Media coverage of Japan is confined to a few modernist paradigms of a vibrant technopolis, obscuring the problems affecting the rest of the countryby Peter Matanle / October 7, 2013 / Leave a comment
Celebrations abounded in Tokyo last month after it was announced that the Japanese capital would host the 2020 Olympic Games. The decision rested partly on the assumptions that the nuclear situation in Fukushima is manageable, and that the Games will bring opportunities for recovery to the tsunami-destroyed communities.
The former assumption is almost certainly correct. Fukushima may not be completely under control, but it is too far away to affect Tokyo. The latter assumption is less certain. Of the three most damaged prefectures, Fukushima lies to the south, between Tokyo and Miyagi and Iwate. The degree to which tourists will wish to travel through Fukushima to go north, stay the night, and eat and drink there, remains questionable. And what facilities will these coastal communities be able to develop to attract visitors away from the delights of Tokyo or Kyoto?
But there is a larger problem underlying the relationship between Tokyo and the rest of Japan, which the Olympic Games threatens to obscure as well as exacerbate; one which the world should take seriously. For this relationship is profoundly emblematic of great changes taking place across East Asia and which may present a historic cleavage between the 20th and 21st centuries.
Japan is, more or less, as far as one can go from the UK, if one thinks culturally as well as spatially. Our knowledge of the country and its people is generally scant; yet we have much to learn from that part of the world – and I don’t mean to parrot the dreary mantra of East Asian economic dynamism. The average Briton has little opportunity to learn about Japan as it is today, in its post-industrial phase. The school curriculum rarely includes a Japanese element, and the British government – in its effortless wisdom – is cutting what little we do teach of Japanese language, culture and social science at our schools and universities. Britons tend not to travel there in great numbers or interact with Japanese regularly.
Frustratingly, media coverage also remains narrowly constrained within modernist paradigms that feed tired assumptions of Japan as a vibrant and youthful technopolis; too often focusing on the bright lights of Shibuya and the weirdness of Japanese youth culture at the expense of deeper concerns. That impression is easily reinforced when commentators’ own experience is gained from time inhabiting the inner wards of the world’s largest urban agglomeration, rather than wandering the mountainous paths of rural Japan.
So, what can we learn from Japan, as we traverse the decades of the 21st century, if more of the same is no longer applicable? What is happening in Japan right now, and will happen very soon in the rest of East Asia, presents the world with nothing short of an historic opportunity to shake off the shackles of industrialism and economism, and realise a truly post-modern post-growth economic order. How so?
Japan is shrinking. China will also begin to shrink within the next two decades. The rest of East Asia is also on a similar path out of the rapid economic and demographic expansion that they experienced in the 20th century – the so-called “demographic dividend” – into a decades-long period of ageing, depopulation and, potentially, economic contraction in the 21st. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, given the quantity of words devoted thus far to lauding the Japanese, now East Asian, growth model. But it is true. Indeed, towards the end of the 21st century world population growth may for the first time in modern history turn negative. Japan is leading the way.
Depopulation is almost undoubtedly a good thing. We cannot continue to live as we have under 20th century growth trajectories. However, it brings consequences for people living in shrinking communities and countries. Evidence emerging from Japan shows that growth and shrinkage do not have a linear relationship, unfortunately. Shrinkage carries costs, in terms of adjustment measures, resource consumption, land management, and quality of life, for example.
More than 90 per cent of Japan’s municipalities are losing population. Under present trends Japan will lose the equivalent of a city larger than Manchester every year for the next half century. Land is being abandoned, communities disappearing, the built environment becoming shabby and dilapidated, services are being withdrawn, social and human capital is collapsing, and before you shout “immigration”, Japan has missed the boat on this one. The UN calculates that the numbers of migrants required to offset losses are too huge for the country, historically shy of in-comers, to contemplate.
For Japan, and China, shrinkage is inevitable. The problem is not whether it will occur; it is already happening. The question we should be asking, therefore, is how can Japan and East Asia benefit from a “depopulation dividend” and lead the world into a sustainable post-growth future? In this sense, I passionately believe that the need for advanced knowledge of Japan and East Asia is more pressing than ever.
At Sheffield University, where I teach, we are grappling seriously with these questions, with the formation of an international research group focusing on Japan’s regions. Our Vice-Chancellor, Sir Keith Burnett will visit Japan in October to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Japanese Studies in Sheffield and he is working hard to broaden and deepen the excellent links that we have with Japanese institutions across the range of subject areas. Nevertheless, UK engagement with Japan is still patchy and half-hearted, even declining in some quarters, as it remains mired in 20th century dogma of economic growth at all costs. We need a different approach that reflects the complex reality of 21st century East Asia.
Realising a “depopulation dividend” will require us to resolve the contradictions of living in an ageing and depopulating society. It will require us to rethink everything we do, engage with each other in new ways, and grope towards the “concrete” implementation of a new philosophy that embraces shrinkage.
The world is at a turning point and the pivot is Japan. Growth is no longer a self-evident good; for the first time we are taking seriously the notion that less really does mean more. Realising Japan’s depopulation dividend may just lead our children into the sustainable future that they so desperately deserve.