National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Decline of social engagement may betray democracy

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Japan’s three leading newspapers, disagreeing on much, agree on this: Japan’s democracy is in crisis.

“Democratic politics in Japan has become frayed,” the Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial on Jan. 1.

“The recent deterioration of Diet deliberations is intolerable,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said on Jan. 4.

“How far will this administration go in destroying democracy?” the Asahi Shimbun asked in a Dec. 30 editorial.

That was the tenor of their new year reflections on the state of things. The unanimity is remarkable, for each newspaper represents a different sector of the political spectrum: the Asahi toward the left, the Mainichi in the middle and the Yomiuri on the right.

The symptoms they cite are cronyism, document-tampering and a persistent pattern of stifling Diet discussion. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said the Mainichi Shimbun in a Dec. 31 editorial, “is not only unwilling to listen to opinions from opposition parties but also appears to regard the opposition camp as his enemy.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun, blaming the opposition, nonetheless betrayed frayed patience with the government it usually supports. “Opposition parties have been obsessed with grilling the government about its scandals while the prime minister and Cabinet members have been focused entirely on giving canned answers,” the Yomiuri said in an editorial on Jan. 4. “The Diet must return to the original stance of the legislature, which is to develop policy discussions.”

On Jan. 5, the Asahi Shimbun referred to a September survey by The Genron NPO showing 70 percent of respondents feel they “cannot expect” solutions to Japan’s problems from politicians and political parties — as opposed to 9 percent who consider what lately goes on in the Diet worthy of being called policy debate.

Japan’s democracy, turning 75 this year, seems aging, torpid. Might evolution be carrying us away from democracy altogether?

A book published in November by psychiatrist Takashi Okada bears the suggestive title “Neo Sapiens.” Homo sapiens, he feels, is technically enhanced to the point of being almost a new species. An article he wrote for the January issue of Bungei Shunju magazine summarizes his views.

The evolution he describes is not progress but a burgeoning of previously unknown personality disorders. Their characteristic symptom is an increasing inability to form the elementary social bonds that earlier societies took for granted. Never before, he says, have individuals been so isolated. Ours is becoming “a society without ties.”

The technical term for the condition that most alarms Okada is “avoidant personality disorder.” The Industrial Revolution spawned it; the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s spurred it; the IT revolution sent it viral. It is a personality “in avoidance” of other personalities. We avoid each other. We’re uncomfortable with, suspicious of, easily bored by, our family, friends and neighbors. Society at large does not engage us. The spirit of independence that inspires individualism becomes the spirit, or spiritlessness, of fear that shrinks from all intimate contact. Its acutest manifestation is hikikomori — growing up, aging and in the fullness of time quite possibly dying alone in a room.

Generally speaking, it doesn’t go that far. In milder forms it is said to affect some 30 percent of people in developed countries. Japan is about average in that regard. It need not be crippling. Many successful people — Okada mentions surgeons, IT specialists and high-stakes business people — might resent hearing their solitary inclinations described as a “disorder.” It’s a way of life, they say — a choice one is free to make.

Fine, says Okada in effect, but its spread through such a wide swath of society has disturbing implications. Already, he says, it has altered the parent-child relationship in ways that give his “neo sapiens” coinage a distinctly sinister cast. “Infants who don’t make eye contact with their mothers,” he says, “are not rare nowadays” — infantile apathy answering maternal apathy. Some mothers “shudder at the sight of their babies.”

A smartphone is no substitute for a mother’s loving attention, and yet toddlers, increasingly, are forced to settle for it. They adapt, become machine-friendly and pass the adaptation on to their own offspring, if any.

There may not be any. Sex-, love- and marriage-aversion is pervasive. One in 4 Japanese men and 1 in 7 Japanese women are unmarried at 50; 1 in 4 single men and women in their 30s, research shows, have never had a sexual experience. It’s a brave new world.

It’s not unique to Japan. The concept of neo sapiens was born in the Industrial Revolution. Its factories and machines, Okada explains, reconfigured the family. The pre-industrial family was a work-life unit, working together, living together, raising kids together. Industry and its gender-specific jobs fractured that unity. Divorce increased, marriage declined — not very far by today’s standards, but a breach had been made in an age-old institution that, whatever its flaws, produced children as a matter of course and encouraged (not always successfully) nature’s strongest instinctive bond, that between mother and infant.

The 1960s widened the breach. Birth control liberated sex; careers for women offered a fulfilling alternative to kitchen and nursery. For children, says Okada, this could mean “a state of affairs bordering on neglect.” A cycle was set in motion. Children less loved loved less in turn; their children loved less still, and so on down the generations. If our own time is a tipping point into “neo sapiens,” our descendants will look back on us with pity as at a “lost generation” — or with envy if they’re even more lost.

What has this got to do with democracy? Two things. First: “Government by and for the people” demands a level of social engagement that avoidant personalities do not muster en masse — as witness Japan’s persistently low voting rate, less than 50 percent in last July’s Upper House election.

Second: Machines, if they’re to serve us, must be obeyed. Follow the instructions, the machine works. Don’t, and it doesn’t. Children growing up more intimate with machines than with people risk acquiring habits of obedience and trust that are not democratic. Artificial intelligence, Okada fears, will take that to new levels. Its judgments are hyper-intelligent, hyper-rational, hyper-free of human caprice and error. He cites a growing tendency to trust AI blindly — and adds, “Rule of humans by AI has already begun.”

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.”

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