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The puzzle of Japan

Few things fascinate me as much as sociology, especially when looked at over long timespans. My interest began while taking an evolutionary anthropology course at UCLA, which combined evolutionary processes with human behavior, and increased as my experience as a software developer trained me to critically identify generalizations and abstractions. I credit Dawkins’ memetics (though imperfect) for crystallizing this fascination.

Anyway, I just read an interesting article in this realm about the widespread drop in interest in sex among younger Japanese. It’s an interesting account of an apparent cultural existential crisis, in which the author surveys cultural and governmental opinions, and then portray several individual stories.

The all-or-nothing work culture for women—if you get married, your career is over—carries over to the men: if you get married, you have to solely bear the burden of income for your family, despite the exorbitant cost of living. So the disinterest in sex seems inevitable and it’s hard to blame them. I speculate that this lifestyle will not be as rewarding as the current youth think. It replaces the huge demands from society with a simpler, attainable self-serving ethos, all about having time to shop, go on vacation, earn money for yourself, etc. While not applicable to every individual, I think humans find longer-term satisfaction in contributing to something greater, such as family or society and I wonder how happy these people will be in old age. One could argue their professional life is a contribution to something bigger, but since that is involuntary and tied to selfish ends, I don’t think it counts (though jobs outside the high-salary limelight could count).

The desire to contribute to something bigger, however it comes about, actually promotes individual survival and quality of life, since it leads to strong group bonds and the benefits of cooperation. A society of outlaws or anarchists will have difficulty enduring, because they’d be fighting an uphill battle against those that, however it comes about, prefer cooperation. The recent Japanese shift away from procreation can also be framed within evolution, though it may appear ironic. A healthy organism comprises a set of internal organs that harmoniously promote each other and meet perceived environmental constraints. The heart benefits the brain benefits the skin, etc, just as various economic sectors and cultural movements contribute to each other to create a resilient vibrant society. When external factors (appear to) change, internal systems can be thrown out of balance. In Japan, the elevation of sexual equality, I would guess from America and Europe, has altered the behavior of the Youth system, such that they no longer find old family customs attractive. But just as organs respond to environmental demands to promote the survival of the organism, I would guess a successive generation of Japanese (though perhaps smaller in number) will naturally identify and react to the deficiencies of the prior generation. “Look at all those unhappy old people that spent their whole lives serving themselves and are now dying alone. Sure they may have sustained our economy but there has to be a better way!” Like a pendulum that has reached it’s highest point, they will correct those deficiencies by effecting shifts in the culture.

This might not occur in the very next successive generation, but I do think it will eventually happen. The basic (more philosophical than scientific) idea is that whatever children are born will have parents that rejection, to some degree, with the recent cultural shift away from family. That rejection will likely be passed to the children from the parents. At the same time, those in society who had accepted the all-or-nothing work culture and had not procreated will not have anyone to propagate the all-or-nothing ideal to. The principle here is that belief propagation through family causes societies to tend toward a sustainable culture. Observing a rebound in the value of family in future Japanese generations will be fascinating, and will exemplify how multiple human generations correct for each other to adapt their culture toward sustainability. Of course, such a model ignores the influence of non-family learning, as well as the social effect of increasing globalization.

The kink here is that these successive Japanese must identify strongly enough as Japanese. If they were to absolve themselves of that identity, and perhaps move to other places where their beliefs (balance between family and work equality) are already widely held, then the Japanese may fall into some more dire, erratic situation. Revolution? Severe economic depression? This all calls into question why the current generation, who prize equality, do not move to other countries where they can be treated equally but also pursue substantial romantic relationships. My only thought is a perceived or real language barrier. I have heard that Japanese are generally embarrassed about practicing English. This might in fact be one of those mutually-reinforcing ideas that allows the entirety of the current overall culture to endure.

I liked the static glimpse into another culture the article gave, but I felt it puzzling and incomplete. (In fact, contributing to this kind of cross-cultural understanding is one of the reasons I’m so driven to develop and grow Blocvox.) The article left me wondering how this unequal all-or-nothing work culture has remained as rigid as it has to date. I would think a loosening of standards would be required to attract, hire, and retain a workforce that is fed up with those impossible pressures. I wonder if this rigidity and sense of order might be a relic of a post-war identity crisis. Also, I wonder how young and old feel of the concerns held of them by the other. Of the youth, I wonder how they feel about the declining birth rate and their responsibility toward the Japanese nation and culture to procreate. Of the old, I wonder how they feel about being responsible for bringing about this unexpected outcome. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to ask them directly.

Follow me on Twitter for the latest updates, and make sure to check out my community opinion startup, Blocvox.


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Natalie said:

“Fewer babies were born here in 2012 than any year on record. (This was also the year, as the number of elderly people shoots up, that adult incontinence pants outsold baby nappies in Japan for the first time.)”


Great post and very interesting article. Agree, can’t wait for that ‘ol Blocvox to start informing our minds!


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