In Japan, many people will retire without having left their parents' homes or marrying. Is that Europe's fate—and China's?by Andy Davis / November 14, 2012 / Leave a comment
Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district (photo: TWPhoto/Corbis)
It was an uncomfortable moment when the train north from Tokyo pulled into Fukushima, a city now synonymous with catastrophic nuclear accident; after a brief stop, we headed further north to the region overwhelmed by the tsunami on 11th March, 2011, which left 16,000 confirmed dead, and nearly 3000 missing.
From where I stood in the town of Otsuchi, you couldn’t see the sea, and yet cars crushed by the 10 metre high wave lay in piles, next to a mangled fire engine. Across the valley floor sat the concrete bases of houses, shops and offices, destroyed by the water and then bulldozed. Kazuyuki Usuzawa, a 28-year-old guide who lost his fiancée that day, explained that some had perished because they remained behind after the initial earthquake, trying to find family members and neighbours. A large group of old people had gathered in a temple, which was swept away. Usuzawa told visitors: “When you go back, embrace the people you love and tell them.” But he also gave a different message. Those that had survived, including some 200 children in school, had got out in time because they followed a very simple instruction: run for your life to high ground and forget everyone around you. The authorities had concluded that this should be standard practice in future and that the advice should be much more forcefully given.
If Japan became a society where everyone saves himself first, that would mark a profound change. There is no question that the tsunami and nuclear meltdown at Fukushima were a shock to the nation, although some argue that they also reawakened the post-war resilience and drive that made Japan the world’s industrial giant. But many say that for all the visible damage of the natural disaster, the deeper shock to Japan has come from 20 years of economic paralysis—its “two lost decades”—which have shaken Japanese society into a different form; changing the kind of jobs people do, how they do them, and even altering relations within families.
Japan faces three problems at once: painfully slow economic growth, rising government debt, and an ageing population. There are clear warnings here for the developed world, where many countries share those problems—for Europe, obviously, for America to some extent, and for Asian countries, including China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and…