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A world in disarray but Japan appears to sidestep turmoil

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

The world is furious.

From Hong Kong to Chile, Indonesia to Bolivia, France to Iraq, Haiti to Iran, Egypt to Peru, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, have declared war on their governments and social systems, decrying dictatorship, corruption, mismanagement, incompetence, inequality, numbness to global warming, abuse of human rights.

Governments have fallen. Others may yet. Concessions made are dismissed as too little too late, and the protests rage on. Many have died. Many more may yet.

At what point does a stable and orderly society become ungovernable? Events as they unfold may afford ample material for reflection on that subject.

Japan’s calm startles in comparison. Are there no infuriating issues here, no infuriated people?

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been in office seven years. Last month, he became the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history. Scandals have dogged him, and continue to — alleged favoritism shown to cronies, acknowledged clandestine tampering by government officials with government documents. Two ministers resigned in October over alleged bribes that violate election laws.

Who cares? A Kyodo News poll done shortly after the resignations shows support for the Abe Cabinet at 54.1 percent, up 1.1 percent from the month before.

Why is Japan so quiet? Is it simply too elderly to be otherwise? It is certainly elderly. Its median age, 48.4, is second only to Monaco’s (51.1). One-fifth of Japan’s population is 65 or over. In 2025, the youngest of the baby boom generation will turn 75. The health ministry, looking ahead to that, foresees 7 million people suffering from dementia. There are, in short, more pressing concerns, not to say terrors, than those driving angry mobs into the streets elsewhere. Age turns us inward.

Not always, of course — Hong Kong is also an aging society, its average age 43.2.

Japan’s decades of nearly unbroken one-party rule suggest a tradition of trust and respect for authority that sets this country apart from livelier democracies. To the discontented, it’s stifling. To the complacent, stability is its own reward.

Is complacency justified? Perhaps Japan is simply doing too well for people to care what their government is up to. Longevity itself offers supporting evidence. The society that sustains so extended a life span must be doing something right.

No doubt it is — but monthly magazine Jitsuwa Bunka (January) will have none of it. “Japan,” it says, “far from being a developed country, is an impoverished, backward country.”

Exhibit A: Japan’s per capita gross domestic product ranked 26th worldwide — down from second in 2000. That’s just the beginning. The world seems to be leaving Japan behind. In terms of happiness, Japan ranks 58th worldwide; in terms of gender equality, 110th; press freedom, 67th; government expenditure on education, 35th; international competitiveness, 30th; hours of sleep each night, 28th; suicide, third.

The studies that produce these rankings come from various international bodies and corporations — the U.N., the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Reporters Without Borders and others. Definitions are problematic and numbers disputable, but taken together they portray a nation in sad decline. Other rankings presented by Jitsuwa Bunka hardly brighten the picture: 29th in terms of “business environment”; 32nd as a desirable destination for foreign workers; 25th in attractiveness to foreign students; 32nd for government expenditure benefiting disabled people; 107th for individual charity donations; fourth for “relative poverty.”

Relative poverty means an income less than half the national median income, whatever that may be. In the world’s third-largest economy it’s not poverty as failed states know it, but Spa magazine, a persistent chronicler of the lives of the working poor, described in September the living quarters some of them must settle for — a storage locker, a net cafe.

What preoccupies Japan’s weekly press as the year draws to a close? Three themes above all: poverty, aging and loneliness. The three themes merge in a survey result the Asahi Shimbun published last month: 57 percent of people in their 20s worry about dying alone. It’s a grim phenomenon, copiously and luridly covered — bodies discovered days, weeks or months after deaths that had gone unnoticed until a telltale odor finally compelled attention. It’s worrying enough, but that it weighs on people so young is surprising. It’s a lengthening shadow: 10 years ago it worried 40 percent — no small proportion itself. An aging society drains youth of its youth.

There is, of course, more to solitude than dying alone, and it’s not all bad, argued President magazine last month. It had better not be: one-third of all Japanese households are single-occupant; soon half will be. One contributor to President’s feature is the eminent writer Hiroyuki Itsuki. Solitude is much maligned, he feels. He blames in part the kizuna boom of 2011. Kizuna means ties — social ties, friendly ties, community ties. The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, with its attendant nuclear catastrophe, brought people together — mutual aid and comfort sought, found and extended. The ensuing warmth made solitude seem cold, but Itsuki, at 87, values it as a source of depth unattainable in company. The point is not to choose one over the other but to strike a balance between them.

In 1998, Itsuki published a book titled “Tariki” (“Other Power”). It’s a spiritual confession. “The troubles of daily life,” he writes, “often attack in an uninterrupted flurry, one after another: health problems; the first signs of old age; all sorts of difficulties with work and relationships, with family or children. Anxiety and restlessness, self-hate and unfocused anger, apathy and resignation, mark our days.” Life is too much for us. The deck is stacked against us. Death looms. Our own power is inadequate. The “other power” is Amida Buddha’s; he vowed to save all who call on him.

Itsuki’s thinking is rooted in Japan’s 12th-century religious revivalism. “I think,” he writes, “that we humans need to rediscover humility.” Is Japan’s current calm “apathy and resignation,” or is it “humility”?

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.”