Something exceedingly tragic is occurring in Japan today, something it falls to me to reveal now on these pages. It is, simply, that the Japanese people are becoming invisible before our very eyes. At the present rate, by my rough estimate, not one single identifiable Japanese individual will be living in Japan by 2030.

If you think this is another of those articles bemoaning the plummeting birthrate in Japan, and how Japanese people should be conjugating a lot more than English verbs, you are sorely mistaken. This is about something far graver than the lack of moaning in Japan.

Let me explain how I came to my dire conclusion about “the invisible Japanese.”

It dawned on me at the hospital. I was waiting in the area where outpatients pick up medicines dispensed by the hospital. Behind the counter, a young woman in a starched white smock read aloud the name of a patient: “Tanaka-sama, Tanaka-sama.”

Hold it, I thought. I know a Tanaka. In fact, I know more than one Tanaka. I looked up from the March 2003 issue of Ladies’ Friend that had been in a magazine rack by the bench and, sure enough, the elderly man hobbling toward the counter was none other than one of those Tanakas. Before getting his medicine, he glanced furtively around and our eyes met. At that point, he abruptly swiveled about and, looking every bit like a horse with a broken ankle, trotted as fast as he could out the door, with the young woman behind the counter shouting after him, “Tanaka-sama! Tanaka-sama!”

Bouquets piled high

I thought little more about this incident until, some weeks later, I was visiting a sick friend in yet another hospital.

“Excuse me,” I said to the middle-age man at the front desk. “Can you please tell me what room Marumaru-san is in?” (I dare not reveal the real name of my friend, for reasons that will very shortly become obvious.)

“No, I cannot,” he said, brusquely.

“Oh, uh, I just want to visit my friend,” I smiled apologetically, holding up a bouquet of flowers.

“You can’t visit patients without telling me which room they’re in.”

“But you just said . . . “

“Correct. Sorry. Please come back when you have the proper information.”

After that, I wandered from corridor to corridor, passing door after door that displayed no name. I finally came to one where a large number of bouquets were piled high up against the wall. A sign on the door said, “The Room of the Unknown Patient. Please leave your flowers here. Thank you so much.”

What’s going on in this country, I asked myself. I couldn’t visit Marumaru-san; and later I heard that Tanaka-san, whom I had caught red-handed by the medicine dispensary counter, had been utterly humiliated by the encounter, told a mutual acquaintance of ours that he would never be able to live the incident down, and would rather die than have to face that kind of embarrassment again — which, in any case, he probably would if he couldn’t find a satisfactory way of getting his medicine.

What’s going on is the Japanese reaction — or, overreaction — to the Law on the Protection of Personal Information that went into effect on April 1, 2005.

The purpose of this law, applying to government organs and companies that have data on 5,000 or more individuals (including employees), is “to protect individuals’ rights and interests . . . ” According to Chapter 4, Subchapter 1, Section 20, “A business must take steps to prevent the unauthorized disclosure of personal data.” Section 23 further states: “A business shall not give personal data to any third party without first getting the principal’s consent . . .”

“Personal data” includes the person’s name, sex, address, etc., and companies of the requisite size are required to have a corporate privacy officer (CPO) to watch over the handling of all such data. Infringements can bring a fine of up to 300,000 yen or six months in jail.

Businesses such as hospitals and banks are now terrified that their CPOs will be spending time at the government’s pleasure if any kind of personal data is inadvertently revealed. Say the name of a patient out loud in a hospital and who knows who might be there to hear it? Life insurance companies might strategically place their (secret) agents in waiting rooms, jotting down names of “bad risks.” Private detectives hired by the parents of prospective brides and grooms could stalk medical clinics to see if their daughter’s or son’s intended are free of possible genetic diseases.

Abiding by the law

When it comes to abiding by the law, none are as thorough as the Japanese. They are so law-abiding that they take some laws to extremes. If people have to die in the interests of protecting their privacy, then so be it. Individuals may have to become invisible to everyone around them in order for them to be seen by society as free.

This “new invisibility” can be witnessed, moreover, in places other than a hospital. Every year, newspapers used to publish a list of the 10 biggest taxpayers in various fields of endeavor. Not any more. Would you want your neighbor to know that you paid hundreds of millions of yen in taxes? How could you keep a straight face and turn them away from your door (if it indeed is your door) were they to come to borrow some soy sauce?

And what about the banks! Tellers used to call out the names of customers who had come to withdraw money. Well, you won’t see me answering to my name the next time I find myself in such a hideously public arena. Someone I know might be laying in wait just to see how thick the envelope that I am handed is. I, for one, am grateful that most banks are eliminating this dastardly custom, though they are apparently racking their brains to figure out a way of ensuring that the right money doesn’t get into the wrong hands, whoever they might belong to.

Now back to my original estimate, that by 2030 you won’t find a single identifiable Japanese in the country. Given Japanese thoroughness, the practice of “name deletion” is bound to spread. No one will be called by name at graduation ceremonies and people who get married will have to register either in secret or anonymously.

Knowing the risks, journalists will no doubt be the next to go. You won’t see my name, dear anonymous reader, up at the top much longer, so please remember it. Please remember me!

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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