Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part Two

The Map App

“Where are we,” she said, voice pock-marked with irritation. “Well,” he replied, projecting The Map, with a couple of fist unclenches, from his handheld onto the savannah below, so The Map was coterminous with the terrain and the terrain was gridded into 100m squares, covered with contour lines, and dotted with flags showing points of interest. “We’re at 4.27S, 34.36E, 71.4km NNW of Singida and 15.2km SE of Lake Kitangiri.”
She crouched down to the path, across which a column of termites marched, identified by The Map as Ancistrotermes latinotus. At least they know where they’re going, she reflected. He pinged the homunculus of The Map up the ridge and donned goggles. “Hey, I can see the lake from here. Maybe there are still fish.” On that The Map was silent. “Face it,” she said, irritation swelling like a welt, “we’re just as lost as we ever were.”
(with apologies to Jorge Luis Borges)

“So this is where Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village once stood, is that right?”
“It was up in the hills,” said the head gardener, jerking a sweaty thumb-palm behind the blocky, nondescript building whose privet hedges and trim flowerbeds he and his gardener team were tending in the already unforgiving early summer heat.
“But you can’t come in. This is private property. Anyway, there’s nothing left now. It’s all been torn down and carted away.”
“But I’ve come all the way from Tokyo today, especially, just to…”
“Can’t help that. Nothing to see, anyway.” He went back to weeding.
I retreated. A signboard on stilts, though, fifty feet behind us, betrayed him, letting slip an alternate narrative of a different, more revealing, entrance, and wonders to behold beyond. I was off.

While the concrete mosque, now used as a storehouse for mini-tractors and bales of who-knows-what, is magnificent, and the insurmountable rust-teared minarets, from which no muezzin—or megaphone, for that matter—could ever have called the faithful or doubtful to prayer, were a treat, nothing gave me more pleasure than to simply see the words “Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village” strung up, faux-brass notched-corner in-memoriam nameplate style, above an empty signpost. So it hadn’t, then, been just a feverish dream, a disturbance of sultry sleep. I felt like an explorer at the portal to the ruins of a lost world, a Hiram Bingham in the undergrowth at Machu Picchu in 1911 or a Howard Carter on the threshold of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen in 1923.

Leading away from the mosque towards the Sea of Japan East Sea Sea of Japan East Sea sea, with all the frenetic syncretism a theme park can muster, was a replica of the Ionic colonnades of Ephesus. It took a moment to puzzle out, but soon I realized the lopped-off columns hadn’t been earthquake or otherwise toppled—they had been designed this way. The colonnade, then, was the not yet quite real ruin of a fake ruin of a real ruin, a real ruin for which its numberless creators had never had ruination, fake or real, in mind. Post-apocalypse, the archaeologists of centuries hence will—we can only hope—concoct fantastic theories to explain this exotic outpost of the Hellenes and Seleucids on the shores, not of the Mediterranean, but another near-landlocked sea thousands of miles adrift.

Flanking the mosque was an avenue of assorted antiquarian statuary: first up was Alexander the Great, a near carbon-copy in concrete of the statue in the Istanbul Archeological Museum, although the left-hanging bulge in his come-hither toga seems more generous than in the original (perhaps Hephaestion or even Bucephalus was close) and untended concrete has given him a swarthier complexion than the ancient chroniclers claim for him. His empire stretches now not from the Danube to the Indus but to a single keeled ticket turnstile, rot-rusted off its moorings.

The other, anonymous statues, nameplates stolen by the sun or souvenir-hunters, feet eroded and genitals chipped away by the unforgiving chisel of time, were armless, headless, legless. In the museum, these absences evoke veneration; in the theme park, stripped of antiquity, they invite only a chuckle of derision.

Behind the prosthetic-legged youth, a soulless concrete mini-amphitheater, a travesty unfit for Euripides and no doubt with the acoustics of a collapsing barn, had been rammed into the hillside, with a shrunken orchestra and distended, barren proscenium.

The plinth on which the equestrian Ataturk once stood was now home to a pyramidal trellis topped with a pentagonal star, nicely nondenominational—a hexagram might have been another faux-pas—placed there by the wedding people, whose fragrant compound, Le Prier (“The Prayer”), all rings and jings and other fine things, lay at the top of the hill.

The wedding people, though, operate in the teeth of a demographic headwind, for while there are about 4,700 citizens of Kashiwazaki of the eminently marriageable ages of 30-34, there are only 3,200 or so tots and toddlers under five, so the marriage market, if we artificially restrict it to the confines of the city, shrinks by nearly a third in the next three decades, even without allowing for inevitable and irrevocable out-migration to university, and failure may, after all, be an option—as it always is.

Descending, I stumbled on the money shot: the rusty minarets of the mosque perfectly mirrored in the exhaust stacks of the K-K nuclear power plant, some ten kilometers distant.

It was about a decade ago, as I recall, that I first encountered the expression “XXX porn”, where the triple X refers not to the hardness of the core but to another sphere of life entirely. In this case, it was the innocent aside of an American colleague: “The Japanese do food porn really well, don’t they?” (Indeed they do, although they are lamentably poor at property porn.) Since then, the trope has spread like Spanish flu, with “mommy porn” to describe Fifty Shades of Grey seemingly the most fashionable iteration of late. Two examples of the trope concern me in particular here, as I’ve been dubbed both a luster after rust and a pornographer of ruins: “ruin porn” and “rust porn”, the former seemingly more common than the latter, which is after all only a subset of the former. Ruin porn is a realm into which academics, apprentice and actual, have already muscled, with their windily highfalutin talk of Foucaultian temporal heterotopias and other such ill-digested bunkum. Personally, I question the utility of loading up the critical elephant-gun with the porn bullet, to shoot it scattershot at every phenomenon or artifact that is described or photographed with ardor, passion, or admiration: if “ruin porn”, why not “book porn” (nice stacks) or “shoe porn” or “inkwell porn”?

Yikes, it seems as though “book porn” and “shoe porn” are already in frighteningly common parlance; as for “inkwell porn”, well, it can only be a matter of time. Non-porn porn’s biggest failing, though, must be its effacement, inadvertent or otherwise, of the intrinsic top-shelf ickiness of porn-porn—unless you’re gay, when you get to enjoy your porn pleasures guilt-free (or do you?) No-one to my knowledge—though my knowledge here is necessarily limited—routinely creams their pants to a peeling-plaster photo of a disused insane asylum or even to a goat-cheese and walnut soufflé straight from the oven—and if you do know of such people, I’d recommend avoiding them. But, unforgivingly and unforgivably, as so often, I digress.

Ruins’ appeal in part, I think, lies in their offer an escape from the rage to order of (Japanese) society, but mostly because they are symbols of failure, and failure is so much more common, and thus often so much more instructive, than success. Think only of the tens of thousands of aspirant athletes who fail to make the cut for their national Olympics teams, the thousands of Olympians who return home without a medal, and the hundreds who mount the two lower tiers of the winners’ podium, necessarily twice as numerous as the gold-baggers. Tory politician and demagogue Enoch Powell famously wrote that “All political lives…end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs,” and that sentence would resonate more with its references to politics removed. Yet most people, in their inbred optimism, would rather not hear talk of failure: should you stoop to browse the business or self-help books—nearly indistinguishable genres scarcely a rung above the contemptible travelogue—at your local bookshop, your hand will not dart instinctively out for tomes titled The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People, Mediocre to Bust: Why Most Companies Fail, or How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, for these books have not, and will not, be written.

I drove through the trim city center towards K-K, past the Atom Museum, more formally known as the Kashiwazaki Nuclear Power Public Relations Center.

What kind of atoms belong in an atom museum—superannuated atoms, atoms put out to pasture, the odd unwanted radioisotope, Potassium-40 perhaps, with a sufficiently long half-life?
The K-K complex is vast—about three kilometers by one and a half—and modest, hidden from inquisitive eyes behind a deep perimeter forest of pines. To obtain any visual purchase on it, you have to head for its optical Achilles’ heel, the beaches. Access to the beach due south comes through a succession of ugly steel doors set into an ugly steel windbreak that renders the beach invisible from the shore road; no great loss, for this is a joyless betrayal of a beach, a straggle of russet sand strewn with plastic detritus interspersed with the odd wire-throttled and rotting gull, a beach mauled by tetrapodded banks and piers and breakwaters, sprinkled with solitary surf-fishermen of a certain age keeping almost surly distances from each other.

Whatever you may feel about nuclear power, though, there’s no denying that K-K is a mighty, mighty beast—with 8,212MW of installed capacity, it alone can unleash more juice than can the entire electricity grid of Nigeria (population 170mn)—and standing in front of it, I found it hard to stifle a sense of awe, however unprepossessing the surroundings. The main entrance resembles nothing so much as a multilane expressway tollbooth.

To K-K’s immediate north lies the hamlet of Ominato, deserted in the dog-day high-noon heat. I scrambled down to the beach, cleaner now but devoid of life, through the grounds of a rambling minshuku bed & breakfast inn. Trade cannot, you would think, be good.

From here we’re looking south, mostly at reactor No. 5, but also with reactors No. 6 (KK6) and No. 7 (KK7)—the first and the second advanced boiling-water reactors and hence the first and Generation III reactors to be built anywhere in the world—peeking bashfully out behind. “Power plant photography forbidden” said the sign on the electric fence, but I was seized by a spasm of illiteracy and snapped on. What secrets could there have been to steal from such an innocuous distance? In its obsessive secretiveness and almost autistic inability to communicate, the company known as TEPCO (as Bloomberg likes to refer to it, with a nod perhaps to Prince)—the operator of both K-K and Fukushima Daiichi—is surely its own self-injurious worst enemy.

What, then, yokes the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and K-K together, aside from physical proximity? More than you might imagine. Take Kajima Corp., for starters: one of Japan’s Big Four general contractors, and among them primus inter pares. Kajima subsidiary Kajima Design was responsible for the aesthetic horrorshow that was Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, while Kajima the parent was responsible for its construction. Kajima also had a hand in the civil engineering work for the first three reactors of the seven at K-K (as well as all six of those at Fukushima Daiichi). No wonder, then, that the dome of the mosque bears more than a passing resemblance to the containment domes of old-school US pressurized-water reactors such as those at Indian Point in (not very) upstate New York. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail; if all you have are steel and concrete and blueprints for a nuclear power plant… With no theme parks and nuclear plants, and few roads and airports and tunnels left to build, Kajima has been a little down on its luck of late: revenues in the year to end-March 2012 were a quarter lower than they were exactly two decades before, at the late Bubble peak.

Then there’s the chronological congruence. While planning for K-K started back in the late 1960s, when Ryutaro Omori, then around 40, was working his way up the dull ranks of his family bank, the orgy of construction of both the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and of K-K climaxed within a very short timeframe: Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village opened its doors to the public in July 1996, while KK6 reached criticality in December 1995 and started commercial operations in November 1996, with KK7 to follow in July 1997.

The mid-nineties were to prove the last years of growth for Kashiwazaki. K-K had played its atom-splitting part in reversing the fall in the city’s population, which fell from 123,000 in 1947 to 94,000 in 1975, then rose to peak in 1995 at 101,500. It’s now below 90,000, lower than it was in 1920, and falling by up to 1,000 a year. In 1995, there were 16,000 kids under 15 in the city; there are 10,500 now, a third fewer and falling. In 1996, the city’s gross product amounted to Y559bn; a decade later, in 2006, it was Y487bn (down 13%), and it fell by nearly a quarter more in the earthquake year of 2007. This decline was mostly a function of deflation and the shrinking number of people employed, which fell by 14% between 1996 and 2009, with the contractions particularly acute in the primary sector (down 30%), as elderly farmers and foresters and fisherfolk lay down their hoes and axes and rods, and in the secondary sector (down 29%), as industry hollowed out and construction withered. The city’s per capita income remained relatively constant, though, fluctuating between Y2.85mn ($36,000, not PPP adjusted) and Y3.1mn between 1996 and 2007, before falling in crisis-racked 2009, the latest year for which data are available, to Y2.6mn.

The Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake struck at 10:13 on Monday July 16, 2007. While Ataturk was wobbling on his perch, down at K-K, just 19km from the epicenter, there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on, a lot of it in excess of the design specifications of the plant, as amply documented by your on-line encyclopedia of preference. Aside from some spillages of radioactive water, one of which was mopped up with towels (please, for PR’s sake!), the most serious incident was a fire at a KK3 electricity transformer, the reaction to which laid bare naked Keystone Coppery on the part of TEPCO: the chief operations manager happened to pass the transformer in his car, noticed the smoke, concluded that the fire wouldn’t burn long, and left the task of quelling it to subordinates; instead he made his way to the emergency room, whose door, its frame warped by the earthquake, could not be opened, so whiteboards were carried out into a car park, whence the disaster response was coordinated. The subordinates found that the fire hydrants near the transformer had been knocked out by the earthquake and yielded up no more than a trickle of water. Plant officials tried to notify the local fire brigade by phone, but they had no hotline and couldn’t get through; five off-duty firemen were corralled and they finally doused the blaze, two hours after the earthquake.

TEPCO, with peerless optimism that would have done Ryutaro Omori proud, was gung-ho to restart K-K the very next day; it was not to get its way. This was not the first time K-K had fallen silent—it was taken wholly, if briefly, off-line in 2002-2003 as punishment for a TEPCO data falsification scandal—and it wouldn’t be the last. It took nearly two years before K-K was allowed to creep gingerly back to life, with KK7 fired up in May 2009, to be followed by KK6, KK5, and KK1. Meanwhile, KK2, KK3, and KK4 have lain dormant these past five years. Then after Fukushima, one-by-one the four operating reactors reached routine maintenance milestones, as what is now the polite fiction has it, and were idled, not to be restarted, with KK6 the last to shut down, in March 2012. So K-K, for the third time in its brief adult lifespan, finds itself a white elephant—and at non-inflation-adjusted construction costs alone of Y2,571bn (about $32bn at the current Y/$ rate, which underestimates the real dollar cost), a very pricey white elephant.

TEPCO’s government-sanctioned revival plan hinges wholly on a complete K-K restart by April next year. This looks optimistic in the extreme, as newly prominent forces, from the Governor of Niigata Prefecture on down, are resolved to make K-K’s current slumber an eternal one. So are the rust-slashed minarets of Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village a fearsome premonition of its fate, is K-K truly a ruin of the future? If we look far enough out, out say to 2057, when the last of the reactors, KK7, is due to be decommissioned, nigh on a century after the plans for K-K were first hatched, when the ashes of your correspondent will have long joined those of Ryutaro Omori in the grave, when the inhabitants of these islands will number a third fewer than today, and when alternative sources of energy will surely be cheaper and more readily harnessed, the answer must be yes. Before then, anything in this sublunary world we have no choice but to inhabit must be possible.

One of the baleful—if understandable—consequences of the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake and the incidents at K-K was that it led the nuclear community to assume, for the following four years, that the next menace would come from the ground, whereas we know now, with our perfect clarity of hindsight, that it was to come from the sea. And since Fukushima, power companies, like generals forever fighting the last war, have been furiously erecting breakwaters and seawalls and levees to protect their nuclear plants—against a historical event. You can see TEPCO’s progress report on breakwater building at K-K here—and note the pride with which the red triangle declares that the top of the breakwater is 15m above sea level.

Why 15m? Simply because that is the top end of the range of estimates (13.5m-15m) of the height of the tsunami that inundated Fukushima Daiichi. There is just no conception available to the minds of the planners that the next tsunami might be higher than the last tsunami. This is a near textbook-worthy instance of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his magisterial distillation of a lifetime spent probing the rational irrationalities of the human mind, Thinking, Fast and Slow, terms anchoring effects, the most celebrated example of which comes from Kahneman and colleague Amos Tversky’s seminal 1974 Science paper, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases:

In a demonstration of the anchoring effect, subjects were asked to estimate various quantities, stated in percentages (for example, the percentage of African countries in the United Nations). For each quantity, a number between 0 and 100 was determined by spinning a wheel of fortune in the subjects’ presence. The subjects were instructed to indicate first whether that number was higher or lower than the value of the quantity, and then to estimate the value of the quantity by moving upward or downward from the given number. Different groups were given different numbers for each quantity, and these arbitrary numbers had a marked effect on estimates. For example, the median estimates of the percentage of African countries in the United Nations were 25% and 45% for groups that received 10 and 65, respectively, as starting points. Payoffs for accuracy did not reduce the anchoring effect.

To summarize: your estimate of the percentage of African countries in the UN will be swayed by the randomly generated number of a wheel of fortune, even though your conscious mind—were it awake—must know there is no connection between the two numbers. Once you grow alert to anchoring effects, you begin to notice their ubiquity: take, for instance, a breathless report on the nightly news a month ago, replete with elaborate 3D computer simulations, of the consequences of a future eruption of Mount Fuji that was an exact echo of the last one, the Hoei eruption of 1707-1708. Now I’m no volcanologist, but I’m willing to hazard a small wager that the next eruption of Mount Fuji will resemble the last one not at all. Stress tests, whether of banks or nuclear reactors, must also in most cases be fraught with anchoring effects. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb witheringly notes in his pompous but profound examination of rare events, Black Swan:

It is particularly shocking that people do what are called “stress tests” by taking the worst possible past deviation as an anchor event to project the worst possible future deviation, not thinking that they would have failed to account for that past deviation had they used the same method on the day before the occurrence of that past anchor event.

Anchoring effects, then, are the first in a series of potentially harmful mental tics, heuristics, and biases that we’ll encounter in the third and final part of this series of dispatches, a brief dissection of the psychology of nuclear power.

And just in case you were wondering—the percentage of UN member states that are African countries? I make it 26% (51/193).


20 responses to “Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

  1. I can only assume that your passing reference to “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” — “for these books have not, and will not, be written” — was tongue in cheek, for such a book exists and is well worth reading. (I gave my copy to my stock broker as a corrective for some of the bullshit that is an occupational hazard of financial analysts.)

    Your reference to “Thinking Fast and Slow” is very much on point. I thought enough of it to have Amazon send copies to several friends.

    Now tell me, do you think the Polly-Anna-ish tendency, to assume that the worst to yet come will be no worse than the worst that has been, is strictly a vice of the Japanese? Or is it pervasive among other highly developed countries?

    Once upon a time I worked with a Japanese guy, doing software support. On investigation of a reported problem we’d discover some festering cancer of a bug. I’ve have a cow, he’d chirp “oh, no problem”. Between that experience and (at least part of) the accounts you’ve published, I now think of the Japanese mind as appropriately symbolized by Hello Kitty anything. The whole world and its problems, including famine, pestilence, and nuclear disaster, is slathered with face-saving pastel colors and all is well. Except, of course, it isn’t.

    Your response, o divine Pachiguy, is eagerly awaited.

    • Gah, now you mention it, I’ve *read* How to Lose Friends and Alienate People! I was going through my hand-me-down reading phase, when I used to take cast-offs from a delightfully eccentric former colleague, including the fine Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States. Now I know where the reference came from. Will have to rewrite with a different send-up of the self-help/business book genre.

      “Now tell me, do you think the Polly-Anna-ish tendency, to assume that the worst to yet come will be no worse than the worst that has been, is strictly a vice of the Japanese? Or is it pervasive among other highly developed countries?”

      Don’t you think that Kahneman, whose key insights seem to have been gleaned mostly from the Israeli Air Force and US university undergraduates–an unusual mix–and are yet eminently applicable to Japan (and no doubt my own country, although I don’t know very much about it any more), hints that the Polly-Anna-ish tendency (must go and read the original children’s book, it looks hilarious) is, at a less extreme level, a feature of our evolved human psychology and doesn’t differ much whichever combination of latitude and longitude you find yourself at? Your Japanese software guy, was he generally right or wrong about the festering bug cancers? Even depressive realist I can persuade myself that some problems are readily soluble.

      As an aside, you may or may not be aware that the chair of one of the four investigations into Fukushima added an English-only executive summary to his report blaming the debacle on “our [i.e., Japan’s] reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; our groupism; and our insularity.” (For which he was generally roundly criticized in the vestiges of the foreign media that have any interest in either Fukushima or Japan.) Which if true—or even sincerely felt—would mean that the author must believe that his own kith and kin are not responsible enough to run any nuclear power plant. I suspect he doesn’t believe that—and I don’t, either.

      “The whole world and its problems, including famine, pestilence, and nuclear disaster, is slathered with face-saving pastel colors and all is well.”

      Famine and pestilence are not on the Japanese menu, it’s true—living here can make it feel that the RoTW’s problems are an awfully long way away. But I wouldn’t want to overstate the impact of Kitty-chan and the rest of the Sanrio stable on the national psyche, if such a thing even exists, any more than I would want to do the same for Disney and the US.

      Just a few disjointed thoughts…

  2. I thought the percentage was higher, but I was persistently misreading it as “estimate (countries in Africa in the UN)/(only the countries in Africa)” (and am still inclined to, based on the wording.

    • I do understand what you mean, there is an ambiguity there. It helps if you come to the Science article after having read the book, where it is clearer (but could be clearer still):

      “Amos and I once rigged a wheel of fortune. It was marked from 0 to 100, but we had it built so that it would stop only at 10 or 65. We recruited students of the University of Oregon as participants in our experiment. One of us would stand in front of a small group, spin the wheel, and ask them to write down the number on which the wheel stopped, which of course was either 10 or 65.
      We then asked them two questions:
      – Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?
      – What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?
      The spin of a wheel of fortune – even one that is not rigged – cannot possibly yield useful information about anything, and the participants in our experiment should simply have ignored it. But they did not ignore it. The average estimates of those who saw 10 and 65 were 25% and 45%, respectively.”

      These days, the only African “nation” that’s not a UN member is Western Sahara; in 1974 things would have been a bit different–wonder what the right answer then was?

  3. “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” was written by Toby Young, and is actually very funny.

  4. Pachiguy, your consideration of the K-K as a “ruin of the future” strikes a wonderful chord with me, and I think the thoughts about our inevitable future (as no more) is part of what attracts me to your writing. As you walk around your home city, do you find yourself imagining the future ruins of all the buildings around you? To be certain, in Japan, it is perhaps easier than in a country like the U.S., given that so many buildings here are allowed to enter a state of damage and partial decay and yet remain in use, while they would likely be retrofitted or restored or torn down elsewhere.

    • “Pachiguy, your consideration of the K-K as a “ruin of the future” strikes a wonderful chord with me, and I think the thoughts about our inevitable future (as no more) is part of what attracts me to your writing.”
      Glad you liked the post. If you’re interested in “ruins of the future”, you might enjoy (?) this little essay:
      Personally, I find it hard to get beyond sentences such as:
      The ruin marks that sense of termination that has not quite come to its end. I call this temporal unreliability a narratological effect because imagining the ruins of the future gives a means to envision a story that both locates a possible landscape and relates that landscape to present surroundings.
      (Fascinating illustrations, though.)
      I was consciously careful, actually, not to articulate in print in too much detail what the ruins of K-K might look like, in part because I find that specific kind of speculation too subject to the whims of politics and society to be worth engaging in and in part because it is very hard to leave a nuclear power plant as a ruin, unless it is a Chernobyl (and K-K will never be a Chernobyl).
      “As you walk around your home city, do you find yourself imagining the future ruins of all the buildings around you?”
      Well, that’s an interesting question. My home city is Tokyo, and it still has sufficient vigor for me not to find myself needing/wanting to do that. As you say, the US is profligate with its buildings–from here, it is very hard for me to conceive that, say, the Detroit Packard plant, closed in 1958, still (barely) exists. But we’ll have many more ruins to come.

  5. As for the marriage business, my spreadsheet of Japanese births by year indicates the population of 20 year olds fell to under 20M in 1978, reached a local minima in 1986 at 16.3M, rose again to 19.6M in 1996, has fallen to 13.3M now (~33% drop from 1996), and will fall to under 10M right around 2040 (25% drop from now; 50% from 1996) if current birth trends continue through this decade (2040’s new adults will be born in just 8 years!).

    Depopulation is so hard to get one’s mind around. Neither an unalloyed blessing nor curse (at least for a place so overcrowded as Japan is now).

    For something so life-determining, I sure didn’t put much thought into my decision to study Japanese instead of Mandarin back in the late 80s.

    My only excuse was that China was still under lockdown and Japan was still flying oh-so-high that summer of 1989. But maybe things will still work out for Japan this century. As I like saying, I suspect Japan’s problems are more solvable than the US’s.

    Mebbe I shoulda studied Swedish tho.

    • “My spreadsheet of Japanese births by year”
      Underlying data source wa? (I think we’ve been through this before…)
      “the population of 20 year olds”
      Under-20 year olds?
      “reached a local minima in 1986 at 16.3M”
      Yes, that’s probably the children of the mid-sixties parents, a smaller cohort because of their own war-disrupted parents. Although the dip strikes me as a mite too steep.
      “rose again to 19.6M in 1996”
      Young echo boomers peaking around here (but seems a few years too late).
      “has fallen to 13.3M now (~33% drop from 1996)”
      Again, I sense your highs are too high and your lows too low, but the decline has been steep, as you can glean from the Kashiwazaki figures (although Kashiwazaki is not representative of the nation as a whole, of course).
      “2040′s new adults will be born in just 8 years!”
      Always good to be reminded of things like this, wherever you are, and by extension your own mortality.
      “Depopulation is so hard to get one’s mind around. Neither an unalloyed blessing nor curse (at least for a place so overcrowded as Japan is now).”
      Do you have an objective set of measures for “overcrowded”? Is it possible to construct a model for “overcrowded”? As you be a US-jin and me be a UK-jin, we’re always going to have different reference points for what constitutes “overcrowded”, as will Bangladesh-jin and Burundi-jin. It’s largely about Kahneman’s most profound, if ugly, acronym–WYSIATI–what you see is all there is.
      “For something so life-determining, I sure didn’t put much thought into my decision to study Japanese instead of Mandarin back in the late 80s.”
      Do you think you would have been *happier* if you’d studied Mandarin? Although I know next-to-nothing of your personal circumstances, naturally, my initial suspicion is no.

  6. The source is:

    Do you have an objective set of measures for “overcrowded”?

    yeah, inability to go off somewhere and find work in the primary sector due to all the good opportunities having been taken up (or tapped out).

    I remained within the Yamanote-sen for 99% of my existence in Japan, so I have to admit to liking the life of a worker bee in the metropolis. And having ranged from Kyoto to Sendai and some points in between I also don’t want to say that Japan is wall-to-wall people either, but the raw statistic of m2/person is always in my mind . . . Japan on the whole is at 3.4 people per hectare, while Australia offers 34 hectares per person.

    But Japan actually has travelled through this population roller coaster curve rather well thus far, at least in my lifetime.

    (The atomic power genie might have been contributory — the 60 Terawatt-hour annual output of KK was worth $12B/yr @ 20c / kwhr)

    Do you think you would have been *happier* if you’d studied Mandarin?

    I appreciate societies that Have Their S— Together, so mainland China still has a lot of work to do here and I doubt they will (on-the-whole) reach this standard in my lifetime.

    Socio-economically, I guess Japan really didn’t go *poof* in 1990 and proceed to blow away, the real story is simply one of China (and S Korea for that matter) rising to overtake them as Japan’s rocket ride from the 1960s through 1980s came to a coast in the 1990s.

    All I want out of life is good food, good places, good people, and good medical services. And good work! That last one is the tricky bit, unless I get my own (self-publishing) act moving forward.

    Growing up in N California with Japanese-American friends, I had early access to what became Japan’s “Gross National Cool” . . . but as I inch towards retirement age I guess the toys of my youth become less important in the scheme of things, and now I look at the relevance of the Japanese language vs Mandarin going into this next century.

    (My preferred industry of employment is video games, and Japan Inc was on one helluva roll in my formative years — but what was in a 6′ cabinet and vended for ¥100/play in the 1980s is now played on a throwaway Chinese-made phone and delivered over the air to millions . . . not sure where and how Japan is going to fit into this picture later this century)

    • I think either the Wikinumbers or your spreadheets have blown a fuse somewhere. The numbers for the 0-14 age group, which we can rationally expect to be smaller than the under 20s, are here at the National Institute for Population and Social Security Research:
      Yet these numbers are consistently higher than yours:
      27.5mn in 1980 23.5% of the population
      22.5mn in 1990 18.2%
      18.5mn in 2000 14.6%
      17.1mn in 2010 13.4%
      15.1mn in 2020 12.2%
      10.8mn in 2050 10.8%
      Hard to conceive that as recently as 1980, nearly a quarter of the pop was under 15…
      To me, though, the interesting recent stats by age group are for the worker bees, loosely defined (15-64):
      85.9mn in 1990
      84.6mn in 2005
      77.2mn in 2015
      72.3mn in 2025
      Flat, more or less, for 15 years (1990-2005), now in fast decline-15% between 2005 and 2025. Hard for a conventional
      thinker like me to see how this shrinkage in one of the three components in output:
      Y = A x K x L
      where Y is output, A is total factor productivity, K is Kapital, and L is labour,
      will help the country grow its way out of its debts (or simply grow).
      (As an aside, I’m amazed by how many seemingly intelligent people think that the instant population crash precipitated
      by the Black Death and the ensuing modicum of prosperity for a century or so in almost entirely agrarian societies could
      have any implications for developed nations facing achingly slow population declines half a millennia plus later…)
      Bringing the topic of the aging/retiring workforce home was this recent Nikkei article (edited for brevity’s sake), ostensibly about
      Ranks Of Nonpermanent Workers Down By 10,000 In April-June
      TOKYO (Nikkei)–The number of nonregular employees fell by 10,000 on the year to 17.75 million in the April-June quarter, according to labor statistics released Tuesday by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
      The number of regular employees tumbled by 460,000 due in part to the retirement of baby boomers. The labor force shrunk as the number of people outside of it climbed by 190,000 to 44.93 million.
      (Aug. 15 morning edition)
      That nearly half-million drop in the workforce in a year dovetails well with the numbers for the worker bees, 2005-2015, above, where the nominal workforce shrinks by an average of 740,000 bods a year between 2005-2015.
      More on other topics anon.

      • I had a typo in my above: “20 year olds fell to under 20M in 1978” should have been “20-29 yos fell to . . .” (since this was about the marriage biz I wanted to focus on their clientele age bin).

        My spreadsheet matches your official cite of age 0-14 population, at least once the ugly effects high pre-1960s infant mortality and WW2 pass out of the numbers, so the years of the ups & downs of the 20-29 population doesn’t change.

        will help the country grow its way out of its debts (or simply grow)

        Intra-national debt payback is the interesting thing though. Unlike Greece and Spain having to forever part with cold hard Euros to pay back the industrial north’s past lending generosity, Japan just has to tax population subset A more and give the revenue to subset B, where A and B are not necessarily disjoint, and B is just going to spend the money back into the Japanese economy anyway, hopefully.

        So growth is not necessarily required, just resolve to bear the unbearable again. Or they can just stiff population B on their so-called savings — 80%+ of which is held in JGBs.

        Japan’s going to have to pick one this decade — substantially higher taxes or their quadrillion in past savings. Their national tax to GDP burden is rather low (compared to European norms and if official figures are to be believed), so this burden is not as burdensome as it is made out to be.

        achingly slow population declines half a millennia plus later…

        yeah, as long as the yen-yuan currency cross results in Japan’s hourly wage being China’s daily wage (as it is now), it is indeed difficult to see an upside to fewer potential laborers entering the working-age population.

        Certainly the existing industrial workforce unfortunate to be competing with Chinese labor has zero bargaining power as it is.

        I guess sectors that cannot be offshored — construction, transportation, medical services, financial services, and government services — will have a safe-haven draw that will also attenuate any growing labor-side bargaining power.

        ceteris paribus, one might expect that age 20-40 population declining ~30% between now and 2030 would give labor in that segment more bargaining power. But the flip side of less people is less demand, too. Japan will be lucky to have 800,000 babies born that year, which is a decline of 200,000 from now.

        And there’s not going to be a massive influx of old people, either, balancing this out. The cite you gave has age 65+ at 33M in 2015 and peaking at 36M in the 2040s. 3M more old people yes, but the stats show ~9M fewer age 0-19 people between now and 2050.

        (As I’ve mentioned here before, the US does in fact have a massive baby boom set to turn 65, with the peak arriving in 2022 and the tail end coming in 2029 . . . not entirely sure I still want to be in the US when that wave hits)

      • “I had a typo in my above: “20 year olds fell to under 20M in 1978″ should have been “20-29 yos fell to . . .” (since this was about the marriage biz I wanted to focus on their clientele age bin).”
        Ahh, now I understand where the wires have crossed… Yes, your local peak for the 20-29ers in 1996 (born 1967-1976) was the echo boomers, concentrated in 1971-1974, moving into marriageable territory. Truly amazing how this cohort has fallen by a third since 1996. They have had such an impact on society, too: they must go some of the way to explaining the karaoke boom, which peaked in around 1996, they are now keeping the absolute numbers of babies/year above the million mark as the women enter the last year of fertility, and they have propped up the new-build housing market to a degree in the last decade, though to what extent is hard to quantify (given how it has collapsed). They no doubt did their duty for consumption, at the Gucci and Hermes end of the scale, in the noughties, too. Implications from now should be obvious, although as you note the decline in twentysomethings slows from here on.
        “Japan’s going to have to pick one this decade — substantially higher taxes or their quadrillion in past savings. Their national tax to GDP burden is rather low (compared to European norms and if official figures are to be believed), so this burden is not as burdensome as it is made out to be.”
        Well put, and largely agreed, although you wouldn’t know it here from the brouhaha about the consumption tax hike (whatever its precise merits or demerits). Mr and Mrs Watanabe are almost as tax-averse as tea-partiers. Often Japan strikes me as an extreme US on tax and spend issues—very keen on a European welfare state (well, except unemployment benefits—get out and get a job, you work-shy shyster) and very, very loath to pay for it.
        “Certainly the existing industrial workforce unfortunate to be competing with Chinese labor has zero bargaining power as it is.”
        Well, there are still pockets of manufacturing even in our nations’ service economies. Some things the Chinese can’t quite do yet, like build a decent car brand or a 400-seat airliner. The problem is that Japan has tried to hang on to too much manufacturing, cursed by the (recently invented) ideology of monozukuri (making things, but with an old crafts and precision bent—I add that not for you but other potential readers). Which is why the consumer electronics folk are in such dreadful trouble. But then again, this is only a real problem for the c25% (I pluck these figures from the ether, of course) of the industrial economy that’s uncompetitive (i.e., only 5% of the overall economy, when industry is only 20% of your economy).
        Very good to have you around, anyway, Troy.

      • Pachiguy: “as recently as 1980”

        Not to be a nit picker, but that’s a full generation ago. Not recent by any reasonable standard. Think “when Mom and Dad were my age.”

        Yes, your inmost thoughts are correct: I am picking a nit here, but at the same time I will plead that “a generation ago” is a vastly different time scale from “yesterday”, “last year”, or even “a decade ago”. The demographic train wreck in Japan is a very long, slow, drawn out process, visible only to those who peer at ancient statistics. (And to those who, like Pachiguy, haunt decaying towns and abandoned resorts outside the major cities.)

      • “Not to be a nit picker, but that’s a full generation ago.”
        Or more. Never been entirely clear (nor has the world) on how many years a generation comprises, but if we go for average age at reproduction, then you’re about right.
        ‘Think “when Mom and Dad were my age.”’
        I do, often. But I come from old parents. That takes me back to 1970 or so. Also, I first came (briefly) to these sceptred shores in 1986, as a teen, so Japan and 1980 doesn’t seem so far removed for me.
        “The demographic train wreck in Japan is a very long, slow, drawn out process, visible only to those who peer at ancient statistics.”
        Agreed, it’s deliciously slow, and remorseless. Which surely makes the peering at ancient statistics, when noone else is doing so, quite valuable–or interesting at least.
        That nearly a quarter under-15 demographic in 1980 was higher than the one-fifth (20.2%) demographic the US has today–personally, I find that fascinating.

    • “But Japan actually has travelled through this population roller coaster curve rather well thus far, at least in my lifetime.”
      But we’re only at the top of the rollercoaster’s Gaussian apex–it’s all downhill from here! You’ve only lived through the ascent to the summit (as have we all)–we really don’t know what the descent is going to be like, because–for a 21st century highly developed society–this is a known unknown. Here’s a little quote from the Nikkei on August 24:
      Meanwhile, the nation’s aging population is sending social welfare expenses on pension, medical treatment and nursing care through the roof. The Health and Welfare Ministry estimated in its March report on social welfare outlook that social security spending will increase to 148.9 trillion yen in fiscal 2025, from 109.5 trillion yen in fiscal 2012.
      Now the numbers look suspect at first glance, as the whole Jgov budget in fiscal 2012 was only cY90trn, but who knows precisely what they’re including. I could investigate, but I don’t have the time and no-one’s paying me. But if they are right, that’s cY3trn a year (c0.6% GDP) that has to be found annually from here to FY3/26. Doable, certainly, but still cumulatively about 8% of current GDP that will have to be sacrificed. To say nothing of the spanner a bond crisis might throw into the works.

      • As for the demographic roller coaster, it is impressive (to me at least) that Japan Inc was able to step up to the plate 1966-1990 with a booming economy as the postwar baby boom aged from ~20 to ~40:


        Meanwhile, the nation’s aging population is sending social welfare expenses on pension, medical treatment and nursing care through the roof.

        This social spending doesn’t disappear into the vacuum. Pensions get spent right back into the economy, creating demand. Medical treatment is incredibly efficient in Japan; I can’t find the spreadsheet now, but was looking at a comparison of FY00 vs FY10 health care spending and it hadn’t gone up at all compared to the elderly pension expense.

        Nursing care is labor-intensive, and Japan’s job market could use the help.


        shows some interesting statistics — Japan’s defense burden is at 1995 levels.

        From the OECD’s health data tables, Japan’s per-capita health costs have increased from $2000/capita to ~$3000 since 2000.

        The US’s have gone from $5000 to $8000+ (UK is $1800 to $3400).

        Doable, certainly, but still cumulatively about 8% of current GDP that will have to be sacrificed.

        indicates to me that Japan can handle another 10% tax burden without too much trouble (other than the disruption this loss of disposable income will do to the housing market, which is still incredibly over-valued IMO).

        To say nothing of the spanner a bond crisis might throw into the works.

        If the yen were on the other side of 120 I wouldn’t be so sanguine about Japan’s prospect. ISTM the BOJ has 50% yen devaluation leeway to play within before even having to worry about FX problems.

        Japan’s $260B/yr+ interest burden is also just money reentering the economy.

        There’s many moving parts here and it’s really hard to see the dynamics of the future.

        I prefer to look at wealth consumption vs. wealth creation, wealth here not being paper assets but the hard wealth of daily life — food, fuel, concrete, copper, and steel.

        Japan posted a $6B deficit for July, and $36B for 1H12, but against that is Japan’s immense $3T net capital position.


        That’s not a bad problem to deal with, the cash management hassle of being the world’s richest country.

  7. Brilliant as always.
    Thank you for another insight into the mysterious Orient!

  8. Pingback: Mandarins and meltdowns | ezzyhome

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