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Unconventional thinking is the way forward for Japan

by Michael Hoffman

Yubari, Hokkaido, claims several distinctions, few of them enviable. It is Japan’s only bankrupt city, and also its most elderly. Forty-one percent of its sagging population of 13,000 (down from 117,000 50 years ago) is aged 65 or over. That’s of nationwide significance because within 40 years, Japan, demographically if not economically, will be one big Yubari. By 2050, barring a massive influx of young immigrants, not at present foreseeable, or a sudden baby boom, equally unlikely, 40 percent of Japan’s shrinking population too will be 65 or over.

One asset Yubari has that Japan lacks is youthful leadership. The country’s most elderly city boasts its youngest mayor. Naomichi Suzuki is 30 and an outsider. He’s from Saitama originally, and began his working life as a career bureaucrat with the Tokyo prefectural government. When Yubari declared bankruptcy in 2007, the call went out for volunteer administrators to help set the debt-ridden city back on its feet. Suzuki’s hand went up. It was to have been a two-year posting. But Suzuki took to Yubari, and Yubari to him. Municipal elections loomed in 2011 and he was persuaded to run. Give up vibrant Tokyo for a dwindling rural backwater? Give up a ¥5 million salary for a ¥3 million one? Crazy — or maybe the better word is unconventional, and if ever unconventional thinking is called for, Yubari provides a classic example.

He ran, and won. The prize? The chance to run a city ¥35 billion in the red and administer an 18-year financial reconstruction plan whose main features are higher taxes and slashed-to-the-bone social services.

Tsuneko Sasamoto, 97, was Japan’s first female photojournalist. Her career began during World War II with the Tokyo Nichinichi newspaper. The many ups and downs of her long life are the subject of her bestselling autobiography, published last fall. Lately she was asked which public figure she would most like to photograph. The answer came with no hesitation: “Naomichi Suzuki.”

It turned out that he was an admirer of hers too, and a meeting was duly arranged, covered by the women’s weekly Josei Seven. The gist of their common ground is summed up by Sasamoto: “Start something. Age doesn’t matter.” Nothing does, really, except ideas and the drive to see them through. Suzuki, for Sasamoto’s benefit, runs through a litany of Yubari’s troubles and says, “I’ve lived all of 30 years. I feared my experience was woefully inadequate.”

“Nonsense,” retorts Sasamoto. “I’m more than three times your age, and what does my experience amount to?” What does anyone’s, in unprecedented circumstances?

Yubari was a coal-mining town in its heyday. Cheap foreign coal killed the mines and shriveled the city. Unexpected succor, suggesting that nothing is quite as hopeless as it may seem, came in the form of melons. Early versions of the famous Yubari melon were tasty but not shapely. Crossbreeding with round European melons solved that problem. Now, 50 years later, Yubari melons are auctioned for hundreds of thousands of yen; as summer gift items they are prized nationwide. Yubari would probably be sailing now, on the strength of its melons alone, if Suzuki’s predecessors had not succumbed to hubris and sunk billions of yen into inflated tourism promotion schemes.

Sasamoto herself is an object lesson in self-transformation. When magazines that bought her photos folded in the 1960s she went into the clothing business, then became a teacher of flower arranging; now she’s a best-selling author. No doubt she saw something of her own spirit in Suzuki, the urban bureaucrat turned rural mayor-of-last-resort.

“Age doesn’t matter,” said Sakamoto — but it does. The general retirement age remains 60, relic of a time now past when 60 credibly marked the start of the sunset years. What is one to do, now, with the 20, 30, maybe even 40 active post-retirement years that nutritional, hygienic and medical advances have made possible? Seek a postretirement career? Sure, but, as a report in the weekly Shukan Bunshun makes clear, it’s not easy — nor, in a pinched economy, is it getting easier. Hello Work, the government’s employment agency, theoretically does not discriminate on the basis of age, but employers do — they prefer youth. Private agencies that cater specifically to senior job-seekers tell the magazine they place on average one applicant in 20 — and 90 percent of those successes involve minimum-wage jobs as cleaners, security guards, janitors, short-order cooks and the like. A former engineer or economist or high-level manager might not find that tempting.

But Shukan Bunshun’s report is upbeat. It focuses on the few, examples to the many, who have beaten the odds and made a “second life” for themselves. One is now a landscape gardener, another a nature guide, a third a waste-management advisor in Costa Rica. Kiyoshi Naoi, 73, is an automotive engineer turned refurbisher of home interiors. Retirement at 60 left him restless. “Time I went back to work,” he told himself after a year. The government foots the bill for senior job retraining. Why he chose this particular field he doesn’t say, but evidently it suits him. After six months’ training the Shinjuku Silver Personnel Center introduced him to a refurbishing company, and satisfaction since then has been mutual.

“For the first two years I made mistake after mistake,” he says, “but I kept at it. Whatever your age, learning something new is interesting, and when I do a good job and the customer is pleased, it’s enormously gratifying.”