The White House is rolling out the red carpet today for the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. It’s President Joe Biden’s first major foreign leader visit, and they will no doubt discuss China’s growing aggression. But the septuagenarians should also reflect upon what Japan can teach a rapidly aging world. The tech superpower holds a mirror to our collective future, from the economy and future of work to cultural shifts and climate change. Sadly, the reflection isn’t pretty, but the Land of the Rising Sun has defied long odds before, building a modern nation from the ashes of the world’s only nuclear bombings. As Japan innovates again, it could hold lessons we all need to embrace.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter, and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
future of the economy
1. Babies Rn’t Us
Call it a sex stimulus. Japan has the world’s highest proportion of elderly people, with more than 28 percent over the age of 65. Its population is expected to drop from 125 million in 2020 to 87 million by 2060, draining its workforce. Suga’s fighting back by bringing previously uncovered in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other costly fertility treatments onto the national health insurance system. And his administration is playing Cupid by funding artificial intelligence apps that can help people pair up and hopefully parent the next generation of Japanese workers.
It’s not just about the kids. The adults at the world’s central banks are watching Japan too. The U.S. Federal Reserve is refusing to raise interest rates and isn’t worried about any inflation stemming from the Biden administration’s record stimulus package. One key reason is a lurking fear among developed nations that they too might slip into a Japan-like scenario with anemic growth rates. Or, worse still, deflation, a process where people expect prices to keep falling and thus wait longer to purchase their next phone or television — turning a financial crisis into economic quicksand.
3. Rural Revival
Like so many nations, urbanization over several decades has led to an emptying of rural Japan. Which is why, since 2009, the country has been paying city youth three times what they earn in their urban jobs to relocate and take on rural projects. With improved Wi-Fi networks, they can stay connected to family and friends. Some villages have seen their numbers double in recent years, and that was before the pandemic gave us all another reason to work remotely.
No wealthy nation has traditionally rejected immigration as fiercely as Japan, desperate to shield its culture from the influence of “outsiders.” But Japan’s reticence is crumbling. Since 2019, it has proactively recruited hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to inject youth into its workforce. If even Japan is opening its borders, the writing’s on the wall for those who think they can build future economies without the free movement of migrant workers.
5. High-Speed Trains
All aboard! Nobody has quite matched the brilliance of the country’s Shinkansen bullet trains, which have become a symbol of Japanese engineering excellence. But with climate-conscious travelers increasingly dumping airlines for trains, high-speed rail might finally become reality in the U.S. too. While the concept has never fully left the station in America, Biden has backed expanded rail as part of his $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. This means America might get by 2035 what Japan had in the 1960s.
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The Japanese even have a word for it, karoshi, or “death by overwork.” Hundreds die annually in the cubicle-obsessed country of work-related strokes, heart attacks and suicide. But American workers now work even more than their Japanese counterparts, suggesting that global workaholism is setting in. One Japanese practice worth considering?Inemuri, or “sleeping on duty,” the practice of nodding off in public, from your train commute to your office desk. Nap time at the office? That we can live with.
2. Freelance Futures
Meanwhile, Japan’s younger generations are increasingly veering toward freelancing. But this new workforce revolution poses its own problems: 62 percent of Japan’s 11.2 million freelancers say they are subject to “power harassment.” That’s far more than the 38 percent of regular workers who say they have been harassed. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is increasingly shifting into a nontraditional workforce.
Japanese politician Kuniko Inoguchi from the Liberal Democratic Party is pushing a bill that would give workers a four-day workweek. That would be great news for weekend lovers, but it may also benefit companies: Microsoft Japan in 2019 tested a similar shorter workweek and saw productivity jump by 40 percent. But there’s a catch: The proposal allows companies to drop salaries to 80 percent of base pay for the extra day off. While that may deter some, it could mean the planet is ready for change, with the most work-focused culture in the world taking Spanish-style siestas.
4. Robot Workforce
Worried about robots stealing jobs? In Japan, with its dwindling workforce, robots have come in handy in nursing homes, offices and schools. Japan is showing what sci-fi films have suggested all along: Robots could serve humans, particularly the oldest and most vulnerable. And while that may seem less than compassionate, countries struggling with aging populations — or facing deficits in key industries like teaching or nursing, such as the United States — will likely need to employ android assistants sooner than you think.
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The Okinawa Islands earned their nickname by making longevity an art. They boasted 68 centenarians as of 2019, or four times as many people over 100 than anywhere else on the globe. Their secret? A 10-to-1 carbohydrate-to-protein diet heavy on sweet potatoes. Research reveals a low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet protects people from various age-related illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Loneliness Capital
In October 2020, Japan recorded more deaths from suicide than the total number of COVID-19 fatalities since the start of the pandemic. In response to mounting deaths born of isolation, Japan appointed a Minister of Loneliness, Tetsushi Sakamoto, to discover the roots of the deadly problem. Japanese citizens can now hire people to join them for dinner, to serve as their cheerleader or even pretend to be their boyfriend for a day. Could this become the norm worldwide? There is something tragic in imagining a Thanksgiving where you have to hire actors to fill the absence of family and friends.
3. Future of Dining Out?
Loneliness can be a reason for eating alone. But long before the pandemic crushed the world and made social distancing the new normal, Japanese restaurant chain Ichiran began promoting eating quietly in isolation. That’s because they believe “low-interaction dining” with little or no human contact helps people concentrate on their food — and break the stigma associated with eating alone. Could savoring every bite without distraction be the future of post-pandemic dining out?
4. Olympic Test
Despite setbacks and fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, Japan is going ahead with the Summer Olympics. Plowing forward is not just a matter of historical regret for the country that had to cancel its Olympics in 1940. Money, national pride and political stubbornness are also at play. And while experts say it is impossible to curb the transmission of COVID if the games go ahead as planned, organizers say they want to “build a legacy” for society. How that goes will serve as a model for all major global sporting events in a post-pandemic world.
5. No Patriotism Test
Hosting the Olympics may lead to cultural change as the nation’s leaders work to encourage diversity and new immigrants. One proof point? The Japanese rugby team, led by captain Michael Leitch, who was originally born in New Zealand. His leadership of the team stands in contrast to New Zealand’s famous All Blacks squad, which has seen an exodus of players switching to play for other nationalities.
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Japan announced plans to release tons of treated wastewater from the ruined Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean, hoping to ensure the nuclear plant’s damaged reactor cores do not melt. That’s sparked a flood of environmental concern internationally, even as the United Nations and others have rushed to say there has been no significant spike in cancer locally since the 2011 disaster. Still, neighbors as far as Australia and America worry that a potentially toxic brew could be headed for their shores. The Fukushima disaster already spelled a massive setback for nuclear energy, a blow that will be undeniable if it starts poisoning waters abroad.
2. Sushi at Risk
This might leave you raw. Climate change is killing Japanese seaweed, thanks to rising sea temperatures along the Kuroshio current. As local tour guide Jiro Uochi says, the local catch is “just one-tenth of what it was five years ago.” That could be disastrous for Japanese sea farmers in the region, who rely on nori — the thin seaweed sheets for sushi — to make ends meet.
The world knows spring has arrived when the cherry blossoms open in Japan. But not this year. On an exceptionally warm March 26, the cherry blossoms peaked with its earliest date in 1,200 years. It serves as yet another reminder that global warming is unlike anything humanity has seen.
4. Moving Away From Coal Financing
Japanese financial organizations are pulling back on new coal investments while announcing aggressive targets to go carbon neutral. Climate change is one reason, but it’s also cold, hard economics, says energy finance analyst Simon Nicholas, who believes renewable energy is “just going to spread further and get even cheaper.” That’s bad news for the American coal industry, which relies on the Asian market. And it’s not just Japan: South Korea and China are both pursuing aggressive climate goals while moving toward bans on financing overseas coal plants.