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Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Welcome to Japan, Where the Bad News Is the Good News - The New York Times

Welcome to Japan, Where the Bad News Is the Good News

"The trend lines may be grim, but the Japanese aren’t sweating them.

Red, white and blue paper lanterns hang over the wooden doors into a Tokyo restaurant, which is filled with diners.
Dinner at a Tokyo pub. Food remains affordable in Japan, even after some inflation: a bowl of ramen can be had for less than $7, or a multi-plate set lunch for about $12.Issei Kato/Reuters

The economy is now in recession after barely growing for decades. The population continues to shrink, with births last year plunging to a nadir. The country’s politics appear frozen as one party holds a virtual lock on power no matter how scandal-tainted and unpopular it becomes.

But not to worry. This is Japan, where all bad news is relative.

Take a look around. There are few signs of the societal discord you might expect in a place with trend lines like Japan’s, such as accumulating garbage, potholes or picket lines. The country remains remarkably stable and cohesive, with little sense of impending doom.

That equanimity reflects a no-need-to-rock-the-boat mind-set: “Shouganai” — “it can’t be helped” — is something of a national refrain.

It’s easy to see why people might be nonchalant. Unemployment is low, the trains run on time and the cherry blossoms bloom every spring. Tourists are flooding the shrines and shopping districts, and the stock market has hit a record high. Even after some inflation, a bowl of ramen can be had for less than $7, or a multi-plate set lunch for about $12. Housing is generally affordable even in Tokyo, and everybody is covered by national health insurance. Crime is low: In 2022, there were just three gun killings in all of Japan. If you forget your cellphone in a restaurant, chances are it will be there when you return.

“I am pretty happy with my living conditions,” said Chihiro Tsujimoto, 26, a classical music percussionist who had come out of a movie theater with his sister in Chofu, in western Tokyo, last week. Japanese people, he said, have “given up and feel rather happy as long as their life is full and fine.”

“I guess Japan is at peace,” he added. “So the young generation doesn’t feel they need to change this country.”

That lulling sense of calm is heightened by an outside world plagued by wars and social challenges.

“I often have business trips to the U.S. and Europe, and feel that the Japanese society and system are very stable compared to other countries with various problems like immigrants, high crime rates and riots,” said Hisashi Miwa, 65, who works for a chemical manufacturer and was out shopping for toilet paper in Setagaya, also in western Tokyo.

Still, beneath Japan’s placid surface, plenty of entrenched problems remain. With its intense work culture and social pressures, Japan is among the unhappiest of developed countries, according to an annual U.N.-backed report, and suicide is a major concern. Gender inequality is deep-rooted and slow to change, and the poverty rate among single-parent households is one of the highest among wealthy nations. Rural areas are rapidly emptying, and an aging population will increasingly add to pension and caregiving burdens.

Next year, nearly one in five people in Japan will be 75 or older, a phenomenon that will increasingly expose labor shortages in a country that struggles to accept and integrate immigrants. Already, service gaps are emerging in some of the country’s most cherished institutions.

“It takes four or five days to get a letter,” said Sayuri Shirai, a professor of policy management at Keio University, referring to Japan’s postal service, which used to reliably deliver letters one day after they were mailed.

When she has problems with cable television or other utility services, she said, “sometimes you want to ask questions on the phone, but there are no phone-related services anymore.”

“I can really see they don’t have people,” Ms. Shirai said. “The quality of service is no longer so good.”

Inconveniences like those, however, are more an irritation than a sign of imminent societal collapse. Japan’s decline is gradual, and in some ways barely perceptible, after the country rocketed to wealth in the decades following World War II.

The economy — now the world’s fourth largest, after dropping below Germany’s this month — dips up and down but has largely weathered a rate of national debt that is the highest in the world. The population falls by about one-half of 1 percent a year, but Tokyo remains the world’s most populous city, people wait in line for an hour to score a trendy doughnut and reservations at the top restaurants must be made weeks in advance. Prime ministers may come and go, but they are replaceable emissaries of the status quo.

“I think everybody kind of knows what is approaching us, but it is so slow that it is very difficult to somehow advocate a huge change,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Even those who think Japan could use a shake-up are more resigned than radicalized.

“I thought Japanese people were a little more clever, but our economy, which was once said to be first-class, is now second- or third-rate, and our government is perhaps not even fourth- or fifth-rate,” said Fuchi Beppu, 76, a retired hotel worker who was walking near Yokohama Station last week.

He said he felt sorry for his children and grandchildren and the future that awaited them.

“At the end of the day, it is a democracy,” he said. “So I suppose the level of the government reflects the level of the citizens.”

That government, for nearly the entirety of the postwar era, has been led by the Liberal Democratic Party, or L.D.P.

The party’s disapproval ratings are now very high — based on one newspaper poll, the highest since 1947. But even when people become frustrated with the L.D.P., they ultimately “don’t care much as long as they can survive and everyday life is not so bad,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “That’s why L.D.P. politics is very stable.”

The current disapproval ratings reflect the public’s exasperation with a financial scandal that has gripped the Japanese media but has been too arcane for most of the general public to follow in detail.

Allegations began to emerge late last fall that several factions within the L.D.P. had failed to record the full amount of proceeds from ticket sales to political fund-raisers. In some cases, it appeared that members of Parliament were taking kickbacks from some of the sales, and prosecutors have indicted three lawmakers, accusing them of violations of the Political Funds Control Act.

Yet unlike in other countries where politicians have been accused of extravagant actsof corruption, the Japanese media has dug up relatively tame evidence of campaign gifts and dinners. Some news reports suggested that one lawmaker may have used the political funds to buy books, including thousands of copies of one title he wrote himself.

With the political opposition in disarray, the L.D.P. appears likely to survive another of its numerous own goals. One reason: Voters are just not very plugged in.

“I don’t know who my mayor is or don’t check the news much,” said Mr. Tsujimoto, the percussionist. “I just watch internet news for stuff like when a new baby of some animal is born at a zoo.”

Hisako Ueno has been reporting on Japanese politics, business, gender, labor and culture for The Times since 2012. She previously worked for the Tokyo bureau of The Los Angeles Times from 1999 to 2009. More about Hisako Ueno"

Welcome to Japan, Where the Bad News Is the Good News - The New York Times

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