March 27, 2009


AN AMERICAN EXPORT TO JAPAN: The Culture of Death & the Death of a Culture (Michael Thomas Cibenko, 2/09, New Oxford Review)

For four years, from 1996 to 2000, I was employed as a teacher of English in Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Japan. During that time I met and married a Japanese woman, and our first son was born there. I vividly recall going with my wife to the clinic to verify that she was indeed with child. After confirming that she was, the first thing the doctor asked us, in a rather matter-of-fact manner, was whether we wanted to keep the baby. I remember with equal clarity my offense to the question as, in my mind, there really was no question about it. A baby had been conceived and, in accordance with natural law, that child would be nurtured and brought into the world. To this day, I don't know whether the doctor's question was a matter of protocol within the Japanese healthcare system, but it left a lasting impression on me.

The first time I saw my newborn son was from behind the large window of the post-delivery room in which there were some twenty-five little beds. But only two of those beds were occupied: one by my son and one by a baby girl who had been born the same day. Though filled with the joy of becoming a new father, I couldn't help but be struck by the image of this room with so many empty little beds. I didn't give the matter too much thought at the time, reasoning that perhaps it was just a "slow" time of the year.

Several weeks later, my wife and I received an unexpected sum of money from the prefectural government. At that time, it was roughly the equivalent of $3,000. When I asked why we were being given this money, my wife discovered that it was an incentive to encourage couples to have more children. This fascinated me because (as I confess with some embarrassment), until that time, I had been oblivious to the fact that Japan was facing a low-birthrate crisis. The subsequent research I conducted on this issue caused me further embarrassment, as the data is plain as day for anyone with eyes to see.

What also struck me was the stark contrast between our doctor's initial question and the cash "reward" we received. It seemed I was living in a culture that, on the one hand, did not wholeheartedly embrace the sanctity of new life but, on the other hand, recognized that there was a problem stemming from the lack of it. It was like some kind of cultural schizophrenia that can be likened to a race in which an official at the finish line holds out a prize, yet another official at the starting gate asks runners whether, in fact, they really want to run at all.

Once my eyes were opened to the reality of Japan's low birthrate, it was amazing how many more telltale signs I observed over the subsequent months and years. Though I primarily taught at a junior high school, I was also asked to periodically visit area kindergartens and nursery schools. Almost without exception, the schools I visited were ones that had been built to accommodate relatively large numbers of children. But the number of children actually present at any of these schools was far, far fewer than what had been anticipated. I visited one nursery school, for example, that had been built twenty years earlier to accommodate fifty children, but had an enrollment of only eight.

The starkest example I encountered was an elementary school that had been built for a student population of at least one hundred. There were several full-size classrooms, a large gymnasium, library, playground, swimming pool, and parking lot. But I was astounded to discover on my first visit that there was only one student. One student with one teacher. Not wanting to seem impolite, yet unable to suppress my curiosity, I asked the teacher why this large school remained open for a single student. He explained that, by law, the school had to remain open until transportation arrangements could be made to bus the boy to a neighboring village. There had been a time, he reminisced with obvious sadness, when the school was filled with the sounds of children at play and the teachers who instructed them. My mind flashed back to the birth of my son and the room full of empty beds.

I later attended an autumn festival in my village at which elders traditionally take turns calling out the names of babies born that year. But that portion of the festival was very short and somewhat awkward, as there were dozens of senior citizens but only three names to be called. I heard similar stories from other towns and villages in the area in which there were no names at all. I also recall a trip to the city of Fukuoka where I witnessed the bizarre sight of elderly women cuddling robotic dolls. It was explained to me that women buy these expensive dolls because they have no grandchildren to dote on. The dolls, which apparently sell in huge quantities, tell their owners how much they love them, and welcome them when they walk back into the room. The more I saw sights such as these, the more I realized that, despite all the beauty of Japan and her rich culture, something had gone terribly wrong. [...]

According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's annual report on world demographics, Japan's population peaked in 2005, and will plunge from its current 127 million to just 89 million in 2050 -- a decline of 30 percent. In terms of median age, Japan is currently the oldest nation on earth. The median age in Japan today is 43 years old, which, from the data I've read, is twice the age of many African nations. Japan will continue to hold this title through the year 2050, when the average age in Japan is projected to be 61 years old.

...that aliens landed here today and decided to study our recent history. As they looked at the post-war/post-occupation of continental Europe and Japan wouldn't they be likely to conclude that we, the victors, had achieved our aim of destroying these societies so that they wouldn't bother us again?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2009 6:07 AM
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