Progress: good, or bad? Bad, thought Confucius, who for hundreds of years taught Japan to seek its ideals in the ancient past. Good, thought 19th-century modernizers, who redirected the nation’s gaze to the future.

Prominent among modernizers was Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901), for whom civilization and progress were one and whose 1875 book, “An Outline of a Theory of Civilization,” dazzles us with a bright future indeed: “Instead of cannons, men will build telescopes; schools will replace jails; soldiers and criminals will be seen only in old pictures. … The whole country will be like one family, each household like a temple. The parents will be the head priests and the children their disciples.”

How naive that sounds today. Progress foundered on 20th-century rocks: war, revolution, nuclear catastrophe, ecological catastrophe. It advances apace all the same, unstoppable. Sometime around 2045 something extraordinary will happen — a “singularity.” The machines we’ve built to serve us will think better than we do. Who will be serving whom?

“It is said,” Fukuzawa wrote in “An Encouragement of Learning” (1872-76), “that heaven does not create one man above or below another man. Any existing distinction between the wise and the stupid, between the rich and the poor, comes down to a matter of education.” With that in mind, he founded Keio University.

What would he think, coming back to life today? Deeply intellectual but no snob, he might pick up a September issue of Spa magazine and see the headline, “The darkness of the new gap society” — “gap” being that between rich and poor. Or, thumbing through the Asahi Shimbun (Sept. 8), he might be struck by a warning sounded by best-selling Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Hariri. Artificial intelligence, Hariri says, will turn more than half of us into a “useless class.”

First, Spa. It’s a good life, if you have money. It buys everything: a long healthy life; a dignified, youthful old age; children without (if so desired) the nuisances of pregnancy; an education for them that will enable them to enjoy similar advantages. On the other side of the fence are an estimated 2.9 million households in Japan that can’t afford basic health insurance.

Too bad for them. Very much so. A 39-year-old call center functionary named (pseudonymously) Iida earns ¥2.5 million a year. A year ago, he dropped out of the national health plan; he couldn’t afford the premium. He doesn’t feel well but doesn’t consult a doctor. If it gets worse, he’ll grit his teeth harder.

In central Tokyo there’s a facility called the Grand Himedic Club, whose rates, Spa says, run to ¥500,000 a month, after a ¥3 million admission fee. “It’s like a luxury hotel,” the magazine says, but the raison d’etre is a medical checkup so thorough, so technologically avant-garde, that you almost feel you can live forever. Here, cancer is detected in earliest incipiency. If surgery is required, you’re dispatched at once to the most expert specialists. If not, you can stay for the anti-aging treatments. You may want to stay forever.

How equal should people be? “All of the people are equal under the law,” says the Constitution, and “all people shall have the right to receive an equal education.” A generation ago that seemed to work out to a rough economic equality, which has now been lost. The steadily declining birthrate tells the story of young people who feel economically unable to marry and raise families. Then there are those who want children and can afford them whatever it may take to bring them into the world — including “renting bellies” of women in poorer countries who save the infertile from infertility and the beauty-conscious from the scars of pregnancy. One husband and father proudly tells Spa he’s fathered three children that way, at a cost of ¥6-10 million each time.

A child’s future career depends on education; the better the latter, the better the former. A rough indication: A male university graduate aged 40-44 earns on average ¥7.16 million a year, versus ¥5.21 million for a senior high school graduate.

Thus the attraction of private schools — they provide a higher leg up. Or do they? Their classrooms are growing as crowded as public school classrooms: 40-odd kids per class. Better still: boarding school in Europe. Cost: ¥10 million a year. Poor families struggling to see their children through ordinary high school must be left to their silent resentment.

They may have the last laugh, however. Hariri, the Israeli historian and futurist, writes in his 2018 book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” “Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, already we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.”

The “useless class” whose advent he dreads has been foreseen before — by Japan’s Nomura Research Institute, among others, which figured in 2015 that, by 2030, 49 percent of all jobs would be done by computer systems. Leaving humans — where?

“The coming technological bonanza,” writes Hariri, “will probably make it feasible to feed and support these useless masses. … But what will keep them occupied and content? People must do something or they go crazy. What will they do all day? One answer might be drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside.”

What’s wrong with that? Progress that raises “excitement and emotional engagement” to a pitch beyond “drab reality” is progress indeed. “Yet such a development,” Hariri continues, “would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences.”

Fukuzawa would surely agree. “What, then,” he asks in “An Outline of a Theory of Civilization,” “does civilization mean? I say that it refers to the attainment of both material well-being and the elevation of the human spirit.”

He’d shudder to see what progress has wrought.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.