence, a one-way losing bet—and nowhere is it a losinger bet than on Amakusa.

Heading out of Hondo, I detoured to Amakusa Airport, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

 

Of all Japan’s provincial airports, Amakusa is in many ways the most ludicrous. It is a bastard child of the Bubble, though it wears its Bubble inheritance lightly. The idea for an airport on Amakusa first surfaced in 1982 and it was given the imprimatur of the Minister of Transport in 1990, that fateful year of imagined infallibility, with construction beginning in 1992 and services in 2000.

So marginal is it that in Japanese it is dubbed an aerodrome rather than an airport; so marginal is it that no airline could be found to fly to it, so Amakusa and the prefecture had to create their own, Amakusa Airlines, from scratch; so marginal is it that it will be forever hamstrung by its 1,000m runway, too short to accommodate the latest generations of commuter planes.

Money was seemingly still no object as late as 1999, when the nascent airline bought a brand new 39-seater Bombardier DHC8-103, which remains its only aircraft. By the fiscal year to March 2004 (FY3/04) the airline was in the red, where it has stayed ever since. Cumulative losses had already stacked up to Y350mn (about $4.2mn) by FY3/07. Because the sole aircraft is pressed into such heavy duty, with three round trips a day to Fukuoka, Kyushu’s largest city, and one a day to Kumamoto, the prefectural capital, it has been beset by mechanical woes and is frequently out of commission, as it was on the day I was there.

All flights were cancelled and would remain so for a fortnight.

Passenger numbers peaked in FY3/06 at 85,600. In the six months to September 2010, they were down to 32,400, an annual run-rate of about 65,000. The passenger load factor on both routes was around 54%, far below breakeven at around 65%-70%. In FY3/09, revenue was down 12% from the year before and the operating loss margin an eye-watering 44%, which means the airline was effectively spending Y144 for every Y100 it took in. With its capital almost depleted, the fate of Amakusa Airlines hangs by a gossamer thread.

Amakusa Airlines is but a microcosm of the woes of the airline industry, plagued as it is with too many airports, too many airlines, and too many flights: of the 21 commuter airlines, only five were consistently profitable from FY3/07-FY3/09. JAL, the nation’s largest carrier, began axing domestic routes in October as part of its post-bankruptcy rehabilitation plan: with 30 routes going and reduced services on a further 13, the skies over Japan will grow quieter and emptier, although not yet quiet and empty enough.

Deeper and deeper into the fastnesses of Amakusa I drove. In the sleepy onsen resort town of Shimoda stood an excrescence of the Bubble so hideous I feared it would shatter the camera lens. 

In general, the more wincingly random the agglomeration of languages in the name of a place, the closer it is to the epicenter of the Bubble, and the hotel Jardin Marl Boyokaku (“the tower with ocean prospects and a garden of kaolin”) must have been at ground zero.

We are stuck with the word “bubble” to describe asset manias, thanks to the South Sea Bubble of 1711-1720, but its childish overtones, suggestive of the soap bubbles blown by a toddler, the bubbles rising from the mouth of a child’s drawing of a fish, or the bubblegum bubble blown by a teen, fail to capture the damage done by real-world asset-price bubbles, which are more like malevolent pockets of methane gas lingering in some forgotten pipe missing from the plat which, hit by some contractor’s drill, explode to kill and maim those known in movie credits as innocent bystanders.

When the ban on Christianity was revoked by the Meiji government in 1873, the missionaries returned, although they were not to meet with the proselytizing successes of three centuries before: the church at Oe, completed in 1933 by French missionary Louis Frederic Garnier, who arrived on Amakusa in 1892, is one of only three on the archipelago, and their combined congregation accounts for less than 1% of the population. 

It was abidingly eerie to see a church of such heft in such a lofty location: what with the sultriness of the afternoon, the subtropical verdancy, and the buzz-sawing of the cicadas, I felt as though I had stepped into a scene from the Philippines.

Not far beyond Oe rests the tiny port of Sakitsu, where Tomoko Yamazaki first encountered the former child-prostitute Osaki, who lived half-an-hour’s walk away, and home to one of the other two churches.

The first church at Sakitsu was erected by Luis de Almeida in 1569. Persecution of believers was particularly merciless in Sakitsu, according to the commemorative plaque beside the church, forcing them underground to become the hidden Christians of lore, who kept their faith secret in midnight masses and faintly recalled Latin prayers for two-and-a-half centuries before the return of the missionaries. Rebuilt three times since the Meiji era, the last time in a Gothic style in 1934, the altar of the church at Sakitsu stands on a spot where Sakitsu’s hidden Christians, or those suspected of being so, were made to go through the annual ritual of fumi-e, the trampling of icons of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, with those who hesitated tortured and executed.

The church at Sakitsu was the inspiration for the opening passage of Sandakan Brothel No. 8:

As I sit before my desk preparing to write about the category of overseas prostitutes known as karayuki-san, I find that one particular scene continues to surface in my memory. The setting is Tenshudo, Lord of Heaven Chapel, in the town of Sakitsu, at the southern end of Amakusa-Shimo Island…

It must have been about three o’clock. Although it wasn’t the time of day you would expect people to shut themselves up in their homes, in the vicinity of the Tenshudo not only were there no adults, there wasn’t even a single child at play. Sakitsu was so quiet, it seemed to have been abandoned…

The doors of the Tenshudo stood ajar, as if it, too, were deserted. I walked in and looked around as my eyes adjusted from the outside light. When I focused on the form of a person crouched before the altar, my eyes interpreted it at first as a stone sculpture of a person in prayer. This was because, as the minutes flowed by, the old woman kneeling on the tatami, a rosary hanging from her clasped hands, neither uttered a word nor made a single movement. However, as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim interior of the Tenshudo and I could clearly discern everything from the image of the crucifixion, the statue of Mary, and each of the candlesticks on the altar in the front, to the stained-glass windows on either side, I realized that what I had mistaken for a stone image was actually the living flesh of an old peasant woman…

She looked to me as if she might have been seventy to seventy-five years old, and that was exactly the age of the karayuki-san that one might find still living on the Amakusa Islands or the Shimabara Peninsula. This old farm woman in silent prayer like a stone image—might she once have worked as a prostitute overseas?

…Her face, which I can see clearly now, two years later, as if she were right before my eyes, was furrowed with a number of wide wrinkles, while her fingers were short, with knotted joints. Different patterns at the elbows and knees betrayed the patches on her work clothes. If her attire indicated the poverty in which she now lived, and the wrinkles on her face spoke of the many difficulties she had faced during the course of her life, then I would probably not be going too far in interpreting the true intent of her fervent prayer, not as an idealistic request for the deliverance of humankind from original sin, but rather as a heart-rending wish that she ultimately be saved from a life of poverty and hardship.

More than forty years on, Sakitsu was unchanged, although nowadays it’s no longer possible to register surprise at there having been no child at play. Time appeared to have ground to a halt in the 1950s. An old man, naked from the waist up, squatted to chisel contentedly away at a block of wood, while down a narrow alley a stooped woman fed stray cats, just as Osaki did.

And there was the harbor at Sakitsu, from whence Osaki had sailed, aged 10 or so, some hundred summers before I stood on its shore, to Nagasaki and ultimately Sandakan in the British protectorate of North Borneo, a journey that took many months, to serve first as an indentured maid and then, after a couple of years, as an indentured prostitute, bound by largely fabricated debt from flight.

Given the grimness of its subject matter, Sandakan Brothel No. 8 could be a monstrously dispiriting book. That it is anything but is testament to the way it straddles genres, its academic pretensions constantly undercut by the passion of the author. It is by turn quest, travelogue, oral history, and the tale of an implausible friendship that blossoms between two women across the boundaries of time and age, place and class. Above all, it is a celebration of Osaki, the talker to frogs on paths, the adorer of children, and the shelterer of cats without homes, whose antecedents span holy fools like the Zen monk and hermit Ryokan but also the wise old women of European fable and folklore:

Although she had emphasized that it was “a dreadful house”, I was amazed that a human being could actually live there. … Although the black pillars that supported the house somehow stood up straight, the miscanthus-thatched roof, which had not been rethatched in decades, looked like a heap of compost. On the south side grew wild chrysanthemums and dandelions, while various kinds of ferns had colonized the north. To me, it looked just like a witch’s house described in fairy tales…

Cobwebs three feet long hung from the low ceiling. Here and there the roughly plastered clay walls had crumbled in, and both the interior and exterior paper sliding doors, the fusuma and shoji, had been reduced to the skeletal structure of their wooden frames. The tatami mats in the sitting room appeared to have rotted entirely, for as I stepped into the house on her invitation, my feet sank into the mats as if I had set foot in a rice paddy. Not only did the dampness of the mats cling to the soles of my bare feet, but as I braced myself to bend down, a number of centipedes crawled up toward my knees. Overcome with revulsion, I peered down at them, only to find that the straw mats had become one giant centipede nest.

The tides of trafficking have long turned since Osaki’s day, and Japan is a destination rather than a source of trafficked women, although clampdowns by the authorities and downturns by the economy have improved matters meaningfully since the gory days of the Bubble and its aftermath, when—as I know from personal experience—every flea-bitten hostess joint in every two-bit town from Nemuro to Nagasaki was staffed by Southeast Asians and even the remotest ryokan was not replete without an “entertainer” from Manila or Medan. More needs to be done—Japan remains a signatory to but not a ratifier of the 2000 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols, in particular the one to “Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children”—but however horrific contemporary trafficking is, one can’t help but feel it was worse a century ago:

[There are also tragic tales] about women hidden as stowaways in water tanks. One such account tells of a number of women who hid in a tank that the trafficker and seamen involved assured them would remain empty. However, through some human error the water was turned on and the tank began to fill. The terrified women broke their promise of silence and began beating on the metal sides of the tank and screaming. The water gradually rose to their ankles, then to their knees, and then up to their chests and continued to rise. After the ship had been underway for several days, a seaman turned on a faucet and began to drink, when he noticed a long hair come floating into his glass. Strange, foul-smelling bubbles rose up through the water. When crew members investigated the water tank, they found the bodies of women, so badly decomposed they no longer retained their shape. In the high temperatures of the southern route, bacterial decomposition was a rapid process.

Sandakan Brothel No. 8 went on to sell more than a million copies and be translated into five languages, while the film of it, shorn of the troublesome “brothel” word, was nominated for the 1975 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Osaki, her last years leavened a little by income from the book, died on April 30, 1984, as old as the century.

The dull and timid day, harangued by clouds, had grown tired of itself and was ready to surrender to dusk as, vexed by an amorphous discordance, I entered the town of Ushibuka, to which I took an immediate, unusual, and visceral dislike. Perhaps it was the bleak walls of the junior high, more concentration camp than place of learning.

Perhaps it was the dreary shudder brought on by the monotony of the lifeless tenements.

Perhaps it was the way the bridge, another Bubble era vanity project, completed in 1997 and designed by Renzo Piano, architect of the Pompidou Center in Paris, disfigured the bay.

It was then I spied them: two crude effigies severed at the bottom of the torso, one with matted Jesus locks, one covered, repulsively, in flying ants, strung up on trees outside a wholesale produce market.

Was this, I feverishly wondered, a modern reenactment of the fate of Amakusa Shiro and his band of rebels, a macabre admonition by some nameless authority of the futility of revolt? It was all I could do to raise the camera before turning tail and taking flight to the mountains and the haven of a rustic onsen, where I found, to great relief, that the unease that had been stalking me had shuffled off, to be replaced by a fragile composure.

Next morning, the ferry schedule allowed a few moments to capture the spent melancholy of Ushibuka, where the price of land is falling fastest in all the nation, through the exhausted sadness of its signs

before the ferry carried me away to other, sunnier, islands, islands not of dread.

[With many thanks to A.E. for the karayuki-san tip-off.]

Teshio, Mashike and the Rumoi subprefecture: Of palisades and Christ signs

Japan’s population in 2030, at 108mn, is 14.0%—nearly 18mn people—lower than in 2000. In 2050, it has declined 32.4%—nearly 41mn people—to 85mn. Japan experienced population growth unprecedented for a developed nation in the half-century to 2000. From about 83mn in 1950, the population grew more than 50%. It will now shrink by approximately the same numerical amount over the next half-century. And that stunning decline is unavoidable because it will result mainly from the demographic profile of people already alive.

Shrinking-population economics: Lessons from Japan, Akihiko Matsutani (2006)

Except for the elderly, the Japanese population will decrease by almost half in the coming 50 years.

Commentary to population projections for Japan, Ryuichi Kaneko et al, The Japanese Journal of Population, Vol. 2 No. 1 (March 2009)

My portal to the Rumoi subprefecture was the little cow town of Horonobe (1980 population 4,253, estimated 2009 population 2,652, projected 2035 population 1,476). The prospect of finding an inn with a room for the night there seemed dim, and I headed on to Teshio (1980 population 6,281, estimated 2009 population 3,669, projected 2035 population 2,013), which at least was deemed important enough to have an inset showing the town center in detail on the page in my roadmap book on which it appeared. No room was to be found at Teshio Onsen hot springs, full of frolicking kids; instead I was directed to Hotel Ichihana on the fringe of town.

I suppose Hotel Ichihana is a species of business hotel: its stern appearance, lonesome location, locked-up and evidently long-dormant dining room, and echoingly empty strip-lit and linoleum-clad corridors led me to immediately dub the sullen proprietor Bates. In the twin room to which I was assigned, the naked mattress of the bed I wouldn’t be sleeping in was smeared with stains that did not bear too close inspection.

In the shriveled remains of the entertainment district in the town center, there were at least a few sounds of life from inside a yakinuku skewered chicken place, Hamanasu (that flower again…) The party of thirtysomething women that had been the source of the merriment soon departed, however, and the customer count was reduced to two. I sipped away at an icy beer while assiduously writing up the day’s notes. The guy at the counter kept glancing my way until he could contain his curiosity no more and insistently beckoned me over.

Minami-san was caning a bottle of shochu rice spirit while being gently chided this Thursday evening by the ever-smiling proprietor, Nagayama-san, about how hard everyone had to work the following day. They made a fine double act. He turned out to be the town’s garbage collector, on his fourth, childless, marriage. Divorced, died, divorced, survived: he was turning into Henry VIII. He was separated from his last wife, who was Chinese and lived in Sapporo. I asked in mock innocence where they had met and brought the house down. As if she could have arrived any other way but mail order. For reasons that long escape me, I was forced into explaining the constitutional arrangements of the UK for the second night in a row. Minami-san vowed that he would become a human bomb and kill dear leader Kim Jong-il but as Nagayama-san noted drily, he’d be unlikely to get an interview. The conversation ranged widely but was streaked with nostalgia, for days of the coal mines, young people, and the express trains, which once upon a time ran from Horonobe straight through to Sapporo on the long-gone Haboro line. The food—Genghis Khan mutton, beansprouts, and onion on a sidedish, garlic fried potatoes, and tsukune minced chicken balls from the freezer on a skewer—was dire but the crack, the crack was ninety that night.

Having had one too many for even these deserted roads, I spent a restless night at Bates Motel and stumbled back to the center of town early the next morning to pick up the car, passing as I trod the deserted sidewalks Japan Ground Self-Defense Force troops—at first in dribs and drabs and then in torrents—wobbling past on an eclectic assortment of bicycles—fold-up commuters, choppers, charinkos, and real clunkers that looked like they had been pensioned off from the streets of Shanghai a decade ago.

If like Japan you only commit about 1% of GDP to defense, there won’t be much left in the piggybank for bicycles, which are not, I suppose, a vital ingredient of contemporary combat. Even so, they couldn’t help but remind me of Dad’s Army. Is Walmington-on-Sea really safe?

My destination that drab and squally day was the little town of Mashike, at the far southern end of the Rumoi subprefecture, chosen for no other reason than that I had noticed it had one of the three remaining branch lines on Hokkaido, wanted to know why, and suspected there was a story behind it.

But first, what is the Rumoi subprefecture? It’s one of the 14 subprefectures into which Hokkaido is divided and the sixth smallest, covering only around 5% of the island. Nevertheless, it’s larger in area than Nagasaki prefecture and all but a handful of English counties, stretching some 155km up the Sea of Japan coast.  It’s the second least populous subprefecture and the least densely populated. After the annexation of Hokkaido, it was one of the first places outside the southeastern “chicken’s neck” to be settled and one of the first to see its extractive industries go into decline: the herring fishery before World War II, forestry in the 1950s, and coal in the 1960s. About all the subprefecture has left is some dairy farms in the north, vegetable and rice cultivation in the center, and fruit farms in the south, with Rumoi City’s sole claim to fame being that it is Japan’s largest importer and processor of herring roe and cod roe.

Not that you can discover much of this from the Internet, at least not the English language side of it: strip out Wikipedia and its interminable mirror sites and—aside from Spike—Google can unearth just five references to “Rumoi subprefecture”: two from Hokkaido Electric Power, two in reference to a minor 2004 earthquake, and one from the subprefecture’s own website. Five. We might as well be dealing with an obscure New Guinea language, the 18th century genealogy of a New England family, or a long departed Amazonian tribe.

I headed south, drinking in the desolation, down the coastal Ororon line, named after a local word for the Common Guillemots that breed on an offshore island, through Enbetsu (1980 population 5,375, estimated 2009 population 3,139, projected 2035 population 1,943), Shosanbetsu (1980 population 2,444, estimated 2009 population 1,459, projected 2035 population 745), Haboro (1980 population 13,254, estimated 2009 population 8,368, projected 2035 population 5,070), Tomamae (1980 population 6,528, estimated 2009 population 3,776, projected 2035 population 2,169), and Obira (1980 population 6,474, estimated 2009 population 3,843, projected 2035 population 2,661).

Even the most casual reader of this series of posts, skimming and dipping across the text to get to the next photo the way a deftly tossed stone skips across the sea, cannot have failed to be detained by a meticulous—and sometimes intrusive—cataloguing of past, present, and projected population data for the third or so of Hokkaido’s municipalities through which I passed. Initially I started adding in the population datapoints half in jest, to draw attention to emptying out of rural Hokkaido, before realizing that, having started, for consistency’s sake, I would have to continue to the end of the trail.

As there are just two more sets of data to go, let’s now pull them all together for a demonstration of the strange death of rural Hokkaido. I’ve arbitrarily deemed Sapporo and the five biggest cities—Hakodate, Asahikawa, Obihiro, Kushiro, and Tomokomae—and their suburbs, as well as Chitose, the home of the main airport, to be urban Hokkaido and the rest to be rural.

Population 1980         2009        2035

Urban Hokkaido 2.97mn    3.53mn    3.04mn

Rural Hokkaido 2.60mn    2.01mn    1.37mn

Total Hokkaido 5.58mn    5.54mn    4.41mn

So in the space of two generations, rural Hokkaido—and this includes a handful of cities that at least started off with well over 100,000 people—will have lost very close to half of its population. The hemorrhaging will be worse in truly rural districts such as the Rumoi subprefecture, which will lose fully 60% of its population over the same period. Here is the long-term population trajectory for the subprefecture.

1920: 73,287

1945: 122,256

1970: 118,629

1980: 89,554

1995: 70,403

2005: 61,488

2035: 35,825

As is readily apparent from the above, the population is already well below its 1920 level and heading back to where it was, I would guess, at the turn of the 19th century.

But it would be a grievous mistake to write off the Rumoi subprefecture as a forgotten and neglected corner of the land, with little relevance to anyone save its inhabitants, because it is emblematic not of Japan’s past but its future. The arc of its population trajectory from 1920 to 2005, although a little more intense, skewed, and compressed, mirrors that through which Japan will go in the century between 1955 and 2055. Allow the luminaries at the National Institute for Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), talking about Japan’s total population, to take over for a moment:

 

Coincidentally, the population size of 89.28mn in 1955––50 years ago––is approximately the same as the total population of 89.93mn in 2055 obtained by the medium-variant fertility (with medium-variant mortality) projection. That is, in the coming 50 years, the Japanese population will revert to the size it had approximately 50 years ago. However, the median age was 23.7 in 1955 but will be 57.8 in 2055, showing that the age structure will be completely different and that the population composition will definitely not go back to how it was.
(Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Naturally, the further out you project, the more room for uncertainty there is: under the NIPSSR’s high-variant fertility and low-variant mortality model, the population falls to only 99.53mn in 2005, while under the low-variant fertility and high-variant mortality model it slumps to 82.40mn. The key variable in the long run is fertility, and even in the high-variant model it only recovers to 1.55 in 2055, against the replacement rate of just under 2.1, from 1.26 in 2005, while in the low-variant model it slides to 1.06 in 2055. I’ll have more to say on fertility later. The further out you project, too, the more likely an exogenous negative population event (though not a positive one) is to occur: war, disease, or climate change, to name but three.

Let’s leave the last words on what the experience of places such as the Rumoi subprefecture augur for the rest of Japan to Professor Matsutani:

An earlier pattern of population of population outflows will thus soften the adverse economic effects of aging and population decline in several prefectures [such as Hokkaido]. Those prefectures are harbingers for the economic tribulations that demographic change will occasion in Japan’s three largest metropolises. (Matsutani)

I hunted high and low in the subprefectural capital, Rumoi (1980 population 36,626, estimated 2009 population 25,459, projected 2035 population 16,525) for lunch, but aside from a McDonalds, a KFC, and a couple of no-name ramen noodle outlets, none of which were offering fare befitting a holiday, could find nothing, and pressed on, as watery sunshine usurped the rain, to Mashike (1980 population 8,319, estimated 2009 population 5,411, projected 2035 population 3,223).

At its 1897 inception, the Rumoi subprefecture was known as the Mashike subprefecture, with Mashike as its administrative seat; the seat was moved to Rumoi, just up the coast, in 1914, and Mashike’s heyday was all but done. It may well be in obeisance to its modest former glory that Mashike is allowed to keep its branch line. Could there have been a better spot from which to muse on the aging of Japan?

By 1998, Japan had become the oldest society on earth, and it is poised to continue aging faster than any other nation.
(Matsutani)

Let me reiterate that, with emphasis added for effect: in 2010, Japan is the oldest society that has ever existed in the history of humanity on the planet, and will remain so, not remotely challenged, for several decades at least.

The line from Rumoi to Mashike is not, technically, a branch line, but rather a 17km extension of the 50km of the Rumoi mainline, completed in 1910, that runs between Rumoi and a place called Fukagawa; by the time the tracks turn up at Mashike, however, its essential branchiness is plain for all to see.

Even if we were to assume that the fertility rate will increase to a much higher level than today, given the current situation, Japan will be unable to avoid having the highest proportion of elderly in the world; and the trend will continue. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

In 1921, the last spike in the mainline extension southward from Rumoi to Mashike was driven in, and my best, though architecturally uninformed, guess is that this gorgeous if derelict ryokan hotel, Tomitaya, was put up around the same time, a sublime exemplar of Taisho Romanesque and a nonpareil restoration project for the wild and brave at heart.

Japanese society is aging at a pace unprecedented in any large nation. Demographers characterize societies where people older than 65 constitute more than 7% of the population as aging societies, and they refer to societies where the over-65 percentage is greater than 14% as aged societies. By those criteria, Japanese society went from aging to aged in the stunningly brief span of only 24 years. The over-65 component of Japan’s population reached 7% in 1970 and 14% in 1994. (Matsutani)

How stunning is brief? It took Germany 40 years, from around 1930 to around 1970, the UK 47 years, from around 1930 to around 1975, France a mere 115 years, from 1864 to 1979, and the US, having reached ageing status in 1942, is not yet, although very close, to aged.

And the further aging of Japanese society will proceed just as fast. The over-65 percentage of Japanese will reach 28%—double the “aged” demographic threshold—shortly before 2020. Japan’s over-65 surge to 28% of the population, from 14%, will occur in approximately the same quarter-century span as the increase to 14% from 7%. (Matsutani)

With the over-65s already accounting for over 28% of the population by 2006 and climbing steeply, the Rumoi subprefecture is thus more than a decade ahead of the national curve. Yet by the standards of rural Japan it is not particularly aged: ratios of 40% and 50% are not that uncommon, and Nanmoku, a onetime lumber village scarcely two hours from downtown Tokyo, boasted in 2008 an elderly ratio of 57% and an average age of 62.5, making it the most elderly municipality in Japan and perhaps the world. One of its larger constituent hamlets has 200 people, only two of whom are under 65; one of its remoter hamlets has 20 people, all of whom are over 75.

Much as I am loath to credit Japan with any unique attributes at all, I am forced to concede that it has an extraordinarily distinctive demographic profile, one that grows more unlike those of other developed nations every hour of every day. Until the early 1990s, it superficially resembled those of large Western European nations, but the diligent observer would have been able to detect easily enough what was about to unfold.

 

Japan’s departure from the demographic norm can be traced back to its postwar baby boom, which was nipped in the bud by the charmingly named Eugenics Protection Law of 1948, which in its amended 1949 incarnation made abortion available on demand. While baby booms elsewhere carried on into the late 1950s or early 1960s, Japan’s birthrate had already fallen below the replacement rate as early as 1957 and remained there until 1965, staging a resurgence to around the replacement rate in the decade between 1965 and 1974, the peak of the “echo boom”, and then falling definitively and permanently below it in 1975. Japan finally entered the netherworld of lowest-low fertility (a fertility rate of below 1.5) in 1995 and the fertility rate bottomed out, at least for now, at 1.26 in 2005. It is this long half-century of near or below replacement rate fertility that is partly responsible for the rapidity of the aging of the demographic picture that Japan continues to undergo.

Also responsible are the astonishing gains in postwar life expectancy, which averaged just 52 in 1947 but 72 in 1970, surging by two decades over a span of a mere 23 years, compared to gains of only 2.8 years in the US and 2.3 years in the UK over the same period. Japan now, of course, has the longest overall life expectancy at birth of any state or territory on the planet, at 82.6 years.

The proportion of the elderly is expected to grow from 20.2% as of 2005 to 25.2% in 2013, already accounting for more than one-quarter of the population of Japan at this stage. According to the medium-variant projection, it will then reach 33.7%, or more than one-third of the population, in 2035. It will reach 40.5% by 2055, which means that 1 out of 2.5 persons will be in the aged category in Japan 50 years from now.

Population Projections for Japan: 2006-2055, Ryuichi Kaneko et al, The Japanese Journal of Population, Volume 6 No. 1 [March 2008]

 

The incontrovertible axiom that life yields no known survivors still holds, however, and not yet having concocted the elixir that forever wards off death, the Japanese remain mortal. So as Japan becomes the world’s first hyper-aged society in the latter years of this decade, its population will decline at an accelerating rate.

The main school building (above) and gymnasium (below) of Mashike elementary school, founded in 1868; the present buildings date back only to 1936. It can accommodate 1,000 pupils but currently has fewer than 200 on its rolls.

未来に向かってはばたけ

exhorts the slogan: “fly to the future”. Mashike’s sole high school stopped recruiting students in March 2009 and will close its doors forever in March 2011.

In case of Japan…the proportion of the child population will fall below 10% (8.6%) in 2050, the proportion of the working-age population will be c50% (51.8%) and the elderly proportion will comprise c40% (39.6%) of the total population, which means that the Japanese population will show the most advanced degree of population aging in the world, combined with an ever-diminishing number of children. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

I lunched on the freshest of seafood in an ancient converted kura storehouse and found lodging at the Auberge Mashike, which as its name suggests, had definite pretensions, before retracing my steps north along the coast at a slightly more leisured pace.

Shuttered shops in Shosanbetsu, existing somewhere in the penumbra between shadow and sun, life and death.

While Japan’s overall population has only been contracting since 2005, the working-age population began to fall a decade earlier, in 1995, and this has had and will continue to have repercussions for the vibrancy of Japan’s socioeconomy. The demographic rot set in even earlier though. Take it away, professor:

The inevitable aging of Japanese society was a foregone conclusion by the early 1960s. But that demographic change did not begin to affect the labor supply until 1968. In that year, population growth in the 20-39 age range slowed for the first time in the postwar era. And in 1976, the population in that age range began to decline. (Matsutani)

In the sunset, a long-silenced gravel plant south of Shosanbetsu.

Japan’s working-age population has been declining since 1995, and it will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. … Trends in working-age population suggest strongly that Japan will have the slowest economic growth among the large industrialized nations. (Matsutani)

Bunting and lanterns had been strung out for a neigborhood association festival in the center of Haboro, but the enforced gaiety only made the melancholy of the rusting shutters more poignant.

The economically active population is poised to decline to 54.7mn people in 2030, from 67.7mn in 2000—a decline of 13mn people, or 19.2%. … The decline in working-age population between 2000 and 2030, at 27.8%, is nearly double the 14.0% decline in overall population. (Matsutani)

An Elasmosaurus (and it took some research to bring you that) welcomes visitors to the “Romantic Seaside Town” of Obira, home to more than 17,000 folk in 1950 and fewer than 4,000 now.

The coming contraction in the active workforce, together with the swelling ranks of the elderly, will result in a skyrocketing dependency ratio, with more and more senior citizens reliant on fewer and fewer working taxpayers. Youthful societies also have high dependency ratios because of their abundance of children, but while children can—in theory—be raised and educated relatively cheaply, Japan’s oldest old will need hugely expensive medical treatment to help them negotiate their last few years of life.

The child dependency ratio and the old-age dependency ratio added together is referred to as the overall dependency ratio, and this ratio is used to show the degree of support for the entire working-age population. According to the medium-variant projection of birth, the overall dependency ratio is expected to increase to 70.9% in 2030 from 51.3% in 2005, and will eventually reach 95.7% by 2055. (Population, Kaneko et al)

An abandoned café-cum-restaurant with rudimentary bungalows for tourists, Tomamae. The door to the café was ajar and I poked my nose in: it was like the Marie Celeste, with a half-drained bottle of whisky on the sideboard. I suspect what the Japanese call a “yonige”, a flight in the night to evade the pursuit of creditors, to start afresh somewhere new. Very very bad juju around here.

One conceivable, if only partial, solution to the decline in the working population might be to shepherd more women and over-65s into the workforce. But Japan’s female labor participation ratio is not exceptionally low by international standards and coercive policies to get women working would run the risk of depressing the birthrate further. And why would women want to sacrifice the primes of their lives to the serfdom of the firm in a land where the glass ceiling is made of Kevlar—fewer than 2% of corporate executives are female.

Nor would Japan’s recalcitrant retirees be likely to take kindly to efforts to push them back into offices, shops, and factories, and they would no doubt express their displeasure at the ballot box, where thanks to their sheer numbers, their high propensity to vote, and a electoral system rigged in favor of rural areas where they are—relatively—most numerous, they are more than capable of turning a general election. My professor snorts:

No reasonably imaginable increase in the employment of women and the elderly can prevent the economically active population from declining faster than the overall population. … The notion of resolving the nation’s fiscal problems by mobilizing the population is ludicrous—an anachronous echo of the wartime National Mobilization Law. (Matsutani)

The proud breast of the concrete guillemot proclaims, “Welcome to Haboro, Sunset Kingdom”. In more than one way.

In 2005, Japan became the world’s pioneer in shrinking-population economics. It became the first large industrialized nation to experience a population decline as a result of natural causes. (Matsutani)

Surrender to the inevitable could not be postponed indefinitely, and the rollercoaster that had taken Japan’s population from 56mn in 1920, past 100mn in 1967, and up to a peak of 127,787,000 in 2004 reached the apex of the ride and began to teeter on the rails, rocking back and forth: although the population fell by 19,000, a rounding error, in 2005, it rose again in 2006—by a miniscule 2,000—and again in 2007—by just 1,000, before staging the first truly irrevocable fall of the coming half-century or more of contraction in 2008, when the rollercoaster lunged forward and the population declined by 79,000, or more than the entire population of the Rumoi subprefecture. We’re on the way down now, and we’ve got a long way to go.

I put years on my tires in the Rumoi subprefecture, executing emergency stops as something caught my eye, smoking U-turns off gravel to get back to better vantage points, churning up muddy verges to make a break for it in the face of oncoming traffic. I needed a sticker for my rear window that read not “I stop for children”—there were none—but “I stop for rust”. I’d rather have this photo, blown-up, than any Rothko in my living room.

Who hinged the door? Who stacked the aluminum windows? Who piled the tires? Did they know each other? And who chose the yellow, and who the blue?

What a patchwork quilt of corrugation! Look how delicately the embers of rust lick up and down the ridges and furrows, how the windows shed tears, grow beards of rust.

According to the 2005 Population Census, the base year of this projection, the total population of Japan was 127.8mn. Based on the results of the medium-variant projection, the population is expected to enter a long period of depopulation. The population is expected to decrease to about 115.2mn in 2030, fall below 100mn to 99.4mn in 2046, and drop to 89.9mn by 2055. (Population, Kaneko et al)

Part of a near-abandoned hamlet north of Tomamae, and the first sign of the palisade fortifications built around houses and compounds against the fearsome blizzards that pound remorselessly in off the Sea of Japan through the winter.

An absolute decline in population will accompany the aging of Japanese society. Quite simply, the number of people dying will outnumber the number of people being born. … No developed nation has ever experienced a large, long-term decline in population. Japan is thus destined to be a demographic pioneer in the uncharted waters of negative population growth. (Matsutani)

Another forsaken hamlet north of Tomamae, the wind turbines—the Rumoi subprefecture generates about 40% of Hokkaido’s wind power—a chilling summer reminder of the intensity of the winter gales.

Japan is headed for several decades of population decline. That decline will continue long after the end of the sharp decline associated with the passing of the baby boom generation. In no industrialized nation do we find a birthrate higher than the 2.1 needed to maintain population size, and we have no reason to believe that Japan’s birthrate will return to even that level. … As stunningly swift as the change will seem initially, it will accelerate. The rate of population decline will increase annually. Stopgap solutions will soon prove wholly inadequate. (Matsutani)

A cliff-perched hamlet half-submerged by summer grasses, Tomamae. The badlands of the Rumoi subprefecture are not badlands in the way American badlands are, arid, eroded, and impenetrable, but they feel like badlands in a spiritual sense, a land of false promises, dashed hopes, and broken dreams, a land forsaken.

It can be said with a significantly high degree of certainty that the Japanese population will continue to decrease for a large part of the 21st century.
(Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Even newer houses have succumbed: this one, near Tomamae, has been boarded up with weather-withered plywood that gives it some aesthetic affinity with the barn, almost as if it has been colonized in revenge for its upstart effrontery in presuming that new roots could be put down in a dying land.

Japan will lose some 30% of its population in the coming 50 years. Continuing these extrapolations…the population will have dwindled down to 44.59mn in 2105, 100 years in the future, a mere 35% of the population in 2005. The population has never before in Japanese history shown such a constant decreasing trend for such a long period of time, literally making the 21st century a century of depopulation for Japan. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Sundown coming, Tomamae: looking south to the 1,500m peaks behind Mashike, which bear fresh dustings of snow even in midsummer.

As a matter of fact, even in the extremely unlikely case where the fertility rate recovers to the population replacement level in 2005 and onward and maintains that level afterward as well, the population will continue decreasing until the 2070s, at which point it will have shrunk to approximately 87% of the original population before stabilizing. Thus, the conclusion is clear: Japan is facing an inevitable long-term population decrease. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

A storm-savaged barn in the sunset, Tomamae.

50 years from now, the shape of the population pyramid will be transformed into an inverted triangle with a very high center of mass, completely lacking stability—much like a pyramid balancing on its tip. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

The skeletal remains of a house and boat, Shaguma, between Rumoi and Mashike.

Demographic innocents—I was one until recently—no doubt fondly believe that if only the birthrate could be magically reset to 2.1 or thereabouts, long-term population decline could be averted. But it absolutely cannot be averted, as we have seen, due to the wonder of population momentum: just as Japan’s population grew for a half-century after the fuel of a replacement birthrate was spent, so it will decline for at least the next fifty years.

Depopulation will first be felt most acutely in the countryside: the average age of Japan’s farmers is already over 65 and by 2030 few will be capable of harvesting rice, herding cattle, or picking apples. More than a tenth of Japan’s paddies, fields, and orchards already lie fallow for want of a farmer and that ratio is destined to surge in the coming couple of decades. Already dependent on food imports for 60% of its calorific intake, Japan will grow ever less able to feed itself. Sound the alarm, professor:

Time is short. Japan can ill afford any further delay in preparing for the inevitable. In the next year or two, Japan will enter a phase of irreversible population decline. The time to act is now. (Matsutani)

Population decline, especially of the economically active population, will be compounded by a continuing fall in the number of hours worked per person, overinvestment in and very low returns on capital stock (a perennial Japanese sin), permanently sub-par productivity (“productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”, as Paul Krugman quipped) due to a cosseted domestic sector, intensifying foreign competition in areas of traditional comparative advantage such as autos and consumer electronics, an ingrained abhorrence of entrepreneurship, and extraordinarily low levels of foreign direct investment.

Haboro Koyo elementary school, with a setting sun mural.

My estimates are that Japanese real GDP grew by a lethargic 0.8% annually in the “lost decade” of the 1990s and by half that, 0.4%, in the first decade of the 21st century. Professional economists, far more knowledgeable than I, put Japan’s current potential GDP growth rate as high as 1.5%; I cannot but help feel that the last two decades of sub-potential growth suggest that it is far lower, and falling, with the Japan on the threshold of turning into the world’s first post-growth society. The professor, for one, is in no doubt:

The wrenching demographic change in store for Japan will do worse than slow the pace of economic growth; it will shrink the nation’s economy. Negative economic growth will become the norm in the nation that until recently set the pace for the industrialized world. (Matsutani)

Haboro Koyo elementary school closed for good in March 2001.

In [our] downside scenario even more Japanese individuals and companies would turn their backs on their own economy. More people would emigrate, eke out a living as “freeters” and lower their labour input. Japanese companies would continue to scale down their domestic capacities and foreigners would have hardly any interest at all in the Japanese market. In this scenario the growth rate of potential GDP would decline to zero by 2020.
Japan 2020 – the decline in trend growth is home-made, Stephan Bergheim et al, Deutsche Bank research, 2006

While there is no sign of mass emigration yet—nor do I expect to see one—in other respects Deutsche Bank’s downside scenario is proving, four years on, to be uncannily accurate.

Reuke elementary school opened in 1884 and closed in March 2006.

A decline in total wages and salaries caused by a decline in available labor diminishes demand and causes the economy to contract. And that is what is about to happen in Japan. (Matsutani)

Reuke station, midway between Rumoi and Mashike, had a stationmaster until 1984. Six trains a day still ply the roundtrip between Rumoi and Mashike.

At present we see hardly any signs of fundamental social and economic-policy changes that might stem or indeed reverse the demographically induced decline in trend GDP growth. (Deutsche Bank, 2006)

Welcome to Rumoi—first in Japan for the production volume and quality of its herring roe. The signboard on the left warns locals to keep a vigilant eye out for the poaching of kelp, sea urchins, abalone, mussels, whelks, and octopus. Coast-anchored seaweed and littoral-hugging mollusks are about all that is left in the marine larder since the collapse of the herring fishery.

A row of palisades turns a hamlet into a fortress against the enemy snow, Tomamae.

As death’s knock can only be delayed, the natural political response to an aging population is to encourage the birthrate higher, and Japan has for the last decade or so had a minister for “low birthrate countermeasures”, usually coupled with a portfolio for sexual equality (or rather “joint participation in society by men and women”); that the post has without exception been held by a woman, often the token woman in the cabinet, is evidence enough of the significance the political elite attach to the issue. The current incumbent, Mizuho Fukushima, whose 1992 authorship of a book titled “Choosing not to give birth: The joy of not having children” (産まない選択 子供を持たない楽しさ) suggests she might not quite be the right person for the task at hand (could you make this stuff up?), is anyway much more passionate about getting those nasty, nasty US troops out of Okinawa—leftist nationalism masquerading as pacificism—than the nuances of pronatal policies. But at this late stage, a rising birthrate could well be a poisoned chalice, wouldn’t you say professor?

Even a miraculous upturn in the birthrate would not turn the [demographic] tide. A surge of infants would not begin to augment the workforce for nearly a quarter-century. And in the meantime, those infants would aggravate Japan’s economic woes. The burgeoning ranks of dependents would depress Japan’s savings rate further and worsen the economic downturn. They would also undermine the financial capacity of the contributors to Japan’s pension system. (Matsutani)

The palisades of Tomamae in close-up: the most forbidding domestic architecture it has ever been my honor to encounter.

Like it or not, though, an upturn in the birthrate is what Japan is getting: having bottomed at 1.26 in 2005, it rose to 1.37 in 2008 before stalling at the same level in 2009. Some demographers are already declaring an end to lowest-low fertility, although no state or territory, having fallen to the lowest of the low, has yet escaped.

Only time will tell if it was the clement economic winds of 2005-2007 or the last reproductive cry of the echo boomers born in the late 1960s and early 1970s whose clocks are ticking ever louder that spurred the uptick, although a near-concurrent and near-uniform turnaround in the fertility rates across the nations of the lowest-low—Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in Western Europe, much of Eastern Europe, and Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong in East Asia—suggests that something more profound is afoot. The biological urge to reproduce is hard to suppress for good.

It might just be, however, that despite recent evidence to the contrary, Japan has embarked on a vicious demographic spiral, in which a variety of complex feedback mechanisms set to work: aging results in declining international competitiveness, which results in greater economic hardship at home, which results in a suppressed birthrate; aging results in ballooning fiscal deficits, which in the absence of debt issuance must result in higher taxes or cuts to government spending, which cause economic pain, driving down the birthrate; aging, as the elderly dissave, results in a decline in the pool of domestic savings on which government borrowing is an implied claim, reducing room for fiscal maneuver and resulting in less ability to withstand exogenous shocks; aging further entrenches conservative attitudes to everything from pension reform to immigration, resulting in greater government outlays and smaller government receipts; aging leads the electorate to fear for the future of the pension system, resulting in more saving by the economically active, depressing consumption, which drives manufacturers offshore and raises unemployment, which is strongly correlated with the birthrate. Time will tell.

A colorful palisade in Shaguma, between Rumoi and Mashike. Again with the blue and yellow.

However the birthrate metrics work out in the long term, Japan is bound to be a lonely place to grow up in the future.

The annual number of births in Japan has declined from 2.09mn in 1973 to 1.06mn in 2005. Consequently, the population of children under the age of 15 has decreased from 27mn in the early 1980s to 17.52mn in the population census of 2005. … According to the medium-variant projection, the population size of this age group will fall to 16mn in 2009. The decline will continue, and the population of this age group is expected to fall below 10mn in 2039, eventually decreasing to around 7.52mn by 2055. (Population, Ryuichi Kaneko et al)

A buttressed stockade, somewhere between Rumoi and Mashike.

Aside from birthrate engineering, the other frequently vaunted—although mainly by foreigners—solution to aging and population decline is to open the immigration floodgates and embrace the tired, poor, huddled masses of Asia’s teeming shores. In this context, the United Nations conducted a fascinating, if other-worldly, study in 2000 of what levels of immigration would be needed under various scenarios, with a generous assumption that the Japanese population only falls to 104.9mn by 2050. (Scenarios I and II are slight variants of a no net immigration hypothesis, so we’ll ignore them here).

Scenario III: According to the medium variant projection of the United Nations 1998 Revision, the population of Japan would reach a maximum of 127.5mn in 2005. If Japan wishes to keep the size of its population at the level attained in the year 2005, the country would need 17mn net immigrants up to the year 2050, or an average of 381,000 immigrants per year between 2005 and 2050. By 2050, the immigrants and their descendants would total 22.5mn and comprise 17.7% of the total population of the country.

Scenario IV: In order to keep the size of the working-age population constant at the 1995 level of 87.2mn, Japan would need 33.5mn immigrants from 1995 through 2050. This means an average of 609,000 immigrants are needed per year during this period. Under this scenario, the population of the country is projected to be 150.7mn by 2050. The number of post-1995 immigrants and their descendants would be 46mn, accounting for 30% of the total population in 2050.

Scenario V does not allow the potential support ratio [of the working-age population to the retired-age population] to decrease below the value of 3.0. In order to achieve this, no immigrants would be needed until 2005, and 94.8mn immigrants would be needed between 2005 and 2050, an average of 2.1mn per year during that period. By 2050, out of a total population of 229mn, 124mn, or 54%, would be post-1995 immigrants or their descendants.

Scenario VI: This scenario keeps the ratio of the working-age population to the retired-age population at its 1995 level of 4.8. In order to keep this level of potential support ratio, the country would need 553mn immigrants during 1995 through 2050, or an average of 10mn immigrants per year. Under this scenario, the population of Japan is projected to be 818mn in 2050, and 87% of them would be the post-1995 immigrants and their descendants.

Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (2000)

A footnote comments without apparent irony:

*Scenario VI is considered to be demographically unrealistic.

Ya think? In fact, even the most milquetoast proposal, Scenario III, in which the population is merely kept constant, results in Japan, historically mightily hostile to immigration, having a foreign-born population of 17.7% in 2050, versus 12.9% in the US in 2005. File it all under “ain’t gonna happen”.

Here’s official Japan on the subject of immigration:

It is not appropriate to consider using foreign workers to cope with labor shortages. (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 2005)

Everything in contemporary Japanese dealings with the precious few foreigners in their midst—from the alacrity with which manufacturing towns such as Hamamatsu sent Brazilian descendents of Japanese settlers packing as world trade imploded in early 2009, the brouhaha over the first batch of a couple of hundred Indonesian caregivers and nurses who arrived last year and are expected to both work full-time and reach written fluency in Japanese within three years to pass tough exams that fully half of all native speakers fail, on pain of being deported if they flunk them, and the scandalous treatment of the tens of thousands of overseas “trainees”, many of them Chinese, in Japan on a program organized by the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, who are essentially used as sweatshop labor—absolutely everything points to a hardening, rather than a softening, of attitudes to immigration.

A comical palisade this time, with the front door and downstairs windows replicated meticulously.

Anecdotal evidence from my own life amply confirms the vulnerability of the foreign-born, be they of high or low station: I lost count of the number of farewell parties I attended last year, as contracts were not renewed and visas expired. My firm recently made its first foreigner analyst hire in nigh on a decade. As he said wistfully over a drink one evening, “The problem is the whole industry’s been ethnically cleansed”. Last week I interviewed a job applicant who works at one of the big domestic brokerages. “There are 65 of us foreigners there in a company of 6,500 people”, he related, “and we’re treated at best as a necessary inconvenience”. And as second-class non-citizens, he could have added; while the bulk of his Japanese colleagues will be full-time employees, who are tricky to dismiss, he and his foreign confreres are—with one exception—on one-year contracts. Career opportunities? Puh-leeze…

One advantage of the palisades is that when the last occupant passes on, only a few planks have to be added to the entranceway to seal up the house.

The number of solitary householders of 65 years of age and over will increase by 86%, from 3.78mn to 7.17mn in the coming 25 years. Moreover, looking at solitary householders of 75 years of age and over, the number will swell by a factor of 2.18 from 1.97mn to 4.29mn households, i.e., the number of solitary households of older elderly people in the Japanese population is projected to more than double. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Earlier I fingered farming as the first victim of aging and population decline; next to collapse could well be the giant Ponzi scheme of the state pension, where either contributions need to be doubled or benefits halved to maintain some sort of equilibrium. Over to you, professor:

The all-too-rapid pace of Japan’s aging is also the villain in the nation’s pension system drama. … As things stand, the number of people who pay into the system will decline sharply even as the number of people who receive benefits increases rapidly. Something has got to give soon and in a big way. (Matsutani)

Even the vegetable plots get their own windbreaks.

[At constant contributions and benefits] the funding shortfall in Japan’s social insurance programs will swell annually, to Y33.4trn in 2010 and to Y57trn in 2030, from Y8.7trn in 1998. Contributions would cover only 44.0% of expenditures under the programs in 2030. The cumulative shortfall for the years 1998 to 2030 would total Y1,240trn. To put that total in perspective, it is roughly equivalent to aggregate personal financial assets in Japan today. (Matsutani)

Occasionally the palisades are lopped to more modest, fence-like dimensions.

Being told that pension benefits might decline 10% or 20% during your lifetime is one thing. Hearing that they will decline 50% or more is something else again. (Matsutani)

Sometimes the palisades are removed in summer: here the giant staves are the only year-round feature.

As the pension system collapses, so will the infrastructural fabric of Japan. First to go will have to be investment in new infrastructure:

Japan now has a well-developed infrastructure…and the incremental benefits of new airports and highways are minimal in terms of increasing productive capacity. … An airport or a highway is visible, but the mechanism by which increased public works spending diminishes the economy is invisible, and few people have a grasp of that mechanism. (Matsutani)

The remnants of a truss bridge on the Haboro line, which saw its last train run in 1987.

The professor has done his math:

The amount of public works spending that will be possible in 2030 without compromising economic growth is Y14.2trn. That is down 47.0% from the actual figure of Y26.8trn in 2002. Public works spending needs to decline by nearly one-half. (Matsutani)

A Haboro line tunnel, north of Shosanbetsu.

As public works spending declines, more and more of the available budget will be taken up by infrastructure maintenance and repairs, with spending on refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure exceeding the threshold level for total public works spending as soon as 2023, calculates the professor:

Japan’s infrastructure will thus begin to deteriorate, and some of it will fall into ruin. (Matsutani)

A Haboro line viaduct, again north of Shosanbetsu.

One counterintuitive consequence of aging and population decline is that Tokyo and other big cities will see their economies wither and their vitality drain away. The most rural of the hinterlands have already done their aging, and will have demographic profiles in 2030 not dissimilar to the ones they had in 2000. Tokyo, on the other hand, with its huge bulge of twenty- and thirty-somethings, will see its demographic profile converge with those of the provinces; even if people aged 20-39 continue to move to Tokyo at their recent rate, there will be a third fewer people in the cohort in 2030 versus 2000, so they will have a much reduced impact. Meanwhile, although the absolute percentage decline in the working-age population in Tokyo will be only around the national average, the urban workforce will age more rapidly than anywhere else and by 2030 account for a smaller percentage of the overall population than any other prefecture in Japan. One last time, then, professor, if you insist:

Japan’s metropolises face even bigger issues than the nation’s nonmetropolitan areas do in regard to economic growth rates and per capita income. … Per capita income in Japan is likely to change little between 2000 and 2030…but it will decline sharply in the nation’s metropolises. And that will mean a decline in living standards there. (Matsutani)

As I snapped away at the palisades, my attention turned to little metal placards which bear Christian messages, with their familiar white and yellow (for emphasis) fonts on a black background, discreetly placed on the walls of houses, sheds, and even palisades. They are to be found all over rural Japan, but in their apocalyptic menace they seemed perfectly suited to the Rumoi subprefecture. This one reads “God can see your heart”, which it attributes to the Bible.

“Jesus Christ is the Son of God”. This is unattributed. The placards are known as “Christ signs” (キリスト看板) and are the handiwork of the Bible Distribution Cooperation Society (聖書配布協力会), which was founded in 1952—noone knows by whom—and which is headquartered in the tiny town of Marumori in the wilds of the border between Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

“God punishes sins, the Bible”. It’s all getting a bit too Old Testament for my taste. The society is purportedly a loose network of like-minded individuals and has no hierarchy or leadership. The consent of the property owner is solicited before a sign is put up; once up, it may endure for decades. No money changes hands, and the property owners are unlikely to be Christian; some welcome the signs in the belief that they ward off thieves, some in the belief that they improve the moral tone of the neighborhood.

“Jesus Christ brings eternal hope”. The society is conservative evangelical in outlook, with its foes the usual suspects: atheists, materialists, defenders of evolution, idolaters, abortionists, homosexualists, adulterers, pornographers, Roman Catholics, and Freemasons. Hey, those are some of my best friends you’re talking about!

There must be some structure to the society, though, because it runs a school in its hometown of Marumori, a school renowned for its enthusiasm for corporal punishment, which it justifies—of course—by appeal to the Bible: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him”.  (Proverbs 22:15)

By 8pm, only one party lingered that evening at the immaculate blue and white tablecloths of the Auberge Mashike as the last navies of the sky were vanquished by the night and the waves of the Sea of Japan fell softly against a rocky shore where noone strolled.

On the left, the father and mother; on the right, farside, their two unmarried daughters, one obscured; nearside center, a friend of the father, perhaps a suitor for one of the daughters; and nearside right, a friend of the daughters, brought along for moral support.

The assembled company, plainly from lands far to the south, exuded good breeding and old money. In another country—mine—they would have been upstanding members of the horsey squirearchy; here I found it hard to place them. They had nothing directly to do with anything as grubby as money or commerce, it might have been land.

My code of photographic ethics would normally have prohibited me from taking this surreptitious shot, but the father started prattling on about how Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai had determined that the Japanese expression “mottainai” (“what a waste”) had no equivalent in English and had adopted it in her campaigning, which was so objectionable on so many levels that I, in turn, determined that he, and by extension everyone else, had sacrificed their right not to be photographed.

The princess daughters’ well-groomed hands covered their mouths with every forkful of food and every burst of titters; one apologized deeply for interpolating Maathai’s name when her father simply referred to her as “that Kenyan woman”. How drearily soul-sapping life must be as a fortysomething spinster scion of the elite!

I took a commemorative photo of my last Hokkaido supper: a book of maps, a notebook, a packet of smokes, and a bottle of wine. What more does a rover need?

So whither Japan? The key question is whether it can maintain GDP per capita, or whichever proxy for that you might prefer, at a level that affords most of its citizens bearable, even intermittently enjoyable, lives, as the economy contacts. Professor Matsutani is optimistic that it can. To find out why, I heartily recommend you read his book. I’m not convinced.

The economists of Deutsche Bank offer the following 2020 prescription for Japan’s ills—for what it’s worth, as noone in Japan will be listening to what a bunch of ignoramus foreigners are saying, and no foreigners in their target audience are in the slightest bit interested Japan any longer. My comments, which generally ignore the utility and only consider the plausibility of the measures, are in parentheses:

Japan would need to integrate the female half of its population more actively into working life [didn’t happen in the last decade, won’t happen in the next] and increase the proportion of economically active older people [some progress possible, though not necessarily a positive, as the elderly are less productive and more conservative than the young] again. A managed immigration policy could limit the decline of the population [unthinkable]. In this scenario the innovation system would be altered in such a way as to enable it to produce more radical and path-creating innovations and be internationally networked [extremely unlikely, as the only plausible new entrants in large numbers to the workforce are the elderly]. Fledgling companies could draw on modern capital market instruments for their financing [won’t happen, not with the domestic securities companies under the thumb of the banks]. The education sector would also be given a deliberate international slant with English as the language of instruction in more universities [incremental progress conceivable] and more foreign providers in Japan [implausible in the extreme]. And more branches of industry, particularly in the services sector, would be made fit for competition with foreign providers [doubtful]. Foreign direct investment in Japan would surge [you must be kidding]. Reconciliation with China and Korea [possible, but not with any particularly positive economic consequences for Japan] would pave the way towards an Asian economic union [fairy-tale stuff, they’re all beggar-thy-neighbor mercantilists] and give Japan’s share of foreign trade an enormous boost [all well and good, except the Koreans and the Chinese are desperate to sideline the old enemy any way they can].

I made good enough time through indifferent weather on the 600km hike south to the ferry to stop for lunch outside Hakodate at a burger joint popular with courting couples called Lucky Pierrot.

I do hope he shares his good fortune liberally around.

The skies were mostly stormy grey, but ships anchored outside the port were bathed in shafts of heaven-sent Old Master sunlight; through the binoculars, my last sight of Hokkaido, beneath the crags of Mount Hakodate, was of a house with planks nailed across the eyes of its windows and the mouth of its door.

I pounded down and down Honshu until I could take it no more and sought shelter at a ryokan inn in Ninohe, Iwate (you know the vital statistics drill by now: 37,537, 29,714, 20,388), whose innkeeper was 90 if she was a day. I made it back home for a late lunch the following day, smiling smugly at the Tokyo traffic, 5,500km or so after setting out.

I wouldn’t recommend Hokkaido as a destination for the casual tourist: as we’ve seen, the coast has been beaten black and blue with an ugly stick, much of the inland bears the nastiest scars of extraction and construction, the weather, even in summer’s sweetest months, can turn vicious quicker than a Rottweiler, the natives are by no means always friendly, and much of it lies in ruins. Me? I loved it.

My Hokkaido epitaph was written for me by the hoarding on a pachinko parlor, New Japan (same as the old Japan), in Monbetsu, of all places:

Welcome to the best place
Where makes you happy
It gives you such story

Such story indeed.