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Japan Notebook

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

29 September 2012

9:00 AM

Some time around the middle of the last decade, Japan’s population began to shrink. The disappearing act has continued unabated: at the present rate of decline, this remarkable mono-cultural race will have all but become extinct within a hundred years. Worth a visit then, while stocks last: so I gratefully accepted an invitation from the business association known as Keidanren (like the CBI, only with influence). An early-morning meeting with Mr Takahisa Takahara provides a perfect snapshot of the consequences of population implosion. The business he runs, Uni‑Charm, is Japan’s biggest supplier of nappies; but now, said Mr Takahara, his firm sells more of the things to the incontinent elderly than to mothers with young children.

Other countries might consider large-scale immigrant labour as a response to the dramatic reduction in the working-age population — if only to help look after the old folk. In proudly homogenous Japan, that is not an option. There is a uniquely Japanese alternative, however: robots. The leader in this field is Honda; at its Fundamental Technology Research centre I am introduced to the newest version of Asimo, which it describes as a ‘humanoid robot with the world’s first autonomous behaviour control technology’. The four foot tall Asimo is definitely kawaii — a word the Japanese love and which is a stronger version of the English ‘cute’. He, or rather it, moves in such a fluid and human fashion that I soon forget I am engaging with a machine. The chief engineer on the project, Satoshi Shigemi, explains why Asimo is the size it is: ‘We thought it should be like a child in third grade, someone you would want to have with you all the time.’ In the circumstances of a plummeting fertility rate, this strikes me as poignant almost beyond words.

The Zojoji Temple is from a very different era: this Buddhist seminary has been on its site in central Tokyo since the end of the 16th century. Outside it are serried ranks of what look like baby buddhas, stretching for as far as I can see. Each of them is wearing a knitted red hood, and some are also kitted out with tiny capes. Most are accompanied by flowers in a vase, and all seem to have whirligigs that whistle in the breeze. I ask the guide who these mini-buddhas are memorialising. ‘Aborted foetuses,’ she says, pointing to a sign which says, baldly and in English, exactly that.

The thing is, in Japan there are very few births outside marriage. While there has been a spiralling increase in illegitimacy in the developed world over the past half-century, in Japan the rate remains as close to zero as makes no difference. At a breakfast meeting with Yoshimasa Hayashi, a candidate for the leadership of the LDP (the party which ruled the country continuously from 1955 until 2009), we discuss the Japanese baby shortage. I point out that one possible reason for the higher fertility rate in Britain is that single mothers are given high priority in social housing, as a matter of public policy. Some of the Japanese aides around the table put their hands in front of their mouths, they are so amazed. Or perhaps they were tittering at what they thought was a joke — traditionally, in Japan, it is rude to display your teeth when laughing.

In so far as I can understand anything at all, it is only thanks to a wonderful and highly experienced interpreter, hired by Keidanren. I learn a lot from this elegant woman. She tells me her father was a career diplomat: ‘He met Hitler a couple of times, even though he was then very junior.’ When was this, I ask. ‘1941.’ Ah yes, the Axis. Later, she tells me how she had interpreted for Margaret Thatcher, when the former prime minister visited Japan on a speaking tour soon after her eviction from 10 Downing Street: ‘She was nicer than I had expected, and much more feminine.’ This prompts me to ask her to nominate the Briton she had found least pleasant. ‘Jeffrey Archer,’ she replied, after remarkably little thought.

A visit to the north-eastern coastal towns flattened by the giant earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 reveals the Japanese at their most heroic and yet also most characteristically efficient. Despite the scale of the devastation, there is very little visible damage left. What can be seen, however, is the absence of homes: rows upon rows of footings, the reminder of where people once lived who are now dead. It is hard to find something to say to the young local guide, whose fiancée was among the 20,000 or so killed. At least I manage not to emulate Emperor Hirohito’s observation, when he first visited the atomic-bomb-blasted Hiroshima: ‘There seems to have been considerable damage here.’

After a bus and bullet-train journey of about six hours from rural Japan, I am back in the exquisite luxury of my room on the 24th floor of the Capitol Hotel, one of Tokyo’s newest. Then, at about 12.45 a.m., just after I turn out the light, I feel the vast building judder. It is, of course, an earthquake.

Dominic Lawson is a columnist for the Sunday Times and the Independent. He was editor of The Spectator from 1990 until 1995.

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