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Japanese media declare ‘dark times’ are on us

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Being good has never been easy. And it’s not getting easier — unlike many things in this age of mass technological empowerment. If it were, presumably, there would be more good and less evil — unless evil is more attractive?

The monthly Sapio has dire fears on that score. Japan, it says, is being “swallowed up” by a “black society” — “black” in the sense of good people’s worst nightmares come horrifyingly to life. You wonder as you read why civilization after thousands of years, or science after hundreds, or hyper-technology after tens, has failed to speed our evolution past this ugly and primeval stage.

“Good” and “evil,” of course, are elastic terms. One age’s good can be another’s evil. An example fresh in the collective memory is this month’s Supreme Court ruling striking down a Civil Code provision denying full inheritance rights to heirs born out of wedlock. The rank injustice of discriminating against children born, quite unwittingly, to parents not legally married seems glaringly clear, and in fact the ruling was unanimous; yet in 1995, less than 20 years ago, the same Supreme Court ruled the discrimination was right and just, a necessary protection of the institution of marriage, without which society might descend into a state of feral chaos.

In cases of that sort, morality seems to change with time and place; in others — violence against the unoffending and helpless, sexual exploitation, abuse of children and so on — the standards are absolute, and even criminals, if they are sane and honest, will admit, or boast, that their acts are evil as society understands the word.

Sapio makes its case at some length, and only a bare summary can be attempted here. It begins by noting that the arrest rate for criminal offenses has plunged to an abysmal 31.3 percent — so much for Japan being a safe and well-policed country. How did that happen? Not so much police incompetence as the changing nature of crime itself seems the key point. Once upon a time criminals were either professionals (yakuza) or, if not, at least they had a clear motive: debts, a grudge, something you could put your finger on. Police knew what and often who to look for. Now, the magazine says, “we’re seeing a sinister society in which anyone can suddenly turn criminal.”

The rough draft of an explanation, which will do until the subtleties are worked out, is a crazy confluence of opposites. On the one hand, a decades-long economic downturn has shrunk conventional opportunities; on the other, the Internet has so vastly enlarged the realm of the possible that, quite literally, the impossible or unthinkable has vanished into the ether.

Here, for example, is a business anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit can plunge into; no need of start-up capital or bank loans or anything like that. All you need is a cell phone and a few underage (better yet, underage-looking) girls. The name of the business is enderi — a fusion of enjo kōsai (teen prostitution) and “delivery health” (order-in sex). Both components have been around for a while; it’s the fusion that’s new. It started, writes freelance journalist Daisuke Suzuki in Sapio, around 2006, and is “the most ‘underground’ form of organized prostitution.” The novelty lies in the level of organization and in the increasing cyberization, which makes street-walking, with all its perils and tedium, unnecessary.

An entrepreneur runs the show behind the scenes, trolling Net encounter sites for clients. Next level down are a handful of young den mothers, so to speak (the one Suzuki speaks to is all of 17), each one handing out assignments to her own little cohort of sex providers, some younger than herself, some not. The ideal sex provider is legally of age but looks like a child. They’re the ones who command the highest rates (¥50,000 plus room expenses if any). And their handlers don’t risk jail time for forcing minors into prostitution.

With so much money to be made, moral values inevitably totter. The apparent murder last month in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, of a 16-year-old girl, with seven suspects now in custody, looks to police like an extreme instance of what this sort of thing can lead to. Some enderi prostitutes, Suzuki says, are being run by their own mothers.

Murder is as old as resentment; surrogate homicide isn’t new either; but Internet anonymity and “black sites” operated by people ready to do anything for a price make access to such services so easy that moral scruples scarcely have a chance sometimes against temptation. Journalist Tetsuya Shibui, exploring the “black sites” for Sapio, cites several apparent cases over the years of Net-contracted murders, then himself briefly turns “client,” applying to a site for a fixer to humiliate a (fictitious) woman he said had dumped him. No problem, came the prompt reply; “just tell us where she works; we’ll spread such noxious rumors about her that her life at the company will become impossible.” The fee? Anywhere from ¥300,000 to ¥700,000, depending on the degree of difficulty involved.

“Anyone can suddenly turn criminal,” says Sapio — without, however, mentioning the elderly and a new social problem with few if any historical precedents. The women’s weekly Shukan Josei finds that lately 1 in 4 shoplifters is 65 or over. Time was, shoplifting was a predominantly juvenile offense. No longer. Elderly offenders now outnumber youngsters. This is not “evil,” of course, in the feral sense of the word. It is merely very, very sad. One shoplifter, well-known in her rural Gumma Prefecture community, is 86 and living alone. She is perky and alert. Shoplifting she has apparently taken up as a hobby, or a challenge. She makes the rounds of the supermarkets and local kitchen gardens. When confronted, she pretends to be senile. No one knows what to do with her. No one knows what to do with a great many people as they slip through society’s widening cracks.

  • Ron NJ

    A good portion of the over-65 age group comprising 1 in 4 shoplifting offenses no doubt has some root in the fact that the over-65 age group is rapidly growing, which cannot be said for that of juveniles. Seems a bit shady to leave that very important bit of information out; after all, if the author (or Sapio) went through the trouble of pulling the NPA white paper on crime statistics, it would only take about five more minutes to reference that against population growth in the relevant age groups.

    • Glen Douglas Brügge

      In addition, many elderly do so to attract attention to stave off loneliness. Many even prefer the idea of being in jail, because they, especially if not well off, will be taken care of and exist in a social setting. It speaks more to the human desire for companionship than a society going off the rails.

  • Ivar

    So the conclusion of this article is what? That Sapio is a sensationalist rag that one is best served by ignoring? That at least, is the only useful data I could pull from it.

    • nothing_but

      `This is why salary men have 7 hours of work stretched out to 14 or more hours.`

      This is another example of Euro-centric arrogance and ignorance. How many times have I heard some westerner comment on how much more productive they are than the Japanese?

      I actually work in a Japanese company and the Japanese staff work long and productive hours. ALTS who work in Japanese school do not have extra duties and so are able to leave earlier. Japanese people work harder and complain a lot less than westerners in Japan.

      `This is why a “vacation” amounts to a crammed-in 10 places over 3 days`

      Have you ever heard of Onsen resorts?

      • Ron NJ

        If the Japanese are so productive and doing such long hours, then why do the numbers not reflect that fact? The simple truth is that the average worker in America or Western Europe is more productive than the average Japanese worker per hour, often by leaps and bounds. The average Japanese worker generates $40 GDP per hour, whereas, for example, the UK is at $47.8, Australia at $53, the G7 average is $54, the United States is at $61, and Ireland at $71. If you can somehow explain why the Japanese work so hard yet generate so little per hour, I’m all ears, though you’ll also have to explain to me why ‘long hours’ works out to an average of 34.9 hours/week, when Japan’s peers are either working longer and generating more on average anyways (the US, etc) or working less and /still/ generating more (Ireland, the UK, Germany, etc. etc.). Just being at work doesn’t equate to being productive.
        Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DatasetCode=LEVEL

      • Christopher-trier

        “This is another example of Euro-centric arrogance and ignorance” — occidentalism, much? Resorting to tendentious accusations of “Eurocentrism” reveals far more about the weakness of your own position. Having seen many young Japanese at the brink of tears prior to their return to Japan after living abroad, in no small part because of what they have to look forward to at work, I suspect that things are not quite as pleasant as you’d like us to believe.

  • http://getironic.blogspot.com/ getironic

    Whenever there is a murder in Japan, especially of a young girl, there is always some kind of fear-mongering and citation of whatever other kind of crimes and skewing of whatever statistics that happen to be happening/available in the moment of the moment.

    This cultural knee-jerk reaction serves a purpose: it comes from an ideology that really believes that the way to avoid “undesirable behavior” is public shaming. Does this vacant catch-all mentality actually believe that the shaming of to-be future murderers would funk them out of becoming murderers, or is the purpose rather to continue condition everyone to believe in a view of human nature that ensures that others will always control their lives?

    “Anyone can suddenly turn criminal.”

    This is one of the core premises that defines Japan. This is why kids have endless school and clubs. This is why salarymen have 7 hours of work stretched out to 14 or more hours. This is why a “vacation” amounts to a crammed-in 10 places over 3 days. This is why “duty duty duty”. This is why daily rituals and ceremonial time-wasting.

    Philosophically speaking, this is a belief in a malevolent universe, and in the malevolence of the human spirit; a belief that individuals, if left to their own devices, will tend to choose be to evil or will choose to self-destruct; a belief that those that somehow end up being “normal” or “good”, are so by mere chance, chance that was not worth the risk of setting everyone free from the necessary shaming and duty that ultimately protects the wa and ensures the continued existence of the bloodline/the people over the aeons.

  • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

    The rate of crime committing per 100 thousand people is not obviously increasing, beside the writer didn’t refer to it at all.
    The recent styles of every crime sometimes appears its changing status, it is correct, also Internet makes difference yes, but no relation to the current heritage judgement on Suprime Court to think about common sense that if it’s actually changed, or how far it would be.
    It is not showing our moral or common sense actually changed, but merely revealed our fragity to Gaiatsu.
    Sapio is not a magazine to say “Japanese media itself”, rather far from it.
    It is appropriate to look at Sapio as a time killing tool for Japanese white collared male individuals, mostly age 30s to 40s.
    It is little too much to display all things as the Hiroshima case to shoplifting, including Internet prostitution, these are not able to talk in one word “dark times”, and “we’re seeing a sinister society but, not in which anyone can suddenly turn criminal.” is correct.
    Sapio is just Sapio, no further magazine.

  • Glen Douglas Brügge

    In addition, the crime spike among the elderly has nothing to do with a decline in society’s moral fabric. The elderly are often lonely and seek attention, they are so desperate that even negative attention is worth the the risk. I have also read that many commit crimes in order to go to jail so that they can exist in an environment surrounded by other people, one in which all their needs are met. I honestly do not think times are darker now than in t he past – we just hear about it more in this day and age of constant information flow (the dark underbelly of society was just that, dark and often hidden). There have been evil people since the beginning of time, and the Internet and cell phone technology are just a more convenient means of committing their acts. These are tools, that is all.

  • http://www.dadsarmy.co.uk/ GMainwaring

    Great column – good to see Wai Wai being resurrected from the dead! I missed being able to read translations of Japanese tabloids passed off as “news”.

  • ArandomRandom

    The problem is sin.
    The sin nature in man cannot be overcome by time, technology, science or civilization.

    It took the violent death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, upon the tree, something orchestrated by the LORD on high to deal with the sin problem in man. And those who will trust the LORD with their lives will not be put to shame.

    The Lord will come back one day to judge sin, and put an end to evil.

    It’s all in the bible :)

    Japan doesn’t need more philosophy, religion, technology, science and whatnots.
    It needs an encounter with the living God. Not more words about God but to know by experience, the power of God!

    • stoneyzatiger

      Oh please!

    • John

      Ho hum, I imagine the church who overlooked pederast prelates for years and viewed their actions only as sin and not a crime, will be judged in the after life rather than the here and now. Your sin nature concept is flawed, and what I see in in Japan is a society that does a fairly good job in dealing with criminal behavior through their own belief system and law without bringing our western version of the lord in to the moral mix. Yours faithfully from a recovery altarboy, John

    • DenjinJ

      I believe the last time they did that, they called it “the Shimabara Rebellion.” ;)