Sunday, November 04, 2007

Do You Know What It's Like to Be Poor, Old, and Lonely in Japan?

But enough about me. Instead, let's talk about Norimitsu Onishi, the New York Times correspondent who has been tracking the travails and agonies of an aging society here (78 year old Okinawan pastor protests whitewash of government role in WW II mass suicide), here (52 year old losing his welfare benefits and starving to death), here (61-year old royal talks of his battle with cancer and alcoholism, family woes, and the stress of life in the troubled extended imperial family), and here (prisons adapting to aging prisoners). That's four of the eight articles he published in the past four weeks. And another story - on sumo - centers on the brutal hazing death of a 17 year old and the rebellious Yokozuna Asashōryū (and a deranged middle-aged woman who tried to crawl onto the sumo ring as a gratuitous throw-in), but "rural areas [emptying] out of young people" weighs heavily in the background.

It is not hard to see in these chronicles a society whose time has passed, where traditions wither and personal ties fade away, where only loneliness and, ultimately, death prevail; an aging nation resigned to its bleak fate. Perhaps appropriately, the characters are all men (unless you count the mad woman); where a newly-widowed Japanese woman often gain a new lease on life, widowers and bachelors run the risk of an early death.

But contrast this desolate vision with this story (Washington Post) of a 64 year old ex-cab driver, happily homeless in downtown Tokyo, homeless that is, until his pension kicks in when he turns 65. For here is a society that may lack the hands-on activism of the soup kitchens of Manhattan, but offers gentle tolerance and understated charity. It is notable that in Mr. Onishi's story on the aged prisoners, the special care and consideration that they receive in the prison system is ultimately used to illuminate a society that is unwilling to accept ex-convicts. (Has Mr. Onishi bothered to compare recidivism rates across age groups and countries?)

In the last few years, the Japanese economy has taken a turn for the better, and it shows. The stories you hear from new graduates and college seniors have changed dramatically. No one knows if Japan is finally emerging from the long Employment Ice Age (就職氷河期), or is merely passing through an Indian Summer of sorts before it enters inexorably into that long, painful slide into the night. Still, it is clear that there is another side to the Japanese story that does not fit into Mr. Onishi's anecdotal narrative. Is there an agenda, or is it temperament? I can only guess.

4 comments:

MTC said...

Okumura-san -

The article on the prisons turns out to be rather good, measured on the Onishi scale.

Concentrating on age in Japan is a way of getting people to think about all our tomorrows. All advanced countries are heading down the road toward senescence--Japan is just going to be one of the first to arrive.

Japan is a special case not only for its relative strangeness (relative, that is, to the median reader of the NYT) but also because of its tilted political structure favoring the elder vote over the youth vote and its purportedly institutionalized respect (Keiro no Hi is a national holiday) for senior citizens.

Jun Okumura said...

MTC, this was not a commentary on the quality of the individual articles. In fact, Mr. Onishi seems to do better when he writes these elegiac, melancholy pieces. But there are other ways to skin Japan, on which occasions his agenda tend to slip out. That is why I raised the question of where his Japan-Is-Sad-and-Lonely stories - in a qualifiedly welcome contrast to the more common Japan-Is-Funny stories - are coming from.

Independent of his articles though, I agree with all your points, albeit with a caveat of sorts. It is true that the distribution of Diet seats - more distinctly in the Upper House - favors prefectures with older populations. This is, of course, because students in higher education and the economically active population (not necessarily mutually exclusive) tend to concentrate in the major metropolitan centers and their environs, hollowing out the provinces. The actual policy outcomes seem to reflect the economic effects of the general population drift – ex. public works, agricultural subsidies - as well as the increasingly senescent demographics – ex. public pensions, health benefits. I have no idea how much of the latter is attributable to the electoral distortions that you refer to as opposed to the simple fact that there are proportionately more and more old people around who are (possibly) more inclined to vote than the rest of the electorate.

The Keiro no Hi appears to have been a spontaneous, grassroots, post-WW II phenomenon that captured the public's imagination. But is the sentiment still there? In any case, you've whetted my appetite for a good account of the origins of this holiday within its historical context.

Incidentally, the unofficial dates of celebration/commemoration should be an interesting subject to explore as well. Surely Christmas, and even St. Valentine's Day, have more significance for the general public than, say Keiro no Hi, and August 6 - even as the incident fades in the collective memory - receives more non-partisan attention than Kenpō Kinenbi.

Adler said...

Nothing makes you guys happy. First he is too critical and hard hitting. Now he is too "elegaric" and "soft."

Do you not maybe think that his editors have been annoyed by too many complaints by the GoJ and their proxies? Maybe the editors and writers are just giving out what these folks think they want. Have you noticed that this is fairly recent? Maybe you should read Onishi's pieces with a bit more care and perspective than self-serving, self-importance.

Your obsession makes one think you are jealous. He is, after all, tall, handsome, smart, Ivy League, witty without your bitterness, and NY Times Bureau Chief.

Jun Okumura said...

I try to look at thing as they are, and right now, what I see is someone who can only be unintentionally funny. The NYT doing the bidding of the Japanese government? Please, the GoJ does not make it a habit of buying advertising space in the NYT.

I'll take it on faith that Mr. Onishi is "tall, handsome, smart, Ivy League", and I know that he is "New York Times bureau chief". But "witty" is not one of his strong suits.  I do admit to a fascination, yes, a certain "obsession" with the way Japan and things Japanese are depicted in the English-language media. And it so happens that Norimitsu Onishi is by far the most prolific of them all. However, a search for "Onishi" on my blog turned up only two posts, including this one. So my interest in his work clearly has a long way to go before it becomes an obsession. So am I "jealous"? That's a fascinating idea that I'd honestly never thought about. But even if I were, it should make no difference if my points are valid. As for "bitterness", you'll have to give me some examples. In the meantime, I'll take it as a compliment in that you are admitting in a backhanded way that I am indeed "witty".

With that, I'll let others decide whose comments make more sense.