Brief Impressions of the Japanese Conjuncture

Photograph Source: Hide1228 – CC BY-SA 4.0

I was last in Japan 12 years ago. Japan is a study in contradictions.

Economically, it should be regarded as a basket case. Japan’s 2019 debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 235.96% of its GDP.

Even Greece, after a decade of troika (EU-IMF-ECB) “fiscal waterboarding”, has a ratio of 191.27%. The US’s ratio is at 108.02%, and the UK’s 85.92% (thereby giving lie to the Tory myth, in support of its austerity agenda, that the UK is “living beyond its means”).

Japan, with greater debt levels than Greece and Venezuela, has however the same credit rating as the other major economic powers because of its large economy and stable political system. It would be an international economic pariah otherwise.

The other factor causing a drag on Japan’s economy is its elderly population. Japan has over twice the number of centenarians per 1000 people than the US and UK: 48 per 1000 versus 21.5 (UK) and 22 (US).

A 1998 United Nations demographic survey showed that Japan is expected to have 272,000 centenarians by 2050. Data recently released by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry showed that the 26.18 million people 70 or older accounted for 20.7% of Japan’s population.

The World Health Organization defines a society with an aging rate of more than 7% as “aging,” one over 14% as “aged,” and one over 21% as “super-aged”. Japan, with an aging rate of 27%, is comfortably on super-aged terrain.

“Comfortably” is perhaps the wrong choice of word here– the drawbacks, economic and social, of having a “super-aged” population are quite considerable.

Financing adequate nursing and other forms of care for seniors will be an increasing challenge for those still in work.

As will be the fact that many over-70s hold stock portfolios, including those with dementia who will not be able to use these increasingly dormant portfolios in ways actively beneficial for the financial system. Their wealth, unless tapped in ways that presumably will also be to their advantage, will lie in limbo as their faculties deteriorate.

Loneliness is already a huge problem. An estimated 6.24 million Japanese people over 65, and a total of 18.4 million adults ― twice as many as 30 years ago ― live alone. By 2040, 40% of Japan’s population will live alone.

Old people, with no opportunity for workplace conversations, are especially vulnerable.

In the workplace, many employees face mandatory overtime, leaving them with little time to socialize with elderly friends and relatives.

Japan has a unique syndrome—karōshi (death by overwork)—to characterize the phenomenon of people who croak from catastrophic exhaustion because they are working 80-100 hours per week. More about karōshi later.

Ingenious technological solutions are being found for the phenomenon of geriatric loneliness.

Japan’s lead in robotics is perhaps not inadvertent, since Japanese robots made to resemble friendly pets can now hold conversations with their otherwise lonely human interlocutors.

These pet-robots use facial expressions as well as language to communicate. They are highly interactive, move with all four legs, and see colour, feel objects and recognize them, and hear in stereo (something beyond the ability of yours truly even he wears his hearing aids).

Who would not prefer the company of such a creature over, say, Eric Trump or Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when it comes to having the approximation of an intelligent conversation?

Alas, a technological fix of this kind, no matter how state of the art, can only do so much, at least for now.

What Japan really needs is an influx of younger people willing, among other things, to care for its elderly in return for adequate benefits and compensation. In other words: immigrants.

According to the government, Japan has a shortage of around 1.2million workers, primarily in labour-intensive sectors such as construction, agriculture, the hospitality industry, and restaurants.

Japan however has one of the world’s most restrictive immigration policies.

For instance, while Germany and Canada approve around 40% of asylum applications, Japan only approves around 0.2% of such applications.

Japan has until very recently accepted only a small number of foreigners having specialized, technical, and professional skills.

To deal with its acute shortage of unskilled labour, Japan’s Lower House passed into law in November 2018 a controversial provision allowing visas to be granted to 340,000 foreign blue-collar workers.

Foreigners have however made their mark in one area of Japanese life, namely sumo. In 1993 Akebono (the Hawaiian Chadwick Rowan) achieved the rank of yokozuna/grand champion, the highest rank in sumo. Only 72 fighters have attained this rank since its official inception in the 19th century.

Rowan’s feat was matched afterwards by another Hawaiian, 3 Mongolians, and a Samoan-Tongan. Of the four active yokozuna, only 1 is Japanese (and he was the first Japanese yokozuna in 19 years).

This influx of foreign wrestlers has been criticized by Japan’s ethno-conservatives, who maintain that only Japanese can be “true” practitioners of the sport.

Welcome to globalization, you who believe sumo should only be an “ethno-sport”!

Gender inequality is a major problem in Japan.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index of 2017 placed Japan 114 out of 144 countries, falling between the hardly impressive Guinea and Ethiopia.

A Reuter’s poll in 2018 found that three-quarters of Japanese companies have no senior female executives.

In 2018 it was discovered that Tokyo Medical University had engaged in fraud and discrimination for more than a decade, by altering the results of the entrance examination to restrict the number of female students while admitting less-qualified male applicants. The unbelievable excuse used by senior administrators was that women who got pregnant were likely to leave the profession, and hence investing in their medical training was not likely to be as productive as the equivalent investment in their male counterparts.

Japan has a deeply-rooted overwork culture. In April this year a law was passed which limits overtime work to 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year. The intent behind the law was to reduce the numbers of “death by overwork” (karōshi).

Many Japanese workers are kintaro or “salaryman” (the Japanese use this “English” word for the kintaro).

Until the recent law restricting overtime was passed, the salaryman had to work unlimited overtime at the whim of their employer. A number of these succumbed to karoshi— in addition to premature deaths from heart attacks and stroke, Japan also has the highest occupational suicide rate in the world.

The Spread Tribune reports:

“It is so common that if a judge concludes that someone died of karoshi, his family receives compensation of around $20,000 from the government and company payouts of up to $1.6 million.

In 2015, 2,310 victims of karoshi committed suicide, according to the Ministry of Labor in Japan. According to the National Council in Defense of the Victims of Karoshi, the true number can reach 10,000 annual victims”.

The Spread Tribune goes on to say:

“If you work in Japan and have an indefinite contract —or lifetime contract, as it is called in Japan— your life is basically owned by your employer. There’s no workday, you have to work extra hours for free, probably they need you to work on a Saturday or a Sunday, when you are sick you must go to your workplace or you face to lose your honor and even though you are not really being productive, if you prove to your superiors that you are willing to do anything for the company, even if that means working poorly for 13 or 14 hours, your company will love you”.

Salaryman, after putting in a 13-14-hour shift at work, typically heads for a bar, and for a couple of hours does kanpai (“bottoms up”) in a drinking frenzy while grabbing a bite to eat. Blasted by the booze, he then staggers to the subway station to catch a train to his place in the suburbs, snatching a few hours sleep jumping back on the treadmill the following morning.

A quick scan of YouTube or Google Images will show many images of salaryman completely crashed-out on station platforms waiting for a train after the evening’s drinking binge, or on the train floor itself.

While Japan is taking steps to reduce the staggering fallout of the salaryman ethos, this ethos– reducing workers to the status of serfs– would clearly represent some kind of utopia for US Republicans.

It is to Trumplandia that I return next week.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.