Nationalism Froze Japan In Time — Trump Falsely Thinks It Will Make America Great
A light drizzle began to come down during rush hour at Shibuya Station, the place every other movie and TV show seems to use for an establishing shot to tell viewers the action takes place in Japan. Hundreds of umbrellas swiftly opened over the iconic station crossing, the busiest intersection in the world which up to a thousand people cross into buildings lit up with bright neon signs, filled with offices, cafes and shops.
If you wander into the alleys behind the gleaming malls to find a five to six person microbar, you’ll often bump into friendly bartenders who want to test their English on you — and ask you how far from Hollywood or Malibu you live if you tell them you’re from LA — but just as often, you will find Japanese salarymen and trendy hipsters who’ll clearly want nothing to do with you. Don’t get too offended though, being polite to foreigners, but not too welcoming, is the national policy.
If you want to see just how alien you seem, catch the train to Ikebukuro and see one of the random Octoberfest events all year round before going to an English pub that serves seafood pizza while also decorated with accents from Mexican cantinas and country-western bars. These are obvious examples of how Japan seems to enthusiastically welcome Western trappings despite its immigration policy hardly welcoming anyone with open arms. While it’s often said that the nation is 98.5% ethnically homogenous, its census doesn’t ask for an ethnic group, so it’s difficult to say whether this is true.
However, we do know that out of 125.6 million people living in the country, just 2.3 million are registered as foreigners. That’s an immigration rate of just 1.8 %, and subtracting it seems to be the likely source for the aforementioned overwhelmingly high percentage of ethnic Japanese. This is a little more than a tenth of the American share of foreign born citizens and residents, making Japan one of the lowest immigration countries in the OECD.
Anecdotally, after spending 10 days in Japan, I ran into only a handful of other Westerners, some of whom I already knew lived and worked there on three year visas. After those were expired, they’d have to return to their respective countries for six months with virtually no exceptions. They corroborated many of the stories about an impending demographic collapse and all-consuming work life that put enormous strain on families that have been flying around in international news for years now.
Why should we care? Because Japan is a living example of the best case scenario for the kinds of policies the ethno-nationalist right envisions for America. Shutting the door on immigration, enforcing social traditionalism, and appealing to individualism while promoting hard work not as a means to an end, but as a goal in and of itself. Were Trump a savvy politician with very nostalgic views, like Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, rather than an unhinged man-child, the Land of the Rising Sun would be both a roadmap for America, and a window 30 to 50 years into the future.
Japan is generally seen by Americans as an extremely prosperous first world economy, and when you’re there, even in small provincial towns, it seems hard to believe that it’s a nation that’s been in developmental stasis for more than a decade. The streets are clean, the locals are unfailingly polite, and every convenience you’re used to is there at your fingertips. But underneath this prosperous picture is an epidemic of directionless workaholism coupled with a demographic time bomb that keeps the economy from growing beyond its 12 year high today, and one day soon, that economy will start to noticeably contract as more people are retired than working.
Since 1995, Japan’s GDP has hovered between $4.5 and $6 trillion, which is hardly a poor showing on the world stage. But the fact that it hasn’t actually grown while its neighbors are steadily expanding their economies is a huge red flag. For eight consecutive years the population has been dwindling, but the country admits very few immigrants to bring in fresh skills and ideas to keep growing. Its productivity has been famously lackluster for the better part of the decade thanks to outmoded work practices. And its firm traditionalism coupled with the need for dual incomes has put having kids on a back burner for many couples.
Even with national healthcare and childcare systems implementing strict cost controls, traditional mores that refuse to adapt to the modern world dictating national policies actively work against new mothers. Future parents only have a few years of leeway, and with their paths forward blocked by older workers who are being asked not to retire as not to bankrupt the pension system, and relationships strained by an all-consuming work life, having kids very quickly becomes complicated.
The growing pressure to have productive careers, spend long days at the office, get married and have kids within a very short window of time, while their workplaces refuse to change their 1970s-style habits, creating both saner workdays and seeing skills are transferrable between companies, haven’t exactly helped the Japanese. As a result, a lot of people are beginning to, for the lack of a better term, shut down parts of their lives. Half the country’s adults are abstaining from sex altogether, and there’s a distressing problem with young men becoming “hikikomori,” or shut-ins, which has figured very prominently in the national discourse.
At last count, there were around 541,000 men between 19 and 39 years old who refuse to leave their homes thanks to a combination of anxiety, trauma from failure or fear of failing, depression, and desperation. Many seem to have some eyebrow-raising parallels with American “incels” and the Men’s Rights groups MGTOW, or Men Going Their Own Way, though it should be noted that the similarities are about shutting off from what they see as an overbearing society rigged against them rather than misogyny. Hikikomori is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, but there are many elements of it ripe to transform into something else in Western nation closing in on itself.
Even more instructive are the problems Japan sees at the office on top of the habit of trapping workers in institutions. Woefully outdated practices and misuse of technology contribute to a great quantity of work, but not so much quality. Western managers complain that the salarymen famously working themselves near death don’t actually accomplish more, they merely stay at the office until their boss decides to leave to look like successful, hard workers. It’s a move straight out of the Marissa Meyer playbook, and considering how her lackluster tenure at Yahoo ended, it’s little wonder the Japanese are seeing similarly poor results.
On top of that, salarymen are expected to socialize outside the workplace, so it’s hardly unusual to see roving bands of men in suits and ties walking down alleys after a post-work drink or five on their way home late at night. When, or in some parts of Tokyo, if, they finally get home, the first thing on their and their wives’ mind isn’t sex, much less expanding their family. It’s sleep before they go and do the same thing all over again for marginal gain, very possibly for an industry headed for obsoletion as AI closes in on their jobs.
Now, obviously we can’t declare what happens in one country is guaranteed to happen in another after adopting similar policies. Implementation will surely vary, and the population won’t react the same way because its national history and identity will be very different. Still, humans tend to be far more alike in responding to pressures and incentives than not, and we can extrapolate how they will react to similar rewards and punishments.
Put them in jobs with fewer and fewer perspectives, take away their flexibility, force them to have children in a razor thin time frame unless they’re relatively wealthy, and let in only a trickle of new people and ideas into their country, and you get a culture frozen in time, socially and economically. That’s what happened to Japan, and this is what would happen to a United States which turns its back on innovation, circles the wagons around industries that were revolutionized by automation or are fast becoming obsolete, and attempts to purge itself of immigrants.
In stark contrast to Bannon’s, Trump’s, and LePen’s sermons from the Gospel of Xenophobia, Book of Nostalgia, ethnic purity and doubling down on the old ways doesn’t lead to explosive economic growth in the real world. Best case? Stagnation and an overburdened, unhappy population with clean streets and modern conveniences. Worst case? Angry social upheaval and wildly uneven economic outcomes throughout the nation.
If Japan were to reverse its course and invite skilled and diverse immigrants, allow women in their 30s to have kids without punishing them with higher premiums and hospital bills, and partner with cutting edge American and European startups to gleam new ideas about work and life to give workers more flexibility and prospects in future industries, it may once again thrive, not just muddle through from year to year as it has since the mid-1990s.
So the next time you hear the MAGA faithful gush over how well Japan is doing and how it saved its manufacturing sector, then go on to attribute it to their ethnic and economic protectionism, how many tariffs they impose, and their outspoken nationalism, what they’re saying is that their knowledge of Japan and its economy comes from travel shows and selective trivia designed to reinforce their xenophobic beliefs. And if they do their research and still come away with the opinion that this is a model we should emulate, they’ve effectively declared that they consider demographic dead ends and economic stagnation preferable to diversity, innovation, and adapting to the future.