25 October 2004

What I didn't say about Japan

In my goodbye speech at Eurocentres, I talked about what was different (or not) from when I visited Japan in May. Being a polite guest, here are a few things I didn't say. Even between May and October of this year (2004), there were some noticeable changes in Japan.

The most pronounced, as I mentioned in my last post, is the difference in attitude towards foreigners and particularly Americans. While the Japanese don't yet have the open contempt for our idiocy that young Europeans do, it seems to me there's a noticeable distance developing in the attitudes of Japanese. The desire not to sit next to me in the trains, for instance, was palpable. While Japanese are arguably still the most hospitable people in the world (I personally have had a businessman walk 15 minutes out of his way to take me to my destination), in particular younger Japanese aren't anxious to associate with foreigners (however quickly they adopt foreign music, fashion, or food).

Something else I noticed -- which must have been going on in May as well, but I became more aware of -- is that there just aren't very many younger Japanese. Of course, there are still Japanese kids, as our visits to the Elementary and High School attest. But the elementary school we visited now has only 138 students; at its peak size, that same school building housed 1700 children. That particular school, near the center of town, was hit by both the suburban migration and the birthrate; but the demographics around Japan's low birthrate are truly amazing.

Current Japanese birthrate is only about 1.2 children per mother[1], well below the 2.1 needed for flat population. Simply put, the population of younger Japanese is going away. This in turn is driving a huge change in the percentage of the population which is retired: while it's rising in every country, in Japan it will reach 30% of the population by 2030 [also from 1] (in the US, where we have a almost-breakeven 2.07 birthrate [2] plus lots of immigration, our retired population is estimated to peak at around 19%).

That kind of tremendous retired population, not to mention the long-term implication about a continually shrinking base of young people, are real problems... and yet, every Japanese person I've talked to was quite fatalistic about it. "Yes, we'll have to import lots of workers," or "Yes, it will be quite a burden," were typical comments. I was surprised since there are steps one could take (raising child tax credits, making day care more available/affordable, etc.) to try and encourage individuals to choose to have another child; however, no one seems to be examining those. It's a particular piece of Japanese fatalism I guess, like the attitudes towards the banking crises.

One last change: I think younger Japanese are getting fatter. It certainly would make sense -- American-style fast food is propagating throughout Japan, and many younger people reject the fish-and-tofu-heavy traditional diet that has historically made Japan's low heart disease rates the envy of the developed world. While I don't think they'll reach the average obesity of Americans any time soon, the trend is observable on Japan's trains and subways.

[1] http://www.stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook/c02cont.htm#cha2_2
[2] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/peo_tot_fer_rat/NAM

comment from old blog site:

Hi there,

Just found your blog while I was looking for people with experience at Eurocentres in Japan. I have been to Eurocentres 3 times before, twice in Paris and once in Moscow and I was very pleased with those schools. Of course each school is different so I was wondering what your impression of the Kanazawa school was. I have been living in Japan for 5 years and never studied in a program, just on my own. Any candid comments would be greatly appreciated.

Rebekah Hamner
rahamner at hotmail dot com
from Austin, Texas
living in Tottori, Japan



Frederic83 said...

Hello, Rebekah, c'est frederic de Toulon, franc, Je te cherche a travers le monde depuis quelques mois et je te retrouve au Japon. C'est mon jour de chance !!, donnes moi de tes nouvelles ... musik83tln@aol.com
je t'embrasse tres fort, Frederic

Frederic83 said...

Hello, Rebekah, c'est Frederic de Toulon, France, Je te cherche a travers le monde depuis quelques mois et je te retrouve au Japon. C'est mon jour de chance !!, donnes moi de tes nouvelles ... musik83tln@aol.com
je suis aussi sur : www.myspace.com/frederic
je t'embrasse tres fort, a bientot Frederic