WHAT COUNTRY IS THE BEST PLACE FOR LIVING?- The Record of "Bubble" Era -
Japan is said to be one of the most advanced and prosperous countries, and her Prime Ministers foolishly boast of the figures of GeneralNational Product or ownership of cars. Is Japan really enjoying a material prosperity? Is Japan really a country where the people are contended? Sadly enough,I have plenty of evidence that denies the present state of superficial good fortune.
Politically, Japan is in childhood. She has never experienced huge eruption of bourgeois revolution;the explosion of people's power has never been seen, as in the case of Philippines in 1986. Democracy was 'Caesarian Sectioned' in 1945. They will legislate with ease for plugging the leaks of secret, as they are eagerly doing now. The political leverage of opposition parties is too weak to counter the monolithic Liberal Democratic party. This imbalance causes the people to have antipathy to politics. In order to restore healthy two-party or multi-party system, it is necessary to have strong awareness on the side of the people. But as a famous British statesman put it, 'The people deserve its government'.
Economically, Japan may well in one sense be called a 'socialist state' because of her historic centralization of the power. This is because everything from setting a place for a bus stop to opening a liquor store is severely restricted or controlled. In excessive efforts to achieve an 'orderly' society, the government, traditionally extremely conservative since the Edo period, is reluctant to give free rein to various activities of Japanese society; they think their job is to maintain the acquired rights. But on the other hand the government is overprotective toward domestic industries. The principle of economic freedom or free competition is hardly appreciated in Japan. The present attitude of Ministry of International Trade and Industry is also the very reminder of that of exclusive guilds in the Edo period. In an effort to keep unemployment lowest in the world, MITI and Ministry of Construction together have tried creating jobs by inventing new public enterprise one after another. The results; devastation of nature and extreme depopulation of rural areas.
In the steep appreciation of yen, we have become aware of how distorted our 'living standards' are. Needless to say, most of the Japanese can afford to but 'inexpensive' cars, buy most urban automobile owners are suffering from extremely expensive parking fee and heavy congestion. Some as much as to say they own cars because they can't afford a living place.
It seems we are forced to buy and pay monthly credit while we use cars only on weekends and a traffic mess at that! The Japanese tend to think of cars as something of letting them forget how miserable their dwellings are, not as a mere means of transportation. Look at Sunday papa's polishing their lovely cars at a wash-stand, unable to enjoy driving because the main streets are clogged with vehicles! It is no wonder that such a small country as Japan can contain only a little traffic on her road. Desperately as they construct on highway after another, there can be seen no end for this rat race.
Once, Engel's Coefficient was thought to be the surest indication of a nation's well-being. But in such post-industrial countries as Japan, where agriculture is being pushed out of money-making game, food prices are abnormally high compared with developing countries. A bowl of noodles, for example, costs as much as 400 yen or more in Tokyo, whereas in Hong Kong, less than 40 yen. Overprotective policy toward rice production, notoriously known as rice control account, spurs this tendency... It is ridiculous to pay as much as 5.000 yen for 10kg of rice, while the same amount can be bought at a negligible price in China or India. Eating out has also become luxurious in Japan. It should be more reasonable way of living since individual cooking is in some way waste of time and money for busy people unless he or she has a special liking for cooking. In large cities in China most working people eat out. Yet, such chain restaurants as Skylark, Denny's Royal Host charge surprising fees for everyday meals. A cut of coffee costs more than 300 yen ($2)!
This uncomfortable imbalance makes the people more frustrated, consciously or unconsciously; they are persuaded to buy expensive electric gadgets and furniture, by which they are made to believe they belong to one of the highly advance countries, an illusion, while they are obliged to pay extraordinary expenses for food, housing and other necessities. The reason for the smoldering discontentment is that they are not spending money according to their own will, but to subtle psychological influences of advertisers, and taken advantage of monstrous distribution network which devours the vast differences between consumer prices and wholesale prices.
The Japanese used to say, 'as if it were cat's forehead!'. Rather, urban dwellers are obliged to stay on a patch of Salonpas, nationally famous plaster for relieving stiff neck! More than 20 years ago, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka proclaimed 'Reforming the Japan archipelagoes',every countryside was brought up with eye-popping prices. Nowadays, a new kind of gentrification is devastating the metropolitan area, largely controlled by greedy real estate dealers. This process, similarly seen in New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong and other large cities, urges new concentration of the population rolling in wealth, with the building up of new computer-controlled financial center and, also large scale expulsion of the poor. In the 50s-60s the tendency was quite the opposite. Affluent people were moving out to the suburbs, while the poor stayed in the urban, crowded areas, forming slums. But nowadays the movement has been set in reverse. The poor can longer afford to live in the centralized, high-rise building areas, where they used to live from the beginning of the Edo period. The resulting breakdown of the community life is also causing accelerated mass buying spree by greedy developers, leaving many poor people homeless. The future cities might be completely devoid of slums in the central areas, as seen in Reiji Matsumoto's comic, 'Galaxy Express 999', but lined with cold rows of steel and glass, that is, an artificial environment. The tendency, now world-wide seen, will have led to the formation of several megalopolis in the world. Tokyo-Yokohama-Chiba area will be one of them.
Due to all the wealth, the Japanese has lost their thrifty spirit they used to have soon after the war. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the whole amount of left-overs of a Ginza night equals to the food abundant and nutrient enough to support a famine-ridden country for a day. The Japanese scarcely feel guilty of their wasteful life style, only because they think it is they who achieved the present prosperity. This arrogant attitude has something in common with Nang King Massacre and other atrocities they had done during the World War 2. Since they are not given to introspection and they are never devoured by feelings of guilt, it seldom occurs to them that the devastation of forest in South East Asia and world wide extinction of wildlife are largely due to their economic exploitation. They think their way is the best and other Asian developing nations should follow their footsteps. When they 'help' their neighboring countries with, for example, agriculture, they only think of construction large scale dams and irrigation canals. What the people need is not products of modern technology, but more long-standing skills for self-sufficiency, which cannot be achieved only by the investment of yen, but by abundant supply of experienced engineers and farmers. Without enough domestic products, these countries will be devoured by voracious Japanese conglomerates.
Thanks to the appreciation of yen, the government announced the plan to construct Japanese villages abroad, such as in Spain, Australia and Canada. Since prices are so low there, the old may enjoy affluent and contented lives. But there is a setback. That is inborn xenophobia of the Japanese derived from insularism during the Edo period. Most Japanese are reluctant to learn foreign languages and tend to seclude themselves from the native community. They are not willing to expose themselves in it, much less mix with it. A woman in Brazil, who immigrated from Japanese 60 years ago, remains unable to speak Portuguese, a native tongue there. This is simply because she can completely get along using only Japanese within the Japanese colony. It will be a long way to assimilate with the natives. But language barrier apart, it will be a comforting experience to live among the people who have never been baptized 'helter skelter' economic growth.
When it comes to our living standard, what makes us happy is neither great wealth as we see in advanced countries or bottomless poverty, but middle-of-the-way thrift-orientedness, that is, a pyramid-shaped living-style, rich in staples and scarce in luxuries. As we know from everyday experiences, scarcely attainable goals or too much saturated conditions can cause unhappiness. The present Japan is rapidly seeking for the latter and it will not be long before they become frustrated and obliged to fundamentally change their way of life.
What is the ideal way of living? The following is my tentative assumption. From psychologically, morally and environmentally healthy point of view it must be determined. Now, an average American is said to eat 1kg of beef a day. 1kg of beef is made by feeding 5-7kg of corns to the cattle. These corns can support, roughly speaking, more than 10 people of India or China for a day. If all the people in the world took the same amount of beef as average Americans do, even three times of the present farmland would not be enough. There must be some point where a quality curve and a quantity curve meet. (See fig.A) Leading a life above that point might be at least morally wrong. Thus when we think of living standards from global perspective, that is, divided by the whole population of the earth, the individual share of the pie might be very small. The present life in luxury in advanced countries actually deprives the rest of the people of their share. I don't mean to say that all the people should have exactly the same share; that is impossible and the goal itself is contrary to humanity. But no one can deny that to fill the gap, to mitigate the predicament of the poor is of the most significant urgency today. For that matter, Japan, to say nothing of the U.S. and Western Europe, does assume grave responsibility.
Now I'd like to live in so called 'half-advanced' countries (cities), where only a few affluent people can afford luxuries, whereas most people try hard to get to that goal. If that country (city) has become 'completely advanced', then I will have to leave it and find another one. The country where living standard has reached a saturation point does not appeal to me. New York, London, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo used to be typical examples of the former, but owing to ravaging gentrification they are, like wildfire, turning into ones where only the privileged rich can live. Chaos, once the very source of urban energy, might in the course of time be completely lost in those cities. But another area, such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Calcutta and Mexico City may be taking over the liveliness those cities used to have.
I have heard lately of the news that a famous live house opened 15years ago in Shinjuku was obliged to close due to the very result of gentrification, the steep uprising of tenant fee. Small entrepreneurs and artists are finding it hard to make a living in Tokyo area. They may also have to find their place abroad, as many automobile manufactures do. Well, the time is now rapidly changing.We may call this, "The Bubble Era"!
First Written; January 1987