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Japan faces up to the prospect of losing a middle-class war

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Modern middle-class life, you could reasonably argue, generates more happiness among more people than any other ever conceived. It has been extravagantly derided — as bourgeois, soulless, spiritless, narrow, boring, mindlessly acquisitive and so on. But back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when 90 percent of Japanese proudly identified themselves as middle class, the prevailing feeling was of past sorrows overcome en route to an ever-brightening, ever-expanding future.

Japan’s “name alone evokes modernity,” enthused the U.S. newsweekly Time in 1983 — “dials, lights and numbers.” It was bursting at the seams. Tokyo’s Akihabara was “probably the world’s most fiercely competitive market for electrical goods. In hundreds of sprawling stores and cubbyhole shops festooned with brightly colored banners proclaiming bargains, customers can buy almost any type of vacuum cleaner or video-cassette recorder, refrigerator or radio, humidifier or home computer. … At one store can be found 205 varieties of stereo headphones, 100 different color television sets and 75 kinds of record turntables.” Those were the days!

Gone, gone. Political historian Mitsuru Kurayama was 10 when that Time issue came out. “To have been born in 1973,” he writes in Spa! magazine, “is to be a loser among losers.”

His is a cursed generation, he says, reciting a litany of woes. He was born in the year of the oil shock, entered elementary school amid rising classroom violence, started high school when “exam wars” had grown feverish beyond sanity and graduated from college into the “hiring ice age” of the 1990s. The corporations whose dynamism Time sang of had stopped hiring. The bubble had burst, the economy gone down the drain.

“Freeters” emerged en masse. It’s one of those bastard coinages, cobbled together from the English “free” and the German “arbeiter” (laborer). Originally, circa 1987, it had positive connotations, suggesting a voluntary shedding of the salaryman mold in favor of less work, less money, more personal freedom.

Then the chill set in, and deepened, spawning another foreign neologism: “lost generation.” Freeterhood merged into chronic, expanding, nonvoluntary, inescapable part-time work for part-time pay. It was OK, maybe, for single young adults; not for married older ones with children’s futures to plan for. Result: fewer marriages, fewer children, dimming prospects, dark futures in a society aging and aging, with no end in sight. Kurayama is openly bitter: “People say, ‘Take responsibility! Don’t blame the times you were born into!'” They have a point, maybe. But some ages are more favored than others and this, if not the worst of times, is not the best either.

Whither Japan? The latest projections of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS) tell an astonishing tale. By 2045, 21.4 percent of the population will be 75 or over. The world has never seen anything like this. Children 14 and under will be swamped, submerged, accounting for a mere 10.7 percent.

The figures show all prefectures except Tokyo losing population — 32 prefectures shrinking more than 20 percent by 2045, Akita and Aomori most dramatically (41.2 percent and 37 percent respectively). Tokyo alone gains, and not much — 0.7 percent. The business weekly Shukan Diamond, whose report predates the release of the IPSS data, discerns the shape of things to come: Tokyo sucking the life out of the regions until all that’s left of the latter is “declining infrastructure, crumbling abandoned houses, and a remnant of old people, bewildered and unable to cope.”

The overall title of Diamond’s package of articles is “The new class society.” It portrays a dwindling middle class, some members rising to wealth, many more sinking into poverty, the gap between the extremes steadily widening. What happened to the 1980s? The ’90s is the obvious answer — not quite right, like most obvious answers. The ’80s sowed the seeds of their own destruction, as BNP Paribas chief economist Ryutaro Kono now sees it. To the extent that it valued equality more than the other major capitalist economies, Japan took a wrong turn in following the laissez-faire trail blazed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They, and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in their wake, “assumed the intense (postwar) growth could continue” indefinitely, Kono tells Diamond. Deregulation was their mantra. Unfetter the economy and watch it soar, lifting up the poor along with the rich.

As a theory, it’s probably no better or worse than any other. Events on the ground tear the best of them to shreds. Kono himself, he says, was a believer in unlimited growth. Now he sees the mid-1980s as an opportunity missed. The time was ripe, he says with hindsight, for less stress on wealth creation and more on an equitable distribution of wealth already created. Not everyone is convinced. Not everyone ever will be. Had the shift been made, Japan’s middle class might be thriving to this day. Or it might not be.

In any case, it isn’t. Sociologist Masahiro Yamada warns of Japan’s impending bankruptcy as a crisis in embryo ripens almost unnoticed. The ice-agers — Kurayama’s generation — are aging. Now in their 30s and 40s, they will retire in the 2040s — dependent, many of them, Yamada fears, on welfare. Can welfare cope?

Statistics can be deceptive, he tells Diamond — especially, it seems, the ones that look good. Employment is up — so much the better — but part-time, low-wage jobs predominate, resulting in falling income tax revenue in the teeth of heavier and more rapidly growing social welfare pressure than any government anywhere in the developed world has ever faced before. Hence Yamada’s fears of bankruptcy.

He has another fear as well. The nature of competition has changed, he says. It’s grimmer now, more desperate. Once we competed to rise; now, not to sink: “Middle-class living, once attained, is terrifying to lose.” The ice-agers were born into it and lost it — through no fault of their own, Kurayama insists, expressing a no doubt widely shared resentment. They are not only a lost generation but a forgotten one. Their elders focus on medical and nursing care issues, their juniors on grasping hold of whatever opportunities a tentative economic revival appears to offer.

The expression “class war” does not occur in Shukan Diamond’s reporting. But two other expressions that do — “underclass” and “modern caste system” — seem to hint at a 21st-century version of something of the sort.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”