since February 13, 1999

Japan's Elegant Suicide


ichiharu Shimada is 64 and homeless. He scrabbles for construction jobs at $60 a day (half of which goes to his gangster recruiters) and at night sleeps in a cardboard box on the steps of Osaka station, along with a growing number of other casualties of the recession. He wears a jacket and tie at all times: "I was born in Osaka, and I might meet someone who knows me." But Shimada takes off his shoes before getting into his cardboard shelter. In Japan you always remove your shoes before entering your home. Even if you are homeless.

  Japan is suffering. The economy is shrinking: GDP will fall an estimated 2.4% in fiscal year 1998, miring the nation in its worst recession since World War II, pulling down the rest of Asia. Japanese banks' cumulative bad debt equals the size of the entire British economy. As the downward spiral worsens, the message from Washington, Beijing and just about everywhere else is deafening: "Pull up, pull up." But still Japan vacillates. Conventional wisdom holds that the Japanese are too comfortable, scarcely aware that they're living in a recession. But a two-week trip through the day-to-day world of coffee shops, pachinko parlors, schools, bars, train stations and living rooms reveals something very different: a population slowly being consumed by fear, hopelessly devoid of ideas about how to turn things around. The warning lights are all flashing red, but there appears to be no one prepared to take the controls and pull the country out of its dive.

  Japan, the country that raised suicide to an art form, appears to be locked in a kind of national death spiral. Bizarre things are happening throughout Japanese society--omens, perhaps, of a malaise that goes far deeper than the Nikkei's woes. Consider the mysterious wave of poisonings sweeping the country. Since last July, when four people died and 63 were hospitalized after eating curry laced with arsenic at a festival in Wakayama prefecture, police have reported 34 similar attacks across the nation. To outsiders, the country may seem comfortable and unperturbed. But it doesn't take long to find a hollow dread beneath the surface.

  Shimada, for one, is afraid. He sleeps in the same spot every night at the station's south exit and, for mutual protection, has befriended the men who sleep in the boxes on either side of him. He keeps a plastic bottle of shochu, rice spirit, for comfort. Though the cold nights of winter have descended, Shimada's box has become his prison. He has no idea how to get out of it.

  Only a 10-minute taxi ride from Osaka station is Grand Cafe, a basement club in the city's Minami entertainment district. It is a large oval room with orange lighting and ambient techno-music pulsing at a soft, conversation-enabling level. The fashion models come here; it's one of Osaka's hot spots.

  Atsushi Saito thinks he's got Japan's problems figured out. Sitting at a table, drinking Mexican beer, no lime, he says, "Nobody dreams." He continues: "Twenty years ago people dreamed of buying a house, a car. Now we have all that. Look around you." He points to the expensive-casual crowd. "People are looking for a safe place now, a cocoon. They are afraid to build a new future. We are a type of finished society." Saito, 32, has a good job, drives a gray Porsche and is renovating an apartment in a trendy part of Osaka for himself and his new wife. "Even I don't have a dream. I am ashamed to say this. I got out of school, started working, and now--nothing."

  All over the country, the refrain is the same: Japan has lost its bearing. As individuals, the Japanese have never really known how to reinvent themselves--how to go west like the Americans or head to the coast like the Chinese. As a nation Japan moved in lockstep until it reached its goal of economic parity with the West. But the next move is into thin air. In a system designed in the ethos of the industrial assembly line where people are discouraged from thinking on their own, there are few agents of change, fewer free-floating radicals who can think outside the box. Consensus rules, not prime ministers, who come and go like interns. Society has decayed into something playwright Samuel Beckett might have constructed--everyone is waiting for a leader to emerge, but everyone knows no leader will emerge. As the millennium approaches, Japan is aimless. One of the world's richest nations is exhausted, bereft of imagination and incapable of seeing an alternative to a slow, elegantly coiffed collapse.

  And that might even hold reason for hope. The only route to a new Japan may be: crash, burn, resurrection. Listen to Kozumi Kobayashi, a 27-year-old Hiroshima housewife, pregnant with her first child. It is Sunday afternoon, and her husband is out refereeing a neighborhood soccer game. Last summer he took her to France for a week to watch the World Cup. He is happy enough with his slice of the Japanese dream. He works for the computer division of NEC and has never considered he might lose his job. She has: "In my parents' generation, always the husband worked. Now we have to prepare for the possibility of the husband being fired." She smiles disarmingly, but her logic is unforgiving. The local Kirin Beer factory closed not long ago, leaving its workers jobless. Things will only get tougher, Kobayashi fears: "Only those who have had a very severe experience will gain a better idea of how to live. Those who don't learn to be independent will be swept away."

  She is due in March. Her main concern is saving money for the child's schooling. "I know my parents spent a lot of money on my education, so I cannot lower the level for my own children." So she no longer buys $ 800 designer dresses and rarely eats out with her husband. The trip to France was the couple's last overseas excursion for a long time (so much for Tokyo's efforts to stimulate a consumer spending boom to end the recession). Kobayashi has no answers but sees a grim silver lining: "The economy won't be so good in the future, so we will not be able to spoil our child. My baby will be a good person who can think for himself."

  In the city of Nemuro on Japan's northeastern tip, Hiroichi Iwamoto is riding the pachinko machine, trying to chase away the blues. He knew things weren't right when the Hanasaki crabs ran out in mid-August, several weeks before season's end. For Iwamoto, 28, this was the worst of the 16 years he has spent fishing off Nemuro's coast. Salmon, saury, cuttlefish--all are scarcer than ever. Cod was fished out five years ago. "We didn't pay too much attention to conservation," he says sadly.

  Now he goes after sea urchins and collects kombu seaweed, though wholesalers won't pay much for either. "Maybe in the future it would be better for me to stay on land," he says with a wan smile. He knows that would break his father's heart: the old man fished all his life to pay for their crab boat, Koseimaru. Of course, over-fishing has crippled the occupation all over the world. But with recession-hit Japanese buying less fish and the market opening to cheaper imports, the industry looks especially gloomy. "In this business we have to deal with nature," says Iwamoto. "We took too much."

  The local fishing cooperative, set up to support people like Iwamoto, is part of the problem. It's overstaffed--no fewer than 100 officials supervise 231 fishermen from spacious offices overlooking the port. Fishermen who are friends of the co-op directors tend to get the best permits, says Iwamoto. Nobody thought about protecting fish stocks until it was too late. When fishermen are struggling they borrow from the co-op against future catches--as these diminish, their debts mount. The co-op will not allow a fisherman to leave and find another job until he has paid off his borrowings. And nobody got rich from pachinko. Iwamoto is single: "What I earn now would not be enough for two." Girls don't date fishermen in Nemuro any more--Iwamoto's longest relationship lasted six months.

ive hundred kilometers to the south, Iwate prefecture's farmers are bringing in bundles of rice straw from the miniature fields nestling in valleys. Bamboo groves sway in the breeze, and persimmons hang bright orange on the trees. This is the Japanese idyll. Or so Makiko Yakushige thought when she first saw it seven years ago. A graduate of the prestigious law department at the University of Tokyo, she landed a high-flying job with the Ministry of Agriculture but gave it up to settle down in Iwate. She married a local and decided to raise a family in a valley straight out of a woodblock print.

  Agriculture looks different outside of the ministry, which pours billions of urban taxpayers' dollars into supporting the production of rice and keeping out imports. Indeed, the exercise appears hopeless. "The rice price is going down and there are no young people to take over the farms," says Yakushige. "Now we know we cannot compete with U.S. agriculture. We should aim at something else." The average age of farmers in her valley, she says, is about 60. Her husband's family owns one hectare of paddy field, which is not nearly enough to support them, so he works in the town hall. She worries about what is waiting for her two-year-old son. "Maybe we are at a turning point," she says, "with the recession, environmental problems, rising child crime rate, the poisonings. If we cannot change society now, we will never change it." She has no answers though, beyond a vague sense that Japanese should return to simpler lives, cut back on the consumerist life-style that exploded during the bubble years of the 1980s.

  If adults have no idea where they are going, schoolchildren are truly in a vacuum. Most spend long hours cramming facts into their brains, without much idea of what they are being trained for. Aggression builds up as in a pressure-cooker, and the group selects its victims without mercy. Utako Akasaki is a victim, picked on by her classmates in Tokorosawa, Saitama prefecture because she was quiet, withdrawing, out of step. At age 13 someone skillfully imbedded three razor blades inside the drawer of her desk. "Whichever way I opened the drawer," she recalls, "they would slash my hand." A tendon on her ring finger was severed, and even today she cannot straighten it. Pins were taped inside her shoes; her schoolbooks were torn up. She responded by communicating even less, retreating inside a mental box.

  Akasaki finally left school and the rampant bullying that threatened to destroy her. Now 18, she aspires to be an actress and has performed in several local theater productions. "Acting is a way of being a totally different person," she says. "Utako is somewhere else." But even as she develops a new life, she dreams of going away, far from Japan--to Australia, perhaps, "because there are no mountains there. You can see for a long distance, there is nothing in the way."

  Inside Japan there is no sense of escape, no big open spaces, no safety buffers. Frustrations are inevitably bounced back on themselves, internalized, stifled but unresolved. "I don't know about a crisis in Japan," says Tatsumichi Majima, the math teacher at Karasaki Junior High School, "But I can tell you there is a crisis in the school system. There's a wall between teachers and students." Of the 700 young people at Majima's school in Otsu, a new "bed town" for people working in Kyoto and Osaka, 50 are classified as "problem students." There are fights at least once a week, says Majima, chain-smoking nervously in a local coffee shop. "I try to break them up, making a joke of it, but in fact I am scared--scared that I will be stabbed or beaten. Many of the other teachers don't dare to intervene."

  Kireru--literally to cut--is slang for losing control and becoming violent. "We never heard that term before--now kids think it's cool to kireru. They have created a climate where even the smallest thing can spark violence." At night he sees them hanging out in the center of town, 15- and16-year-olds, staying out until 2 or 3 a.m. "They don't seem to be doing anything--just standing around."

omewhere in this emptiness, the poisoners are at work, exorcising their bottled-up vitriol on a defenseless populace, compensating for feelings of powerlessness by spreading fear. In what has turned into a grim, nationwide potluck, food and drink in convenience stores, vending machines and communal kitchens are being spiked with everything from cyanide and arsenic to a lethal chemical used to inflate automobile air bags. Five people have died since July; scores have been hospitalized. Daiei supermarkets are installing video cameras above soft-drink shelves to catch anyone tampering with products. People joke nervously around office coffee machines; many now leave gifts of food unopened. The authorities have not been reassuring--citizens should spit out drinks that taste odd, police advise, while also cautioning that most poisons don't have any noticeable taste.

  Many Japanese are starting to feel there is no safe place left. The altar of post-war Japan, the workplace, is cracking, as the ever-increasing number of layoffs terrifies a society in which a man's existence is defined by his job. Last year's 4.1 % jobless rate was a post-war high. Economists say the real rate would be much higher if the government included all those who have given up trying to find a job.

  Morihiro Aoki, 38, is a television company employee in Hiroshima. His cheeks are flushed red from a night's drinking in a hotel bar. "Three of my schoolmates lost their jobs this year," he says under his breath, as if conveying a shameful secret. "None has found new work. They are hiding themselves." For years Aoki gave up evenings and weekends with his children to put in overtime at work. Now he wonders whether that loyalty was for nothing. The dreaded risutora--restructuring, the euphemism for layoffs--has not hit his firm yet, but he is waiting. "Everyone knows it has to happen or the whole company will collapse," he says, taking a swig of his beer. "I have a wife and two children. I am afraid."

  So are many, many others. The Justice Ministry recently issued a report noting that the ranks of the dreaded Aum Shinrikyo cult are again increasing. Even though the cult's members killed 12 people and injured several thousand in a 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the government decided last year on the basis of a narrow interpretation of the law that it could not ban the group--to the incredulity of many Japanese. Now the cult, which preaches Armageddon as the route to salvation, is attracting new recruits from the lost generation, provoking widespread alarm. "These days there is no harmony among people," observes Kojun Kobayashi, 32, a monk at the Sennyuji temple in Kyoto. He rises before dawn to pray, his feet barely making a sound as he walks along the wooden corridors of the 700-year-old monastery. "People on television ask what Buddhist monks are doing to stop people going to cults like Aum," he says. It's hard to find answers. At high school Kobayashi was fascinated by science fiction and the boom in Buddhist and Christian cults. His temple belongs to the Shingon sect, whose central rite is the fire ceremony, goma, in which novice monks burn pine branches and recite sutras for seven days. "Yes, this is the mystical side. But if it goes too far it will become a cult. I think emotionally we want to have someone like a strong father to depend on. If I were not here it is possible I could have joined Aum. One of my friend's friends was an Aum member, and he is still missing."

  Japan has 183,886 officially registered cults.

  "So many sick things have happened," says Haruki Murakami, one of Japan's leading novelists (A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). "These poisoners--they feel they have no way out, feel they are in a cul de sac." Two years ago Murakami, 48, wrote Underground, a nonfiction account of the 1995 subway attack. He has interviewed survivors and Aum cult members. "I am a fiction maker," he says. "Shoko Asahara [Aum's leader] is, too. If making a story is white magic, what Asahara did was black magic. But sometimes black magic attracts people. It is very strong."

  Murakami prefers to write his books in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii--anywhere outside Japan, beyond the mental box. In his own land, he cannot get the distance he needs. "Japan is a comfortable country," says Murakami. "Even living inside the group in Aum was comfortable, those people thought. But there was a dark side, well-hidden, and all of a sudden someone opened the door and the dark side came out. We had good fiction after the war, when the economy was getting better and we were getting happier--that was a kind of religion. But we lost all that, and now we need a new fiction, a new religion."

  Japan's original fiction, according to legend, involved the sun goddess, Amaterasu, retreating into a cave and plunging the world into darkness. Only after much destruction and suffering could she be enticed out of the cave again. Today when people are asked what they think of the future they commonly answer kuraku naru--"it's getting darker." Japan, and the world, can only hope it will not take another Armageddon for the country to find its new guiding light.

With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo