Friday, April 11, 2008

Robert Dujarric Gives Us the Good News and Bad News (about Japan, of Course)

Today, I went to the TUJ Mita Campus to hear our good friend Robert Dujarric give a talk. The good news? Japan is rich, stable, and peaceful. (Hey, that’s why he’s here, isn’t it?) The bad news? Japan is missing out on the 21st Century.

I’ve asked him to give a similar talk at another forum, sometime in June. If you’re interested and will be in Tokyo then, send me an email. It’s by invitation only, but it won’t be difficult to convince the sponsor; there’s no refreshments.

There’s another, related story that I want to tell here. It’s a ten, fifteen minute walk from the subway station to the TUJ Mita Campus, and, along the way, it’s mostly machine shops, little office buildings, restaurants, groceries, an odd Buddhist temple or two - the not old, but aging, face of Tokyo. This was the first time that I had been in the neighborhood in broad daylight, so I was surprised by the number of shuttered stored fronts and closed offices along the way.

They talk about the hollowing out of the provinces, the inaka, once teeming city centers that have lost their trade to larger metropolitan centers. They’re not the only ones. Do you remember the 2003 Tokyo office space market collapse that never happened? I think that I have some idea how the Tokyo real estate market absorbed it.

On the way back, I stopped off at Shinjuku and walked through Kabukichō. Do you know that short, wide street that looks like the center of Kabukichō, if anything that can be called that? Sure enough, there was an unmanned information center. Is the rot reaching the core…

The silver lining? I passed through the love hotel district (Kabukichō, not Mita), and all the hotels were open for business. There were even a few couples answering (or having answered) nature’s calls on the streets. One of Mr. Dujarric’s most serious charges is aimed at the very low, Japanese fertility rate. Let’s give those enterprising couples any encouragement we can give them, no?


Janne Morén said...

Parts of Suita, in the north part of Osaka-ku is likewise famously dying (there's even been a very interesting documentary about one area there). Old housing built in the middle of last century; the children who grew up there left for something better as the once-modern housing project aged. In Sweden you find these areas largely used by immigrants and refugees - inexpensive and easy to rent - while in Suita the buildings are emptying as the old people still there disappear.

The question is always how much is structural and how much is a local, incidental effect. Is Suita dying because a lack of people in the area or because the once-modern buildings are small, cramped, ugly and impractical by today's standards? Is Kabukicho dying (if it is; I'd want to consider the economics) or is it simply moving to a different neighbourhood in response to economic and legal pressure?

Sophie said...

"Japan is missing out on the 21st Century."
If you consider that the 21st century will be about crashing the endless growth car at full speed in a the concrete wall of finite ressources, I don't think Japan will be completely missing out on the action.
Even if the people of Japan seem to be the only one in the world who have collectively decided to tentatively push the brake pedal.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne, for seven and a half years, I lived in that neighborhood when it was the new black of urban planning, so it’s a little like watching Kevin McHale (not Larry Bird; Bird could wheel himself onto the court in a wheelchair and I’d be cool with that) on his last legs. I don’t know enough about the situation there, but there must be powerful structural causes. Tama New Town, its Tokyo counterpart, is suffering more or less the same fate.

Sophie, that is one interpretation of Robert’s thoughts. I suppose that you could call it the “Stop the Bus, I Want to Get Off” Syndrome. But haven’t the Italians been doing that, like, forever? Incidentally, Robert is originally from France and still goes to Paris from time to time. He sometimes gives talks there, so if you’re interested, I’ll try to remember to let you know on this blog.

Sophie said...

Yes, Italy has a fertility rate similar to Japan (1.4 birth/woman). In Italy, immigration stabilises the total population figures. Maybe Japan will give citizenship to sentient robots to get the same effect. Some people apparently use います ("to be" for animated beings) when they speak about robots.
One big difference is the population density : 340 people/sq km in Japan, about 200 in Italy. France has a fertility rate of 1.98, and a population density of 110 for the metropolitan area.
Where you feel places are emptying in Japan, we Europeans might still feel overwhelmed by people, or more at ease than in central Tōkyō.

I guess Mr Dujarric must devote a little time to patriarchy in his talk. Seen from Europe, the plight of Japanese women seems terrible. People here complain about the small number of facilities welcoming young kids while their parents work, but in Japan it seems they are inexistant.
There used to be a gradient of more patriarchal countries as you went south in Europe, so it might explain what happens in Italy. Mr Berlusconi certainly seems to corroborate that, his stronger political point in last week’s campaign was that "all beautiful women belong to the right wing".
On the other hand, the new Spanish government has more women than men, so the north-south gradient thing is evolving.

I would use the “Stop the Bus, I Want to Get Off” Syndrome for suicide rather than for chosen infertility. There is “Voluntary Human Extinction” available as a description, or “Malthusian”, which is also an insult of course ^_^.
This very week the French government tried to save money by scrapping the Numerous Families card, which gives highly reduced train fares and other advantages to families with 3 or more kids. Wild bashing ensued, and they have dropped the plan. Lots of politicians and associations pride themselves on the productivity of our baby-making-machines.

I still find it either a tad arrogant (or clairvoyant) to claim to know what the 21st century will be about, in 2008. I’m not even sure I can say what the 20th century was about in less than a short book.

Jun Okumura said...

An interesting counterintuitive point that Robert made in his talk: Apparently, there are studies that show positive correlations between fertility rates and women’s participation in the workforce. Since there are so many factors that can affect one or both of the two indices in different ways (for example, eliminating income tax deductions for non-wage earning spouses would encourage workforce participation while discouraging child-rearing at home, better daycare would have a positive effect on both, etc.), any results would have to be approached with caution. Still, it highlights the need to bridge the gap emerging from Japanese demographics by encouraging women (and men as well, since it takes two to tango) to join/stay in the workforce and have children too.

Here are several things that I’d like to see:

1) Outsourcing childcare: The Japanese government must encourage the establishment of more long-hour daycare centers, workplace facilities, and other means for working parents to outsource childcare.

2) Destigmatizing single-parent children: This is a societal issue, but the government could play a role here by eliminating the discrimination between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children under Japanese inheritance law. The patriarchal no longer functions as the elemental unit of Japanese society, except with regard to smaller family businesses and heritage Diet seats (which are for most practical purposes small family businesses). More than sixty years after WW II, perhaps it’s time to recognize the change.

3) Sharing the workload: Male partners must share the home workload. Not just childrearing, too. True, household chores are much easier these days, but when the overall quality of life is greatly improved as well, the inequality still could bite. Guys, the way to your girls’ hearts may be through her stomach.

4) Communal support: The decline of the extended family as the support system for the parent-and-child(ren) unit has not been paralleled by the emergence of a societal network to the same end. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, if anything, we have become less engaged in the lives of our neighbors. In this regard, I view the government push to consolidate municipalities and provinces into larger, artificial entities with some apprehension. Specifically, I fear the negative consequences on our communitarian sentiments, as historical and geographical connections are cast aside in the interests of economic efficiency.

One striking thing about Japan is that according to anecdotal evidence, some of the Japanese women’s lack of participation in the workforce in general and the managerial and professional ranks in particular may be self-imposed. I stress the word “anecdotal”, but it is a fact that the push for workplace equality has been noticeably weaker than in the rest of the developed world. The situation in South Korea appears to be the same, and the situation for women in the formal workplace in Communist North Korea remains dismal. China, for all its post-revolutionary ideology, continues to be a male-dominated society, though it certainly does better than its three smaller neighbors. This is one case where cuturalist explanations may have a point.