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Sunday, March 13, 2011

BIG IN JAPAN

Japan's future is hardly predictable

So this is how history is made. An astonishing phenomenon. Suddenly we are all lifted as by a whirlwind out of our individual, quotidian, petty concerns, into something larger, much larger. Only one name does it justice: Revolution.

There are many striking things about the revolt sweeping the Arab world — sweeping it clean, we hope, though it's far too early to say. Journalists, historians, novelists, poets, intellectuals of all kinds will be writing about it for decades to come, centuries maybe, plumbing depths closed to us who watch it unfold day by day. Even we, though, can see this much: No one, anywhere, saw it coming. Which is scarcely less astonishing than the event itself.

Think of all the brainpower, the trained intelligence, the electronic equipment, focused every second of every day and night on that most strategic and volatile region on Earth. And suddenly, in an instant, everything they had all been observing, scrutinizing, analyzing and probing, morphed out of recognition, leaving the observers and analysts gaping in the same dumb surprise as the rest of us.

Suddenly masses of people in several countries, people who had been living quietly for decades, going about their business, chafing no doubt under their odious regimes but more or less resigned to them — suddenly these masses of people reached a point where they would rather die than go on as they had been. Where is that point? No one knows. And risking arrest, torture, maiming, death, they rose up as one and forced two dictatorships — Tunisia's and Egypt's, both staunch and valued allies of the Western democracies — out of their fortress-palaces into ignominious exile. It's breathtaking.

Among the many, many questions it raises is this: Is the future totally unpredictable? Is history an orderly progression of some sort, or is it a mere chaos, simply whatever happens to happen, analyzable, if at all, only in retrospect?

A thousand years ago the Japanese government included a Bureau of Divination, charged with observing the motions of the planets and stars, noting portents and omens, interpreting dreams. The future was an open book, to those who could read it. The closing of that book must have been very distressing for humankind. Is it really closed? Not for everyone. Fortunetellers flourish to this day in many parts of Asia.

Whether pundits and researchers see farther than they do was never clear and is now less so than ever, after their blindsiding by two defining events of our immediate present — the current Arab upheavals and the global financial collapse of 2008. But somehow failure fails to tarnish them, or to dent the respect their qualifications inspire.

Predictably, Shukan Asahi magazine's recent cover story, "Japan in 2030," quotes no diviners. As for the pundits, what they see is basically what we all see. Common sense is not often clairvoyant, but it sometimes is, and Japan's near-term future is — seems, at least — less murky than many things. Japan in 2030 will be older, smaller and less vigorous than Japan in 2011, which in turn is older, smaller and less vigorous than Japan 20 years ago. Less vigor means more predictability — until, of course, the national energy has drained to such a level as to put its very survival at stake. That's unlikely to happen this side of 2030, and so Shukan Asahi's experts are probably on safe ground in foreseeing a shriveling economy forcing the shrinking "productive" generation (aged 15-64) into increasing and debilitating dependence on the swelling older generation (65 and up) whose care needs risk going largely unaddressed because the shriveled economy will lack the vigor to address them.

Let's look at these forecasts more closely. They may not be infallible but they're certainly interesting. The demographic outlook is unalterable barring a sudden shift of public opinion in favor of mass immigration. At present there's no sign of such a shift — which, of course, doesn't rule it out. The current population of 127 million is expected to contract to 115 million by 2030. The "productive" segment will decline from 81 million now to 67 million. The elderly segment will rise from 29 million to 37 million.

Shrinking population equals shrinking consumption, which saps production, which lowers wages, which reduces consumption still further . . . and so on, a downward spiral. In its midst, the current 6,000-odd senior citizens' homes accommodating some 400,000 residents will not be supplemented at anything approaching the rate of elderly population increase, so that waiting lists, already 400,000 names long, will swell to an estimated 2.1 million names by 2030. Who will care for those 2.1 million? Their struggling families. Who else?

Is this the future, or the past? It's both. Shukan Asahi and its pundits see Japan returning to, if not traditional three-generation households, at least three-generation clusters in which grown children live near their parents, caring for them when necessary and enlisting them as child-minders when possible, because one tradition there's no going back to anytime soon is the full-time housewife and mother. Few families can live comfortably nowadays on a single income.

So far, so (relatively) predictable. But beyond that? Japan in 2050? 2100? The oracles are silent — or foolhardy.

Michael Hoffman's latest book is "Little Pieces: This Side of Japan" (VBW, 2010).


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