Thursday, December 07, 2006

Japan and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Life

In June of this year Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare released their findings on total fertility rate for 2005, a number that has not been revised since. The confirmed TFR for 2005 was 1.25. This is lower than the previous year (1.29 in 2004) and quite lower than had been predicted in 2000 (in 2000 the prediction was that in 2005 Japan’s TFR would be about 1.4, as can be seen in the World Factbook). As I have discussed before, TFR’s throughout the world are dropping faster than predicted, even predictions from just a few years ago. The result is that Japan’s population began dropping last year, two years before demographers had thought possible – and their predictions were made in 2000.

How surprising is this change? As recently as 2002 the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research announced that the lowest possible TFR in Japan was 1.3 (which would be reached in 2007) and that the TFR would rebound to 1.39 by 2035 and remain stable there indefinitely. This theory is now, obviously, discarded.

Attempts by the Japanese government to increase the rate of childbirth have all failed, although they continue to introduce new plans. These economic incentives, ranging from cash payments to parents, more day-care centers open longer, more parental leave, legal certainty that a mother would get her job back, etc., all failed. Indeed, as I mentioned above, the TFR fell faster than predicted after these programs were put in place. The programs also included steps to ‘increase awareness of the importance and value of children’; during the last fifteen years child abuse, sometime horrific, has steadily risen in Japan. Whether this is an actual increase or just better reporting is immaterial – in either case, a nation with fewer and fewer children continues to struggle with abuse in the face of both how few children there are and when government programs spend millions to promote their value.

Other stats look just as bad for Japan’s future. As the population declines the number of households is increasing. In a country with so few children, this means more and more Japanese of all ages are living alone. The declining number of workers and the allure of Chinese markets, which is draining some of Japan’s entrepreneurs, have caused a shortage of workers in Japan; yet in 2004 unemployment was the highest it has ever been since records were kept. Unemployment figures in Japan only account for people looking for work (stay-at-home mothers, for example, are not counted as unemployed), so this record level of unemployment masks the phenomenon of Hikikomori.

Hikikomori (which translates to “pulling away”) are young people from the ages of about 15 to as old as 30 who simply never leave their parents’ home and, almost always, rarely leave their own room. The usually eat alone in their rooms, rarely speak to even their parents, and the majority seem to only leave their rooms at night, when everyone else is asleep. This behavior is so common that the Ministry of Health limits the term ‘hikikomori’ to people who exhibit such behavior for more than six months. In some cases, hikikomori have not left their rooms for 15 years or more. While female hikikomori are underreported (Japanese culture tends to spotlight male behavior) there is some evidence that hikikomori are abour 60%/40% male/female. Estimates for total numbers are tough, due to a social stigma that causes many parents to simply not mention that their child is a voluntary shut-it. The best guess, though, seems to be that about 1 million young Japanese are hikikomori. This is equal to about 1.5% of all Japanese of working age, or about 5% of all Japanese between 15 and 35.

There has been discussion about suicide in Japan for decades, but it is getting worse. The overall rate is more than three and a half times the rate of the United States (which has a high rate, itself) and suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese between the ages of 25 and 39. Since 1998 at least 30,000 Japanese have committed suicide every year; that’s almost one suicide every 15 minutes, all day, every day. Suicide rates are increasing across the board, including suicides among elementary school-aged children and murder-suicides where a parent kills their own child before committing suicide. Now people even join internet ‘suicide clubs’ where they can learn how to commit suicide and work with others on their plans. As a result, group suicides are a growing trend in Japan.

Another growing trend in Japan is the sexless marriage. This is common enough that it even has a slang term; ‘Narita ED’. Narita ED seems to cover all age groups equally, indicating that it is related to culture, not age, In a survey of Japanese married couples of all ages it was found that about 1/3 were chaste with another ¼ having sex less than 5 times a year. More and more single Japanese are both declining intercourse and marriage, fearing a ‘disruption’ to their lives. This has led to the average age at marriage being 27.8 years (women) and 29.6 years (men) with the average woman giving birth to her first (and increasingly only) child at 28.9 years of age. It also means that the average number of marriages per 1,000 people is down to 5.7, an all-time low.

So what the heck is going on? Most researchers point to the flat Japanese economy and intone that ‘the long-stagnant Japanese economy is driving people to despair’. I say this is bunk. The Japanese economy began rebounding in 2003 and showed very strong growth through the middle of 2005 – hindered by a lack of skilled workers! As the Japanese economy rebounds unemployment is dropping (although slower than anticipated). If one of the prime reasons for suicide is lack of economic opportunity, why are workers killing themselves in greater numbers as their prospects improve? This makes no sense. The ennui that leads to the statistics we see above comes from more than just the economy. More importantly, high rates of suicide and the hikikomori phenomenon began when Japan was going gangbusters, making it unlikely that a poor economy is, or was, the culprit.

So what is it that is taking the once-vibrant Japanese culture from being aggressively expansionist to apathetically self-destructive in the course of a mere 60 years? I have a vague inkling of a theory. As I mentioned earlier, religion is good for you. Religious societies tend to be happier, more fully employed, higher earning, and have more children. They also have lower rates of depression and suicide. Japan is perhaps the most secular Western society on Earth, removing the positive effects of religion from its population. Also, it appears that there is some correlation between suicides and projected population growth. This could mean that despair means fewer children, fewer children in a society lead to suicides, or that both are symptoms of something else. In any case, the positive effects of religion are absent from Japan. At the same time, Japan’s embrace of what they perceived as Western values after WWII led to it becoming in some ways the epitome of Western materialist and postmaterialist aims.

I believe that Japan is showing us nothing more, and nothing less, than the ultimate result of a materialist, secular nation. The rejection of religion and mysticism, the detachment of morals and values from absolute claims, and the embrace of the government as surrogate family are all seen in Japan. The resulting society is the goal of any number of Western thinkers.

In short, I think Japan is a warning.


Wahrheit said...

I linked to this excellent piece--can't seem to get the 'create a link' to work.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Well, the awards won you at least one vistor. I move from large-traffic blogs to smaller ones every once-in-awhile, and may be back more frequently.

I prefer smaller congregations as well, so there must be something about the size of conversation I like to be involved in. I noted your family size and its importance. We have two American children and two Romanian (19-27 now). If I had to do over again we would have had more. I have become interested in demography over the past few years ( is excellent) and the numerous explanations why couples are choosing to have fewer children. The decline in tfr has been going on in Western Civilization since about 1800. Increased survival of children, longer life spans, and a 20-year blip after WWII have disguised this trend, but it is unmistakable. There are many excellent hypotheses, including the decreased hopefulness resulting from declining religious belief, but looking at my own generation, I have a theory I have not seen elsewhere.

A friend at work once said "Parenting is learning to watch your heart run around outside your body."

Children do not shrink your emotional life, they enlarge it. They shrink your discretionary income and they shrink your discretionary time. But they bring you into more contact with people you might not otherwise have known, if only on a superficial level on sidelines and at viola practice. You have less choice and control over who you spend your time with.

This is a good thing which many people fear. I believe that fear of loss of control keeps people from having more children. When you have a culture, you want to perpetuate it. Having children is not the only way to do that, but it is the most common. If you are insecure in your family culture you close ranks, trying to isolate your family within your own echo chamber as much as possible - yourself and the select few you perceive as being from your "tribe."

Our family culture changed over the years, as the children became able to add to it rather than simply receive it. Adopting the two Romanians 6 years ago has made we other four more Romanian and enlarged the family culture even further. I don't think we would have desired that if we did not perceive ourselves as having a culture to share.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I feel sad for the Japanese, and the youth who seem to be so lacking in purpose to be shutting themselves in...

It is indeed a warning. Also for Europeans who asre also suffering from ennui, but have muslim populations who are not.