Category Archives: Hokkaido

Spike: Some FAQs

A heartfelt thank you for all your kind messages of support; truly I would not have kept writing as long as I have without the encouragement of feedback. Here are my answers to some frequently (or infrequently or only once) asked questions.

 1)    Will Spike remain up for the time being, or do I have to start saving my favorite posts?

That’s an easy one to answer, yes, it stays up. And as WordPress in their munificence charge hardly anything for upkeep (how do they pay their bills?), it will remain up for the foreseeable future—not that there’s such a thing, of course.

 2)    Can’t you turn Spike into a real book, or even an e-book? I’d pay.

That’s also an easy one to answer, no. First, there’s the economics. The last Spike post generated about a thousand hits above the baseline noise over three days. Let’s make a series of what I think are fairly heroic assumptions: that half of all those hitters buy the book, that a publisher is able to drum up interest so that three times that number, 1,500 people, eventually buy the book, and that the book is priced at a hefty $30 or so. That’s $45,000 in gross revenue. Then subtract the cost of printing, especially in the anti-coffee-table book format to which Spike would best be suited, the cost of running down all the dozens of academics, songwriters, and critics, to name but a few, from whom I’ve so liberally quoted, for copyright permission, and numerous other costs that I needn’t detail. It’s never going to be a winning proposition. There’s an even more formidable obstacle, though, one which I simply cannot discuss. Anything permanent, anything with an ISBN, is out of the question.

 3)    What about the pieces you didn’t think were worth salvaging? Where can I find them?

Well, the pieces I thought not worth salvaging really are the scrapings off the bottom of a sad barrel. There are only about a dozen, and they fall into three broad categories: Minispikes about arcane subjects such as the economics of tobacco in Japan, odd assays at macroeconomics, such as the case for a consumption tax hike, and last but by no means least, the Spiked series of venom-laced attacks on ignorant, bloviating hacks (I left one example, the one that I most enjoyed researching and writing, at the table of contents). You can find these pieces, if you must, by clicking randomly on something at the table of contents and following the arrows—Spike as labyrinth, one of my favourite metaphors.

 4)    Will you not keep writing, please?

I would love to set up another blog—“Campaign for a Slow Internet” as a title appeals in its forlorn hopelessness—but I’d find myself muzzled. The itch to write may prove beyond my powers of self-control not to scratch, though. If there is a new blog, I’ll let you know. I will, at some point in the next few months, pen a Spike Preface, explaining the genesis of the blog, taking a gander at the writings of some Eminent Japan Hands (The Two Donalds in particular), and musing over the future of letters in the Age of AGFA—more rambling, in other words.

 5)    Was there ever a definitive answer to what the spike sticking out from the guardrail was for?

(Readers who do not understand to what this question refers, please see “About” on the top bar).
Yes, they serve no purpose whatsoever (a perfect metaphor for Spike): they’re the legacies of accidents in which vehicles collide with the central reservation or side guardrails, popping out the bolts, which then tear metal triangles off the vehicles that have collided with them. I just popped down to see if “my” spike was still there, still overlooked, four years on. It is.

 6)    Could I trouble you for a list of books that should be on our own literary bucket list?

Here are a dozen what I think are relatively overlooked goodies, ancient and modern, in print and very out of print, culled at near-random from the bookcase nearest me:
The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter
Tokyo Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki
Japan in the Passing Lane: An Insider’s Account of Life in a Japanese Auto Factory by Satoshi Kamata
Unbeaten Tracks in Japan by Isabella Bird
Vermillion Sands by J.G. Ballard
Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human by Jesse Bering
The Lost Wolves of Japan by Brett L. Walker
Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini (disclosure: a former lecturer of mine)
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago by Douglas H. Erwin
Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow
and of course:
Digby Grand by George John Whyte Melville

 7)    Can I have your car?

No. The rustmobile stays with me.

“Wherever structure is to be conjured from disorder, it must be driven by the generation of greater disorder elsewhere, so that there is a net increase in the disorder of the universe.” The Second Law, in The Laws of Thermodynamics, Peter Atkins

All photos taken in the towns of Furubira and Shakotan on the Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido, September 2012. Rust, like death, never sleeps.

Tama no Yu public baths, Furubira

Shinya Sushi, Furubira

 Oasis activity, Furubira

 Hauling fish on cannery row, Furubira

 Warehouse flank, Furubira

Shiny chimney, Furubira

Fashion Shop Umeno, Furubira

All fall down, Furubira

Rust begets rust, Furubira

Rust ghost doorway, Furubira

Gas stand, Furubira

Waiting for the bus, Furubira

Converging, Furubira

White panel in rust, Furubira

Buttresses, Furubira

Cracks, tiles, and string, Furubira

Cracks and a peek, Furubira

Little bluff, Furubira

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (2)

Fine old house and warehouse complex, Furubira (1)

Doorway, Bikuni port, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and harbour activity, Shakotan

Squid boat and old warehouse, Shakotan

Squid boat lights, Shakotan

Squid boat lights and winches, Shakotan

 No illegal fishing, between Furubira and Shakotan

Seascape around Horonaifu, Shakotan

Waiting for the bus, Shakotan

Cycling marsupials, Shakotan

Rusty corner, Furubira

Ironmonger's, Shakotan

Vote for Hachiro

Superb doorway, Shakotan

Doorway from the side, Shakotan

 Old meets new, Furubira

 Cannery row, Furubira


In praise of…The Brown Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra

Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia

“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.  
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.

I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.

Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths. 

The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”


The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:

How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).

So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.

This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.

What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.

The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.


We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.

Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.

Select sources (in no particular order):

The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)

Hokkaido suicide rates (J)

Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)

Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)

Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)

Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)

Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)

Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)

Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)

Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)

Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)

IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)

Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)

The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)

Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)

In praise of…Optimists

The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. … If you interviewed someone who recently opened an Italian restaurant, you would not expect her to have underestimated her prospects for success or to have a poor view of her ability as a restaurateur. But you must wonder: would she still have invested money and time if she had made a reasonable effort to learn the odds—or, if she did learn the odds (60% of new restaurants are out of business after three years), paid attention to them?

The Engine of Capitalism, in Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

A shaggy dog story

Dusk rolled down the shutters of the day as we were botanizing inland of the Okhotsk Sea on an old dirt-track logging road, Route 1055, in the borderlands between Monbetsu and Okoppe. Our supposed destination that evening, the windy city of Wakkanai at the northernmost tip of mainland Japan, lay still over 200km and at least three hours’ away. As usual, we were running late.

“How about going back to Monbetsu and getting up early to knock off the drive?” optimistically volunteered Dr. T, who in his natural habitat is rarely known to rise before ten.
“Why don’t we try and get halfway up the coast?” I groped on the map for a settlement of any size. “Say to Esashi?”
“Will there be anywhere to stay?”
“There’ll be somewhere,” I replied without conviction.

The Osaki Ryokan had been built not long after the war, volunteered a scion of the extended family who run it, and it showed, in the time-burnished floorboards and the plywood doors to our rooms.

“Are those where they keep the dead relatives?” quipped Dr. T, pointing to the row of chest freezers. To judge from the glimpse I had later of the family drawing room, with its row of severe oil portraits of deceased forebears above the fireplace, hung at an angle so they frowned down on the living, it was a plausible enough hypothesis. Dr T. declared that he needed an hour to process the fruits of the day’s pillaging and made it my mission to scout out somewhere to eat—and, more importantly, drink.

It was Saturday night but the streets of Esashi, famous—if famous for anything—famous for its kegani horsehair crabs, were deathly quiet, as quiet as the graves in which many of its residents already have one foot. You don’t by now, I’m sure, need me to rehearse the demography, but I will anyway: 1970 population 15,800; 2010 population 9,100 (down 42% in 40 years); projected 2035 population 5,900 (down another 36% in 25 years).

“It’s crunch time now for Japanese politics,” bellowed the enigmatic because unsponsored sign above a shop that, the two wall-mounted pillboxes hinted, had just made it into the age of the credit card. Was this a heartfelt cry from a lone individual, sick of petty politicking far to the south? What, if any, thoughts or actions was it intended to provoke? And how soon, exactly, was now?

Plaster and signboards were falling away to reveal the ancient woodwork below: this had once been a ceramic-ware store, but half of the Aegean sailboat sign had vanished. The sake-swilling pot-bellied tanuki badger reminded me of Dr. T—and myself.

There was something starkly heads-and-tails beguiling about the Suntory Bar Toi et Moi.

Back to the quest: spatters of chuckles and cackles filtered out through the cracks in a few red-lantern joints, but these joints I rejected, knowing of Dr T’s intense predilection for the alcohol of the grape over the grain. Almost next door to the ryokan, though, was a restaurant whose name, 4Quattro, betrayed Italian pretensions and the presence of wine. Inside was a revelation: the interior had plainly been very recently and very expensively kitted out in a chorus of chic beiges and blonde woods, with Marcel Breuer cantilevered-steel and cane-backed Cesca chairs from the heyday of Modernism (yes, I confess to a chair fetish), expansive tables with immaculate white tablecloths and dun under-tablecloths, and sensitive spot and recessed ceiling lighting. The assemblage would not for a moment have looked out of place in one of the world’s major metropolises—indeed, it would put many restaurants in many of them to shame.

4Quattro was run by a young local couple, perhaps on the cusp of their thirties, with gender roles entrenched: he manned the counter and cooked, she, baby strapped to breasts, flitted around the dining area, toting the near-unreadable moveable feast of the day’s handwritten blackboard specials. In the depraved lands from which Dr. T and I hail, she would be filed as a “yummy mummy” or more crudely as a MILF. The Esashi Tourism Board (yes, such a body exists), does 4Quattro no favors and underscores the highly gendered nature of the Japanese dining experience by making reference to a “chic interior perfect for women”. For a while, we had the restaurant to ourselves, but maybe a dozen diners had come and mostly gone, all but a couple of them female, by the time we drunk-tumbled out.

We were more interested in matters oenological than gastronomical, and the wine list—red or white, glass or bottle—was a let-down, but Dr. T, more of a globe-trotting gourmand than I, declared the grilled sea bream to be as fine as anything routinely rustled up in the better kitchens of London or New York. How long, I asked mummy, had they been open? About eighteen months. I didn’t have the heart to ask her to estimate her chances of surviving the next eighteen.

Subsequent investigation, courtesy of the Food Business Research Institute and other luminaries, suggest that the Japan bar and restaurant bankruptcy rate is only half that of the US, with a fifth of those founded in the three years previous to 1999 (but a quarter of rameneries and the like) having gone out of business. This might, paradoxically, be due to the greater caution of the Japanese entrepreneur. Still, the industry is contracting, with the number of bars and restaurants peaking at a scarcely credible 846,000 in 1991 (one for every 150 or so people) and falling to a still staggering 673,000 in 2009 (down 21%) and the market value peaking in 1997 at Y29.0trn and falling to Y23.6trn in 2010 (down 19%), a decline in both nominal and real terms, and 4Quattro is a very unlikely restaurant (in 2006, only about a tenth of all restaurants were classified as Western) with very high overheads in a very unlikely place, from whose already threadbare catchment area we can exclude the old, the young, the poor, the fisherfolk, and most men. I wouldn’t want to wager on 4Quattro’s chances of long-term survival but I am selfishly grateful for the optimistic bias of its instigators, even though that bias may ultimately come at great personal cost.

Furiously botanizing, toward Hamatonbetsu up the Okhotsk coast we trundled, as backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.


Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they really are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Wake Wakkanai, or Cinema Paradiso, Hokkaido style

Although Wakkanai (from the Ainu yamu wakka nai, the swamp with the cold drinking water) features in all the best guidebooks, few Westerners ever make it there for the night. How few? In the year to end-March 2012, 30 Britons, 18 Germans, 123 Americans, 25 Canadians, and 46 Australians (ever the adventurers), that’s how few, according to the city’s preposterously comprehensive website.

“Everything’s brand new!” exclaimed Dr. T, gesturing with an arc of the arm at the 12-storey ANA Hotel (1994) and the sparkling station complex, which had been razed and rebuilt since my last visit three years before. “I’m beginning to suspect that Spike has been spouting guff all this time about the decay of rural Japan.”

Dr. T claims to be a depressive realist, usually prefacing references to optimists with an Anglo-Saxon expletive, but I was beginning to suspect that he had an unacknowledged streak of optimism buried deep within. Or that he was falling under the spell of the Potemkin Village bias that is one of Kahneman’s profoundest insights: What You See Is All There Is, or WYSIATI to its friends. Or that he simply delights in winding me up.

As Dr. T sieved fruit and catalogued the day’s plunder, I moseyed around the glossy new station.

Tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Give up? Allow me. Where do I start? First off, there’s noone on the bus. Not too surprising, you might think—it was a seven on a Sunday evening after all, and this could be taken as a sign of prosperity. Fair enough, let’s move on. Second, there’s only one taxi in the ranks; that there is one at all is a triumph of hope over experience, as the next—and last—train is not due in until 22:47, nigh on four hours’ maudlin wait away. Third, there is absolutely noone about, in vehicle or on foot. Fourth, and most intriguing, is that little neon-orange sign that blares out the single, magical word “CINEMA”. No, I tried to wrestle-reason with myself, no, no, noooo, surely nobody, however beholden to the opiate of optimism, could have… But they had.

I bought a platform ticket and eyed the timetable. Eight arrivals a day, eight departures a day, the last of which, the 19:24 to Horonobe, 60km to the south and with a 2010 population of 2,700, was idling away its last moments of leisure before chugging off. There were no passengers.

Later I was to discover that in fiscal 2009 Wakkanai station served just 266 train embarkers and disembarkers a day, that this number was down by a quarter in five years, that the platform count was reduced to one from two in the 2010 remodeling, and that the station, home to massive marshalling yards as late as the seventies, cannot now muster even a single set of points. To channel my imaginary potty-mouthed Jewish grandma superhero: and on this facelift you spent exactly how much?

About $50mn. Sorry grandma, I just couldn’t help it. B-b-b-but, I didn’t spend much of my money, please understand, most of the construction was financed by bonds and subsidies, so the bill will fall on future generations. “Putz!” Thwack! “Owww!”

Before I talk you (and myself) through the minutiae of the economics of movie theaters in Japan, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the (other) streets of Wakkanai, the ones that Catherine the Great—and Dr. T—didn’t see. Let’s start with a couple of aerial views, looking north from downtown.

The gaps that make the chessboard, now gone to grass or gravel, many being hawked as pay-by-the-month parking spaces, are empty lots filled with the specters of torn-down buildings—central Wakkanai was sardine-packed tight in the sixties—and give the district the air of a scaled-down rustbelt inner city in the US, although without the gun-toting, crack-peddling hoodlums. Level the many disused or underused buildings and the chessboard would open up further.

This grotty gem of a multi-tenanted zakkyo building, where we dined at the appropriately named Karaku (“Flower Pleasure”) on sashimi, is more representative of the architectural jewels of downtown Wakkanai than the new station complex.

Two very drunk men from the suburbs of Tokyo, celebrating their liberation from salaryman serfdom at sixty with a whistle-stop road-trip circuit of Hokkaido, discussed past and future routes with a passion I would not have been able to predict it was possible to possess. On noticing us, the more voluble of the pair established our native place and raised a wobbly glass.

“Aaah, Igirisu, totemo ii kuni da! Ōshitsu ga aru kara! Japan, ōshitsu! England, ōshitsu! Very good!”
“What’s he saying?”
“He’s saying that England and Japan must be united in friendship because of their royal family and imperial household.”
“Why on earth does he think that?”
I was tempted to offer a republican toast, “Up the ōshitsu!”, but restrained myself.

Suddenly, the man’s face grew serious. He uttered a guttural growl and fell off his barstool.

To the right of Karaku is a bar emblazoned with declarations of fan fervor for four of Hokkaido’s pro and semi-pro sport teams: the Nippon Ham Fighters (baseball), Consadole Sapporo (soccer), Levanga Hokkaido (basketball), and Espolada Hokkaido (futsal). Sport fans are prey to the most optimistic of biases—the blind conviction, in the face of often onrushing lava streams of evidence to the contrary, that this season the pennant will come to its rightful home—but aside from the Ham (or the Meat Packers, as their sponsors unromantically call themselves in English), who are a regular presence in the Japan Series, the performances of this quartet must test the sunniest of dispositions. Consadole Sapporo oscillate between the first and second divisions, have never won anything other than promotion, and are about to be demoted to the second, demotion determined more swiftly than it has been for any J-League team, on a current record of played 29, won four, drawn two, lost 23, and a -49 goal difference. Levanga Hokkaido have only once tasted more victories than defeats in the five seasons since they were formed, have finished last twice and second-to-last twice in the eight-team Japan Basketball League, and started the 2012-2013 season with five straight losses. That the team features a guard who is 42 years old does not inspire confidence for their prospects. Espolada Hokkaido finished last season in ninth place in the ten-team Futsal League. Testosterone levels in the bar must be semi-permanently depressed.  

Out-of-the-way spots like Wakkanai are the last bastions of that endangered species, the unchained coffee shop. The intense slab-serif font is for me a madeleine ticket back to childhood.

Fancifully, I like to kid myself that the blue-bonneted woman waiting for the bus in Wakkanai, 2012, is the child in this photo, waiting for the bus in Wakkanai half a century before, and that the bus, like Godot, never came—and never will.

It’s the contrast between public-sector affluence and private-sector squalor, precisely the opposite of what prevails in the West, that’s so mesmerizing. To drape this trio with a negligee of statistics, the number of shops in Wakkanai fell by a quarter between 1999 and 2007, the number of people they employed fell by close to a fifth, and their aggregate annual sales fell by a sixth.

Historically, the Wakkanai economy rested on three planks: the fisheries, farming, and tourism. The fisheries were the first to be hit, with the Soviet Union’s 1977 imposition of a 200 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone; the catch fell by four-fifths between 1976 and 2008 and its value by two-thirds. The implosion of the fisheries coincided with the population peak in 1975, at 55,500. By 2010, the population had fallen by close to 30%, to 39,600, due mainly to an exodus of young people in search of work. If you are going to run a successful cinema, young people are what you need, and Wakkanai does not have many of those, or at least not nearly as many as it once did: the population of 15-29 year olds more than halved in the three decades between 1975 and 2005 and fell by more than a quarter in the decade between 1995 and 2005 alone. As measured by production value, farming—mostly dairy cattle—peaked in 1985 and has been gently ebbing ever since, with the number of farm households falling by a third between 1990 and 2005. Fickle tourism stepped in to fill the breach.

That this ghastly 1952 trawler owner’s residence has been turned into a museum should be enough to convince that Wakkanai itself is bereft of tourist charm: its appeal lies chiefly as a portal to the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, and in particular the volcanic-dramatic  island of Rishiri, seen here at dusk.

Wakkanai then fell prostrate victim to one of the cruelest and oddest of boomlets, the remote island boom (離島ブーム) of 1998-2002. The total tourist count, including day-trippers, peaked in 2002 at 818,000 and fell 43% to 456,600 in 2011, while the total number of nights spent in Wakkanai accommodation peaked in the same year at 473,700 and fell 25% to 356,500 in 2011, as tourists were lured away by whatever the TV wide-shows told them was hot that season. In 2002, Wakkanai was declared a kaso chiiki, a district of underpopulation, and by 2007, according to an admittedly unsourced comment at the Wakkanai Wikipage, 29.9% of Wakkanaikers were telling municipal pollsters they either wanted to move out of the city or were actually planning to do so.

“And into this you built not just a cinema, but a miniplex with three screens and 250 seats?”

On the day after I returned to Tokyo, an optimistic article in the Nikkei—and the Nikkei, which sees its primary responsibility as being to rustle those pom-poms as a cheerleader for corporate Japan, always likes to look on the bright side of life—enthused about how entrepreneurs are endeavoring to infuse fresh life into smaller cinemas, defined here as ones having fewer than five screens (a category into which T-Joy Wakkanai most definitely falls) by making them more distinctive, but even the optimism of the Nikkei could not disguise the bleakness of the outlook for smaller cinemas, whose nationwide screen-count, it reported, had fallen by 60% in the last decade, from around 1,250 to 500. Another Nikkei article I unearthed revealed that annual ticket sales had been pancake flat at 160mn-170mn last decade, before cratering to 145mn in the crisis year of 2011. As go ticket sales, so go box office revenues, which held steady at around Y200bn for a decade before slumping to Y180bn last year.

“And into this you built a miniplex and have the temerity to charge Y1,800 ($22.50) a ticket, when incomes in Wakkanai are half those of Tokyo, where tickets cost the same?”

My rule-of-thumb—whence it came I know not—has always been that no cinema, either miniplex or multiplex, is viable in a Japanese city with fewer than 100,000 potential cineastes. Was I right, though? Anoraks on and away we go! There are only three places on Hokkaido with fewer than 90,000 people that have cinemas: Wakkanai, Nayoro (31,000), home to a magnificent 1973 single-screen flea-pit, the Nayoro Daiichi Denkikan (the Nayoro Number One Electric Pavilion, 名寄第一電気館), named in tribute to the first cinema in Japan, and Urakawa (14,000), home to the 93-year old, 48-seat Daikokuza (Big Black Theater, 大黒座), both of which are firmly on my next Hokkaido itinerary. In contrast, everywhere with more than 90,000 people has at least one multi-screen movie house.

Anorak aglow with excitement, I expanded my unscientific analysis to 10 randomishly chosen ruralish prefectures and found just four cinemas in places smaller than Wakkanai: two were in the suburb-shadows of biggish cities, one was a 96-seater relic in the Tochigi town of Motegi (14,000), and one a true mystery. (If anyone can explain why there is an eight-screen, 1,494-seat multiplex in the Ishikawa city of Kahoku [34,000], do please get in touch). Between them, these 10 prefectures have 46 cities with populations between 40,000 and 90,000, but just six have commercial cinemas. However, there are only five cities with more than 120,000 folk that are cinema-less, the largest being Ashikaga (152,000) in Tochigi. My rule-of-thumb, it turns out, was more or less on the money.

There are two ways of forensically examining the viability of a cinema: from the inside and from the outside. Not having access to the books of T-Joy Wakkanai, which is owned by a subsidiary of one of the old Golden Age Big Six movie studios, Toei, we’ll have to go for the outside approach. Time to brush up that kindergarten maths… T-Joy manages to squeeze 20 showings out of its three Wakkanai screens (wring that asset dry!)

Theater 1: 66 seats, seven showings = 462 people/day
Theater 2: 86 seats, six showings = 516 people/day
Theater 3: 98 seats, seven showings = 686 people/day
Total: 1,664 people/day

At the 2010 census population of 39,600, it would take just 24 days for whole of Wakkanai to go to the cinema once. Assume 1.33 cinema visits a year, the national average of late, and it would take 32 days for the whole of Wakkanai to complete the ritual of its annual movie excursions. What happens in the other 11 months of the year?

Alternatively, look at it like this: 1,664 seats/day x 365 days a year = 607,360 people/year capacity; with 52,669 visits @ 1.33/year = seat occupancy rate of 8.7%.

So now you know: if you turn up one icy February day in Wakkanai, when the wind chill makes it feel like twenty below, and fancy catching a matinee, you probably won’t need to book ahead. Whoever said that Spike serves no practical purpose?

Eight point seven percent. That is a vanishingly low occupancy rate for a bums-on-seats operation: hoteliers, railway operators, and airlines only stop sweating and start smiling when their occupancy rates hit 60%-70%. As it turned out though, I had more to learn about the business model of the movie world, and learn it I did, from Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, by Harold L. Vogel, writing here of the US:

It can be determined that in 2009, the maximum theoretical annual gross, based on 39,717 screens, was about $286 million per day or about $104 billion per year. The industry obviously operated well below its theoretical capacity, because there are many parts of the week and many weeks of the year during which people do not have the time or inclination to fill empty theater seats: in 2009, the industry’s average occupancy rate per seat per week was roughly 2.3 times, and box office receipts of around $10.6 billion in 2009 were thus only around 10.2% of theoretical capacity.

So T-Joy Wakkanai might after all be only a percentage point or two from normality—and, presumably, profitability! Don’t get too optimistic. This begs the question of why small-city Japan isn’t stuffed to the gills with miniplexes, to which my best, uninformed, answer is that the economies of scale only kick in at above, say, a 500-seat, five-screen level: much of what little money there is to be made from showing movies comes from the food and beverage (F&B) concession, with its 80% (my guess) cola and popcorn margins, which can be run by one uneconomically for 100 punters or economically for 500. (Should you be interested, by the way, T-Joy Wakkanai is hiring for its F&B concession, although at the low end of the Y680-Y850 hourly wage range, it will take you more than two-and-a-half hours to coin the dough to watch a flick). And what of the future? The projected 2035 population of 26,700, which may need to be cut given recent rates of outflow, and only one cinema visit a year yields a seat occupancy rate of 4.4%, at which point, presumably, T-Joy would pull the plug—although subsidies (and parent earnings) can soothe the sting of failure for so long…

Back in the sixties, Wakkanai had four cinemas—here you can see the Wakkanai Nippon Gekijo in all its tatty glory, showing a 1961 Michael “play it, Sam” Curtiz/John Wayne oater, The Comancheros (no wonder so many with a shred of sense gave up on the movies)—but the last one closed its doors in 1988, done in by the usual suspects.

All that was left, then, was to track down the optimists behind the cinema revival. They had, I figured, to be local, and they had to be dreamers.

Yukihiro Fujita, chair of the company, Saihoku Cinema (a consortium of eight local construction companies), that administers the nuts and bolts of the miniplex, and Ippei Takahashi, the president, first meet in 1992 when Takahashi, who was running a video rental store, calls on Fujita, the boss of a construction company, Fuji Kensetsu, to expand his store. Takahashi had long been hurt by criticism that he and his ilk had killed the cinema, while Fujita was shocked when his young son misidentified the local culture center as a movie theater. In 2001, the pair take undubbed anime movies without subtitles to Sakhalin, where they receive a rapturous reception from the local children, and they awaken to the presence of cinemas everywhere on the island. What exactly happens next is glossed over in the sole interview with them I was able to dig up, but with Fujita the chair of the Wakkanai Construction Association and thus a pillar of the community, it’s not hard to imagine. Fujita claims that breakeven comes at 60,000 bums-on-seats a year (so I was, gratifyingly, not at all far off in my guesstimate), which would require 1.5 cinema visits/year from the good burghers of Wakkanai, but he defines the catchment area as anywhere within a 90km radius of Wakkanai, in which 78,000 live, and aims for annual attendance of 100,000. Much as I sympathize with the aspirations of the optimist, I struggle to conceive of anyone in, say, Esashi making a 180km round-trip on roads treacherous with ice half the year for the disposable visual and auditory pleasures of—what’s on this week?—The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games, or Bayside Shakedown: The Final.

Yet on they dream, the optimists, and on they build.


The evidence suggests that an optimistic bias plays a role—sometimes the dominant role—whenever individuals or institutions voluntarily take on significant risks. More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Bitter oranges

“There’s a place just over the road that’s calling itself a bistro and looks like it’ll have a decent enough supply of Chateau Chunder.”
Dr T’s Aomori City hotel room floor was strewn with scores of seed-filled Manila envelopes, while the bathroom floor had sprouted a muddy volcano of soil, leaf-litter, and amorphous forest detritus. Had the room been fitted with ceiling-embedded surveillance cameras, he would have faced instant arrest as a one-man mobile drug laboratory.
“With you in ten!”

Bistro Daidai, we learned at the end of yet another wine-trodden evening, was named after the bitter orange (aka 橙, “the climbing tree”, Citrus aurantium var. daidai, Seville orange, sour orange, bigarade orange, and marmalade orange). Why, I never got so far as to ask. It had three tables seating four and half-a-dozen seats at the counter. We were the first customers that Friday night. There were three twentysomethings behind the counter, a woman and two men, one of whom cackhandedly spilt wine all over the table—and me. The table was mopped clean and toweled dry but I was left with bruise-blotched trousers. How long had they been open? About four months, came the reply.

Dr. T grew glum. “You know, we don’t do these micro-restaurants in the UK.” Dr. T likes to claim that sauce-soaked years of depression have dulled his sense of empathy, but as a former junk-bond analyst well versed in the ways and woes of troubled enterprises, a man who once described himself in an essay titled On Optimism as “Mozart to the Salieri of really bad decisions”, a twice married (“the triumph of hope over experience”) part-owner of a London trattoria, and a (necessarily optimistic) nursery entrepreneur who flirts with failure the way a lothario flirts with the ladies, I could tell that, as we wolfed down pâté de campagne that would not have disgraced a prix fixe menu in the Dordogne, he was sizing up the bistro’s chances of survival—and was pained at the message the mental spreadsheet sent.

Conversation turned to the contrasting approaches to bankruptcy in the US, the UK, and Japan, with Dr T sagely concluding that the UK offers the worst of all worlds: in the US the banks are quick to call in loans but there is little stigma attached to bankruptcy, in Japan there is stigma but the banks are infinitely forbearing, while in the UK the banks are brutes and the stigma remains acute.

Later, alone, I cradled a glass of red up to one of the city’s busiest intersections and loitered awhile, tallying up the percentage of taxis with passengers this Friday night—about one in ten. It was hard, I felt keenly, to be optimistic about the fate of Bistro Daidai. 

To the outsider, Japan, with its stratospheric suicide rate and sober demeanor, is not obviously a hotbed of optimism, and indeed the Japanese delight in telling pollsters that they will cede to noone in their pessimism about their nation’s prospects, but I would invite you to take the three case studies above, and the optimism embedded in the sundry acts of creation, as evidence, albeit fragmentary and partial, to the contrary. This should come as no great surprise, though, as psychologists and neuroscientists have made great strides in recent decades in the study of the enigma of optimism, and the evidence is mounting that we have been hard-wired by evolution to be genetically (more or less) optimistic. Here’s Tali Sharot, neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, on our ingrained propensity for optimism:

How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost one in two tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.

Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases—and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes—all strongly support this hypothesis.

Perhaps you’re an optimist—or at least some of your best friends are optimists (likely). Perhaps you think that tomorrow really will be better than today, and the day after tomorrow will be better still (unlikely), or that, like Charlie Brown, this time Lucy really won’t take away the football at the last moment (very unlikely), or that the Japanese stock market really will one day recapture its Bubble luster (still more unlikely). [Finance industry wisecrack: “What’s the definition of an optimist?” “A Japanese equity portfolio manager who irons five shirts on a Sunday night.”] Perhaps even I, guilty as I am of entrepreneurial acts, perhaps even I am an optimist. If you are an optimist, then I wouldn’t want you on my team if I were planning something novel and resource-intensive—bring me the morose and misanthropic. But praise be heaped on the shoulders of those who sacrifice their wealth, if not their health, to bring us, however fleetingly, eateries where none, in a world of depressive realists, would be, and on the shoulders of those who conspired to restore the simple magic of projector, screen, and dark expectant hush to a struggling city at the end of the world.

In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

I too board the ferryboat alone.
Staring at the freezing seagulls, I cry.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene…
Farewell my love, I’m going home.
The wind shakes my heart, just brings tears.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene.

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

“Nostalgic sea route” says the nostalgic black-and-white poster in the ferry corridor, opting for the English word for “nostalgic”, rendered in katakana, over the Japanese one. It chronicles how services started on the Oma-Hakodate run in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the redoubtably named Daikan Maru. Another boat was added in 1965, another in 1968, another in 1969, another in 1970, and another in 1971, the year of the Nixon shock. A former ferry crewman tells on the poster of a dozen round-trip sailings a day on the then two hour, now a hundred minute, voyage back in the Showa Forties (1965-1975); later, on a 1971 timetable at the ferry operator’s website, I count 15 sailings, many deep in the night.

Then something goes awry: no more new ferries join the route and the older ones are pensioned off, I believe, in the seventies and eighties. In 1988 the ferry to whose walls this poster is pinned, the bafflingly named Vayu, is commissioned, and these days she is the only one left on the Oma-Hakodate run, which is down to two sailings a day—and she was not even a third full on the off-season weekday I found myself poring over this poster. What went wrong? It can only be speculation, but I would wager that growing affluence and falling airfares robbed the ferries first of their foot traffic and then the spread of the rental car and the cult of convenience robbed them of their vehicle traffic. No trains or planes link tiny Oma with the rest of Japan; the only passage in is a crawl along the top of Honshu, three hours and a hundred miles north of an expressway.

White squares of paper inscribed in nautical blue with our destination—not that there are ferries out of Oma to anywhere other than Hakodate—placed on our dashboards, we clang up the gangramp and—“Fold your mirrors!” shout the orange jump-suited ferrymen over the thrum—clamber up the steep steel staircases to the passenger deck. At the stern, exposed to the elements, are rows of backward-facing plastic molded bucket seats bolted to steel bars, and into one I slump as the gritty tang of diesel fumes, so foreign to these antiseptic shores and so welcome, begins to bite, as a storm brews over the mountains behind Oma to the south and the sun from the east illuminates a wheel-handle of what if any consequence I know not, dripping with white paint-icicles that foretell this autumn morning of the winter ahead.

In their world of drab industrial greens, a world no stranger to the ship will ever know, the ferrymen winch in their python ropes that tie us to land and the Vayu shudders and judders into awful life.

Departure is a process of shedding, of casting away, the sloughing off of the skeins that tangle us on land, an escape into a purer, elemental world of sea and sun and sky, a world bereft of pachinko parlors and home improvement centers and Y100 thrift stores—although we carry with us the grubby landlubber crimes (no seafarer would doubt our guilt) of instant noodles and ancient coffee.

Flitting from port to starboard, starboard to port, leaning on the low balustrades with their topmost rail the texture and color of teak, I marvel at the guts of the ferry, the slathered coats and recoats of paint, the hooks and eyes, the stencils and hoops, the lifeboat gantries and the modern crows’ nest and the icy lights, drinking in every last clasp and bolt.

The Vayu is in her last seasons of life in this incarnation: after a quarter of a century plying the Tsugaru Straits, she is to be replaced by a new Daikan Maru in spring next year. Will she see another quarter of a century of service in some poor, watery nation like the Phillipines or Bangladesh, I wonder, or is she destined to head straight for the scrapyard? Allusive press releases on the ferry operator’s website speak of a ferocious tussle fought by Oma to keep the route alive against the operator’s will, of compensation for losses incurred in recent years, and of promises by Oma to shoulder the entire cost of the new ferry in return for a pledge by the operator not to downsize. So the new ferry will be longer, heavier, and able to carry more passengers (478 versus 470, to be precise) than the Vayu. Not that a sparkling new ferry, regrettably, will make the route viable again without lashings of subsidies, subsidies that Oma may be gambling that it can afford with its half-finished and now hugely controversial nuclear power plant.

Half-way out, half-way home, somewhere on the roiling, oily-black waters of the Tsugaru Straits—where it matters not—current tugging the boat east into the Pacific, engine and propeller fighting back, we cross the invisible Blakiston Line, the silent marker of a biogeographic discontinuity much less familiar than the Wallace Line that seperates Southeast Asia and Australia, named after the Victorian gentleman of leisure and adventure Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891), he of the largest and rarest Fish Owl, a man once described as having an acute “sensitization to the strange”, who first hypothesized—correctly, as it turns out—that the deep Tsugaru Straits, unlike the shallower La Pérouse Straits that separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, never permitted a land-bridge to form between Hokkaido and Honshu during the last glacial maximum, which explains elegantly, among many other natural phenomena, why there are grizzlies on Hokkaido and black bears on Honshu and macaques on Honshu but not on Hokkaido. It’s this, the Blakiston Line, I come to appreciate after ten days of botanizing with Dr. T, as much as any human intervention, which renders Hokkaido and its birch-white forests so other-worldly to a visitor from the south.

My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives. A lanky lad, encrusted with barnacles of silver jewelry, yaps animatedly into a mobile then crumples into a heap. Most sprawl and splay, sleep or read, chat or stare idly into space on their little shoeless islands.

Port side, another ferry, this one steaming up from Aomori, appears on the mirage of the horizon first as a trio of grey grain elevators, then as a gunmetal battleship jacked up out of the water as if on hydrofoils, as shearwaters skate across the polite whitecaps and the lipstick slit of a Korean VLCC (very large crude carrier) sidles westward into view.

Up looms Mount Hakodate, atop which a statue of Blakiston watches over us; soon I can pick out to the west the Kami’iso cement works, with its monstrous marine centipede of a loading jetty marching out a couple of kilometers into the ocean.

Interminable announcements presage arrival and send us scurrying down into the bowels to our cars and campervans, past tires strung up as improvised cushions and inscrutable numeric runes, impatient for the giant yellow and green gape of the ferry’s jaws to slack open, and as we wait, I reflect back on how, gazing from the starboard balustrade at the great sweep of the straits out into the Pacific, it felt as if the Vayu was the sister of every boat, from coracle to catamaran, that had ever sailed, just a boat, like all boats, in sea and sun and sky, a naked bridge between two worlds.

A Hokkaido postscript: Endless recession

The Nikkei reported not so long ago on prefectural GDP and per capita incomes for FY3/08 (the Cabinet Office takes forever to collate the data).

Regional income gaps persist

FY3/08 average income ¥3.06mn, declines in Hokkaido, elsewhere  

Tokyo (Nikkei)—According to data on prefectural economies for FY3/08 released by the Cabinet Office on the 19th, average per capita prefectural income rose 0.7% to ¥3.06mn. Incomes rose in regions such as Kyushu and Chugoku, where manufacturing plant numbers have increased, but incomes in Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Shikoku fell. The metric that shows intraregional income gaps was virtually unchanged YoY, thereby confirming that the income gap widening that occurred in the first half of the last decade remains in place.

Per capita prefectural income is calculated by dividing the sum of working people’s wages, corporate profits, and dividend and interest income by the population. At a press conference held the same day, Cabinet Office Secretary Keisuke Tsumura noted that variation in incomes from prefecture to prefecture remained elevated and that perceptions of intraregional gaps were backed up by the statistics.

Per capita prefectural income was highest in Tokyo, at ¥4.54mn, with Aichi in second place at ¥3.59mn. At the bottom of the ranking stood Okinawa, with ¥2.05mn. The coefficient of variation, which shows intraprefectural income differentials, stood at 15.30, almost unchanged from 15.33 in FY3/07. Having turned higher in FY3/02, it remains elevated. 

The per capita YoY income growth rate was highest in Saga, at 5.0%. Silicon wafer and other electronics industries grew significantly, and chemicals and primary metals also fared well. Hokkaido saw the largest percentage decline in income, at 3.4%, as construction and wholesale/retail were weak. At the regional block level, Hokkaido/Tohoku and Shikoku reported income declines, but incomes grew in all other regions. 

(The Nikkei February 20 morning edition)

 I turned to the Cabinet Office data itself to get a measure of Hokkaido’s endless recession. 

Hokkaido’s real GDP fell from Y20.7trn in FY3/97 to Y19.6trn in FY3/08 (down 4.9%), falling every year but one from FY3/02 to FY3/08. 

Hokkaido’s nominal GDP, which is unadjusted for deflation and better reflects how much money people sense they have in their pockets, fell from ¥20.9trn in FY3/97 to ¥18.5trn in FY3/08 (down 11.6%), falling every year but one (FY3/01). 

Per capita prefectural income, which is a still better reflector of how well off people feel, fell from ¥2,825,000 (roughly $30,300 at the current exchange rate) in FY3/97 to ¥2,408,000 ($25,800) in FY3/08 (down 14.8%), declining every single year without exception. In FY3/97, Hokkaido ranked 30th out of the 47 prefectures, with per capita income 12.3% below the national average; by FY3/08 it had slid to 39th, with income 21.3% below the national average. 

We can be confident that the numbers for FY3/09 will be atrocious and reasonably confident that the numbers for FY3/10 will be unpleasant. 

What is occurring in Hokkaido is a diseased mirror image of what happens in a normal post-war business cycle in a developed country, where years of steady growth are punctuated intermittently by recessions of six to eighteen months. Hokkaido rather has been groaning through years of recession punctuated by very occasional and brief spurts of expansion. If Hokkaido were an independent country, swarms of experts would descend upon it, attracted by its extraordinary exceptionalism, to prod the carcass of its economy, examine the atrophy of its institutions, and advise its government on the errors of its ways. 

The causes of the endless recession do not need great elaboration: an overdependence on the teat of public works spending, from which the island has found it so difficult to wean; the lack of its own enterprise foundations (there are just 22 companies listed exclusively on the Sapporo Securities Exchange); the dearth of sophisticated manufacturing (the presence of Japan’s automakers, for instance, is confined to a Toyota transmission plant and an Isuzu engine factory); the collapse of what was left of the mining and forestry industries and hard times for the steel and pulp & paper industries; time-consuming and expensive transport connections with the rest of Japan; an overcentralized state that shows no inclination to move any part of central government administration to the regions and a private sector that mimics this, further concentrating power in Tokyo; the fickleness of tourist tastes; and above all the fragility of the economy of the motherland to the south. 

The consequences of the endless recession must be apparent to anyone who has read the preceding series of posts.

Teshio, Mashike and the Rumoi subprefecture: Of palisades and Christ signs

Japan’s population in 2030, at 108mn, is 14.0%—nearly 18mn people—lower than in 2000. In 2050, it has declined 32.4%—nearly 41mn people—to 85mn. Japan experienced population growth unprecedented for a developed nation in the half-century to 2000. From about 83mn in 1950, the population grew more than 50%. It will now shrink by approximately the same numerical amount over the next half-century. And that stunning decline is unavoidable because it will result mainly from the demographic profile of people already alive.

Shrinking-population economics: Lessons from Japan, Akihiko Matsutani (2006)

Except for the elderly, the Japanese population will decrease by almost half in the coming 50 years.

Commentary to population projections for Japan, Ryuichi Kaneko et al, The Japanese Journal of Population, Vol. 2 No. 1 (March 2009)

My portal to the Rumoi subprefecture was the little cow town of Horonobe (1980 population 4,253, estimated 2009 population 2,652, projected 2035 population 1,476). The prospect of finding an inn with a room for the night there seemed dim, and I headed on to Teshio (1980 population 6,281, estimated 2009 population 3,669, projected 2035 population 2,013), which at least was deemed important enough to have an inset showing the town center in detail on the page in my roadmap book on which it appeared. No room was to be found at Teshio Onsen hot springs, full of frolicking kids; instead I was directed to Hotel Ichihana on the fringe of town.

I suppose Hotel Ichihana is a species of business hotel: its stern appearance, lonesome location, locked-up and evidently long-dormant dining room, and echoingly empty strip-lit and linoleum-clad corridors led me to immediately dub the sullen proprietor Bates. In the twin room to which I was assigned, the naked mattress of the bed I wouldn’t be sleeping in was smeared with stains that did not bear too close inspection.

In the shriveled remains of the entertainment district in the town center, there were at least a few sounds of life from inside a yakinuku skewered chicken place, Hamanasu (that flower again…) The party of thirtysomething women that had been the source of the merriment soon departed, however, and the customer count was reduced to two. I sipped away at an icy beer while assiduously writing up the day’s notes. The guy at the counter kept glancing my way until he could contain his curiosity no more and insistently beckoned me over.

Minami-san was caning a bottle of shochu rice spirit while being gently chided this Thursday evening by the ever-smiling proprietor, Nagayama-san, about how hard everyone had to work the following day. They made a fine double act. He turned out to be the town’s garbage collector, on his fourth, childless, marriage. Divorced, died, divorced, survived: he was turning into Henry VIII. He was separated from his last wife, who was Chinese and lived in Sapporo. I asked in mock innocence where they had met and brought the house down. As if she could have arrived any other way but mail order. For reasons that long escape me, I was forced into explaining the constitutional arrangements of the UK for the second night in a row. Minami-san vowed that he would become a human bomb and kill dear leader Kim Jong-il but as Nagayama-san noted drily, he’d be unlikely to get an interview. The conversation ranged widely but was streaked with nostalgia, for days of the coal mines, young people, and the express trains, which once upon a time ran from Horonobe straight through to Sapporo on the long-gone Haboro line. The food—Genghis Khan mutton, beansprouts, and onion on a sidedish, garlic fried potatoes, and tsukune minced chicken balls from the freezer on a skewer—was dire but the crack, the crack was ninety that night.

Having had one too many for even these deserted roads, I spent a restless night at Bates Motel and stumbled back to the center of town early the next morning to pick up the car, passing as I trod the deserted sidewalks Japan Ground Self-Defense Force troops—at first in dribs and drabs and then in torrents—wobbling past on an eclectic assortment of bicycles—fold-up commuters, choppers, charinkos, and real clunkers that looked like they had been pensioned off from the streets of Shanghai a decade ago.

If like Japan you only commit about 1% of GDP to defense, there won’t be much left in the piggybank for bicycles, which are not, I suppose, a vital ingredient of contemporary combat. Even so, they couldn’t help but remind me of Dad’s Army. Is Walmington-on-Sea really safe?

My destination that drab and squally day was the little town of Mashike, at the far southern end of the Rumoi subprefecture, chosen for no other reason than that I had noticed it had one of the three remaining branch lines on Hokkaido, wanted to know why, and suspected there was a story behind it.

But first, what is the Rumoi subprefecture? It’s one of the 14 subprefectures into which Hokkaido is divided and the sixth smallest, covering only around 5% of the island. Nevertheless, it’s larger in area than Nagasaki prefecture and all but a handful of English counties, stretching some 155km up the Sea of Japan coast.  It’s the second least populous subprefecture and the least densely populated. After the annexation of Hokkaido, it was one of the first places outside the southeastern “chicken’s neck” to be settled and one of the first to see its extractive industries go into decline: the herring fishery before World War II, forestry in the 1950s, and coal in the 1960s. About all the subprefecture has left is some dairy farms in the north, vegetable and rice cultivation in the center, and fruit farms in the south, with Rumoi City’s sole claim to fame being that it is Japan’s largest importer and processor of herring roe and cod roe.

Not that you can discover much of this from the Internet, at least not the English language side of it: strip out Wikipedia and its interminable mirror sites and—aside from Spike—Google can unearth just five references to “Rumoi subprefecture”: two from Hokkaido Electric Power, two in reference to a minor 2004 earthquake, and one from the subprefecture’s own website. Five. We might as well be dealing with an obscure New Guinea language, the 18th century genealogy of a New England family, or a long departed Amazonian tribe.

I headed south, drinking in the desolation, down the coastal Ororon line, named after a local word for the Common Guillemots that breed on an offshore island, through Enbetsu (1980 population 5,375, estimated 2009 population 3,139, projected 2035 population 1,943), Shosanbetsu (1980 population 2,444, estimated 2009 population 1,459, projected 2035 population 745), Haboro (1980 population 13,254, estimated 2009 population 8,368, projected 2035 population 5,070), Tomamae (1980 population 6,528, estimated 2009 population 3,776, projected 2035 population 2,169), and Obira (1980 population 6,474, estimated 2009 population 3,843, projected 2035 population 2,661).

Even the most casual reader of this series of posts, skimming and dipping across the text to get to the next photo the way a deftly tossed stone skips across the sea, cannot have failed to be detained by a meticulous—and sometimes intrusive—cataloguing of past, present, and projected population data for the third or so of Hokkaido’s municipalities through which I passed. Initially I started adding in the population datapoints half in jest, to draw attention to emptying out of rural Hokkaido, before realizing that, having started, for consistency’s sake, I would have to continue to the end of the trail.

As there are just two more sets of data to go, let’s now pull them all together for a demonstration of the strange death of rural Hokkaido. I’ve arbitrarily deemed Sapporo and the five biggest cities—Hakodate, Asahikawa, Obihiro, Kushiro, and Tomokomae—and their suburbs, as well as Chitose, the home of the main airport, to be urban Hokkaido and the rest to be rural.

Population 1980         2009        2035

Urban Hokkaido 2.97mn    3.53mn    3.04mn

Rural Hokkaido 2.60mn    2.01mn    1.37mn

Total Hokkaido 5.58mn    5.54mn    4.41mn

So in the space of two generations, rural Hokkaido—and this includes a handful of cities that at least started off with well over 100,000 people—will have lost very close to half of its population. The hemorrhaging will be worse in truly rural districts such as the Rumoi subprefecture, which will lose fully 60% of its population over the same period. Here is the long-term population trajectory for the subprefecture.

1920: 73,287

1945: 122,256

1970: 118,629

1980: 89,554

1995: 70,403

2005: 61,488

2035: 35,825

As is readily apparent from the above, the population is already well below its 1920 level and heading back to where it was, I would guess, at the turn of the 19th century.

But it would be a grievous mistake to write off the Rumoi subprefecture as a forgotten and neglected corner of the land, with little relevance to anyone save its inhabitants, because it is emblematic not of Japan’s past but its future. The arc of its population trajectory from 1920 to 2005, although a little more intense, skewed, and compressed, mirrors that through which Japan will go in the century between 1955 and 2055. Allow the luminaries at the National Institute for Population and Social Security Research (NIPSSR), talking about Japan’s total population, to take over for a moment:


Coincidentally, the population size of 89.28mn in 1955––50 years ago––is approximately the same as the total population of 89.93mn in 2055 obtained by the medium-variant fertility (with medium-variant mortality) projection. That is, in the coming 50 years, the Japanese population will revert to the size it had approximately 50 years ago. However, the median age was 23.7 in 1955 but will be 57.8 in 2055, showing that the age structure will be completely different and that the population composition will definitely not go back to how it was.
(Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Naturally, the further out you project, the more room for uncertainty there is: under the NIPSSR’s high-variant fertility and low-variant mortality model, the population falls to only 99.53mn in 2005, while under the low-variant fertility and high-variant mortality model it slumps to 82.40mn. The key variable in the long run is fertility, and even in the high-variant model it only recovers to 1.55 in 2055, against the replacement rate of just under 2.1, from 1.26 in 2005, while in the low-variant model it slides to 1.06 in 2055. I’ll have more to say on fertility later. The further out you project, too, the more likely an exogenous negative population event (though not a positive one) is to occur: war, disease, or climate change, to name but three.

Let’s leave the last words on what the experience of places such as the Rumoi subprefecture augur for the rest of Japan to Professor Matsutani:

An earlier pattern of population of population outflows will thus soften the adverse economic effects of aging and population decline in several prefectures [such as Hokkaido]. Those prefectures are harbingers for the economic tribulations that demographic change will occasion in Japan’s three largest metropolises. (Matsutani)

I hunted high and low in the subprefectural capital, Rumoi (1980 population 36,626, estimated 2009 population 25,459, projected 2035 population 16,525) for lunch, but aside from a McDonalds, a KFC, and a couple of no-name ramen noodle outlets, none of which were offering fare befitting a holiday, could find nothing, and pressed on, as watery sunshine usurped the rain, to Mashike (1980 population 8,319, estimated 2009 population 5,411, projected 2035 population 3,223).

At its 1897 inception, the Rumoi subprefecture was known as the Mashike subprefecture, with Mashike as its administrative seat; the seat was moved to Rumoi, just up the coast, in 1914, and Mashike’s heyday was all but done. It may well be in obeisance to its modest former glory that Mashike is allowed to keep its branch line. Could there have been a better spot from which to muse on the aging of Japan?

By 1998, Japan had become the oldest society on earth, and it is poised to continue aging faster than any other nation.

Let me reiterate that, with emphasis added for effect: in 2010, Japan is the oldest society that has ever existed in the history of humanity on the planet, and will remain so, not remotely challenged, for several decades at least.

The line from Rumoi to Mashike is not, technically, a branch line, but rather a 17km extension of the 50km of the Rumoi mainline, completed in 1910, that runs between Rumoi and a place called Fukagawa; by the time the tracks turn up at Mashike, however, its essential branchiness is plain for all to see.

Even if we were to assume that the fertility rate will increase to a much higher level than today, given the current situation, Japan will be unable to avoid having the highest proportion of elderly in the world; and the trend will continue. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

In 1921, the last spike in the mainline extension southward from Rumoi to Mashike was driven in, and my best, though architecturally uninformed, guess is that this gorgeous if derelict ryokan hotel, Tomitaya, was put up around the same time, a sublime exemplar of Taisho Romanesque and a nonpareil restoration project for the wild and brave at heart.

Japanese society is aging at a pace unprecedented in any large nation. Demographers characterize societies where people older than 65 constitute more than 7% of the population as aging societies, and they refer to societies where the over-65 percentage is greater than 14% as aged societies. By those criteria, Japanese society went from aging to aged in the stunningly brief span of only 24 years. The over-65 component of Japan’s population reached 7% in 1970 and 14% in 1994. (Matsutani)

How stunning is brief? It took Germany 40 years, from around 1930 to around 1970, the UK 47 years, from around 1930 to around 1975, France a mere 115 years, from 1864 to 1979, and the US, having reached ageing status in 1942, is not yet, although very close, to aged.

And the further aging of Japanese society will proceed just as fast. The over-65 percentage of Japanese will reach 28%—double the “aged” demographic threshold—shortly before 2020. Japan’s over-65 surge to 28% of the population, from 14%, will occur in approximately the same quarter-century span as the increase to 14% from 7%. (Matsutani)

With the over-65s already accounting for over 28% of the population by 2006 and climbing steeply, the Rumoi subprefecture is thus more than a decade ahead of the national curve. Yet by the standards of rural Japan it is not particularly aged: ratios of 40% and 50% are not that uncommon, and Nanmoku, a onetime lumber village scarcely two hours from downtown Tokyo, boasted in 2008 an elderly ratio of 57% and an average age of 62.5, making it the most elderly municipality in Japan and perhaps the world. One of its larger constituent hamlets has 200 people, only two of whom are under 65; one of its remoter hamlets has 20 people, all of whom are over 75.

Much as I am loath to credit Japan with any unique attributes at all, I am forced to concede that it has an extraordinarily distinctive demographic profile, one that grows more unlike those of other developed nations every hour of every day. Until the early 1990s, it superficially resembled those of large Western European nations, but the diligent observer would have been able to detect easily enough what was about to unfold.


Japan’s departure from the demographic norm can be traced back to its postwar baby boom, which was nipped in the bud by the charmingly named Eugenics Protection Law of 1948, which in its amended 1949 incarnation made abortion available on demand. While baby booms elsewhere carried on into the late 1950s or early 1960s, Japan’s birthrate had already fallen below the replacement rate as early as 1957 and remained there until 1965, staging a resurgence to around the replacement rate in the decade between 1965 and 1974, the peak of the “echo boom”, and then falling definitively and permanently below it in 1975. Japan finally entered the netherworld of lowest-low fertility (a fertility rate of below 1.5) in 1995 and the fertility rate bottomed out, at least for now, at 1.26 in 2005. It is this long half-century of near or below replacement rate fertility that is partly responsible for the rapidity of the aging of the demographic picture that Japan continues to undergo.

Also responsible are the astonishing gains in postwar life expectancy, which averaged just 52 in 1947 but 72 in 1970, surging by two decades over a span of a mere 23 years, compared to gains of only 2.8 years in the US and 2.3 years in the UK over the same period. Japan now, of course, has the longest overall life expectancy at birth of any state or territory on the planet, at 82.6 years.

The proportion of the elderly is expected to grow from 20.2% as of 2005 to 25.2% in 2013, already accounting for more than one-quarter of the population of Japan at this stage. According to the medium-variant projection, it will then reach 33.7%, or more than one-third of the population, in 2035. It will reach 40.5% by 2055, which means that 1 out of 2.5 persons will be in the aged category in Japan 50 years from now.

Population Projections for Japan: 2006-2055, Ryuichi Kaneko et al, The Japanese Journal of Population, Volume 6 No. 1 [March 2008]


The incontrovertible axiom that life yields no known survivors still holds, however, and not yet having concocted the elixir that forever wards off death, the Japanese remain mortal. So as Japan becomes the world’s first hyper-aged society in the latter years of this decade, its population will decline at an accelerating rate.

The main school building (above) and gymnasium (below) of Mashike elementary school, founded in 1868; the present buildings date back only to 1936. It can accommodate 1,000 pupils but currently has fewer than 200 on its rolls.


exhorts the slogan: “fly to the future”. Mashike’s sole high school stopped recruiting students in March 2009 and will close its doors forever in March 2011.

In case of Japan…the proportion of the child population will fall below 10% (8.6%) in 2050, the proportion of the working-age population will be c50% (51.8%) and the elderly proportion will comprise c40% (39.6%) of the total population, which means that the Japanese population will show the most advanced degree of population aging in the world, combined with an ever-diminishing number of children. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

I lunched on the freshest of seafood in an ancient converted kura storehouse and found lodging at the Auberge Mashike, which as its name suggests, had definite pretensions, before retracing my steps north along the coast at a slightly more leisured pace.

Shuttered shops in Shosanbetsu, existing somewhere in the penumbra between shadow and sun, life and death.

While Japan’s overall population has only been contracting since 2005, the working-age population began to fall a decade earlier, in 1995, and this has had and will continue to have repercussions for the vibrancy of Japan’s socioeconomy. The demographic rot set in even earlier though. Take it away, professor:

The inevitable aging of Japanese society was a foregone conclusion by the early 1960s. But that demographic change did not begin to affect the labor supply until 1968. In that year, population growth in the 20-39 age range slowed for the first time in the postwar era. And in 1976, the population in that age range began to decline. (Matsutani)

In the sunset, a long-silenced gravel plant south of Shosanbetsu.

Japan’s working-age population has been declining since 1995, and it will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. … Trends in working-age population suggest strongly that Japan will have the slowest economic growth among the large industrialized nations. (Matsutani)

Bunting and lanterns had been strung out for a neigborhood association festival in the center of Haboro, but the enforced gaiety only made the melancholy of the rusting shutters more poignant.

The economically active population is poised to decline to 54.7mn people in 2030, from 67.7mn in 2000—a decline of 13mn people, or 19.2%. … The decline in working-age population between 2000 and 2030, at 27.8%, is nearly double the 14.0% decline in overall population. (Matsutani)

An Elasmosaurus (and it took some research to bring you that) welcomes visitors to the “Romantic Seaside Town” of Obira, home to more than 17,000 folk in 1950 and fewer than 4,000 now.

The coming contraction in the active workforce, together with the swelling ranks of the elderly, will result in a skyrocketing dependency ratio, with more and more senior citizens reliant on fewer and fewer working taxpayers. Youthful societies also have high dependency ratios because of their abundance of children, but while children can—in theory—be raised and educated relatively cheaply, Japan’s oldest old will need hugely expensive medical treatment to help them negotiate their last few years of life.

The child dependency ratio and the old-age dependency ratio added together is referred to as the overall dependency ratio, and this ratio is used to show the degree of support for the entire working-age population. According to the medium-variant projection of birth, the overall dependency ratio is expected to increase to 70.9% in 2030 from 51.3% in 2005, and will eventually reach 95.7% by 2055. (Population, Kaneko et al)

An abandoned café-cum-restaurant with rudimentary bungalows for tourists, Tomamae. The door to the café was ajar and I poked my nose in: it was like the Marie Celeste, with a half-drained bottle of whisky on the sideboard. I suspect what the Japanese call a “yonige”, a flight in the night to evade the pursuit of creditors, to start afresh somewhere new. Very very bad juju around here.

One conceivable, if only partial, solution to the decline in the working population might be to shepherd more women and over-65s into the workforce. But Japan’s female labor participation ratio is not exceptionally low by international standards and coercive policies to get women working would run the risk of depressing the birthrate further. And why would women want to sacrifice the primes of their lives to the serfdom of the firm in a land where the glass ceiling is made of Kevlar—fewer than 2% of corporate executives are female.

Nor would Japan’s recalcitrant retirees be likely to take kindly to efforts to push them back into offices, shops, and factories, and they would no doubt express their displeasure at the ballot box, where thanks to their sheer numbers, their high propensity to vote, and a electoral system rigged in favor of rural areas where they are—relatively—most numerous, they are more than capable of turning a general election. My professor snorts:

No reasonably imaginable increase in the employment of women and the elderly can prevent the economically active population from declining faster than the overall population. … The notion of resolving the nation’s fiscal problems by mobilizing the population is ludicrous—an anachronous echo of the wartime National Mobilization Law. (Matsutani)

The proud breast of the concrete guillemot proclaims, “Welcome to Haboro, Sunset Kingdom”. In more than one way.

In 2005, Japan became the world’s pioneer in shrinking-population economics. It became the first large industrialized nation to experience a population decline as a result of natural causes. (Matsutani)

Surrender to the inevitable could not be postponed indefinitely, and the rollercoaster that had taken Japan’s population from 56mn in 1920, past 100mn in 1967, and up to a peak of 127,787,000 in 2004 reached the apex of the ride and began to teeter on the rails, rocking back and forth: although the population fell by 19,000, a rounding error, in 2005, it rose again in 2006—by a miniscule 2,000—and again in 2007—by just 1,000, before staging the first truly irrevocable fall of the coming half-century or more of contraction in 2008, when the rollercoaster lunged forward and the population declined by 79,000, or more than the entire population of the Rumoi subprefecture. We’re on the way down now, and we’ve got a long way to go.

I put years on my tires in the Rumoi subprefecture, executing emergency stops as something caught my eye, smoking U-turns off gravel to get back to better vantage points, churning up muddy verges to make a break for it in the face of oncoming traffic. I needed a sticker for my rear window that read not “I stop for children”—there were none—but “I stop for rust”. I’d rather have this photo, blown-up, than any Rothko in my living room.

Who hinged the door? Who stacked the aluminum windows? Who piled the tires? Did they know each other? And who chose the yellow, and who the blue?

What a patchwork quilt of corrugation! Look how delicately the embers of rust lick up and down the ridges and furrows, how the windows shed tears, grow beards of rust.

According to the 2005 Population Census, the base year of this projection, the total population of Japan was 127.8mn. Based on the results of the medium-variant projection, the population is expected to enter a long period of depopulation. The population is expected to decrease to about 115.2mn in 2030, fall below 100mn to 99.4mn in 2046, and drop to 89.9mn by 2055. (Population, Kaneko et al)

Part of a near-abandoned hamlet north of Tomamae, and the first sign of the palisade fortifications built around houses and compounds against the fearsome blizzards that pound remorselessly in off the Sea of Japan through the winter.

An absolute decline in population will accompany the aging of Japanese society. Quite simply, the number of people dying will outnumber the number of people being born. … No developed nation has ever experienced a large, long-term decline in population. Japan is thus destined to be a demographic pioneer in the uncharted waters of negative population growth. (Matsutani)

Another forsaken hamlet north of Tomamae, the wind turbines—the Rumoi subprefecture generates about 40% of Hokkaido’s wind power—a chilling summer reminder of the intensity of the winter gales.

Japan is headed for several decades of population decline. That decline will continue long after the end of the sharp decline associated with the passing of the baby boom generation. In no industrialized nation do we find a birthrate higher than the 2.1 needed to maintain population size, and we have no reason to believe that Japan’s birthrate will return to even that level. … As stunningly swift as the change will seem initially, it will accelerate. The rate of population decline will increase annually. Stopgap solutions will soon prove wholly inadequate. (Matsutani)

A cliff-perched hamlet half-submerged by summer grasses, Tomamae. The badlands of the Rumoi subprefecture are not badlands in the way American badlands are, arid, eroded, and impenetrable, but they feel like badlands in a spiritual sense, a land of false promises, dashed hopes, and broken dreams, a land forsaken.

It can be said with a significantly high degree of certainty that the Japanese population will continue to decrease for a large part of the 21st century.
(Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Even newer houses have succumbed: this one, near Tomamae, has been boarded up with weather-withered plywood that gives it some aesthetic affinity with the barn, almost as if it has been colonized in revenge for its upstart effrontery in presuming that new roots could be put down in a dying land.

Japan will lose some 30% of its population in the coming 50 years. Continuing these extrapolations…the population will have dwindled down to 44.59mn in 2105, 100 years in the future, a mere 35% of the population in 2005. The population has never before in Japanese history shown such a constant decreasing trend for such a long period of time, literally making the 21st century a century of depopulation for Japan. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Sundown coming, Tomamae: looking south to the 1,500m peaks behind Mashike, which bear fresh dustings of snow even in midsummer.

As a matter of fact, even in the extremely unlikely case where the fertility rate recovers to the population replacement level in 2005 and onward and maintains that level afterward as well, the population will continue decreasing until the 2070s, at which point it will have shrunk to approximately 87% of the original population before stabilizing. Thus, the conclusion is clear: Japan is facing an inevitable long-term population decrease. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

A storm-savaged barn in the sunset, Tomamae.

50 years from now, the shape of the population pyramid will be transformed into an inverted triangle with a very high center of mass, completely lacking stability—much like a pyramid balancing on its tip. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

The skeletal remains of a house and boat, Shaguma, between Rumoi and Mashike.

Demographic innocents—I was one until recently—no doubt fondly believe that if only the birthrate could be magically reset to 2.1 or thereabouts, long-term population decline could be averted. But it absolutely cannot be averted, as we have seen, due to the wonder of population momentum: just as Japan’s population grew for a half-century after the fuel of a replacement birthrate was spent, so it will decline for at least the next fifty years.

Depopulation will first be felt most acutely in the countryside: the average age of Japan’s farmers is already over 65 and by 2030 few will be capable of harvesting rice, herding cattle, or picking apples. More than a tenth of Japan’s paddies, fields, and orchards already lie fallow for want of a farmer and that ratio is destined to surge in the coming couple of decades. Already dependent on food imports for 60% of its calorific intake, Japan will grow ever less able to feed itself. Sound the alarm, professor:

Time is short. Japan can ill afford any further delay in preparing for the inevitable. In the next year or two, Japan will enter a phase of irreversible population decline. The time to act is now. (Matsutani)

Population decline, especially of the economically active population, will be compounded by a continuing fall in the number of hours worked per person, overinvestment in and very low returns on capital stock (a perennial Japanese sin), permanently sub-par productivity (“productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything”, as Paul Krugman quipped) due to a cosseted domestic sector, intensifying foreign competition in areas of traditional comparative advantage such as autos and consumer electronics, an ingrained abhorrence of entrepreneurship, and extraordinarily low levels of foreign direct investment.

Haboro Koyo elementary school, with a setting sun mural.

My estimates are that Japanese real GDP grew by a lethargic 0.8% annually in the “lost decade” of the 1990s and by half that, 0.4%, in the first decade of the 21st century. Professional economists, far more knowledgeable than I, put Japan’s current potential GDP growth rate as high as 1.5%; I cannot but help feel that the last two decades of sub-potential growth suggest that it is far lower, and falling, with the Japan on the threshold of turning into the world’s first post-growth society. The professor, for one, is in no doubt:

The wrenching demographic change in store for Japan will do worse than slow the pace of economic growth; it will shrink the nation’s economy. Negative economic growth will become the norm in the nation that until recently set the pace for the industrialized world. (Matsutani)

Haboro Koyo elementary school closed for good in March 2001.

In [our] downside scenario even more Japanese individuals and companies would turn their backs on their own economy. More people would emigrate, eke out a living as “freeters” and lower their labour input. Japanese companies would continue to scale down their domestic capacities and foreigners would have hardly any interest at all in the Japanese market. In this scenario the growth rate of potential GDP would decline to zero by 2020.
Japan 2020 – the decline in trend growth is home-made, Stephan Bergheim et al, Deutsche Bank research, 2006

While there is no sign of mass emigration yet—nor do I expect to see one—in other respects Deutsche Bank’s downside scenario is proving, four years on, to be uncannily accurate.

Reuke elementary school opened in 1884 and closed in March 2006.

A decline in total wages and salaries caused by a decline in available labor diminishes demand and causes the economy to contract. And that is what is about to happen in Japan. (Matsutani)

Reuke station, midway between Rumoi and Mashike, had a stationmaster until 1984. Six trains a day still ply the roundtrip between Rumoi and Mashike.

At present we see hardly any signs of fundamental social and economic-policy changes that might stem or indeed reverse the demographically induced decline in trend GDP growth. (Deutsche Bank, 2006)

Welcome to Rumoi—first in Japan for the production volume and quality of its herring roe. The signboard on the left warns locals to keep a vigilant eye out for the poaching of kelp, sea urchins, abalone, mussels, whelks, and octopus. Coast-anchored seaweed and littoral-hugging mollusks are about all that is left in the marine larder since the collapse of the herring fishery.

A row of palisades turns a hamlet into a fortress against the enemy snow, Tomamae.

As death’s knock can only be delayed, the natural political response to an aging population is to encourage the birthrate higher, and Japan has for the last decade or so had a minister for “low birthrate countermeasures”, usually coupled with a portfolio for sexual equality (or rather “joint participation in society by men and women”); that the post has without exception been held by a woman, often the token woman in the cabinet, is evidence enough of the significance the political elite attach to the issue. The current incumbent, Mizuho Fukushima, whose 1992 authorship of a book titled “Choosing not to give birth: The joy of not having children” (産まない選択 子供を持たない楽しさ) suggests she might not quite be the right person for the task at hand (could you make this stuff up?), is anyway much more passionate about getting those nasty, nasty US troops out of Okinawa—leftist nationalism masquerading as pacificism—than the nuances of pronatal policies. But at this late stage, a rising birthrate could well be a poisoned chalice, wouldn’t you say professor?

Even a miraculous upturn in the birthrate would not turn the [demographic] tide. A surge of infants would not begin to augment the workforce for nearly a quarter-century. And in the meantime, those infants would aggravate Japan’s economic woes. The burgeoning ranks of dependents would depress Japan’s savings rate further and worsen the economic downturn. They would also undermine the financial capacity of the contributors to Japan’s pension system. (Matsutani)

The palisades of Tomamae in close-up: the most forbidding domestic architecture it has ever been my honor to encounter.

Like it or not, though, an upturn in the birthrate is what Japan is getting: having bottomed at 1.26 in 2005, it rose to 1.37 in 2008 before stalling at the same level in 2009. Some demographers are already declaring an end to lowest-low fertility, although no state or territory, having fallen to the lowest of the low, has yet escaped.

Only time will tell if it was the clement economic winds of 2005-2007 or the last reproductive cry of the echo boomers born in the late 1960s and early 1970s whose clocks are ticking ever louder that spurred the uptick, although a near-concurrent and near-uniform turnaround in the fertility rates across the nations of the lowest-low—Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in Western Europe, much of Eastern Europe, and Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong in East Asia—suggests that something more profound is afoot. The biological urge to reproduce is hard to suppress for good.

It might just be, however, that despite recent evidence to the contrary, Japan has embarked on a vicious demographic spiral, in which a variety of complex feedback mechanisms set to work: aging results in declining international competitiveness, which results in greater economic hardship at home, which results in a suppressed birthrate; aging results in ballooning fiscal deficits, which in the absence of debt issuance must result in higher taxes or cuts to government spending, which cause economic pain, driving down the birthrate; aging, as the elderly dissave, results in a decline in the pool of domestic savings on which government borrowing is an implied claim, reducing room for fiscal maneuver and resulting in less ability to withstand exogenous shocks; aging further entrenches conservative attitudes to everything from pension reform to immigration, resulting in greater government outlays and smaller government receipts; aging leads the electorate to fear for the future of the pension system, resulting in more saving by the economically active, depressing consumption, which drives manufacturers offshore and raises unemployment, which is strongly correlated with the birthrate. Time will tell.

A colorful palisade in Shaguma, between Rumoi and Mashike. Again with the blue and yellow.

However the birthrate metrics work out in the long term, Japan is bound to be a lonely place to grow up in the future.

The annual number of births in Japan has declined from 2.09mn in 1973 to 1.06mn in 2005. Consequently, the population of children under the age of 15 has decreased from 27mn in the early 1980s to 17.52mn in the population census of 2005. … According to the medium-variant projection, the population size of this age group will fall to 16mn in 2009. The decline will continue, and the population of this age group is expected to fall below 10mn in 2039, eventually decreasing to around 7.52mn by 2055. (Population, Ryuichi Kaneko et al)

A buttressed stockade, somewhere between Rumoi and Mashike.

Aside from birthrate engineering, the other frequently vaunted—although mainly by foreigners—solution to aging and population decline is to open the immigration floodgates and embrace the tired, poor, huddled masses of Asia’s teeming shores. In this context, the United Nations conducted a fascinating, if other-worldly, study in 2000 of what levels of immigration would be needed under various scenarios, with a generous assumption that the Japanese population only falls to 104.9mn by 2050. (Scenarios I and II are slight variants of a no net immigration hypothesis, so we’ll ignore them here).

Scenario III: According to the medium variant projection of the United Nations 1998 Revision, the population of Japan would reach a maximum of 127.5mn in 2005. If Japan wishes to keep the size of its population at the level attained in the year 2005, the country would need 17mn net immigrants up to the year 2050, or an average of 381,000 immigrants per year between 2005 and 2050. By 2050, the immigrants and their descendants would total 22.5mn and comprise 17.7% of the total population of the country.

Scenario IV: In order to keep the size of the working-age population constant at the 1995 level of 87.2mn, Japan would need 33.5mn immigrants from 1995 through 2050. This means an average of 609,000 immigrants are needed per year during this period. Under this scenario, the population of the country is projected to be 150.7mn by 2050. The number of post-1995 immigrants and their descendants would be 46mn, accounting for 30% of the total population in 2050.

Scenario V does not allow the potential support ratio [of the working-age population to the retired-age population] to decrease below the value of 3.0. In order to achieve this, no immigrants would be needed until 2005, and 94.8mn immigrants would be needed between 2005 and 2050, an average of 2.1mn per year during that period. By 2050, out of a total population of 229mn, 124mn, or 54%, would be post-1995 immigrants or their descendants.

Scenario VI: This scenario keeps the ratio of the working-age population to the retired-age population at its 1995 level of 4.8. In order to keep this level of potential support ratio, the country would need 553mn immigrants during 1995 through 2050, or an average of 10mn immigrants per year. Under this scenario, the population of Japan is projected to be 818mn in 2050, and 87% of them would be the post-1995 immigrants and their descendants.

Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations (2000)

A footnote comments without apparent irony:

*Scenario VI is considered to be demographically unrealistic.

Ya think? In fact, even the most milquetoast proposal, Scenario III, in which the population is merely kept constant, results in Japan, historically mightily hostile to immigration, having a foreign-born population of 17.7% in 2050, versus 12.9% in the US in 2005. File it all under “ain’t gonna happen”.

Here’s official Japan on the subject of immigration:

It is not appropriate to consider using foreign workers to cope with labor shortages. (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 2005)

Everything in contemporary Japanese dealings with the precious few foreigners in their midst—from the alacrity with which manufacturing towns such as Hamamatsu sent Brazilian descendents of Japanese settlers packing as world trade imploded in early 2009, the brouhaha over the first batch of a couple of hundred Indonesian caregivers and nurses who arrived last year and are expected to both work full-time and reach written fluency in Japanese within three years to pass tough exams that fully half of all native speakers fail, on pain of being deported if they flunk them, and the scandalous treatment of the tens of thousands of overseas “trainees”, many of them Chinese, in Japan on a program organized by the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, who are essentially used as sweatshop labor—absolutely everything points to a hardening, rather than a softening, of attitudes to immigration.

A comical palisade this time, with the front door and downstairs windows replicated meticulously.

Anecdotal evidence from my own life amply confirms the vulnerability of the foreign-born, be they of high or low station: I lost count of the number of farewell parties I attended last year, as contracts were not renewed and visas expired. My firm recently made its first foreigner analyst hire in nigh on a decade. As he said wistfully over a drink one evening, “The problem is the whole industry’s been ethnically cleansed”. Last week I interviewed a job applicant who works at one of the big domestic brokerages. “There are 65 of us foreigners there in a company of 6,500 people”, he related, “and we’re treated at best as a necessary inconvenience”. And as second-class non-citizens, he could have added; while the bulk of his Japanese colleagues will be full-time employees, who are tricky to dismiss, he and his foreign confreres are—with one exception—on one-year contracts. Career opportunities? Puh-leeze…

One advantage of the palisades is that when the last occupant passes on, only a few planks have to be added to the entranceway to seal up the house.

The number of solitary householders of 65 years of age and over will increase by 86%, from 3.78mn to 7.17mn in the coming 25 years. Moreover, looking at solitary householders of 75 years of age and over, the number will swell by a factor of 2.18 from 1.97mn to 4.29mn households, i.e., the number of solitary households of older elderly people in the Japanese population is projected to more than double. (Commentary, Kaneko et al)

Earlier I fingered farming as the first victim of aging and population decline; next to collapse could well be the giant Ponzi scheme of the state pension, where either contributions need to be doubled or benefits halved to maintain some sort of equilibrium. Over to you, professor:

The all-too-rapid pace of Japan’s aging is also the villain in the nation’s pension system drama. … As things stand, the number of people who pay into the system will decline sharply even as the number of people who receive benefits increases rapidly. Something has got to give soon and in a big way. (Matsutani)

Even the vegetable plots get their own windbreaks.

[At constant contributions and benefits] the funding shortfall in Japan’s social insurance programs will swell annually, to Y33.4trn in 2010 and to Y57trn in 2030, from Y8.7trn in 1998. Contributions would cover only 44.0% of expenditures under the programs in 2030. The cumulative shortfall for the years 1998 to 2030 would total Y1,240trn. To put that total in perspective, it is roughly equivalent to aggregate personal financial assets in Japan today. (Matsutani)

Occasionally the palisades are lopped to more modest, fence-like dimensions.

Being told that pension benefits might decline 10% or 20% during your lifetime is one thing. Hearing that they will decline 50% or more is something else again. (Matsutani)

Sometimes the palisades are removed in summer: here the giant staves are the only year-round feature.

As the pension system collapses, so will the infrastructural fabric of Japan. First to go will have to be investment in new infrastructure:

Japan now has a well-developed infrastructure…and the incremental benefits of new airports and highways are minimal in terms of increasing productive capacity. … An airport or a highway is visible, but the mechanism by which increased public works spending diminishes the economy is invisible, and few people have a grasp of that mechanism. (Matsutani)

The remnants of a truss bridge on the Haboro line, which saw its last train run in 1987.

The professor has done his math:

The amount of public works spending that will be possible in 2030 without compromising economic growth is Y14.2trn. That is down 47.0% from the actual figure of Y26.8trn in 2002. Public works spending needs to decline by nearly one-half. (Matsutani)

A Haboro line tunnel, north of Shosanbetsu.

As public works spending declines, more and more of the available budget will be taken up by infrastructure maintenance and repairs, with spending on refurbishment and replacement of existing infrastructure exceeding the threshold level for total public works spending as soon as 2023, calculates the professor:

Japan’s infrastructure will thus begin to deteriorate, and some of it will fall into ruin. (Matsutani)

A Haboro line viaduct, again north of Shosanbetsu.

One counterintuitive consequence of aging and population decline is that Tokyo and other big cities will see their economies wither and their vitality drain away. The most rural of the hinterlands have already done their aging, and will have demographic profiles in 2030 not dissimilar to the ones they had in 2000. Tokyo, on the other hand, with its huge bulge of twenty- and thirty-somethings, will see its demographic profile converge with those of the provinces; even if people aged 20-39 continue to move to Tokyo at their recent rate, there will be a third fewer people in the cohort in 2030 versus 2000, so they will have a much reduced impact. Meanwhile, although the absolute percentage decline in the working-age population in Tokyo will be only around the national average, the urban workforce will age more rapidly than anywhere else and by 2030 account for a smaller percentage of the overall population than any other prefecture in Japan. One last time, then, professor, if you insist:

Japan’s metropolises face even bigger issues than the nation’s nonmetropolitan areas do in regard to economic growth rates and per capita income. … Per capita income in Japan is likely to change little between 2000 and 2030…but it will decline sharply in the nation’s metropolises. And that will mean a decline in living standards there. (Matsutani)

As I snapped away at the palisades, my attention turned to little metal placards which bear Christian messages, with their familiar white and yellow (for emphasis) fonts on a black background, discreetly placed on the walls of houses, sheds, and even palisades. They are to be found all over rural Japan, but in their apocalyptic menace they seemed perfectly suited to the Rumoi subprefecture. This one reads “God can see your heart”, which it attributes to the Bible.

“Jesus Christ is the Son of God”. This is unattributed. The placards are known as “Christ signs” (キリスト看板) and are the handiwork of the Bible Distribution Cooperation Society (聖書配布協力会), which was founded in 1952—noone knows by whom—and which is headquartered in the tiny town of Marumori in the wilds of the border between Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

“God punishes sins, the Bible”. It’s all getting a bit too Old Testament for my taste. The society is purportedly a loose network of like-minded individuals and has no hierarchy or leadership. The consent of the property owner is solicited before a sign is put up; once up, it may endure for decades. No money changes hands, and the property owners are unlikely to be Christian; some welcome the signs in the belief that they ward off thieves, some in the belief that they improve the moral tone of the neighborhood.

“Jesus Christ brings eternal hope”. The society is conservative evangelical in outlook, with its foes the usual suspects: atheists, materialists, defenders of evolution, idolaters, abortionists, homosexualists, adulterers, pornographers, Roman Catholics, and Freemasons. Hey, those are some of my best friends you’re talking about!

There must be some structure to the society, though, because it runs a school in its hometown of Marumori, a school renowned for its enthusiasm for corporal punishment, which it justifies—of course—by appeal to the Bible: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him”.  (Proverbs 22:15)

By 8pm, only one party lingered that evening at the immaculate blue and white tablecloths of the Auberge Mashike as the last navies of the sky were vanquished by the night and the waves of the Sea of Japan fell softly against a rocky shore where noone strolled.

On the left, the father and mother; on the right, farside, their two unmarried daughters, one obscured; nearside center, a friend of the father, perhaps a suitor for one of the daughters; and nearside right, a friend of the daughters, brought along for moral support.

The assembled company, plainly from lands far to the south, exuded good breeding and old money. In another country—mine—they would have been upstanding members of the horsey squirearchy; here I found it hard to place them. They had nothing directly to do with anything as grubby as money or commerce, it might have been land.

My code of photographic ethics would normally have prohibited me from taking this surreptitious shot, but the father started prattling on about how Kenyan environmentalist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai had determined that the Japanese expression “mottainai” (“what a waste”) had no equivalent in English and had adopted it in her campaigning, which was so objectionable on so many levels that I, in turn, determined that he, and by extension everyone else, had sacrificed their right not to be photographed.

The princess daughters’ well-groomed hands covered their mouths with every forkful of food and every burst of titters; one apologized deeply for interpolating Maathai’s name when her father simply referred to her as “that Kenyan woman”. How drearily soul-sapping life must be as a fortysomething spinster scion of the elite!

I took a commemorative photo of my last Hokkaido supper: a book of maps, a notebook, a packet of smokes, and a bottle of wine. What more does a rover need?

So whither Japan? The key question is whether it can maintain GDP per capita, or whichever proxy for that you might prefer, at a level that affords most of its citizens bearable, even intermittently enjoyable, lives, as the economy contacts. Professor Matsutani is optimistic that it can. To find out why, I heartily recommend you read his book. I’m not convinced.

The economists of Deutsche Bank offer the following 2020 prescription for Japan’s ills—for what it’s worth, as noone in Japan will be listening to what a bunch of ignoramus foreigners are saying, and no foreigners in their target audience are in the slightest bit interested Japan any longer. My comments, which generally ignore the utility and only consider the plausibility of the measures, are in parentheses:

Japan would need to integrate the female half of its population more actively into working life [didn’t happen in the last decade, won’t happen in the next] and increase the proportion of economically active older people [some progress possible, though not necessarily a positive, as the elderly are less productive and more conservative than the young] again. A managed immigration policy could limit the decline of the population [unthinkable]. In this scenario the innovation system would be altered in such a way as to enable it to produce more radical and path-creating innovations and be internationally networked [extremely unlikely, as the only plausible new entrants in large numbers to the workforce are the elderly]. Fledgling companies could draw on modern capital market instruments for their financing [won’t happen, not with the domestic securities companies under the thumb of the banks]. The education sector would also be given a deliberate international slant with English as the language of instruction in more universities [incremental progress conceivable] and more foreign providers in Japan [implausible in the extreme]. And more branches of industry, particularly in the services sector, would be made fit for competition with foreign providers [doubtful]. Foreign direct investment in Japan would surge [you must be kidding]. Reconciliation with China and Korea [possible, but not with any particularly positive economic consequences for Japan] would pave the way towards an Asian economic union [fairy-tale stuff, they’re all beggar-thy-neighbor mercantilists] and give Japan’s share of foreign trade an enormous boost [all well and good, except the Koreans and the Chinese are desperate to sideline the old enemy any way they can].

I made good enough time through indifferent weather on the 600km hike south to the ferry to stop for lunch outside Hakodate at a burger joint popular with courting couples called Lucky Pierrot.

I do hope he shares his good fortune liberally around.

The skies were mostly stormy grey, but ships anchored outside the port were bathed in shafts of heaven-sent Old Master sunlight; through the binoculars, my last sight of Hokkaido, beneath the crags of Mount Hakodate, was of a house with planks nailed across the eyes of its windows and the mouth of its door.

I pounded down and down Honshu until I could take it no more and sought shelter at a ryokan inn in Ninohe, Iwate (you know the vital statistics drill by now: 37,537, 29,714, 20,388), whose innkeeper was 90 if she was a day. I made it back home for a late lunch the following day, smiling smugly at the Tokyo traffic, 5,500km or so after setting out.

I wouldn’t recommend Hokkaido as a destination for the casual tourist: as we’ve seen, the coast has been beaten black and blue with an ugly stick, much of the inland bears the nastiest scars of extraction and construction, the weather, even in summer’s sweetest months, can turn vicious quicker than a Rottweiler, the natives are by no means always friendly, and much of it lies in ruins. Me? I loved it.

My Hokkaido epitaph was written for me by the hoarding on a pachinko parlor, New Japan (same as the old Japan), in Monbetsu, of all places:

Welcome to the best place
Where makes you happy
It gives you such story

Such story indeed.

Sarufutsu: We built this village on bivalve shells

Leaving Monbetsu on a sticky peach of a summer’s day, I motored up the Okhotsk coast through the fishing and dairy towns of Okoppe (1980 population 6,628, estimated 2009 population 4,360, projected 2035 population 2,664) and Omu (1980 population 7,041, estimated 2009 population 4,977, projected 2035 population 3,698). Omu had been blessed by the local construction industry with a superbly retro-futuristic “Michi no Eki” municipally run roadside rest stop.

In the north of the neighboring town, Esashi (1980 population 13,633, estimated 2009 population 9,335, projected 2035 population 5,848), I crossed the 45th parallel, exactly halfway up the Northern Hemisphere.

11,250km to Bordeaux to the west, 11,250km to Montreal to the east. From a European perspective, it’s easy to forget how far south Japan lies.

I felt I had to have at least one decent shot of the Okhotsk Sea, and this is it: Cape Usutaibe, just north of the Esashi town center. Aside from Russians, few Westerners ever clap eyes on the Okhotsk.

Even fewer clap eyes on Sarufutsu (1980 population 3,358, estimated 2009 population 2,818, projected 2035 population 2,169), which was my destination that morning after speeding through yet another fishing and dairy town, Hamatonbetsu (1980 population 6,503, estimated 2009 population 4,193, projected 2035 population 2,710).

I had been tipped off about Sarufutsu, whose name is derived from the Ainu for “reedbed river mouth” but has assigned Chinese characters that bafflingly mean “pay the monkey”, from the bar owner Sasaki-san back in Monbetsu. I related to him my experience of a fishing village on the east coast I’d driven through where the houses were all brand-spanking new. He ascribed it to an abundance of scallops and suggested I should check out Sarufutsu, saying that the harborside houses were astonishing.

The port was prim and proper: its scallop haul is apparently the largest in Japan. As Sasaki san had foretold, the fishing folk were not short of a bob or two.

Three words I never thought I’d utter in conjunction sprang to mind: rural Hokkaido bling. By urban Japanese standards, these are phat pads indeed, far more modern and spacious than a company president in Tokyo could afford. But I was still skeptical; there was only a handful of these McMansions around the port. Had the wealth spread to the hinterland?

Not exactly, no.

While Sarufutsu still has an astounding six elementary schools, this one didn’t make it.

This one did, however. Note the principal’s late-model Land Cruiser—it must be the principal’s as it is parked closest to the entrance. Times must still be good for Hokkaido’s mid-ranking public servants.

In need of lunch, I wound up at Sarufutsu’s monstrous Michi no Eki.

Country music was ablare through the loudspeakers outside, pouring into the summer skies.

She can drive a truck and rope and ride
She feels right at home right by my side
That’s my kind of woman, that’s my cup of tea
That’s my kind of woman, the girl I want for me

It was George Strait. There were half a dozen coaches aligned in the parking slot, engines thrumming, disgorging oldies. The 200-seater dining room was nearly full. The menu, as you might expect, was heavy on scallops. I ordered mine seared in butter. They were, as you might expect, divine. A Michi no Eki employee was keeping one long tableful entertained with scallop patter and scallop banter. Outside George Strait wailed on.

I thought I was doin’ fine
‘Bout to get you off my mind
I see your face and then I’m
Wrapped around your pretty little finger again

I explored a bit more. Both the Sarufutsu village office and the Sarufutsu bus terminal had me pinching myself in disbelief that there could be fewer than 3,000 souls in the village. The scallops had truly paid the monkey.

From Sarufutsu I crossed over into the city of Wakkanai (1980 population 53,471, estimated 2009 population 39,294, projected 2035 population 26,656), at the very apex of Hokkaido, and made my way along a coast that grew bleaker with every passing mile toward Cape Soya, the northernmost point in Japan.

Or is it?!? Cape Kamoiwakka, the northern tip of Russian-held Etorofu, is at 45°33′ N, just edging out Cape Soya at 45°31′ N.

And wait a minute! What was that islet lurking in the background behind the triangulation monument that proclaims Cape Soya to be Japan’s northernmost point? The rocky outcrop is called Bentenjima, and at 45°31’25″ N, it is three seconds north of Cape Soya, at 45°31’22″ N.

Cape Soya offers a fascinating study in contrasts with Cape Nosappu: by the time you reach Cape Soya, the issue of the Northern Territories has been forgotten and there is no shame attached to proclaiming it the northernmost point in Japan; Cape Nosappu is similarly the easternmost point of the main islands, but conscious of the Northern Territories visibly stretching away to the north-east, noone has dared erect any marker declaring it the easternmost point of Japan. [Note to pedants like myself: If isolated islands under Japanese rule are included, both capes lose their titles, Cape Soya to Bentenjima and Cape Nosappu to the extraordinarily isolated islet of Minami Torishima, which lies some 1,850km south-east of Tokyo and 1,000km from any other land mass.]

Delighted just to have reached Cape Soya, 3,437km after setting off, I had to have a commemorative snap of my trusty partner on the journey. We made it, baby!

The statue above the windshield is of explorer and spy Rinzo Mamiya (1780-1844). His presence here is a not-so-subtle dig at the Russians, as he explored Sakhalin extensively in the early 19th century, making it as far as the mouth of the Amur, is considered to be the first person to have proved that Sakhalin was an island, and was also embroiled in several clashes with the Russians both on Sakhalin and the Kurils.

On the hill above the cape, there was room for one more dig at the Russians, this time in their Soviet incarnation: a memorial to the downing of KAL007.

Korean Airlines flight KAL007 from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, which had strayed far off course, was brought down by Soviet interceptors near Moneron Island in international waters due west of the south coast of Sakhalin and about 100km NNW of Cape Soya, with the loss of all 269 passengers on board, on September 1, 1983, in one of the tensest events of the late Cold War; you can read about it in copious detail here.

The cars in the Cape Soya parking lot bore plates revealing origins as far away as Tokyo, Chiba, Tochigi, Aichi, and Shiga; Cape Soya, unlike Cape Nosappu, was clearly a place of secular pilgrimage for ordinary citizens. The mercury was in the mid-teens but the offshore wind bit hard and a gaggle of bikers moaned of the cold. Even in high summer, today Cape Soya was not a place to linger long.

The axis of the journey pivoted south, and I headed into the center of Wakkanai, the capital of the Soya subprefecture, spending no more than an hour there running an errand or two. Although it struck me as no more or less blighted than any other place of its size on Hokkaido, the economy I learned later has been battered recently by restrictions placed by Russia on the export of live crabs, with importers going bankrupt or out of business at an alarming rate, and looking at the city’s demographic profile—not that aberrant—versus the rate of population decline—steep—people are obviously leaving the city in droves. Rental accommodation is apparently more expensive than in Sapporo, while average wages are 20% or so lower, which cannot be much of an encouragement to stay.

Wakkanai has also been whiplashed by the whims of tourism: Japan remains the land of the boom—however inconsequential—and of the ensuing bust, and in 2001-2002 it was all the rage to visit Japan’s outlying islands, which was all grist to Wakkanai’s mill, as it is the gateway to two of the most celebrated, Rebun and Rishiri. Tastes change, however, and many inbound tourists to Hokkaido were seduced by the designation in 2005 of the Shiretoko Peninsula as a World Heritage Site and then by the implausible success of Hokkaido’s Asahikawa Zoo, which now goes head-to-head with Tokyo’s Ueno for the crown of most popular zoo in the land, and the number of tourists passing through Wakkanai has more than halved in less than a decade.

Heading out of Wakkanai to the southwest and now back along the Sea of Japan, all trace of the city soon fell away and I entered the precious environs of the mainland portion of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park. For some 30km-40km, the coast is as close to uninhabited and unspoilt as any anywhere in the world. I was staggered; I didn’t think a shoreline this extensive and untramelled by development existed anywhere in Japan.

I turned inland at the near-derelict harbor of Wakkasanai.

My destination was the Sarobetsu plain, where scads of showy Broad Dwarf Daylilies (also known as the Amur Daylily, Hemerocallis middendorffii) were aflower.

As had so often been the case on the trip, the evening sky was shutting up shop and I had no shelter for the night. I headed further inland in the town of Toyotomi (1980 population 6,723, estimated 2009 population 4,537, projected 2035 population 2,895), which harbors Japan’s northernmost onsen resort. Strange place in the summer twilight, Toyotomi Onsen: a third of the hotels had gone out of business, while the remainder appeared to be hosting a yakuza convention, to judge from the burly tattooed men and their molls who barreled past me in assorted car parks. With no room at the resort’s inns, I was fast running out of options as dusk’s skirt descended. I had to head south, and fast, into the dismal badlands of the Rumoi subprefecture.