These travelogues have two favorite Japanese words. The first is 衰退 (suitai, decline). Let’s take a closer look at it. It’s composed of two Japanese characters—scholars often call them Chinese characters, but as many have been altered beyond recognition down the centuries of their use on these islands, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be treated collectively as indigenous. The first character is 衰, which means weaken or wane, and while read here as sui, can also be read as otoro in the verb otoroeru, to decay or atrophy, which looks like this: 衰える. The second character is 退, which means retreat or withdraw, and while read here as tai, can also be read as shirizo in the verbs shirizoku/shirizokeru 退く/退ける, which mean, roughly, to retire or step back and to dismiss or to turn down, respectively. The plain Jane translation of 衰退 is decline, but it’s a much more localized and evocative word than decline. It couldn’t, for instance, be used to translate a humdrum English sentence such as: “Sales declined versus the year-ago level”. Its connotations are of entropy, of things falling apart: suitai is what happens to sunset industries (衰退産業) and enfeebled economies (衰退している経済), and is what happened to Imperial Rome in the fourth century AD (衰退し始めたローマ帝国). Japan, with its abundance of flailing companies, moribund economy, and fading regions, might be described as a 衰退王国, a kingdom of decay. It’s not just me saying this: one of the seven predictive text options offered by Google on entering suitai is simply 日本, Japan.
What often result from the process of suitai are 廃墟 (haikyo, ruins), also composed of two characters. The first is 廃, which means obsolete, abandoned, or crippled, and not so long ago was written differently: 癈. It can also be read suta in the verbs sutaru/sutareru 廃る/廃れる, most commonly used in adjectival form to mean obsolete or outmoded. Here it is the more dominant and common of the two characters and it can be combined with a bewildering variety of other characters to compose single words that it takes English two or more words to express, such as:
廃坑 abandoned mine (haiko)
廃校 abandoned school (haiko)
廃村 abandoned village (haison)
廃屋abandoned house (haioku)
廃車abandoned car (haisha)
廃炉 decommissioned reactor (hairo)
廃船 decommissioned vessel (haisen)
廃線 disused railway line (haisen)
廃道 disused road (haido)
廃刊 cease publication (haikan)
廃業 go out of business (haigyo)
Notice how even in this short list there are two sets of homonyms, haiko and haisen. Aside from meaning “disused railway line” and “decommissioned vessel”, haisen also means “defeat in battle” (敗戦), “wiring” (配線), “ship allocation” (配船), “bowl for rinsing sake cups” (杯洗 or 盃洗, which I’d like to think is obscure but isn’t) and “pulmonary apex” (肺尖), the second character of which is sufficiently unintelligible to many for it also to be written 肺せん. Confused yet? “Abandoned house” is also a homonym for “high-octane gas” and “abandoned car” a near-homonym for “dentist”, but let’s not venture too far down the primrose path to Japanese homonym Hades lest we enter the land of 駄洒落 (dajare) or ダジャレ (dajare) or 駄じゃれ (dajare), groanworthily bad puns.
The dominated character in haikyo, 墟, can also be read as kei, although it very rarely is, and as sakai, border, and has the most amorphous meaning of our quartet of characters, carrying the nuances of boundary but also of place or state, as in the common 心境 (shinkyo), state of mind, and the delightful 魔境 (makyo), haunts of wickedness.
Japanese lesson over. Now that I only have a couple of doughty readers left, let’s get on with the story. Kyushu is not—yet—a haikyo heaven in the way that Hokkaido is, although it gets more and more ragged, as a rule, the further you stray south and west from the center of population in the north and east, and the sample of ruins that follow should not be taken as typical of the Kyushu landscape. They do, however, have their own little tales to tell.
Crossing from the prosperous Nagasaki city of Isahaya, site of the notorious dike, into Unzen (1990 population: 55,408, 2010 population: 47,256, 2035 population: 34,619), on the northwestern half of the Shimabara Peninsula, the road narrows and the ruins rear up.
This defunct karaoke parlor is called Utao (歌王, King of Song) in Japanese—hence the crown—but, for reasons that will never be fathomed, “Sewing Shop” in English. In the land of its birth, karaoke is a sunset industry, and parlors find survival a particular challenge in aging and depopulating semirural districts such as Unzen.
The Sunday edition of the Nikkei carries a section called U-29, which—rather arbitrarily—is for the under 29s, suggesting that the rest of the world’s largest business paper by circulation is not something with which they need trouble their pretty little youthful heads, and last year it carried an article whose title took the form of an incredulous question addressed by a young woman to her parents: “You mean there was a karaoke boom?” Indeed there was, my dear, but it’s no surprise you don’t remember it, because even if you were 29, you would only have been 14 or 15 when it peaked, as many things peaked (including book and magazine sales, now 30% off their high, skiing industry revenues, and department store sales, to name but three), in 1995-1996, years when the signals flashed the false positive that the nation had shrugged off its post-Bubble malaise and was returning to normality.
The suitai of karaoke is graphically told in two charts I half-inched from the curiously named All-Japan Karaoke Industrialist Association.
The bars show the number of people visiting a karaoke parlor at least once in the year, the number declining almost without interruption from 58.5mn in 1995 to 46.5mn in 2009, a greater than 20% fall, and the line shows the number of karaoke box-rooms in Japan, which peaked at 160,680 in 1996 and declined to 128,400 in 2009, also a greater than 20% fall.
The bars show the number of karaoke parlors, which peaked in 1996 at 14,810 and declined to 9,126 in 2009, a fall of very close to 40%, as the number of rooms per parlor, shown by the line, rose from roughly 10 to 14.
What on earth happened to karaoke? We can round up the usual suspects, which as so often begin with the letter “d”: deflation, demographics, and diversification of lifestyles, to name but three. Let’s assume, correctly I think, that the core karaoke demographic is the 20-39 year old cohort, with the peak singing years the province of the twentysomethings. Japan’s dozen years of deflation have served to subtly transfer wealth from the young to the elderly, as deflation is a burden on borrowers and a boon those free of debt, who see the real value of their savings rise even in the almost complete absence of interest income. The Nikkei reported back in April last year that households headed by sixtysomethings had, on average, net savings of Y21mn while households headed by thirtysomethings had net debts of Y2mn. As a result:
In 2009, consumption by workers’ households headed by someone 60 or older rose 1.2% in real terms. But the figure declined 7.3% for those under 30 and dropped 1.1% for households headed by thirtysomethings. …
Over the next three years, the average purchasing power of a household headed by someone in their 60s is projected to rise by about Y580,000 ($6,170), while the figure for households headed by 30-somethings will fall by some Y50,000, according to an analysis of various government data.
Deflation is great, those unencumbered with an acquaintance with economics will tell you, as the cost of living is falling. Unfortunately, wages are falling faster and the middle-class is being eviscerated, as this terrifying pair of charts I purloined from the Nikkei make clear:
According to a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, households with two or more members and an employed head had an average annual income of Y6.21mn yen ($67,500) in 2009. Families with Y5mn-Y9mn in annual income are classified as middle class, and these people are responsible for 40% of all consumer spending.
Hideo Kumano of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute looked into data for the 10 years through 2009. What did he find? For starters, the number of households with annual income of Y6.5mn or more declined over the period.
From 2000 to 2009, the number of households earning Y8mn-Y9mn shrank 18%—a precipitous drop following a 30% fall for the over Y15mn category and a 19% decrease for the Y10mn-Y15mn class.
On the flip side, households with Y2mn-Y3mn in annual income and those with Y3mn-Y4mn both increased by more than 50%.
“This is due partly to the aging of the population,” said Kumano, “but it’s also because the middle class is in decline.”
The trend has been especially evident in recent years. Since 2005, the number of families with Y2mn-Y3mn in income has risen by 19%, while that with Y8mn-Y9mn has fallen by 17%.
Behind the evaporation of the middle class is the drop in overall wages which, in nominal terms, came to nearly 10% less in 2009 compared with the peak level seen in 1997. Prices have fallen over the past decade, and companies have cut wages—rather than jobs—to survive.
Karaoke may not be the priciest treat imaginable, but for households with gross incomes of under $30,000, many of whom will be young, every karaoke penny pinched is one that can be spent on essentials. Welcome to Japan, where the poor get poorer—and the rich get poorer, too.
Demographics cannot yet be held responsible for the woes of karaoke, as the 35-54 year old cohort, who would have been 20-39 at karaoke’s peak, number 33.9mn, while those currently aged 20-39 are scarcely fewer, at 32.7mn. Japan’s demographic profile lurks ominously in the wings for karaoke, however—as it does for all industries that cater to the young—as the knot of echo boomers, those born in the second baby boom between 1971 and 1974 and whose peak singing years coincided with the zenith of the karaoke boom, move into their forties between now and 2014, and because the industry’s future customers, those aged 19 and under, amount to only 23.1mn, some 30% fewer than the 20-39 cohort.
Undoubtedly there was also an element of boom-and-bust in the rise and fall of the karaoke empire: although karaoke has been around in one incarnation or another since at least the early 1970s, it was the spread from the mid-1980s of the karaoke box, which freed the easily embarrassed from the stress of singing in front of strangers, coupled with technological innovations, that drove the boom. The reasons for the bust, which was concentrated in 1995-2000, strike me as harder to pin down: karaoke may simply have become just a comfy sofa in the entertainment furniture.
There could be something larger at work, however, encapsulated in the neologism on many a tongue these days: muen shakai (無縁社会), the atomized society. Put simply, the Japanese, once famed to outsiders as the most groupist of peoples, no longer see or seek much solace in each other’s companionship. Of course, as with all phenomena stoked by the media—in this case state broadcaster NHK is behind the popularity of the expression—there is a risk of overstatement, but the phrase does bring together a lot of disparate, well documented, and doleful trends: late marriage (晩婚) and lifelong singlehood (無婚); the rapid rise in the number of single-person households (単身世帯), which already accounted for a third of all households in 2000 and will in the not too distant future account for a plurality, with one in six people living alone and one in four men in their 50s and 60s living alone by 2030, and the concomitant increase in the number of people dying alone (孤独死), their bodies going undiscovered for days or weeks—about as many people die alone every year, 30,000 or so, as kill themselves; the worlds of NEETs, freeters, and arbeiters, of the precariat and the working poor, mostly so busy and tired trying to make ends meet they have no time or energy for superfluous social intercourse; and, at the extreme, the long picked-over poster-children of the atomized society, the hikikomori (引きこもり), who lock and bolt out the world beyond their bedroom doors and only venture out once in the bluest of moons.
But is there any cut-and-dried evidence for the atomized society? There are unambiguous pointers to it in the most recent (October 2010) decennial survey of time allocation carried out by watchmaker Citizen Holdings, which are so striking that I think we can cast aside suspicions about the small sample size (400 men, 100 each in their twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties) and the survey methodology. Here are some findings.
Average hours spent a week on the following activities and the percentage of respondents engaging in them:
|%||Average hours||%||Average hours||%||Average hours||%||Average hours|
|Internet and e-mail||98.5||7:59||74.8||6:14||―||―||―||―|
|Talking with family||78.8||3:56||73.9||7:21||76.9||6:01||79.4||7:44|
|Listening to music||69.0||2:19||―||―||―||―||―||―|
|Time with children||34.8||5:30||26.7||4:47||35.1||5:22||58.0||4:43|
|Movies, drama, sports||34.5||2:10||50.6||3:15||40.0||2:46||45.8||2:45|
|Caring for the elderly||3.8||3:22||5.5||4:00|
[Music was split out of TV/music while computer games and e-books were added in the latest survey].
Intrinsically—although not in all cases necessarily—social activities appear in bold. Aside from “time with children”, all show pronounced declines in the amount of time devoted to them. Aside from “talking with family”, all show pronounced declines versus 1980 in the numbers of respondents reporting that they had engaged in the activity in the week of the survey, with the Internet and computer games seemingly devouring the time once allotted to more sociable pursuits.
We might dub this growing atomization and isolation “singing alone”, in tribute to political scientist Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking 1995 essay, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. But surely no one sings alone, except in the bathtub, do they? To find out, I decided one Saturday to tarry awhile amid the flawless February twilight in a local karaoke parlor and observe the customer traffic.
On the way there, wandering through the bustling concourses of Shinjuku station, still the world’s busiest, thoughts full of ennui and solitude and anomie, it began to dawn on me that almost everyone was alone. To be sure, there were a few courting couples holding hands and idling by, the odd small party in the booths of coffee houses and restaurants, the occasional clump of high schoolers still in uniform, but these were exceptions to the prevailing solitariness of the majority of the strollers.
Nestling in between a slot machine and a cigarette vending machine, the air faintly acrid with aged tobacco smoke and cheap cleaning fluids, I sat down to wait and watch. A few minutes later the first solo singer, a man in his early twenties, stepped down from a staircase to the booths, clad only in a T-shirt and jeans. He began to relayer himself, slowly, deliberately, in the foyer. Clearly he’d been singing up a sweaty storm. Over the next half-an-hour, half-a-dozen other soloists emerged down or disappeared up stairwell and elevator. Taking advantage of a rare lull at the front desk, I approached the yellowcoat behind the counter.
“I’m doing a little research on karaoke. Do a lot of people rent out a room alone and sing by themselves?”
“At this parlor, they do, yes.”
“Roughly what percentage of all customers would you say were on their own?”
“Well, it varies. Not so many at night, but at this time of day, about twenty, thirty percent.”
Once you start searching for the atomized society, you can find it everywhere: in the remodeling last month of my local branch of cheap-eats chain Yayoiken, in which all but a couple of the tables for four were ripped out and replaced by tables for two or counters for solitary diners; in the fresh-off-the-press 2010 census, which reveals that the average Tokyo household size is now just 2.06 people and poised to fall below 2 by 2015, as low as anywhere in the world, and which helps explain the rash of micro-condos for singletons that have been hastily erected in my neck of the Tokyo woods in the last decade; and in the alarming collapse of domestic shokubunka food culture, as documented in a pair of articles here and here.
One 33-year-old mother boasted, “I’ve got a Seven-11, a Lawson, a Family Mart and a Ministop convenience store near the house, so I can really vary where I buy my meals and not get tired of them!”
Perhaps this is how the world ends, with people grown too isolated from each other to even meet and procreate. Ruin/nation, meet alien/nation, where so many sing—and eat and sleep and live and die—alone.