Friday, August 6, 2010

The mummification of Japan

I'm in Osaka this weekend to appear on Yomiuri TV's Wake Up Plus, that rare beast: an intelligent TV show. The story of the moment in Japan is the nationwide hunt for missing centenarians, following the discovery of a modern-day mummy in his bed, 30 years after his death. Officials suspect that a relative did not notify the government of his passing in order to receive the man's benefits.

For the moment, the debate in the Japanese media (including Wake Up Plus) is focused on three main elements: the government's failure to detect which of its benefit-receiving citizens are living and which are dead; the Japanese tendency to leave family matters to the family; and the fact that Japan's privacy laws hinder investigations into this kind of fraud. To me, the tenor of the debate itself reflects Japan's self-flagellating tendency to blame the government and politicians in the first instance.

The fact is that these missing pensioners are a reflection of how deeply and painfully Japan's long stagnation has affected its oldest and youngest citizens. Trite as it sounds, I'll recount a conversation I had with a taxi driver here in Osaka yesterday: at 65, he receives about US$1200 a month in pension benefits from the government. His rent accounts for half of this, and after utilities, his cell phone bill and food, there isn't much left. So he continues to work as a taxi driver, taking home about $1800 a month. (One might wonder how he is allowed to work while receiving public benefits, but the benefits, like the minimum wage, were not meant for people to depend on entirely, I believe.) $36,000 a year isn't bad by global standards, but consider that this man might live for another 30 years and this is as good as it will get for him. While he is clearly putting money aside for his retirement, he expects he will have to move into a smaller apartment when he retires. This is not the fancy globe-trotting retirement that I, at least, had imagined for Japan.

While we hear much talk about China getting old before it gets rich, Japanese people are getting poor before they get old. Younger Japanese will not receive the $1200 a month that that taxi driver gets; they will likely receive much less.

Putting aside the fact that pension fraud is a crime, one larger issue behind these missing old people and their mummified remains is that younger Japanese need to rely on their parents' retirement benefits because the economy is not providing sufficient job opportunities.

Every trip to Japan is more depressing than the last these days; I stay in hotels that will, without the help of big spending Chinese tourists, likely lay fallow, listen to music from pianos that play themselves, pass through ghostly tourist districts designed for a wealthier country. Japan is no longer the country it once was. Policymakers in other rapidly aging countries (and those that struggle to create new jobs, like the US) should take notice.


Gen Kanai said...

I wonder what it will take to force the people of Japan to change their status quo such that it will change their future.

Government is the very last place to look for hope in Japan.

Gen Kanai said...

James Fallows' look back at his time in Japan is actually not negative.

A.J. Sutter said...

Alexandra: Why is it self-flagellation to blame the government and politicians? The government has terribly mismanaged the pension system, siphoning off funds for amakudari, losing almost $1B of pension funds in recreation center investments made during the real estate bubble (as reported in Yomiuri 2010/08/19). Who else should be blamed "in the first instance"?

Gen-san: The awful performance of the DPJ has certainly dashed what hope there was a year ago when they displaced the awful LDP. I have some hope that Japanese citizens can recover the spirit of protest they had a few decades ago. Do you think they can change their status quo in some other way?

Alexandra Harney said...

AJ, In a democratic country with frequent elections, it has become too easy to just blame the politicians in Japan. Sure, the bureaucrats have a lot of power in Japan, but the Japanese public gets a chance to boot out the old guard in the Diet regularly. And why aren't more people blaming Japanese companies, for outdated practices like hiring the vast majority of staff only once a year, for putting age restrictions in job notices, and for maintaining a host of inefficient practices that retard the growth of Japanese companies at home and abroad?