A Kyushu postscript: Singing alone

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:

  2010 2000 1990 1980
% Average hours % Average hours % Average hours % Average hours
Internet and e-mail 98.5 7:59 74.8 6:14
TV 96.5 7:52 96.7 12:43 99.7 11:50 92.6 13:02
Reading 85.3 2:36 94.5 6:07 99.4 7:42 96.4 8:42
Shopping 84.8 2:03 68.8 2:44 73.5 2:14 68.7 2:20
Talking with family 78.8 3:56 73.9 7:21 76.9 6:01 79.4 7:44
Housework 77.5 2:14 40.0 3:45 25.2 2:41 34.3 5:21
Listening to music 69.0 2:19
Restaurants/cafés 60.8 2:25 82.4 6:07 80.9 7:52 93.6 7:42
Hobbies 58.3 3:08 54.5 5:42 57.2 5:25 68.8 4:52
Playing sports 54.3 2:21 47.6 3:35 71.4 2:51 74.6 5:32
Computer games 45.0 3:31
Personal development 36.0 2:34 23.9 3:52 22.8 3:06 31.3 3:34
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
Gambling 23.5 3:24 19.4 4:23 27.1 6:05 59.3 4:16
Reading e-books 14.5 2:09
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.

57 responses to “A Kyushu postscript: Singing alone

  1. I thought of you when I saw this article http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/the-myth-of-japans-lost-decades/71741/ and wondered what you thought of it. He seems to believe, for instance, that japanese manufacturing is going swimmingly.

    • Fingleton is a notorious nutcase and has been an object of derision in polite society ever since the glory days of an Internet mailing list from the late 1990s called the Dead Fukuzawa Society, although I will give him a smidgeon of the credit that he claims–he did call the Bubble. He’s never (according to local journalistic lore) stepped a foot outside of central Tokyo, which would explain why everything looks peachy creamy–anyone can do the same kind of reportage from London, Moscow, or even Bogota. You can’t understand a country from inside the Beltway. I love this:
      “The reason you don’t hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them have moved from making consumer goods to concentrate on so-called producers’ goods — items that though invisible to the consumer happen to be critical to the world economy.” Which we could rework like this:
      “The reason you don’t hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them failed completely in the emerging electronics industries of the 1990s and 2000s, from mobile phones to TVs to portable music players, which is why Apple is worth about three times more, according to Mr. Market, than all of Japan’s consumer electronics makers combined. And what are these “producers’ goods”? Please? Hello? Please? What a joker. I could go on, but is it really necessary?

      • LOL DFS, haven’t thought of them in years. Derision seemed to be the stock in trade at DFS.

      • And for Fingleton, rightly so!

      • “And what are these “producers’ goods”? ”

        Well, the Iphone is one example. The display is made in Japan. He’s making an intelligent argument lost on the “OMG CHINA IS SO BIG AND TAKING OVER EVERYTHING!!!1!!!” crowd.

      • The iPhone display is made by “Toshiba” – that does not equate to “made in Japan”. But anyway, that doesn’t matter–the rewards to hardware producers are so insignificant compared to the rewards to Apple, they’re not even worth talking about. Fingleton is not capable of making any kind of intelligent argument.

      • RIchard Hadden

        Great blog! I couldn’t stop reading, despite the horrendous wordpress interface. The Hokkaido pieces had me hooked: I dragged my wife-to-be round Japan twice before I proposed, once front-of-house (Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Osaka, Kanazawa, Takayama, Ishigaki) and once back-stage (all over Hokkaido!).

        Anyway, I was prompted to post by the Utao reference. It’s called “sewing shop” because the owner was labouring under the delusion or overthe allusion that it was the translation for “Singer”.

        By the way, you need to stop worrying and learn to love the deficit! Check out the modern monetary theory exposition of how governments finance themselves in fiat currencies (try Bill Mitchell or Warren Mosler). Demographics may alter the nature of Japanese prosperity – or more likely its distribution – but the deficit will not.

      • Great blog!
        Glad you’ve been enjoying it.
        despite the horrendous wordpress interface
        This intrigues me. It looks fine on the PC at home, less so on the workstation at work (but I still wouldn’t call it “horrendous”). What about the interface is horrendous?
        I dragged my wife-to-be round Japan twice before I proposed, once front-of-house (Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Osaka, Kanazawa, Takayama, Ishigaki) and once back-stage (all over Hokkaido!).
        Love the idea of “front-of-house” versus “backstage”, though I might be tempted to label Kanazawa and Takayama more “backstage” than “front of house”…
        Anyway, I was prompted to post by the Utao reference. It’s called “sewing shop” because the owner was labouring under the delusion or over the allusion that it was the translation for “Singer”.
        Brilliant, that’s close to a eureka moment. But how do you get, cognitively, from “Utao”, though “king of song”, to “singer”, then “Singer” and finally “sewing shop”?
        By the way, you need to stop worrying and learn to love the deficit! Check out the modern monetary theory exposition of how governments finance themselves in fiat currencies
        Thanks for the tip. But in the absence of an MA in Economics, I’ll stick to the orthodoxies of the conventional practictioners of the discipline, who seem to have amassed an awful lot of historical, empirical evidence–try Reinhart and Rogoff and their This time is different: Eight centuries of financial folly–that deficits do matter, defaults are common, and that having a fiat currency doesn’t make much difference.

      • RIchard Hadden

        I’ll see your Reinhart and Rogoff and raise you David Graeber’s Debt: a 5,000 History. You may not have an MA in Economics (and I’m a NatSci!) but you have a fine anthropological eye, and the anthropologists called the credit bubble (Gillian Tett) where the economists nodded. Ignore the last chapter, Graeber is completely out of his depth relating debt structures to modern finance and economics, but the rest of the book is tour de force exposition of why money is a relationship, not a thing, and the MMT explanation of how the banking system really works follows naturally after that.

      • I’ll see your Reinhart and Rogoff and raise you David Graeber’s Debt: a 5,000 History
        OK, I’ll put it in the Santa stocking. Your comments about Singer/singer, though, caused me to add Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan by Andrew Gordon, the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History at Harvard University, to the stocking. The stocking was already pretty full, too.
        “You have a fine anthropological eye, and the anthropologists called the credit bubble (Gillian Tett) where the economists nodded”
        I called the credit bubble in 2004, and friends did at points nearer the apex. Sadly it didn’t stop any of us from behaving as though it wasn’t happening. Wonder if Gillian Tett’s personal financial decisions turned out well.
        I should indeed read Graeber–my economics is completely dominated by the vanilla economists with whom I have daily interaction, so I’m probably overwhelmed by the availability heuristic. Thanks for the tip.

      • RIchard Hadden

        PS: The WordPress interface does not seem to work with my version of Firefox (latest update). The long drop down menu for Hokkaido runs off the page (small laptop screen, admittedly) andI don’t understand why the menu does not display the first entries in each category as distinct entries, rather than as the link referred to if you click onthe menu header itself. Also, not all the entries have a link from the top or side menus. They are displayed on the blog homepage, but that loads really slowly on my machine and I still feel that sites need some sort of global navigation. Oh, and finally, there is a really irritating floating footer that seems to have no cancel option!

      • The long drop down menu for Hokkaido runs off the page (small laptop screen, admittedly)
        Going to have to blame your laptop for that…
        I don’t understand why the menu does not display the first entries in each category as distinct entries, rather than as the link referred to if you click on the menu header itself
        My fault, undoubtedly, for imprecise arrangement of the cascades.
        Also, not all the entries have a link from the top or side menus.
        Indeed, I gave up on the managing of the past entries a couple of years ago, mostly because of laziness and technical incompetence but also because I figured that noone would want to read beyond the last few posts. About a third of the blog is therefore “hidden”, accessible only to the most perserverant. But I like mazes and dislike the “mild boredom of order” (thank you, Walter Benjamin).
        Oh, and finally, there is a really irritating floating footer that seems to have no cancel option!
        That mystifies me. Could you be so kind as to send me a screenshot?

  2. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for this stunningly good series on which I spent way too much time the past week reading every single post… and feeling inadequate about not updating my own humble blog.

    You really should consider publishing the lot when it’s done, whether as an ebook or a dead tree edition for us oldies. If only to offset the maintenance fund for your faithful S2000…


    • Thank you indeed. I just replaced the hood on my S2000, which cost an arm and a couple of legs, but every day I look at it and stroke it and still feel, 12 years on from the launch, that it’s the coolest car on the planet for the bucks. Long may it take me to the strangest corners of Japan.

      • You should really get a motorcycle. To really see the weirdest outposts in the Japanese countryside, you’ll need to venture down some of the abandoned roads (“goat paths”, we call ’em) where the S2000 won’t fit.

      • I’ll do my grand tour in about five years, may the markets bless me, in which I’ll travel by a bloated RV (a Hymer would be nice) with a crosstrail bike and a motocross Yamaha slung off the rear fender. That should do it. Boys and their toys.

  3. Kyushu Ranger

    ‘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.’

    Beautifully Morrisey-esque. ‘and you go home and you cry and you want to die, I am human and I need to be loved, just like anyone should’
    What is that song called, Son and Heir? Good song from a loong time ago and thanks for reminding me of it.

    Great article btw. Very sad but perfect. Is Japan dying from the countryside-limbs or from the cities-soul, or a bit of both? If we could just get rid of Pachinko…
    Best, kr

    • I can see Ranger, that we grew up on very similar music.
      “Is Japan dying from the countryside-limbs or from the cities-soul”?
      That is a very difficult question to answer, perhaps it’s even-stevens.

  4. Kyushu Ranger

    It’s so good I had to give it a quick search. It is so apt I thought I’d post the lyrics. Damn fine song.

    I am the son, I am the heir,
    Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar,
    I am the son and heir,
    Of nothing in particular,

    You shut your mouth
    how can you say,
    I go about things the wrong way,
    I am human and I need to be loved,
    just like everybody else does,

    I am the son, and the heir,
    Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar,
    I am the son and heir,
    Of nothing in particular,

    You shut your mouth
    how can you say,
    I go about things the wrong way,
    I am human and I need to be loved,
    just like everybody else does,

    There’s a club if you’d like to go,
    you could meet some body who really loves you,
    so you go and you stand on your own,
    and you leave on your own,
    and you go home and you cry
    and you want to die.

    When you say its going to happen “now”,
    well when exactly do you mean?
    see I’ve already waited too long,
    and all my hope is gone,

    You shut your mouth
    How can you say
    I go about things the wrong way
    I am human and i need to be loved
    Just like everybody else does

  5. Interesting that Putnam places the blame of American social alienation on increasing racial diversity. Obviously, his thesis would not hold water in a nation like Japan.

    • Yes, I shamelessly hijacked “Bowling Alone” for what I actually think is a more profound phenomenon in Japan: after all, Putnam wasn’t really suggesting that people bowled alone, but merely outside of organized leagues. Here we have no equivalent of leagues in almost anything except perhaps baseball, bowling is a minority pastime, and solitary pursuits are becoming the norm.

  6. Maybe people are just networking more online instead of in person? Back in the heyday of karaoke, there was no Mixi.

    • Of course, of course, but do you feel closer? I don’t.

    • Sure they are, but is it the same? Obviously this a widely documented and commentented-on social phenomena far from unique to Japan (although I think we might be taking it to an interesting extreme here), and I’m not claiming to be a pioneer, and nor do I want to be associated with grumpy old men moaning about the habits of their offspring, but–for instance–does my relationship with you now have a tenth of the depth it would if we met face to face even for approximately the same time that it’s taken us to type out these messages?

  7. Also, in the vocabulary list, don’t forget 廃句, a forgotten poem. (^_^)

  8. Crossing from the prosperous Nagasaki city of Isahaya, site of the notorious dike, into Unzen . . . , on the northwestern half of the Shimabara Peninsula, the road narrows and the ruins rear up.

    I’d forgotten all about this but now remember it being discussed back in the late 1980s when I first lived in Japan. Another interesting Dutch connection, don’t you think?

    The U.S. is full of Army Corps of Engineers “miracles” like this, much of it on the Mississippi and its tributaries. They are believed to be part of the problem of hurricanes being more devastating in the delta – a freer flowing river builds its own barrier islands and shallows that mitigate tide surge.

  9. If Japanese more and more are engaging in solitary activities, I wonder if this is also reflected in the numbers of izakaya and pubs? Are they shrinking in numbers as well? Or if not, are there more patrons of izakaya and pubs who drink alone?

    • Oh, absolutely it is. The izakaya industry is in terrible shape – you can see this by going to the end of my “Requiem for a Railway” post, where I talk about the izakaya chain Tsubohachi. I’ll see if I can rustle up some industrywide statistics at some point.

  10. What amazes me about this blog is that I relate to almost every form of decline mentioned. There are ruined hotels down the street from where I live, a few defunct restaurants too, and empty stores all over our shopping centers and malls.

    Relative to the towns around here, this town has always had a big music and art scene, one in which I do not feel comfortable participating in, so instead, I share my music on the internet and many of the people whom I work with do not know I am a musician. As I share my music on the internet, and even when I rarely see who plays at the bars on the island here, and as I watch a friend’s musical ambitions disintegrate each time he restarts them, I notice that very few people are interested in being in bands, I recognize that this happens everywhere, that open mics are well attended but concerts are not, and that I do not help the situation by sharing my music from home, but I do what I think is best for me.

    I friend of mine in the midwest may have paid you a visit- he was going to write his grad school dissertation on the very phenomenon this entry describes. As I write this, I wonder if he’s going to notice that I wrote about him here…

    I should not find this interesting because it seems so tragic, but there’s some kind of strange beauty in decay and decline that I can’t identify. I don’t think all of a society can completely decay into nothing (as Roman society lives on in our culture albeit in a way nothing like it was at 50 AD,) but I recognize that this is a time when certain ideas are going to cause a pivot, and it’s very difficult to imagine exactly what comes next. In time, maybe in the very next generation, the children-become-adults will recognize that their parents’ failure to socialize was an issue and they’ll try a little harder and do a little better at it… but really, who knows?

    Thanks so much for sharing all this.

    Best wishes

    • Thank you for your interesting comments. Dare I ask on which island in Japan you live?

      • I’m sorry if I’ve been misunderstood- I live in the United States!

        The decline is definitely more accute in Japan, but the truth is, all countries that experienced a post-war Baby Boom are desitined to have some sort of economic contraction as their Baby Boom children retire and pass, and their children (that’s my generation!) grow older but have less children and wealth than the generation before.

        What I wonder is, I’d expect all the wealth being funneled into health care and so on to end up somewhere, yet so many of my peers left college to get $20k per year jobs, so what gives?

        Perhaps the beauty in all this decline is the fact that it is clear that it is simply a natural cycle (albeit funneled about unfairly through powerful people’s decisions.)

      • Chunter said:

        > What I wonder is, I’d expect all the wealth being funneled into health care and so on to end up somewhere, yet so many of my peers left college to get $20k per year jobs, so what gives?

        The wealth may not really be going anywhere; wealth can be destroyed as well as created. (I’ll discuss the US here.) It’s well known that drug research has been badly perverted by the pharmaceutical industry, it is less well known that much medical research is deeply flawed and even less reliable than most research (eg. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124 ), perverse incentives are everywhere (eg. the anecdote in http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/when-intelligent-people-make-poor-decisions/382348/) and it is even less well known that most treatments have never been demonstrated to be effective and time-honored surgeries are often debunked by double-blind studies, or that it’s hard to find any benefit to increased medical spending (http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/05/rand_health_ins.html http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/05/drugs-dont-help.html).

        All that aside, US healthcare expenditure is too high for a host of reasons; you may find http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/what-makes-the-us-health-care-system-so-expensive-introduction/ very interesting reading.

      • Indeed, it appears I may be misinterpreting my own environment through the lens of my own experiences- gwern posted some very interesting reading (which I haven’t finished all of yet) but indeed, a look at the “red herrings” listed regarding the causes of US healthcare expense includes the average age of US citizens, which if I am to understand correctly, doesn’t even come close to the apparent aging problem in Japan. I do not believe that my generation (I’m 35, a so-called “Gen X”) is as well-to-do (on average) as my father’s, and I’d love to see data either supporting or refuting this.

        I think it is well known that health care is not the only straw trying to break the US’ economic back, as the entries gwern cited make clear, it is a complex problem caused by a myriad of issues, of which health care is a large one, but is only one.

        The difference between what is happening where I live in the US and what happens in the places visited in this blog, is that, for example, I work in an abandoned strip mall that was reworked into offices. Perhaps not ironically, our office is a customer service contact center for internet retail, so one could say the building still serves the exact same purpose, which I suppose in better economic balance, is the way things should be. There may be some abandoned hotels where I live, but I’m certain our council is trying to find some way to replace the buildings if only real estate wasn’t so weak and thin.

        Feel free to correct me if I continue to misunderstand- I have learned a lot from reading all of this and I’m looking forward to more.

    • “but there’s some kind of strange beauty in decay and decline that I can’t identify.”

      I call it the Venice Syndrome. Venice, Italy, once one of the most powerful naval powers in the world, able to wage war (and sometimes, win) single-handedly against the Turkish Empire at a time when they routinely ended up sieging Vienna, an economic and artistic focal point… and now it’s slowly sinking in the sea, whole neighborhoods abandoned and rotting. yet, there are few things as magical as a sunset stroll in the empty streets (or calli, as they call them).

  11. I also see these types of abandoned businesses and other buildings around Northern Tochigi area and specifically in the city of Otawara. Otawara does not seem in too bad a shape but still many empty and rundown buildings. Even in my wife’s parent’s neighborhood there are old homes that are empty and falling down. It’s a little sad to see.

  12. So the prognosis is that Japan is “dying”? Changing, I would say. Certainly declining, particularly if one measures such things by price values. Even then, there is a long way to go downward. Does anyone here conceive Japan reaching 2nd or 3rd world status?

    This article reminds me of a study I saw recently, will try to find it, conducted in Germany, concerned with how people regarded the importance of meaning in their lives. People polled identified with one of four categories:

    1 life has meaning/no crisis of meaning
    2 life has meaning/crisis of meaning
    3 life has no meaning/no crisis of meaning
    4 life has no meaning/crisis of meaning

    Most identified with category 1 (typical for those with families). However, well over 30% identified with category 3 – life held no meaning and they were ok with that. The study also pointed out that those in category 3 tended to be shallow, lacking self-knowledge, and lacking a curiosity about themselves and the world. They had no real highs nor lows – no crises. They would describe themselves likely has happy, content.

    I wonder how this would describe the scenario presented in this article (great analysis by the way)? People retreating into the ether and solitude perhaps could be quite happy and content, with no real crises, and no real meaning.

    • “So the prognosis is that Japan is “dying”?”
      Certainly not mine–do I say anything as crass and simplistic as that anywhere? I took a journalist to task last year for her poor choice of metaphoric language (among other things) in saying that a village she chose to write about was “dying” – https://spikejapan.wordpress.com/spiked/spiked-kanna/. Even if Japan’s population were to shrink to 30mn by century’s end, as the population projections have it, Japan would not be “dying”, merely shrinking.
      Personally, I’m firmly in your category 3. I guess I must also be “shallow, lacking self-knowledge, and lacking a curiosity about [myself] and the world”. But I do definitely see what you mean, and if I were to be tempted to be exceptionally rude, I would indeed describe contemporary Japan as a category 3 society.

  13. “Dying” was referring to a comment above, not the article.

    Interesting response to the study mentioned. Never intended personally, though I chuckled over your apparent passionate identification with a category that, by definition, would least likely identify with anything in particular, outside of brands and trends.

    I find similarities (and dissimilarities of course) between Japan and German society. According to the study, with all its inherent flaws no doubt, over 30% of Germans identified as such. Similar to your impromptu single-singing kareoke’rs poll, no?

    I would identify category 3 as nihilistic. Could that describe a portion of Japanese society? No doubt. Why should it be different than any other at least Western society. Unsure how that observation is being “exceptionally rude”, but…. I would go further and suggest that those retreating into virtual-world are indeed expressing nihilism. Whether that creates, or results from, a crisis of meaning in a person is another important question.

  14. “Japan, the ne plus ultra atomized society”

    A nod to Houellebecq?

  15. Richard, there will be much to write, discuss and debate in the future, but in the meanwhile, I am sure that the other readers of Spike join me in hoping that you are well and sending best wishes.


    • Many thanks for your concern. I’m fine – I was in possibly the safest place in Tokyo, a 37-storey office tower that is bolted to the bedrock. My other half is from Miyagi, one of the worst affected prefectures. Although he’s from the inland part, he has an aunt who lives 100m from the sea in the town next door to the first minute of this:

      and although she contacted her son immediately after the quake, nothing has been heard of her since the tsunami.
      I thought about writing something for Spike, but words fail me.

      • Well, sorry, Pachiguy, I don’t know what to tell you in this moment. Best whishes to you, your family and your spouse’s aunt.

  16. I hope she is ok. My wife’s family escaped without injury in Tochigi but her father’s house suffered damage and her aunt was also in tsunami zone but was able to escape to safety before it hit.

  17. I have been reading your blog for a while now, and enjoy it very much.
    I am so glad to hear you are safe. Heartfelt sympathy to you and your other half.

  18. Another long-time reader here. I’m very glad that you and your spouse are ok, but I’m very saddened to hear about his aunt. My deepest sympathies on your family’s loss and the losses that all of Japan has suffered in this horrible incident.

  19. Heartfelt concern from Australia Pachiguy for your partner and his family.
    We in Australia have a funny dualist sort of relationship with Japan, what with the war and whaling and the like, but the net feeling is very positive towards the people of Japan.
    These last two days I have been doing medicals on Australian search and rescue crews about to leave for Japan, some of them having just come back from Christchurch (where many Japanese students lost their lives).
    All that silly nationalism stuff fades away at times like these.

  20. I’m another fan of your scholarship and as well as your hilarious writing style.
    I appreciate this work and am relived that you and yours are safe.

  21. In case anyone like me is interested in the economic data you mentioned, here’s a list of Hideo Kumano’s articles on the Dai Ichi website. Lots of hardcore data pdfs. The one mentioned here is from 2010/3/12. They’re all in Japanese, of course.


  22. Enjoyed your later posts so much that I’m steadily progressing backwards through your fascinating blog. I can’t make up my mind if you are puncturing my romantic notions of Japan or enhancing them with your tales of a decaying and decrepit places, where emptiness and silence can leave room for your own thoughts. The knowledge that much of current Japan must change over the coming decades compels me to visit more frequently. How long with those trains keep running to nowhere?

    I shall not mourn the demise of karaoke. I wonder what impact game console based karaoke (eg Singstar) has had upon the karaoke lounge.

    The references to Nobuko Iwamura’s book were interesting. On our previous visit to Japan our 3 year old went crazy for salad, vegetables and fresh fruits because he missed them so (we are from Australia). What fresh stuff they sell (at least in the more expensive shops) can be of finer quality and flavour than what we usually get here (easy transport and supermarket warehouse storage preferred over flavour and quality), though also more expensive.

    • Glad you’ve been enjoying it.
      “How long with those trains keep running to nowhere?”
      Ooh, as long as the shinkansen lines can continue to subsidise them (although that picture is more complicated than a few words can accommodate).
      “On our previous visit to Japan our 3 year old went crazy for salad, vegetables and fresh fruits because he missed them so (we are from Australia).”
      I know how he feels!

  23. Pingback: Quick links (#32) | Urban Future (2.1)

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