The Japanese Malaise

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan

by Alex Kerr
Hill and Wang, 432 pp., $27.00

Politics is roads, and roads are politics.”

—Former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru

Many things came to mind as I strolled through Shibuya, in western Tokyo, on a balmy afternoon in the cherry blossom season this year. But the economic crisis was not one of them. Dense crowds of mostly young people rushed about in a frenzy of consumption. Coffee shops were full of teenagers chattering on their candy-colored cell phones. The designer boutiques, record stores, video and DVD stores, short-time “love hotels,” cinemas, pinball (pachinko) parlors, discotheques, and a wide variety of eateries and bars all seemed to be doing good business. The fashion for hair dyes mottled the usual sea of black hair milling around the railway station with patches of yellow, red, and purple. The average age of these crowds cannot have been much over twenty-two, and the screeching advertising jingles, featuring dimpled teenage television stars and loony cartoon characters, projected on giant screens on multistory shopping emporia, were clearly aimed at them.

Hardship, then, is not for the young. Many live with their parents and have enough cash to buy whatever it is the cartoon characters and teenage stars urge them to. Some of the youngest girls—fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old—come in from the suburbs, dressed in school-regulation sailor suits, for anonymous assignations with middle-aged men to make enough money in an hour or two to buy the more expensive fashion items. Their cell phone numbers are procured through Internet chat rooms. The going rate is about $300 an hour. Shibuya, as the center of teen culture, is a favorite spot for these transactions. (Older and cheaper prostitutes elsewhere in Tokyo are usually no longer Japanese, but Chinese, Thai, Filipina, or even Russian, another phenomenon of bubble and post-bubble Japan.)

Recession has had the worst effect on men in their fifties and older, bankrupted by bad loans, laid off by their companies, or squeezed beyond endurance by loan sharks who threaten to send the hard boys in. The immediate problem usually is not impoverishment, but the humiliation of losing one’s job, one’s place in society, one’s standing. To be idle, without a title, a namecard, or any official affiliation, is a shameful thing in a country where men have no substance without an occupation. Some of the unemployed are rejected by their families. Others slink off by themselves. You see such men, still dressed in their suits and ties, camping out in the subways under cardboard boxes; you see them reading their newspapers all day in public libraries; you see them in the blue tent cities put up in the parks of Ueno, and other parts of the more plebeian eastern districts. The official jobless rate for 2000 was 4.7 percent, and the estimated number of homeless in Tokyo is about 15,000. Not devastating statistics compared to many other countries, but alarming enough for a place that prided itself not long ago on almost full employment.

Then there is the …

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