Down the benjo: The ruin/nation of Japan
Tokyo, May 2009
The Japanese economy is forecast to contract by 6.5% this year, according the back pages of the Economist; to put that into some context, the UK economy contracted by 5.5% in the bleakest year of the Great Depression, 1931, its worst non-wartime slump of the 20th century. The peak-to-trough contraction in GDP from 2008 Q1 to 2009 Q1 is set to be very close to 10%, one of the arbitrary markers dividing a recession from a depression, and a decline almost no developed economy has been through since WWII, the only exception being Finland in 1990-1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the first decade of the 21st century, of course, the contraction starts from a hugely more affluent peak, and no one is suggesting that hunger will stalk the nation the way it did Britain, America, and Germany in the 1930s.
It may come as a shock to almost all of you living outside of Japan, and to some of you living in the center of its big cities, that as we approach the summer of 2009, swathes of the country are in ruins. It came as a shock to me, too, I have to confess, having lived for almost all of the last decade in the bubble of central Tokyo and only venturing outside occasionally to get to the airport, nearby beaches, and old friends in the mountains.
As the financial results came in for Japanese companies for the last quarter of 2008, in late January and early February, they were suggestive of a complete cessation of activity in certain sectors of the economy. My interest in what happened outside of the bubble I live in was only really piqued, though, by a report in the Financial Times that many of the Brazilian emigrants to Oizumi, the town in Japan with the highest percentage of such residents, were ready to pack for Sao Paolo. I went out to investigate and was fascinated and amazed by the combination of immigration, industry, bleakness, and normality. A series of e-mails I had anyway been writing to a friend gained traction from this visit, and developed into a series titled “Down the benjo”; “benjo” is a no longer particularly polite Japanese word for “bog” or “john”. I owe inspiration for the title from a reference early in the year by Willem Buiter, Professor of European Political Economy at the London School of Economics, on his maverecon blog at the Financial Times, to the Icelandic economy having been flushed “down the snyrting”. Much the same, it struck me when I read his post back in January, was happening to the Japanese economy.
The visit to Oizumi led to another, this time to Hitachi, the home of the multinational conglomerate of the same name, which prompted a longer e-mail essay, which in turn prompted a ramble down a recently abandoned railway line less than an hour from Tokyo, which resulted in a 15,000-word essay that took the best part of a month of free time to put together. By this stage—late April—I was mulling turning the essays into a book. A book, however, would require a higher standard of seriousness than I have been devoting to these essays, perhaps a higher standard than I am capable of devoting. Besides, the essays are a kind of photojournalism (please excuse the poor quality of the photographs) and hence ideally suited to the Interweb. They are also in some ways too transient to survive the wait for printed page. And I don’t think I could deal with the rejection slips, anyway.
So here is a blog, from someone who hates blogs, bloggers, and all the foul language that goes with them. It’s a species of anti-blog, as there is no way that you’ll get through a post if you suffer from any kind of attention-deficit disorder; even then, you may need a strong cup of coffee and an hour to kill.
You may find I ramble; in my defence I would only say that these essays were journeys, that the conclusions were not there to be drawn as the first steps were taken. You may find some of the essays a little boyish in their enthusiasms; well, that may be one serendipitous (for me, at least) byproduct of a midlife crisis (if that’s what it is). You may find them very remote from your world, taking place in a far-away country of which we know nothing, saying nothing to you about your life; I would only remind you that the action (so far) takes place less than a couple of hours from Tokyo, still the world’s largest city and still the largest concentration of wealth on the planet, and even if we stray from Tokyo’s Kanto hinterland in subsequent installments, we’ll remain in the world’s second largest economy, at least until the clock ticks over to 2010 and Japan finally loses that title, held for so many decades, to China.
The blog is not called “Down the benjo” but rather “Spike Japan”. Someday I hope to branch away from benjo-related topics, though heaven knows there are enough of them, and the blog will then have other focuses. “Spike Japan” takes its inspiration from a news story of a few years ago, too obscure now for it to easily be tracked down in cyberspace. A schoolboy in rural Japan walking home gashed his leg open on a triangular metal spike that protruded from a guardrail at the side of the road. At first it was thought that the metal had been affixed there deliberately, with malicious intent; subsequent checks on guardrails across the nation uncovered thousands of these metal spikes, which were caused by vehicle collisions with the guardrails: as the vehicle hit the rails, the bolts securing them popped out slightly, to catch and tear off a small triangle of the vehicle’s bodywork. One morning on my way to work, intrigued by this story, I made a mental note to check the dividing barrier of the dual-carriageway at the bottom of my road to see if any metal shard had stuck there, and sure enough, I found one within seconds. A more responsible member of the public would have reported it; I preferred to see how long it would remain. It’s still there, and I captured it today to form the photo header for the blog, which is dedicated to taking a look at the overlooked, the neglected, the abstruse, and the overgrown.
Please persist with the latest installment of “Down the benjo”; if some of it is too arcane, you can always just read the shorter paragraphs and look at the pictures. One thing I can promise: if you get to the end, it will be the first time in your life—and the last—you will read a piece of prose that features, as starring or supporting characters, a cast that encompasses painters John Constable and Mark Rothko, politicians Kakuei Tanaka and Tony Benn, a soon-to-be-opened provincial airport and a not-long-deceased railway line, and the kamikaze pilots of World War II.
(A note on style: The first three installments were written as e-mails to a friend with three months’ experience of living in Japan; they assume a certain level of familiarity with the country and also contain personal references that I haven’t bothered to eliminate. If there are unfamiliar Japanese words, well, that’s what Wikipedia and Google are for. The fourth installment, Requiem for a railway, was written with a larger audience in mind, and almost all Japanese words are defined or explained, either explicitly in parenthesis, or in the course of the succeeding text).