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).


52 responses to “About

  1. Pierre Wassenaar

    Is there really a precedent for this stuff? Mark Kitto meets Bill Emmott meets WG Sebald meets Jonathan Raban meets Clive James. Extraordinary.

  2. Patrick Loughran

    Just found your site via The Guardian story. Fantastic stuff. Particularly loved the description of the scene in Hamanasu skewered chicken place in Teshio. Hiliarious. Any chance all this will turn it into a memoir/novel?

    • Thanks for the compliment. I think of Spike as being, if anything, a prototype e-book and am fond of the electronic format. The post on Teshio, for example, has quite a complex (and meticulously orchestrated) narrative structure, with the photos, my commentary on the photos, discursions on encounters and demographics, the quotations from the professors, and my commentary on the quotations all telling varied but interlocking stories. It’s not easy to replicate that on paper.

  3. I got here from the Guardian article as well, and have lost a good four hours so far, and got a stiff neck. Damn your addictive style.

    The rust porn filled me with a wild longing to get at it with my SLR. Did you know there is a market for stock-photography “texture shots”? This stuff is beautiful grunge of the highest order, and actually getting quite sought-after in some circles. Oh, those patchworks of corroded metal. Oh!

    I’ll have to go and have a lie-down now.

    • “Rust porn.” Perfect. I got addicted to it after stumbling across the Derelict London site (the Net really is a rabbit hole). Then I started looking at the Japanese stuff (the foreign stuff is always better!) after clicking on the haikyo section at the Metropolis site.

  4. I, too, found your blog via the Guardian’s website. I’ll be reading, but I definitely need a lot more coffee than what you’ve suggested.

  5. I also came to this site after seeing the Guardian.
    Thanks for sharing the road trip with us.
    Rust Decay and Emptiness……. maybe wild flowers and grazing animals will take the places back.
    All photographs were superb…….

  6. I always make it a point to write a note whenever I come across a Japan blog written by someone who hates the concept — they inevitably end up, ironically, being the most well-written.

    Reading the offerings you’ve made on this site so far have been one “hit the nail on the head!” moment after another, especially the detailed dissections of the increasingly obvious rural decay, all too evident in the slowly crumbling town I call home (Gifu, once a thriving textile industry center, now a Nagoya bedroom community — a ravaged shell).

    You’re writing what I attempted to write ten years ago but only succeeded in producing spittle-emitting rants cemented together loosely with copious amounts of Really Bad Words. Excellent job.

  7. Another post to say thanks for taking the time to put this website together – your writing helps me to comprehend the melancholy beauty of an abandoned pachinko parlor.

    Here’s a Japanese website that you might like.


  8. Fascinating website. Perhaps you could email me directly? I have a question for you I’d like to ask offline.

  9. Dear Author:

    I have unsuccessfully searched in vain on this site for your name and/or a direct e-mail address. I am in the process of compiling an anthology of published writings on whisky history under contract with Sterling Publishing of New York City.

    I would like to obtain permission to submit a portion of your “Cherries, Whisky, and the Wall Street of the North” essay as part of that prospective anthology to covering the rise of the Japanese distilling industry.

    I stress that I am the editor of, and a contributor to, the anthology now in progress. Sterling Publishing handles negotiations directly with contributors for reprint payment. But, since I do not know your name, location or background, I needed to contact you directly before any such steps were taken.

    Please contact me as your first convenience. I can be reached by e-mail or phone.

    Thank you.

    William M. Dowd
    7 Hyland Circle
    Troy, New York USA 12182
    (518) 238-1950

  10. I must say that when I arrived in Hokkaido for the first time in April this year I noticed that there was a lot of rust (although I didn’t notice anything unusual in Honshu). I mentioned this to my girlfriend and she also noticed this (she is from Chiba; I don’t know whether it fits in boomtown Tokyo or decaying country Japan, as expostulated in your articles). The Hokkaido locals seem oblivious to the rust, or are so accustomed to it as to not notice.

    However I have one point of contention with your premise of the rust being a product of neglect cause by economic stagnation: Hokkaido is snowed under for 6 months a year… do not the local councils use salt on the roads? The shuttle bus that took me from my hotel to the snow and back was not the latest model, I’ll grant, but rust bubbles and streaks on the bodywork looked premature and anachronistic for the age I estimated for the bus. Rusting cars and metalwork in proximity to roads is a common pitfall where salt is used to keep roads ice-free.

    • Of course, the rust is not *solely* due to neglect – I noticed what you report, too, that for example cars of no more than 10 or 12 years of age rust in Hokkaido whereas in the Tokyo area they don’t. I think it is more the ferocity of Hokkaido winters than salt gritters, but I may be wrong. I hadn’t really intended the Hokkaido posts to be a forensic examination of the causes of rust on galvanized (or otherwise) steel… I’m not really sure that I ever asserted that Hokkaido rust was a product of neglect caused by economic stagnation – did I?

      Chiba is a fascinating place (and you won’t hear many people saying that). Half of it fits in boomtown Tokyo (or at least bedtown Tokyo), half is more decaying country Japan. Which half is your girlfriend from, may I ask?

      There’s plenty of rust on Honshu, though, too, if you step into the countryside.

      • I guess you never really linked the rust, particularly in the Hokkaido region, to economic stagnation… I made the association because I came across your site while googling for “rust” and “Hokkaido”; I was rather taken by all the rust there and I wanted to see if anyone else noticed it that too 🙂

        My girlfriend’s family home is in Matsudo, within walking distance of the Edo River. Actually, I was there in early April and went on a ride on the Yakiri Ferry to the Tokyo bank. On the way to the ferry is farmland where many plots were growing the negi which the area is famous for. It was a Sunday and yet lots of old men and women were out in the fields (certainly noone under 45)

        A few hundred metres away and running parallel to Edogawa there is a small river called Sakagawa. Lots of homeless guys have pitched their tarpaulin tents along its concrete banks; there are small flower pots near -but not too near – their encampment; I wonder who tends the flower pots? You should go for a trip there with a camera one weekend to assess Yagiri’s status; its so close to Tokyo yet looks so very countryside. On the Tokyo side of the Yakiri ferry is the famous Tora-ya, the shop that used to be Tora-san’s house in the Tora-san films. I bought a Kusa dango there.

        Matsudo itself seems very vibrant and quite modern but I’m told its a bed town for Tokyo. The Sakagawa runs through Matsudo, and near the bank there are some small old two storey houses that look to me to pre WWII erections. I felt the place to be very Japanese, as opposed to Tokyo which loses that traditional “town” feeling due to all the highrise.

  11. I wasn’t sure of the most appropriate place for this comment on your site, so I’ll put it here.

    One of your commenters on another post asks why you don’t include people in your pictures, but I agree that that your site works best as a document of the decline of an economy and a landscape. Adding the effect on people would multiply the complexity of what you are trying to do.

    So anyway, on the human angle of Japan’s slow decline – I thought I would recemmend this documentary film, by a filmaker called Sean McAllister and broadcast on the BBC back in 2009. It’s called “Japan: A Story of Love and Hate”, and follows a middle-aged Japanese guy in Yamagata called Naoki as he struggles to live a meaningful life as one of Japan’s ‘working poor’. Apologies if you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it.


    • Many thanks for the link, Mr. Joyce. I had heard of the documentary but haven’t had the opportunity to see it. Sadly, it’s no longer available at the BBC link, although there’s a tantalizing clip at Sean McAllister’s own website. Naoki seems like quite a character.

      I would put more people in the posts if I had some kind of documentary filmmaker or journalistic credentials, but I feel I can hardly go up to people and say, “I’m writing a blog, care to tell me your life story?”

      Back to working on the next post, and thanks again for the link.

    • Dou itashimashite.

      Looks like you have to ‘Install Web Veoh Player’ to watch the whole thing…

  12. Hello,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your site. I’m an anthro student considering writing my senior paper on dying rural communities in Japan. I would be honored if you would consider talking to me about this topic or guiding me in the right direction.
    Feel free to email me!

  13. Absolutely fascinating blog. I’m so glad I read the Guardian story about it or I never would’ve spotted it. It’s depressingly honest.

  14. treblekickeresq

    I’m a big fan of your blog living in Saitama another one of those half boom town, half dying prefectures.

    I wonder if you have ever heard of a guy named Dan Kildee? He got his start helping Flint, Michigan, a dying city shrink.

    His main argument is that shrinking cities are probably never going to rebound but smaller can be better if you control the shrink properly.

    Obviously not everything is applicable to Japan but it is a start. Link below is a short intro

  15. First of all, your blog is absorbing and fascinating.

    Moving on, I believe the spikes on the guardrails along Japanese roads, at least in most cases, are not caused by vehicle collisions.

    If you look at the guardrail in your photo, it is entirely smooth around the area from which the spike protrudes. A vehicle crash severe enough to tear off a shard of bodywork would unavoidably dent and damage the surrounding area of the guardrail itself. Moreover, the perfectly straight edges and regular triangular shape of the “spike” are too small and neat to be the result of metal torn off in a violent collision.

    Rather, these little “spikes” are deliberately affixed to the guardrails to hold in place those little vertical advertising flags you sometimes see along the roadside:

    When the flag is removed, you are left with a nasty little spike unless it is pressed back down. More description in this fellow’s blog post:


    • Well, that certainly is interesting (at least to us lovers of the obscure). All I can say for now is that if you look at the photo at the bottom of “About”, there is clear evidence of a serious vehicle impact into the guardrail in the few meters before the spike protrudes, which to me is consistent with a vehicle having hit the guardrail and a piece of its bodywork having been torn off, though I’m not an engineer. The other argument against it once having been an ad flag is that I have lived within 25 meters of the spike for a decade and do not recollect ever having seen an ad there. It’s also on a fairly busy stretch of central Tokyo road near the Ministry of Defense but not really near any commercial premises, though that’s not conclusive. Jury out?

      • Patrick Loughran

        I have to say I’m not convinced either way. Although, just to satisfy my taste for the mysterious, the counterintuitive, the obscure, I would love to believe the spike is torn neatly from a car. But the shape, and it’s ordered geometry, seems so unlikely to be accidental. Saying that, given the high level of molecular ordering in durable metals, it doesn’t seem totally absurd that they would break along clean lines. It would be great if we could source an engineer or mathematician on this question?

  16. We don’t need an engineer or mathematician — we need the Mythbusters guys to crash a bunch of cars into guardrails and see what happens! 🙂

  17. Really have enjoyed reading the blog. I have spent a lot of time traveling in rural Japan researching boat building and spent last winter on a small island in Okinawa working with an 81 year old boat builder. Okinawa had a peculiar kind of downtrodden, rural charm. If you can get down there take a stroll through the old part of Nago-city. It shocks you with its Third World nation feel. You might not be able to further your rust fantasies but you might replace it with a fetish for crumbling concrete. And, like a microcosm of Japan, the capital city of Okinawa looks prosperous while those parts not directly seen as tourist sites do not. I was living on Iejima for almost three months, and I still cannot figure out how anyone made a living there outside of city workers and farmers. When I asked the owner of a minshuku how he did it his reply was, “Well, we get full during Golden Week.” Anyway, I did my own blog on the project: http://thesabaniproject.blogspot.com/ and hope to integrate a larger blog about Japan and my research work in the future at my website: http://www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com

  18. Please do let me know about follow up comments to the posting I just left, thanks.

    Douglas Brooks

  19. Pingback: Blog Review: Spike Japan « Reflections on Japan

  20. I enjoy your blog posts! I’m a American photographer based here in Tokyo. If there is ever an opportunity to accompany you on one of your ruins excursions, please feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to share any of the photos with you for display on Spike Japan.
    tel: oh-nine-oh 1795 yon yon yon queue

  21. err, last digit of phone is 6 not 9!

  22. I looked for your email here but could not find it…
    I am only half-way through reading your blog when I suddenly realized that you might be the perfect person to clear up a mystery.
    I took this photo at the entrance to Narita Temple in 1985. I have long wondered why the sign says “Hot Dog on a Stick”. Please explain. Thanks.

  23. You’ve probably seen this, but I thought of you when I read it. One “feel good” story from a bubble era project.


    • No, I hadn’t seen it, thank you. I have always thought Philip Brasor was a bit of a star, a star that hides his light under too modest a bushel. The story does show, too, what can be done in the right circumstances with seeming white elephants from the Bubble era, although not so easily on Kyushu perhaps. As to the shameful Kanmpo no Yado and Kamei brouhaha, well, if I was the Daily Rant kind of blogger…

  24. Having living on Hokkaido for 3 years, I can confirm that the Department Of Highways does not use salt on the roads! Makes for some very challenging driving conditions in the wintertime. My theory is as follows. They are constantly throwing down sand and greater aggregates in an attempt to improve traction. This snow and grit mixture is then plowed over the curb and basically blasts every object within reach at least once a day. The constant abrasion surely must degrade painted metal surfaces much faster than what is experienced in other areas of Japan where less snow falls.

    Painfully beautiful writing on these pages. I had the opportunity to explore several falling down and abandoned structures during my time in the “bread basket” of Japan. Your images capture the questioning shock I always felt of coming across buildings where it appeared the folks just got up and went out the door with every intention of returning. I always wondered if they were lied to or just naively optimistic about their circumstances. Likely both.

    Thanks for all the natsukashi moments and keep on keepin’ on.

  25. In a similar spirit to your travels, here’s a fellow who visits the towns of Kansas.
    For example: http://www.dankalal.net/2008trip17/trip.html
    Some towns survive others have those evocative deserted buildings that leave you wonders where did all the people go?
    I like your writing. Keep up the good work.

  26. Hey! I saw your blog at https://spikejapan.wordpress.com/ and I am really impressed! I have to make this quick since I am in a rush.

    My blog is called Shinai Aya (http://shinaiaya.wordpress.com) and my dream is to one day live and teach English in Japan. So I started a blog about my life but the problem is that I’m getting hardly any traffic. May I ask that you advertise my blog on your blog since your blog is doing very well? In return I will do the same for you.

    Waiting for your reply!

  27. Greetings.
    Thank you for taking the effort to put your words into the public domain. I’m an east coast American who has only been to Japan once a few years ago (Fukuoka mainly). I find your work engaging and enlightening about life in Japan, but mostly I just find it fun to read.
    Thanks and I hope you keep sharing.
    Bradley Soule
    Washington, DC USA

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  29. Hello;

    I was looking through blogs about Japan and I noticed that you had written book reviews int he past.

    I am a publicist at Tuttle Publishing and we just updated one of our international history books, Japan the Toothless Tiger as an expanded second edition. Given the topic of your blog, I really think your readers would enjoy the content of our book. It focuses on the growing tension between China and Japan and debates whether Japan should re-militarize.

    If you are willing to review it, I’d love to send you a copy. Let me know what you think. Here’s the link: http://www.tuttlepublishing.com/new-releases/japan-the-toothless-tiger

    Mike Page
    802-773-2630 ex. 234

    • Dear Mike, I tell you what–I’ll publish a review of “Japan the toothless tiger” if you publish my blog as a book. Deal?

  30. Hey pachiguy have you considered publishing spikejapan as an eBook?

  31. Hello!
    Have enjoyed all of Spike Japan very much, however, stumbled upon it specifically because my husband and I are going to begin a hunt for an old Japanese house to buy which will be used as a holiday home.
    Sorry, but I must ask – did you buy the house? Would you have any suggestions about where to look? The country is full of old wooden homes but, of course, they’re never (virtually never) listed by real estate agencies. Shiawase Homes seems to have gone out of business. We are happy to buy an unrenovated home – within reason, even. As someone obviously familiar with the country and a fluent Japanese speaker, I thought you may have a few words to the wise for me. Thanks in advance for help.
    Julie .

    • Hello Julie, many thanks for your kind comments. No, I didn’t buy the house, for a variety of reasons that were not connected to the property itself. It sold fairly soon after I toured it, as I recall, which wasn’t too much of a surprise as it was a bit of a bargain despite its age. Shiawase Home is still in business – you can see a fine example of what it has to offer here: http://www.shiawasehome-reuse.com/niigata-shi/minami-ku/syouze/#gallery . Of course, it has a lot of newer properties on its books, too. You can try http://www.inakakurashi.jp/ for a nationwide selection of generally older properties. One piece of advice – if you are not a fluent Japanese speaker, hire someone on your behalf who is to hold your hand through the acquisition process! Personally, I think you are unlikely to be ripped off but the seller and the agent would almost certainly prefer to deal with a native or near-native speaker. HTHAL, Spike.

      • Julie Pierce

        Really kind of you to get back to me so quickly! Looking forward to combing through those two websites you mentioned. We’re bringing an old friend who is a fluent Japanese speaker on our holiday house treasure hunt odyssey trip next year.
        Hope you’re having a lovely autumn.

      • Good luck with the treasure hunt and drop old Spike a line to let me know how it goes~!~

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