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Convenience stores give our nation pride

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Japan’s prime minister is an unabashed patriot, as outspoken in his love for his country as in his desire to instill that love in his compatriots. Are his compatriots receptive? Opinion polls on attitudes toward pending revisions of long-standing interpretations of the pacifist Constitution, prologue possibly to revisions of the Constitution itself, suggest not. A growing majority prefers the status quo.

Future generations, potentially, are another matter, and educational reforms being pushed by the government include “moral education,” key tenets of which would be “respect for traditional culture and love of our country and of our hometowns.” The weekly Shukan Asahi, to its dismay, sees classroom teaching advancing steadily in the direction of “education to suit the government’s convenience.” As evidence it cites a new junior high school history textbook in use in Yokohama since 2012 — a text characterized, the magazine says, by “copious descriptions of the national flag, the national anthem and Japan’s traditional culture.”

It’s hard to argue with “traditional culture” as a fit subject for education, but to the extent that Japan’s traditional culture is belligerently martial, how relevant is it to the Japan today’s children will grow up to lead? Is the samurai “way of the warrior” an appropriate guide to moral conduct in the commercialized, globalized 21st century?

Constitution Day and Children’s Day, two national holidays at the heart of the Golden Week spring break just past, provide a fitting occasion to reflect on all this. Children’s Day inevitably reminds us — if anyone needs reminding — how few children Japan has. For 33 years the number of Japanese under 15 has been falling — lately plunging, down 160,000 this year from last; down 13 million since 1950, from 30 million then to 16.3 million now.

Demographically speaking, Japan is an old country, its average age, 44.6, second in the world only to Monaco’s. Demographically old suggests psychologically old. Patriotic ardor in the elderly, where it exists, is generally a remnant of a martial youth. Japan has been at peace for 68 years. Its swelling ranks of retiring postwar baby boomers look back for the most part on lives spent in offices, shops, laboratories and factories. Some ultra-conservatives, notably former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, have spoken of a “peace disease,” an addiction to soft ways that makes citizens unfit for battlefield rigor. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself has repeatedly extolled the readiness with which Japanese of past ages sacrificed their lives for their feudal lords or their country. Japan’s suicide rate today remains very high, but the leading causes are economic hardship and depression, not ardent self-sacrifice for something perceived as higher than oneself.

The Japan Abe leads and the Japan he imagines seem so bizarrely at odds with one another that one can only marvel at his persistently high support ratings. Standard explanations focus on his confident salesmanship of economic ideas named after him, on the assured image he projects on the world diplomatic stage, and on the demolished, demoralized state of what’s left of the opposition. His vigor is impressive enough to overwhelm reflection on how it is applied.

Abe the visionary seems to see Japan as a great power. Abe the hard-headed politician — every successful leader is one to some extent — has surely noticed that most people’s thoughts are elsewhere. Where? On preoccupations whose mundanity can only distress a visionary: pensions, convenience, and peace and quiet, for example.

It’s what you expect in an aging society. Back in February, Shukan Post magazine discussed pensions in light of the mass retirement underway as the postwar baby boomers advance into their 60s. On average, new retirees will live another 22 years. Japan’s life expectancy is a world-leading 86 years and rising. Can pensions, given the shrinking working-age population, support this unprecedented longevity? Many doubt it. Is poverty-stricken old age worth living? It’s a question sure to come increasingly to the fore — hopefully to be dismissed as irrelevant once an economic solution emerges, or answered in the affirmative if none does — but between now and then lie uncertainty and anxiety.

Convenience. Here if anywhere is to be found that passion which earlier times might have channeled into patriotism. Conbini (convenience stores) proliferate. Business booms. Supermarkets, the Asahi Shimbun reported earlier this month, are “conbini-izing” — opening small conbini-size stores offering conbinilike convenience but specializing primarily in fresh produce, an area in which conbini have been weak, though less so lately as they rise eagerly to the challenge.

Convenience is one thing everyone has time for, the one thing there can’t be too much of. The core fact here, besides the increasing number of working women who a generation or so ago would have been at home cooking, is that 32 percent of households nationwide — 46 percent in Tokyo — are occupied by people living alone. They are the core market driving the trend. Convenience they seek, convenience they demand, and convenience they get — more and more of it. The 15,000-odd conbini in greater Tokyo are not enough; Maruetsupetit, a leading chain of conbini-ized supermarkets, tells Asahi it opens a new store as soon as it notices lengthening lines at the cash register of an existing one, because when that happens, says a company spokesperson, “convenience goes down”; meanwhile, Lawson Mart, a conbini expanding into sales of fresh fruit and vegetables, plans to have 100 outlets in Tokyo by the end of the year — up from 11 now.

Last but by no means least: peace and quiet. The crying need for day care facilities, as women advance into the work force, is a pressing national issue; the Abe administration has given it priority as part of its “womanomics.” So far so good. The weekly Aera visits an upscale neighborhood in Tokyo’s Shinagawa area where a company based in Hyogo Prefecture plans to build a three-story day care facility for 90 children — not, however, if neighborhood residents get their way. Children have many fine qualities, no doubt, but they are boisterous and noisy, and the residents, primarily wealthy, elderly and quiet, are firm and united in their opposition. Says one: “We pay high property taxes and high inheritance taxes for the sake of the quiet atmosphere . . . And if there’s a natural disaster we’ll have our hands full saving ourselves.”

Whither Japan, then, this most unmartial of nations that elected and supports the democratic world’s most “martial” of leaders?