Sunday, April 27, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 3 - Unbought Christmas Cake

There is a saying in Japan that translates to "unbought Christmas cake".  In Japan it is custom for couples to eat a special and elaborate Christmas-themed cake.  Every year bakery chefs go to great lengths to stock the most popular and sublime cakes for this special time of year.  It is a labor of love.  Tragically, cakes don't last very long and since they're made especially for Christmas any still left on the 26th are either thrown away or sold at a deep discount.

"Unbought Christmas cake".  This is what you are called if you are an unmarried woman at 26.

It's not a term used with regularity in Japan.  Also, it's not even close to the norm.  The average age for a woman to get married is currently 27 and rising.  Still, I tell my Christmas cake story because it's the kind of term used among women in Japan, the kind of term that is jokingly used among friends when no one is looking, the kind of term you find buried within the editorial sections of trashy fashion magazines. 

Feminism is an odd creature in Japan.  Girls have more or less equal educational opportunity as boys throughout high school and indeed performance is decidedly par.  It's college where you see significant drop-offs. Female enrollment at Tokyo University is about 19%.  Compare that to Harvard, which is at 49%.  The imbalance of highly educated men vs. highly educated women permeates through to the workforce.  While it is not an uncommon sight, it is rare to see highly skilled, highly driven women at the top levels of the workforce.

To be sure, the Japanese workplace is a hostile place for women.  Sexual harassment, demeaning gender attitudes, and prohibitively inflexible maternity leave policies all contribute to this.  However, my take on the situation is that it isn't the workplace that's disenfranchised with women, its women who are disenfranchised with the workplace.  The Japanese workforce NEEDS women.  It is diminishing and graying at a rate unheard of in modern first world history.  Multi-national firms with women-friendly policies are reaping the benefits.  Less progressive firms are finding they need to adjust to stay competitive.  Market forces are changing attitudes and creating opportunities for women willing to take on the responsibility. 

However many women are not.  The numbers bear this out.  Japan actually slipped 11 ranks to 91st in The Economist's survey of gender equality falling behind manufacturing-based economies such as Cuba and Vietnam.  I can't say I blame Japanese women.  I used to be a salary-man in Japan.  It's hell.  You work late.  You commute hours on a sweaty, crowded train.  You're hardly if ever appreciated.  Given the choice, a life of stay-at-home wife doesn't sound bad. In an attempt not to sound like a complete sexist jerk, not all women in Japan feel this way - but a lot do. 

What does this have to do with Japanese population decline?

While there is no shortage of Japanese couples in Japan, there is an abundance of sexless couples.  It is a fact of life that lots of people get married and then are unhappy with that marriage.  Things change.  I'm not suggesting that this is anything new.  Broken marriages have existed since the dawn of time.  What is new however is the age of what I'd like to call "Incomplete Feminism".  A good number of women in Japan are choosing not to fulfill their filial duty and rightly so.  It's their uterus; they should do with it what they want. 

The big gap between Japan and their western counterparts is divorce.  While it may be controversial, my belief is that a certain percentage of marriages that end in divorce is a good thing.  Marriages, like jobs can be either productive or unproductive.  Macroeconomists will tell you that a certain level of unemployment is a good thing because an unemployed worker isn't always someone who's been laid off.  It might be that he's just looking for a job where he or she can be more productive.  I hypothesize that a healthy divorce rate is akin to a healthy unemployment rate.  It allows for unproductive marriages to make way for productive ones.

Japan's divorce rate is exceedingly low.  Less than 1% of new marriages in Japan end in divorce.  This is an astonishing rate.  #1 Sweden is at 54%.  The U.S. is at 45%.  Japan's rate is even less than India's.  While, I don't argue that this is the only factor in Japan's population decline, I do argue that it is a major indicator of so-called sexless marriages and which contributes heavily to population decline. 

What can be done about it?

A career-oriented woman with a stable job in an unhappy marriage can divorce the bum she's married to and start fresh.  She can choose to have kids with a man who loves and respects her.  If not, she can opt to go it alone.  You'd think then that being a career-oriented woman in Japan is incredibly attractive.  You would not get this idea if you read JJ, ViVi, CamCam or myriad of other Japanese fashion magazines.  The attitudes of Japanese men need to change before women become common in the workplace. However, Japanese women also need to take a hard look at themselves and shoulder a lot of the blame.  Women calling each other "Unbought Christmas Cake" imply that the only path toward happiness in life is to find a rich handsome husband, marry, and live happily ever after.  Japanese women should have more confidence in themselves, and if they're unhappy with their boyfriend or husband they should cut and run.  That's the only way Japanese women will change.  Hell, that's the only way Japanese men will change too.  

Take it from someone who knows ;)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Are the Torch Relay Protests Good for Tibet?

Olympic torch protests in Paris, San Francisco, and now New Delhi are getting wide media attention and are captivating the world's attention.  However the question that interests me is not whether Tibet should be its own country.  My own political convictions aside, I think the answer depends on who you ask.  Rather, the question people should be asking is - are the torch relay protests helping or hurting the cause of Tibetan independence?

I believe the protests are hurting the Tibetan cause.  The struggle for Tibet is one that ongoing for a half century and has included the suppression of numerous uprisings and has involved significant bloodshed on both sides.  In this context the worldwide protests that have been occurring in recent weeks in response to the violence seen in Tibet last month seem nothing less than a gross politicizing of the Olympic games.  If so many foreigners felt this strongly about Tibet, where were these protests last year when China completed it's Lhasa express railroad?  In fact, where were they in the '50s when they invaded Tibet in the first place?  Clearly, foreign protesters are using the Olympic torch as a rallying cry to express their hostility on the topic of Tibet and other pent up frustrations. 

Why is this bad for Tibetan independence? 

The reason, according to the Chinese government is the Olympics should not be used as a forum to advance a political agenda.  I think that it goes much deeper than that. One must try to understand the Chinese perspective.  I do not think that westerners realize how much importance and emotion the average Chinese person has invested into these Olympics.  Much like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Chinese have been anticipating the 2008 Olympic games as a global showcase of how far they've advanced as a prosperous competitive free market economy. A Chinese friend of mine once described the Beijing Olympics as a the nation's "Coming Out Party".  Since 2001 the Olympics have been a part of the national dialogue and a great source of pride for the people.  Hence for many Chinese, a protest against the Olympic torch is construed not only as a protest against it's Tibet policy but a protest against the greatness of China itself. 

The hope of the protesters (I assume) is that by drumming enough popular support they can effectively negotiate terms with the government of China.  This is ridiculous.  If protestors really wanted to see change they should be using different means to achieve their goal and/or direct their anger at someone else.  China is not France.  It is not a country that has more transportation stoppages due to strike than it has due to bad weather.  Especially on these matters the Chinese government is a straight communism and it does not care whether someone protests against them or not - especially when it's a bunch of hippies off in some other country.

By using the Olympic torch relay as a platform for their protests the Chinese government has no choice to become even more defensive and maintain an even harder line with it's position on Tibet.  Anything else would constitute a massive loss in face.  The demonstrations, although well intentioned, are making the prospect of a free and independent Tibet far more unlikely. 


Also, I realize I am detracting from my series on Japanese Population decline.  I apologize for this but I thought that I should write about this while it is topical.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Japanese Population Decline 2 - the vicious cycle

Tokyo University is Japan's Harvard.  Kyoto University, Princeton.  Acceptance into either pretty much guarantees you a spot in the country's elite.  Top government, banking, consulting, and scientific posts are filled with To-dai and Kyo-dai graduates.  However there is a big difference in Japan.  Harvard and Princeton are private universities.  Tokyo and Kyoto are public - meaning state subsidized and affordable.

To be sure many excellent private universities exist in Japan such as Waseda and Keio.  However, educational prestige in Japan is decidedly connected to public institutions.  Many Japanese carry around the notion that private universities can be "bought" into.  For children, this means that the quality of education you recieve has little to do with what your parents can afford but how much effort you put into it.  The net result is a Japan that is far more egalitarian than the United States.  Since World War II, Japan has been dominated by a huge middle class.  As we shall discuss, this is changing.

For much of Japan's post-war history the crucial college entrance examination has been the great equilizer in its society.  Students from impoverished backgrounds have climbed the socio-economic ladder with a mix of talent and hard work.  Conversely there are socio-economic drop-offs.  Tales of rich "Ronin" children who fail to meet expectations often spend years in limbo to prepare themselves for next year's examination. 

What does this have to do with population decline?  One word:  'Jyuku'. 

The Japan I have just described is all theory.  The reality in Japan today is that despite public university's low tuition, attendance is dominiated by children coming from rich families.  Research indicates that over half of Tokyo University Students attended private high school and almost all attended 'jyuku' - special afterschool cram sessions designed specifically to "crack" the test.  Think Kaplan on steroids. 

Convetional wisdom in Japan says that you have to send your child to expensive 'jyuku' and privates school for him/her to succeed in life.  If you are rich Japanese couple and you want your kid to have the advantages you enjoyed, it's not a luxury, it's a necessity.  Costs for such services are getting prohibatively expensive in Japan and as a result - affluent parents are having fewer and fewer children.

The same is not true of Japan's less educated, less afluent class.  While low by world-wide standards they are having children in larger numbers.  What demographers in Japan are seeing is - as a result of this reproductive asysmetry - a shift betwen Japan's "haves" and "have nots".  The population of "haves" - defined as upper-middle and upper - in Japanese society is shrinking while "have nots" - lower-middle and lower - is steadily growing.  The net result of this shift is that national wealth is more unevenly distributed than at any time post-WWII.  Japan's middle-class mountain is transforming into twin peaks.

In an era of absolute population decline competition for Tokyo and Kyoto university is at an all time high.  While the story of a poor man becoming rich is uplifting and happy, the story of a rich man becoming poor is depressing and sad.  While intelligence, work ethic and memory are randomly assigned by the genetic lottery, how much money your parents have is not.  Say you have a stupid son.  While it is not possible to "buy" him a path into a top national university in Japan, you can however throw a lot of money at the problem and increasingly that is what a lot of affluent parents are doing.

This has become a vicious cycle in Japan.

  1. Population decline in Japan is not distributed evenly throughout Japan's social class. 
  2. This shift away from Japan's egalitarian makeup increases the importance of expensive after-school classes and enrollment in private institutions. 
  3. Wealthy parents choose to have less children because of the high costs to maintain social standing
Although Japan's education system is excellent the process by which academic institutions select their student body badly needs revising.  The 'one-shot' entrance examination which has long served Japan is considered by most educators to be out-dated and ineffective. Japan must realize the economic reality that a generation of 'Jyuku'-educated youth are having on the nation.  The notion of the Japanese toward their university system is wrong.  It is possible more than every before to "buy" your child's position in society.  What we must realize is that the costs aren't just bad for parents, they are bad for Japan as well.

Music by Marco Benevento from the album Invisible Baby

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Japanese Population Decline - Intro

As a Japanese-American guy who plans on doing a lot of reproducing in his lifetime (ladies?) I think a lot about Japanese population decline.  Which is why I decided to write a series of essays that specifically discuss this issue.  Japan's population decline is the most pertinent issue facing the country.  According to the Economist:

Japan's birth rate fell below the replacement rate of 2.1 in the early 1970s. It slid to a low of 1.26 in 2005, before inching up last year to 1.32—nobody calls it a recovery. In 2005 Japan's population began to fall in absolute terms, despite increasing life expectancy. It is about to shrink at a pace unprecedented for any nation in peacetime. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research estimates a total population of 95m by 2050, with the elderly accounting by then for two-fifths of the total.

The implications to Japanese society are enormous.  From a purely conceptual level the Solow growth model predicts a decline in national GDP directly proportional to the decline in population.  For more concrete consequences one need only look at rising per-capita healthcare costs and the imminent social security meltdown.    Specifically I'd like to address:
  1. What is causing it?
  2. What can be done?
Who cares?  Well, me for one.  I am one proud Japanese dude but when I look at the graph above I think 'wow, the party's almost over'.  Of course, Japan is not the only country facing this problem.  Similar replacement rates exist in European countries particularly France, Italy and Germany.  China, with it's 40 year-old one child policy is beginning to face the music.  The truth is population decline is an issue that will effect everyone in some way.  Japan is a just an exemplary in this aspect.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Life Update

So I am in Frankfurt Germany.  The last two weeks I've settled in, found an apartment, and went through a week of training in Dusseldorf.  Next week I will be staffed on my first real consulting project.  Where in the world  (literally) they put me, I don't know.  I have to admit, I'm scared shitless.  The last time I had a "client" was when I worked at the Lonestar Steakhouse in Whippany, NJ.  That was 10 years ago.  I think I put a booger in the guy's soup.  We were short on croutons!

Alive and well.  -Toshi