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Bad news is relative in Japan

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  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Above, children play at a childcare facility in Kashiwazaki, Japan, in April 2022. Japan’s population continues to shrink.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Above, children play at a childcare facility in Kashiwazaki, Japan, in April 2022. Japan’s population continues to shrink.

  • NEW YORK TIMES 
                                Visitors take in the scenery at a temple in Yamaguchi, Japan, in November 2023. “I guess Japan is at peace,” said 26-year-old Chihiro Tsujimoto. “So the young generation doesn’t feel they need to change this country.”

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Visitors take in the scenery at a temple in Yamaguchi, Japan, in November 2023. “I guess Japan is at peace,” said 26-year-old Chihiro Tsujimoto. “So the young generation doesn’t feel they need to change this country.”

TOKYO >> The economy is now in recession after barely growing for decades. The population continues to shrink, with births last year plunging to a nadir. The country’s politics appear frozen as one party holds a virtual lock on power no matter how scandal-tainted and unpopular it becomes.

But not to worry. This is Japan, where all bad news is relative.

Take a look around. There are few signs of the societal discord you might expect in a place with trend lines like Japan’s. The country remains remarkably stable and cohesive, with little sense of impending doom.

That equanimity reflects a no-need-to-rock-the-boat mindset: “Shouganai” — “it can’t be helped” — is something of a national refrain.

It’s easy to see why people might be nonchalant. Unemployment is low and the trains run on time. Tourists are flooding shrines and shopping districts, and the stock market has hit a record high. Even after some inflation, a bowl of ramen can be had for less than $7. Housing is generally affordable even in Tokyo, and everybody is covered by national health insurance. Crime is low: In 2022, there were just three gun killings in all of Japan. If you forget your cellphone in a restaurant, chances are it will be there when you return.

“I am pretty happy with my living conditions,” said Chihiro Tsujimoto, 26, a classical music percussionist. Japanese people, he said, have “given up and feel rather happy as long as their life is full and fine.”

“I guess Japan is at peace,” he added. “So the young generation doesn’t feel they need to change this country.”

That lulling sense of calm is heightened by an outside world plagued by wars and social challenges.

“I often have business trips to the U.S. and Europe and feel that the Japanese society and system are very stable compared to other countries with various problems like immigrants, high crime rates and riots,” said Hisashi Miwa, 65, who works for a chemical manufacturer.

Still, beneath Japan’s placid surface, plenty of entrenched problems remain. With its intense work culture and social pressures, Japan is among the unhappiest of developed countries, according to a U.N.-backed report, and suicide is a major concern. The poverty rate among single-parent households is one of the highest among wealthy nations. Rural areas are rapidly emptying, and an aging population will increasingly add to pension and caregiving burdens.

Next year, nearly 1 in 5 people in Japan will be 75 or older, which will increasingly expose labor shortages in a country that struggles to accept and integrate immigrants. Already, service gaps are emerging.

“It takes four or five days to get a letter,” said Sayuri Shirai, a professor of policy management at Keio University, referring to Japan’s postal service, which used to reliably deliver letters one day after they were mailed.

When she has problems with cable television or utility services, she said, “sometimes you want to ask questions on the phone, but there are no phone-related services anymore.”

Inconveniences like those, however, are more an irritation than a sign of imminent societal collapse. Japan’s decline is gradual and in some ways barely perceptible after the country rocketed to wealth in the decades following World War II.

The economy — now the world’s fourth largest, after dropping below Germany’s this month — has largely weathered a rate of national debt that is the highest in the world. The population falls by about one-half of 1% a year, but Tokyo remains the world’s most populous city, where people wait in line for an hour to score a trendy doughnut, and reservations at top restaurants must be made weeks in advance.

“I think everybody kind of knows what is approaching us, but it is so slow that it is very difficult to somehow advocate a huge change,” said Mieko Nakabayashi, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The government, for nearly the entirety of the postwar era, has been led by the Liberal Democratic Party.

The party’s disapproval ratings are now very high — based on one newspaper poll, the highest since 1947. But even when people become frustrated with the LDP, they ultimately “don’t care much, as long as they can survive and everyday life is not so bad,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. “That’s why LDP politics is very stable.”

The current disapproval ratings reflect the public’s exasperation with a financial scandal in which several factions within the LDP had allegedly failed to record the full amount of proceeds from ticket sales to political fundraisers. In some cases, it appeared that members of parliament were taking kickbacks from some of the sales, and prosecutors have indicted three lawmakers.

Yet with the political opposition in disarray, the LDP appears likely to survive. One reason: Voters are just not very plugged in.

“I don’t know who my mayor is or don’t check the news much,” Tsujimoto said. “I just watch internet news for stuff like when a new baby of some animal is born at a zoo.”

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