It’s hard to read Spa! magazine without feeling that something is dreadfully wrong with Japan. Week after week, it pursues themes that soon grow familiar: hopeless poverty, pointless toil, unrelieved loneliness. In just one issue this month (Sept. 6) it tackles, in separate articles, “hidden poverty,” “near-death from overwork” and “elderly suicide terrorists more dangerous than the Islamic State group.”
Spa! has been around a long time. Twenty years ago it addressed mostly male readers in their 20s. Now its core readership is in its 40s — older, wiser and soured, if not altogether ground down, by two decades of economic drift. Japan remains, for all its troubles, one of the world’s most prosperous, most educated, most automated societies. But the good life, defined in terms of personal fulfillment, eludes it, now more than ever and with no happy turning point in sight. Such is Spa!’s overall message.
What is “hidden poverty”? Not poverty papered over with false gentility, but poverty in spite of comparative wealth: good salary, nice home, sleek car, kids going to good schools — what’s poor about that? Well, it’s killing you financially. You’re saving nothing. And how will you pay off the home loan if your salary gets cut? It’s happened to others. Are you immune, with your company struggling as it is? Maybe you should start economizing? How? Send the kids to cheaper schools and jeopardize their future? Seek less expensive nursing care for your aging and infirm parents, exposing them to who knows what risks of incompetence and abuse?
And overwork? It’s an endemic disease — unless it’s an endemic virtue. Japan’s work ethic is proverbial. In 1980, its economic bubble swelling, Japan Inc. worked its workforce harder than any other workforce in the world — 2,200 hours a year as against 1,800 for the U.S. and France, the runners-up. Now it’s down below 1,800; Americans work harder.
But those figures, Spa! says, tell only part of the story. Japan’s famous “lifetime employment,” though much attenuated under the pressure of meat-ax global competition, still exists, making it comparatively hard to fire unproductive workers. Their slack must be picked up by others. Result: 30 percent of Japanese workers work 49 or more hours a week, versus 16.6 percent of American, 12.5 percent of British, 10.4 and 10.1 percent respectively of French and German workers.
Many Japanese are literally worked to death. Karōshi (death from overwork) is a familiar term. You can look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which admitted it in 2002 as one of the few Japanese contributions (sushi, anime, tsunami) to the global language. Last year, the labor ministry recognized 497 deaths as karōshi, the highest number ever in a single year, the heaviest-hit age group (79 deaths) being those in their 40s.
A familiar but beguiling irony is an inescapable side-effect of labor-saving, convenience-promoting, efficiency-fostering, leisure-enhancing technology: It wires us 24/7. Work never leaves us, and we never leave work — it follows us home, to the sea, to the mountains, to wherever we go to get away from it all; we’re free to go but must take “it all” with us. Surveying 1,979 salarymen aged 35-45, Spa! finds 447 complaining of having their off-days invaded by communications devices.
The technological empowerment we take for granted as a characteristic feature of the 21st century was embryonic in the ’90s and a major source of optimism as the century turned. Faster and faster we sped toward the future — or was the future rushing back to meet us and urge us on?
There were shadows, however. On Jan. 1, 2001, The Japan Times observed in an editorial: “At the dawn of a new century the Japanese seem to be looking to the future with more worry than hope.”
It’s generally the safer bet. There’s always something to worry about, and hope, too eagerly relished, often lets us down. The year 2025 looms. So? What demographers call “the 2025 problem” is defined by Shukan Post magazine as “the shock of a ‘multiple-death society.’ ” (It’s less inelegant in Japanese: ” ‘Tashi shakai’ no shogeki.”)
The 2025 problem was born in 1947, with the baby boom. The war was over. People came alive. Let life reign, they said, after death had for so long. They had fun, made babies — lots of them, 7 million between 1947 and 1949 — little dreaming, perhaps, how long they would live; life expectancy at the time was around 50. In 2025, the youngest of them will be 75. People 75 and over will comprise 18 percent of the total population, numbering 21.79 million — as against 16 million under 15.
That, in a nutshell, is the 2025 problem: fewer and fewer doctors and nurses attending more and more patients; more and more dead bodies causing longer and longer waits at the shrinking number of crematoriums (it can be a month, even now); more and more older and older people living alone who are less and less capable of looking after themselves as dementia, to name only the most ghastly of disabling diseases afflicting the elderly, takes its predictable toll. The health ministry foresees 7 million dementia sufferers in 2025 — up 1.5-fold from now.
“Seven million people with nowhere to go wandering around the city — I’m calling it a dementia pandemic,” professor Masaki Muto of the International University of Health and Welfare tells Shukan Post.
Back, briefly, to Spa!. “Elderly terrorists”? “More dangerous than Islamic State”? That’s a judgment call you can take or leave, but the fact remains: In June 2015, a 71-year-old man set himself on fire in a shinkansen, killing himself and, incidentally, a fellow passenger. In August, a 68-year-old man hanged himself immediately after tossing Molotov cocktails into a “noisy” Tokyo samba festival, injuring 15. No wonder a nursery school decided to cancel its annual festival after an elderly man living nearby phoned to say, “There’s no telling what I’ll do” if the noisy festival proceeded — though it felt, one mother tells Spa!, like “giving in to terrorism.”
The economic, social, psychological and medical pressures of old age are more than younger people can easily imagine. Wait until 2025 for a fuller view of the issue — multiplied, perhaps, 1.5-fold.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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