April 29, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Marie Burns:
I truly wish New York Times columnist Ross Douthat would start reading the New York Times. Today our young savant likens the nation of Japan to the dystopian horror of P. D. James’ 1992 novel Children of Men.
In James’ story, set in 2021, the men of the world have become infertile, and the last generation born is now adult. In a world without children or hope of a future, civilization crumbles, the arts are abandoned, the government of Great Britain (where the story is set) becomes a dictatorship. The youngest Brits are arrogant and vapid; the childless substitute dolls and kittens for children. The elderly receive economic incentives to participate in mass suicides. James said her idea for the novel came from a “review of a scientific book drawing attention to a dramatic drop in the sperm count of Western men – fifty percent in as many years.” The novel is apparently popular with Roman Catholics as a “moral parable” suffused in religious imagery and a message that resonates with traditional church teachings. The story’s protagonist writes in his diary, “During the mid-1990s the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism.” How quaint to have a New York Times columnist who can’t get over the Reformation.
According to Douthat, “James’s book … worked by exaggerating existing trends – the plunge in birthrates across the developed world, the spread of voluntary euthanasia in nations like the Netherlands and Switzerland, the European struggle to assimilate a growing immigrant population.” (Douthat’s concern about euthanasia sounds suspiciously as if he’s channeling fellow-papist Rick Santorum. And in case he hadn’t noticed, it isn’t only European countries who are struggling to assimilate their immigrant population.)
But let us move on to the main source of Douthat’s hand-wringing. That would be Japan, “The Incredible Shrinking Country” – which Douthat says
is making ‘Children of Men’ look particularly prophetic. In Japan, birthrates are now so low and life expectancy so great that the nation will soon have a demographic profile that matches that of the American retirement community of Palm Springs…. The Japanese birthrate hovers around just 1.3 children per woman, far below the level required to maintain a stable population. Thanks to increasing life expectancy, by 2040 … the overall Japanese population is likely to decline by 20 percent….
My immediate visceral reaction was, “That doesn’t sound so bad. There are way too many people in Japan anyway.” It turns out Japan is not as densely populated as the Netherlands. No wonder the Dutch government is killing off the elderly Dutch, just like in James’ novel. But still, I’m an aging person, and I’ve never been happier. And people love Palm Springs!
Douthat warns of “grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net…. [It is] a society that sometimes evokes the infertile Britain in James’s dystopia.” How bad is it? According to Douthat,
Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and there were rashes of Internet-enabled group suicides in the last decade. Rental ‘relatives’ are available for sparsely attended wedding parties; so-called ‘babyloids’ – furry dolls that mimic infant sounds – are being developed for lonely seniors; and Japanese researchers are at the forefront of efforts to build robots that resemble human babies. The younger generation includes millions of so-called ‘parasite singles‘ who still live with (and off) their parents, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of the ‘hikikomori‘ .. ‘young adults … who shut themselves off almost entirely by retreating into a friendless life of video games, the Internet and manga (comics) in their parents’ home.’
Japan’s high suicide rate is a function of myriad factors, but the main reasons usually cited are unemployment and other economic hardships, depression, and social pressures. Contributing factors are Japan’s long history of glorifying the “honorable” or “noble” death and its honor-shame culture. Also, it’s probably really depressing to live in those cramped Tokyo apartments. The Japanese government has established suicide prevention measures, and the rate has come down slightly in the past few years, even in 2011 despite the devastating earthquake and nuclear disaster. That “spate of Internet-enabled group suicides” with which Douthat aims to horrify us seems to have peaked in 2006. The “groups” in the group suicides were two or three people, and they accounted for “less than 0.01% of all suicides combined.” Nothing compared to the Jonestown massacre, where “909 Americans were led to their death by the [religious cult leader] Rev. Jim Jones in a mass murder-suicide pact…, shortly after Jones’ gunmen killed a visiting U.S. congressman and four others at a nearby airstrip.”
As for all that other nonsense Douthat cites, I guess he didn’t see the American film “The Wedding Date,” in which the heroine hires a male escort to play the part of her boyfriend at a friend’s wedding. Hilarity ensues! A happy ending! For years nursing homes and other elder-care facilities in the U.S. have used pets to give seniors a sense of closeness to another being. This isn’t weird; it’s a sensible and sensitive substitute for people who have lost their loved ones. And Douthat got his story about Japanese robot people from a Smithsonian story about Americans building robot people. As for “parasite singles” and “hikkomori,” we’ve got ‘em, too.
What roused Douthat’s interest in the “incredible shrinking” of Japan is an article by demographer Nicholas (“Nick,” to Douthat) Eberstadt. Eberstadt is a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. He did not write the notorious Heritage Foundation report that claimed America’s poor were living on Easy Street because they had refrigerators and coffee makers. Rather, he is the father of this genre of poverty pooh-poohing. In fact, he wrote the book on it. Here’s what he writes in a 2006 article published by the right-wing Hoover Institution:
Trends in furnishings and appurtenances for American households similarly record the steady spread of desirable consumer appliances to poor and nonpoor households alike. From 1970 to the present, poorer households’ access to or possession of modern conveniences has been unmistakably increasing. For many of these items – including telephones, television sets, central air conditioning, and microwave ovens – prevalence in poverty-level households as of 2001 exceed availability in the typical U.S. household as of 1980, or in nonpoor households as of 1970. By the same token, the proportion of households lacking air-conditioning was lower among the officially poor in 2001 than among the general public in 1980. By 2001, over half of all poverty-level households had cable television and two or more television sets. Moreover, by 2001 one in four officially poor households had a personal computer, one in six had internet access, and three out of four had at least one vcr or dvd – devices unavailable even to the affluent a generation earlier.
Definitely one of Douthat’s people. The Eberstadt article which Douthat cites is firewalled, so I’ll have to take Douthat’s word for it when he writes that
Japan is facing such swift demographic collapse, Eberstadt’s essay suggests, because its culture combines liberalism and traditionalism in particularly disastrous ways. On the one hand, the old sexual culture, oriented around arranged marriage and family obligation, has largely collapsed. Japan is one of the world’s least religious nations, the marriage rate has plunged and the divorce rate is higher than in Northern Europe.
So many problems could be solved if only people would turn to religion. (Oddly, Douthat does not mention Lithuania, the country with the world’s highest suicide rate. Seventy-nine percent of Lithuanians are members of the Roman Catholic Church.)
As Chico Harlan lays out in today’s Washington Post, it is true that the current Japanese tax structure is not adequate to fund “soaring social security costs,” a problem its Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, plans to change with an unpopular tax increase.
But – and this gets back to my lede – in a New York Times op-ed essay published in January, Eamonn Fingleton argued that “By many measures, the Japanese economy has done very well during the so-called lost decades, which started with a stock market crash in January 1990. By some of the most important measures, it has done a lot better than the United States.” In the two decades following the Japanese stock market crash, and largely as a result of a healthcare system superior to ours, Japanese life expectancy increased by 4.2 years; at 83 years of age, life expectancy in Japan is almost five years longer than in the U.S. The Japanese business and physical infrastructures are betters than ours. Japan has rebuilt and enhanced its industrial base. Japan’s unemployment rate is about half that of the U.S. “From the end of 1989, the yen has risen 87 percent against the U.S. dollar.” Japan has a large trade surplus; the U.S. has a huge trade deficit.
By many measures, the Japanese live more luxurious lives than do Americans. They are first to adopt the latest technology; the Japanese per-capita use of electricity is twice that of the U.S. (electrical output is a measure of affluence); Toyko has more top-ranked restaurants than does Paris, the runner-up (according to the [French] Michelin guide); and, said one Western observer of Japan, “The Japanese are dressed better than Americans. They have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models.”
Fingleton fairly mocked alarmists like Douthat and Eberstadt for their view that the Japanese demographic trend is “a critical failure [and] as a policy problem.” Fingleton writes that “It never seems to occur to Western commentators that the Japanese both individually and collectively have chosen their demographic fate,” a decision they made after World War II, when they established a policy to cut the birthrate to ensure food security.”
In a direct shot at Douthat’s adopted theory, Fingleton noted, “Many economists, particularly right-wing think-tank types, are such staunch advocates of laissez-faire that they reflexively scorn Japan’s very different economic system, with its socialist medicine and ubiquitous government regulation.” Fingleton also argues that Japanese businesses and the government have outfoxed Westerners, playing the “fallen giant” card to their advantage. “Virtually everyone in Tokyo benefits from the doom and gloom story.”
So, no, the Japanese are not going to quit having babies as in P. D. James’ futuristic novel. But they probably will keep having them at about the rate of 1.3 children per woman. That, after all, is the plan. Neither are the Japanese going to institute government-sponsored mass suicides. On the contrary, the government is trying to reduce the number of suicides. Douthat presents no evidence whatever that religion would positively mitigate the social fabric of Japan, especially a religion like Christianity where the belief system centers on the concept of noble death and the promise of a beautiful afterlife that contrasts with the vicissitudes of earthly existence. (It’s true that the Roman Catholic Church bans suicide, a result of the early Christians’ enthusiasm for emulating the Christ figure and marching enthusiastically into the lions’ den.) And in a culture that honors its elders, young Japanese will certainly continue to provide an adequate social safety net for its elderly citizens.
If Douthat’s premise is flawed, his conclusion is ridiculous:
If there’s any reason for real optimism in this picture, it’s for Americans…. Our family structures are weakening, but high out-of-wedlock birthrates may be preferable to no births at all. We assimilate immigrants more slowly than we should, but at least we’re capable of assimilation…. Our religious institutions still supply solidarity and uplift as well. Our economy is weak and our deficits are large, but at least we aren’t asking the next generation to bear the kinds of burdens that today’s under-30 Japanese will someday have to shoulder.
In an overpopulated world, Douthat advocates for high birth rates, no matter what the circumstances. Late last year he even proposed “a dramatically expanded child tax credit” to encourage American families (or single parents) to have more children. Maybe it’s a Catholic thing.
In his column today, Douthat proposes higher immigration. Has he noticed how his party feels about that? Republicans might be okay with Prince William and his wife moving to the U.S., but other foreigners are not welcome. Republicans are even advocating for changing the Constitution to prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from becoming citizens. The GOP’s new “severely conservative” standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, would make life in the U.S. so difficult for undocumented workers that they would voluntarily “self-deport.”
As for our not asking the next generation to bear the burdens of the elderly – oh, yes, we are. We may do so in an orderly, institutional way, as progressives – and the Japanese – would have it. Or, as conservatives prefer, we may foist the indigent elderly on whoever will take them: younger family members, charities, hospitals and Dickensian eldercare homes. True, the conservative method would mean lower life expectancy (and tremendous societal stress), so actual costs would be lower. That’s about the most heartless calculus imaginable. The GOP plan is to let the nation’s elderly fend for themselves with no social safety net to catch them if they fall and can’t get up. Douthat should quit looking across the waters to find “support” for his religious beliefs and start looking at his own party to see how it violates basic principles that nearly all religious systems and secular humanists hold.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com