The end of the line for the Shinkansen?

Whenever you pass through a JR East train station in Tokyo, sleek images of the latest Shinkansen bullet trains can be found adorning platforms, stairwells, and concourses. The elongated jade snout of the arrow-like E5, its smaller, red cousin the E6, and the elegantly curved figure of the E7 appear primed to speed off the walls, tantalizing harried urban commuters with the promise that their hard-earned money can be translated into a comfortable weekend escape to an onsen in Akita or the ski slopes of Nagano. Indeed, living in Tokyo, there are few pleasures greater on a Friday evening than leaving the office early and navigating the same commuter crowds as always, only to slip past the green ticket gates into the more civilized realm of eki-ben, cold cans of beer, and omiyage gift boxes that mark the beginning of a smooth and relaxing Shinkansen journey to some faraway destination.

The Shinkansen has long served as the most recognizable symbol of Japanese technological prowess, ever since the rounded nose of the Type 0 trains popularized the term “bullet train” when they debuted on the world’s first high-speed route from Osaka to Tokyo in 1964. The closest analogy in the American national psyche may be weapons systems like the F-117, F-16 and B-2 that I was taught by my peers to revere as an elementary school boy. Shinkansen trains are the quintessential fetish object of Japanese adolescent boys, inspiring a different kind of awe than a Ford or Toyota sports car, or a consumer item like an iPhone or Sony Walkman ever could. Like fighter jets, Shinkansen represent the technological culmination of a collective project, an object that one could never own but in which one can feel a sense of ownership and national pride. Just as American children learn to love their fighter jets through plastic models and films like Top Gun and Independence Day, Japanese adolescents play with Shinkansen figures that transform into Gundam-style robots, and watch the bullet train make a kamikaze attack on Godzilla in a recent remake of the classic monster flick. And like the F-22 or F-35 in an age of drone warfare, the Shinkansen is perhaps a technology that is no longer needed.

The Shinkansen network has been in a state of constant expansion for more than half a century, driven by a powerful lobby that links heavy industry, construction companies, railways, local politicians and the tourism industry. According to a 2013 poll, more than half of respondents supported continued expansion. The rail companies cultivate public support through concerted PR campaigns. Several years ago, I had a few hours to spare in Nagoya during a cross-country trip, so I decided to make an excursion to the SC-Maglev Railway Park, a railway museum run by JR Central and located at in Nagoya’s port area.

The first, darkened, room visitors enter contains a steam locomotive, an early bullet train engine, and prototype maglev train arrayed beneath a video screen that recounts new records set during a century of railroad development as dramatic music plays. A wall features illustrations indicating the progression of transportation technology, from men pulling sleds and carrying palanquins, to carriages and bicycles, and eventually modern trains. The main hall is filled with retired train sets. Along the walls, panels and videos explain the many small miracles that keep the Tokaido Shinkansen, the world’s busiest high-speed rail line, running day in and day out: schedules that trim headways to as little as two minutes, the permanent crews of thousands of maintenance workers who descend on the tracks every night to reinforce concrete, swap out rails, and fine-tune catenary wires.

Of course, the facility is first and foremost a corporate propaganda center, advancing an argument that is presented with striking teleological clarity: speed is good, and developing technology to attain ever higher speeds is the destiny of humankind. This message has been advanced in many forms pretty much since the dawn of modernity. Most members of the public are unlikely to question its premise as they are persuaded of the importance of spending enormous sums to build ever-faster trains.

JR Central is a company inextricably linked to the Shinkansen. In the last quarter, its bullet train business earned more than 12 times the revenue of all its other railway operations combined (in contrast, more than 50% of JR East’s revenue comes from Tokyo-area commuter services, with less than 30% from high-speed services). In fact, JR Central only exists because the Tokaido Shinkansen is such a massively profitable business. When the national railways were broken up into private companies in the 1980s, it was decided that giving the bullet train line to either JR East or JR West, which serves Osaka, would create too large a behemoth. Instead, another company was carved out to run the line and the much smaller commuter network of Nagoya.

As a result, JR Central has been highly focused on Shinkansen technology, and in recent years began construction on a magnetically levitated, mostly underground train that will link Tokyo and Osaka at more than twice the speed of current services and will likely cost upwards of $100 billion. This project is the what the SC-Maglev Railway Park is designed to sell. Personally I found the simulator where virtual mountains fly past at 500 km/h to be more similar to being in an airplane at take-off, devoid of the pleasures of rail travel. The first section linking Tokyo and Nagoya is planned to be finished in 2027. I have written in the past about the maglev bullet train, including its negative environmental impact and shaky economic justification. JR Central is essentially pouring the profits—more than $5 billion in 2018—from the most successful and efficient high-speed line in the world into a huge expansion of capacity that is due to be completed at a time when the Japanese population will be in free-fall and business travel may be superseded by new telecommunications technologies. Its astronomical cost and wasteful energy consumption make it a particularly dubious project, but many of the issues associated with the super-fast maglev are simply accentuated versions of problems inherent in building new bullet train lines in a shrinking society.

Japan’s population has shrunk by nearly two million since 2010, and 40 of 47 prefectures lost population in 2018. Even more ominously for Japan’s regions, a government think tank projected in 2014 that roughly half of the country’s municipalities face the prospect of demographic collapse by midcentury. Nonetheless, Shinkansen lines are being extended into the far reaches of Hokkaido, Hokuriku, and Kyushu, due to be inaugurated as many of these local areas enter the later stages of depopulation. Remarkably, local politicians in even more rural areas such as Shikoku continue to call for the national government to revive 1970s plans to extend lines to their own cities and towns, arguing that high-speed linkages will spur economic revitalization.

Shinkansen expansion is simply suffering from the law of diminishing returns. All 18 metropolitan areas with populations exceeding one million are now linked to the Shinkansen network, with the exception of Sapporo (population 2.34 million), which will see the Shinkansen arrive in 2030. Located at the northern extremity of Japan, Sapporo will not benefit from connections in both directions like cities in Japan’s pacific belt, and it is close to the distance from Tokyo at which rail struggles to compete with air travel. The rest of Hokkaido is fast depopulating. Several of the enormous stations along the first leg of the Hokkaido Shinkansen that opened in 2016 only see around 60 passengers per day each.

Two other ongoing extension projects make even less economic sense, but reveal how local politicians revert to the old engines of growth as their regions collide with interminable population decline. The Hokuriku Shinkansen, most recently extended to Toyama and Kanazawa in 2015, is scheduled to be opened as far as Tsuruga on the coast north of Kyoto in 2021. Until 2016, policy makers were debating between three potential routes to extend the line all the way to its planned terminus in Osaka. The shortest and cheapest would connect to the existing Shinkansen around Maibara, therefore making use of existing tracks for much of the route, and also allow the fastest travel times to Osaka and Nagoya while costing the least. Instead, the government chose the longest and most expensive route that would loop westward through sparsely populated coastline and mountains before traveling under Kyoto and Osaka in a new tunnel, requiring new underground stations to be built. At $20 billion, the route is expected to cost four times more than the alternative, but will provide contracts for local construction companies for decades to come.

The most vexed of the currently underway extensions is the link from Fukuoka to Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu. Half of the new tracks are nearing completion, but are cut off from the rest of the network by a 60 kilometer gap. Planners had initially hoped to stitch this section together by developing a new type of train that could switch between the wide-gauge Shinkansen and existing tracks, but the technology proved too difficult. Nagasaki is now pushing for the whole line to be constructed as Shinkansen order to avoid a debacle, but the local government in the intermediate section is balking at paying its share of the cost.

It is not entirely clear why Nagasaki wants the Shinkansen at this late stage to begin with. One of Japan’s most beautiful cities, Nagasaki nonetheless faces a grim demographic future. In 2018, the population declined by 4,832 to 421,799. The net outflow of residents was the worst in the country. Bullet trains tend to exacerbate the decline of such small cities with a “straw effect,” drawing business, students, and residents into larger regional centers such as Fukuoka, Sendai, or Okayama. The Shinkansen is likely only to reinforce the Fukuoka metropolitan area’s centricity within Kyushu. Ten times the size of Nagasaki, Fukuoka is one of the few metropolitan areas that is still growing in Japan, as it sucks population from less fortunate cities such as Kitakyushu, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima, all connected in less than an hour by Shinkansen.

The reality of the Shinkansen in an era of population decline is that local economic development is increasingly a zero-sum game. I say this as someone who loves Japan’s miraculous rail system, and fervently believe the United States should break ground tomorrow on a dozen or more high-speed rail corridors. Japan’s continued expansion is no longer driven by sound economic reasoning. To stop building Shinkansen would be to abandon the narrative of progress as defined by speed and growth. But this is perhaps precisely what post-growth Japan needs in order to address its real problems.

Denver’s new trains

I spent most of the month of July at home in Denver, where each time I return, the pace of redevelopment and growth seems to be accelerating. 2016 promises to be a big year for the city, when the opening of four rail lines will more than double the region’s rail network. The openings come a year after the re-opening of Denver’s iconic Union Station and are the culmination of 12 years of planning and construction underway since voters approved FasTracks transit expansion in 2004. The big investment in transit has won accolades from around the United States for making Denver “the most advanced transit city in the West” and has undoubtedly contributed to Denver’s soaring reputation as a destination city for creative and educated professionals. When I came back to Denver this month, I looked through the south windows of the airport terminal at the new rail station, excited to know that the next time I come home I can arrive downtown in just 37 minutes.

DIA Station. Via Fly Denver website

Still, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in the changes taking place in the city. As a teenager growing up in Denver, I became an avid user of transit and bikes and didn’t get a driver’s license throughout high school. When my family moved to Lower Downtown in 2005, Denver’s future was moving in the direction of my ideals. Planning for FasTracks was starting, and a condominium boom continued until I left for college in 2008, adding new residents and services downtown.

What has happened since the Great Recession, however, has been far larger and fundamental in how it is transforming the DNA of the city. Denver grew from 600,000 to 663,000 people between 2010 and 2014, an increase of 10.4% and more than the entire decade of the 2000s. By 2020, the population will likely be somewhere around 730,000—a genuine population explosion that would have been mind boggling 20 years ago. For the first time in decades, the city proper, around 25% of the metro area of a little under 3 million, is growing faster than the suburbs. What’s more, much of this growth is happening in the densest, most urban parts of the city: by the time the rail lines open next year, well over 10,000 apartments will have been completed since 2010 within a 1.5 mile radius of central downtown. Denver is full of Uber, Car2Go, bike sharing, and all the other bells and whistles of 21st century sharing economy urbanism, as well as an increasingly high-tech and booming economy of companies creating those services. And at the heart of the city is the crown jewel of Denver’s new transit system, Denver Union Station.


Union Station dates from 1914, and was once the heart of intercity transit from Denver, serving as many as 80 trains a day. After the rise of aviation the station was mostly forgotten, but survived until it was purchased by the Regional Transportation District in 2003, which made it the heart of the agency’s proposed transit system. At the time, the building was mostly empty and unused, surrounded by parking lots and empty fields left over from the old freight yards. In 2006, a team of private developers, East West Partners and Continuum, who already owned most of the developable land adjacent to the station, won a design competition to lead the project to build the new transit infrastructure necessary for FasTracks and redevelop the station.

The developers drew on exemplary recent redevelopments of public facilities in America, like Grand Central Station in New York, the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco, and they have succeeded in creating a space every bit as impressive. The team recruited a mix of tenants to keep the station’s plazas, wings, and waiting room filled with people throughout the day. On the second and third floors is the Crawford Hotel, Denver’s answer to New York’s Ace Hotel and Portland’s Deuce. Denver now has a hangout cool enough for the creative economy hipsters that are coming in droves from the overpriced cities on the coasts. Union Station was recently selected as a finalist for the Urban Land Institute’s Global Award of Excellence, which celebrated that “Denver Union Station has transformed a vacant neighborhood and created a global touchstone for large-scale, mixed-use projects.” While redevelopment had started in the late 1990s, the station has catalyzed the growth of the whole area of the Central Platte Valley, Lower Downtown, and Lower Highlands. Two supermarkets will soon open across the street from the station to serve the growing population, and my mom will probably go car-free—fulfilling my teenage dream of urban living, just a decade after we saw the first signs of change.

The first time I saw the new station last winter, I was dazzled by just how cool it is, with its plush couches and shuffleboard in the waiting room, the swooping white canopy over the train platforms, and the big interactive fountain in the plaza. After all, it was kind of a realization of all the things that I had dreamed about Denver becoming when I was a teenager. But this time the space felt much more problematic to me. The redevelopment plan has been extremely successful at activating the station’s public spaces, but the whole development skews disproportionately towards entertainment for the privileged. When I stopped in for a beer on Saturday night, the waiting room was a party scene full of the young and rich who now live downtown. Where is the drug store or the sandwich shop that doesn’t charge $5 for a latte? Public transportation ought to be the quintessential commons but Union Station seems to only have space for some of our city’s citizens. Meanwhile, as FasTracks grabs the headlines of “progress,” RTD has approved a 15% fare increase, further burdening the city’s poorest residents.

Union Station waiting room
Union Station waiting room

The inequality on display at Union Station is emblematic of what is going on in the city at large. Denver now has the fastest rising rental prices in the entire country, matched only by San Francisco. Rebecca Solnit, lamenting that city’s boom has homogenized its once diverse population, wrote in 2013, “Poverty is cruel and destructive. Wealth is cruel and destructive too, or at least booms are. The whole of the US sometimes seems to be a checkerboard of low-pressure zones with lots of time and space but no money, and the boomtowns with lots of money, a frenzied pace and chronic housing scarcity. Neither version is very liveable.” Last month as I sat around with friends who complained that Denver “will never be affordable again,” I became a little nostalgic for the city I left behind in 2008, still not quite urban but not yet a boomtown.

Union Station became what it is for a simple reason—it was not wholly built by and for the public. Like a growing number of infrastructure projects around the country, Union Station is the result of a Public Private Partnership (PPP). Of the total cost of $487 million, only $65 million of the funding came from RTD’s FasTracks budget, with another $120 million coming from various federal agencies, local governments, and Obama Administration stimulus funds. The remaining $300 million was covered by federal loans that must be repaid through profit from private development. The only way to pay back that money is by developing massively profitable uses on the site—from $500-a-night hotel rooms to $5000 two bedroom apartments, to fancy restaurants that cater to Denver’s monied and mostly white elite.

Nonetheless, given our recent history, it is nothing short of remarkable that Denver is building one of the biggest new transit systems in the country. Transit investment was always tough sell in car-loving postwar Denver. Governor Richard Lamm was excoriated by real estate interests in the 70s when he proposed transferring money from the proposed I-470 beltway south of the city to mass transit, soon after the Regional Transportation District was created from the scraps of Denver’s dismantled streetcar network. RTD finally got its first light rail line in 1994, opting to utilize the cheaper technology that which at the time was the way many western cities, like Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles were starting their rail systems in the face of public skepticism and a paucity of federal transit dollars. Then, in 1997, RTD narrowly lost a referendum on a region-wide train system. As I mentioned before, in 2003 it acquired Union Station and tried again in 2004. This time, FasTracks passed 58 to 42. For $4.7 billion, raised by a 0.4% sales tax increase, RTD promised to build a network of 122 miles of new rails and bus. To win a region-wide majority, RTD had to promise something to everyone, while not breaking the bank. The result was something of a compromise, a system that stretched in all directions across the 2,337 square mile district. Here is the newly released RTD map.

RTD’s planned rail system

In addition to showing the suburban focus of the system, the map shows an something important about how the system is designed. The giant orange dot is Union Station. Union Station is not actually a station. It is a terminal. The new lines terminate here. What’s more, a decision was made to split the system between two incompatible modes—light rail to the south, and heavy rail to the north, and to separate the two modes physically, with the light rail trains located some 300 meters northwest of the heavy rail tracks, on either end of an underground bus station. This means that if someone is traveling from Westminster to Englewood, or DIA to Golden, they must disembark at Union Station and walk 1.5 blocks and wait for another train.

This split was surely done out of financial necessity and the piecemeal nature of Denver’s early transit investments—if RTD had had $10 billion in committed funding in 1994, they probably wouldn’t have done it this way. RTD’s new system is particularly good at ferrying suburban people from their cars at Park-and-Rides and young single professionals from new transit-oriented developments near light rails stations to their jobs in downtown office buildings, or visitors from the airport to their hotels. These are important functions, but many trips begin and end outside of the urban center, so having trains that travel across the metro area instead of only to the center can make transit a much more feasible option for many commuters. Most people who have the means to drive simply won’t use trains to get from Boulder to the Tech Center, or Littleton to the Airport. Those who do will be made to endure longer commutes than they should, to say nothing of the local routes used by most of RTD’s 350,000 daily riders which are mostly ignored by FasTracks.

The map below is from Leipzig, Germany, where a new rail tunnel underneath the city center and allowing for through service from suburb to suburb, as well as longer inter-city service, opened in 2013. Yonah Freemark wrote an in-depth post at the Transport Politic on the growing number of cities in Europe investing in this sort of service, which carries wonderful benefits to transit users and the economy. When I lived in Germany in 2010, using the S-Bahn networks in many cities showed me how convenient car-free living can be in cities similar to Denver. In Tokyo, where I live now, almost all trains run through services in the center city.

Imagine if Denver had invested in a similar style, allowing for true through service. A rail line from DIA would coast into an underground tunnel behind Union Station, before emerging to the south around the Pepsi Center and continuing down to the southwest of the city along what is now the southwest light rail line. From there it could eventually be extended further to Colorado Springs and Pueblo, allowing CDOT-run trains to interline with the RTD system and provide one-seat rides from Colorado’s southern cities into Union Station and the airport. Another train would run from Boulder through the same tunnel and all the way down to the Tech Center, connecting job centers in the northwest and southeast and universities in Denver and Boulder. Eventually, the Boulder line could extend further north to Longmont and the northern Front Range. Later, the Free Mall Ride along 16th Street and RTD’s new MetroRide buses that ferry commuters through downtown could be put underground into a 16th Street Subway that would carry trains from lines down Colfax and Broadway to Union Station and further into the Highlands and northwest Denver. These could be linked to much improved local bus services.

Yes, you’re thinking, sounds great, but probably several billion more expensive, and this is America, not Germany or Japan so we get what we can get. True. Still, I think it is important to understand the distance between what we’re getting and what a first-class transit system would look like, and why we haven’t been able to bridge that gap.

I don’t say this as a direct criticism of RTD. After the failure of the 1997 referendum, in the era of Bill Owens and the Tax Payer Bill of Rights, perhaps they were right to sell a simple suburban transit system. They got the ball rolling on a huge project that helped to transform Denver into a progressive city that is the envy of the West. At Union Station, the developers were certainly driven by a desire to find a way to finance the necessary transit elements, which necessitated the use of the station building as a high-end entertainment complex. Both decisions are eminently understandable in their context.

How the Leipzig and Denver projects were funded tells us something about why their priorities are so different. The costs of the Leipzig City Tunnel, estimated at 571 million euros in 2002, were split between the State of Saxony (182 million), the European Union (169 million), the Federal Government (192 million), Deutsche Bahn (16 million) and Leipzig (13 million): publicly funded through cooperation at the local, national, and continental level. This is how most other rich countries build public infrastructure.

The missed opportunity of Denver’s transit system is not so much the result of mistakes made at the local level, but the inability of the American political system to imagine public solutions to problems like transport, housing, healthcare, or the environment. The United States’ ability to publicly fund infrastructure has totally, utterly collapsed. We haven’t passed a comprehensive transportation funding bill since 2005, and the gas tax, used to support federal transportation investment has been falling in real terms since the early 1990s, with Republicans insisting that an increase is off the table. Mostly, our transportation system is in the news because our bridges collapse, our subways run chronically late and our intercity trains are decrepit and derail frequently—which perversely, becomes reason for Republicans to slash funding even further.

Instead, we live under the shadow of the cult of privatization and the free market that has controlled American political life since the 1980s. Advocates of privatization have learned that they can win simply by making truly public solutions impossible. They don’t need to convince a majority of Americans that trains are a conspiracy “to diminish Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism,” as George Will once ranted (in fact, two thirds of Americans actually want more public transit investment), but they can gum up the gears of government enough to prevent transit from becoming a truly viable alternative to cars and an engine for building truly equitable and sustainable cities. The result is that cities have no choice but to privatize our commons, and to make desperate tax giveaways to private companies and the “creative class” residents that drive the economy.

Union Station is not the only part of Denver’s transportation future that has been privatized. Three of the rail lines that open next year will be run by a private consortium. Even our beloved highways are no longer worthy of the shrinking public purse—or rather, perhaps they represented too big a potential profit to be left in public hands. A private consortium is building the new Highway 36 to Boulder, which includes “enhanced bus service” that will share toll lanes with profit-generating private vehicles, not the rail line or true BRT that Boulder was promised in FasTracks. The $1.8 billion widening of east I-70 to ten lanes, the biggest construction contract in CDOT’s history, is also being farmed out to a private company, even though many are arguing that the additional capacity will never be needed. As the privatization of American infrastructure kicks into high-gear, our political system ensures public transit is only minimally funded.

I am excited for FasTracks to open, and it is an enormous step forward for Denver, but I can’t help but feel it should have been better, and it should serve more the residents who really need and use transit. Hopefully Denver can come up with a bold transportation plan after FasTracks that addresses some of its shortcomings, and the United States can figure out how to publicly finance infrastructure that should stay public.

Convenience culture and Silicon Valley’s empty innovation

A few days ago, Amazon announced that it would soon be releasing Dash, a new series of branded Internet-connected buttons that consumers can place around their homes and click to initiate automatic order and delivery of various staple goods, such as paper towels, razor blades, or coffee machine cartridges.

Clearly, Amazon sees its continued growth as contingent on reducing the friction of shopping and consuming everything it sells to as near zero as possible—the eventual ideal being a total automation of retail: products ordered automatically and delivered by a drone. John Herrman sums up the motivation behind this aspiration quite simply: “human friction keeps fucking up Amazon’s systems.”

The Dash button is something perhaps only Amazon,with its massive scale and experience, could pull off at this point, but just about every tech startup around is trying to find profit using similar approaches: the removal of friction in access to services is the primary goal of many of the new companies that are celebrated as part of the emerging “sharing economy”. While the name sharing economy has a ring of a post-materialist and communitarian utopia, in it’s Silicon Valley-led manifestation, utilizing micropayments and smartphones, a nebula of corporations offering trendy services from Uber to Seamless now aim to transactionalize and mediate nearly every action we take. In this economy, “consumers” become “users,” and the inefficiency of private ownership has been replaced not by sharing among local communities, but by slavish dependence on commercial services supplied by massive corporations, to which users must fork over their cash much like junkies needing another hit. Many of these new “sharing” services that offer convenience and on-demand satisfaction actually reduce the support for maintaining truly shared public goods—for example, services like Uber allow the rich and privileged to opt out of using decaying public transportation. Silicon Valley’s entire ethos, in fact, rejects the messy business of public debate that might be necessary to genuinely solve shared problems like transportation, housing shortages or overconsumption: “public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting,” writes Nathan Heller in the New Yorker. To the extent that Silicon Valley is now the dominant cultural force in our society, this ethos has so narrowed the popular imagination of how to achieve social change that we’ve put almost all our faith in the entrepreneur who brings creative destruction to faltering institutions and technological solutions to intractable problems. The narrowness of this approach means that degrowth or post-growth ideas that look beyond the market system and might lead to a true sharing economy garner much less mainstream attention than in Europe and Japan; the United States seems primarily interested in creating and consuming newer iterations of free market capitalism.

But I am in danger of digressing into a general complaint about Silicon Valley culture. To return to the topic at hand:

As Hermann points out, it seems clear that Amazon’s Dash button mainly solves Amazon’s problem, as a way for the company to permanently lock in consumers, but only a society that cherishes individual convenience as a holy grail would greet the invention of a magic toilet paper button with more excitement than laughter. K-Cups, the instant coffee capsules that are one of the products shown in the Amazon Dash video, are an apt example of how consumers are willing to pay a hefty premium and disregard environmental impact if it saves them time. Keurig Green Mountain has convinced tens of millions of consumers to buy machines which lock them into purchasing capsules that cost considerably more than coffee beans and produce an enormous amount of waste (10 billion non-recyclable cartridges sold last year) so as to avoid the time and cleanup involved with brewing a cup the old-fashioned way. Does this sort of automation actually make our lives richer, or does it make them shallower by depriving us of the pleasure involved in activities that are not considered purely productive?

The proliferation of convenient products should come as no surprise though. We live in an era when purveyors of popular wisdom such as “Four Hour Work Week” author Timothy Ferriss preach that the best solution to the pesky tasks of domestic life—cleaning, shopping, eating, scheduling, etc—is to outsource them entirely through market transactions. For what purpose is all this innovation and outsourcing necessary? To gain precious leisure time, the other holy grail of our productivist society, and so we can be more productive, make more money, outsource more of the inefficient parts of our lives, and buy more leisure time. Now that Netflix and Amazon offer endless streaming videos, there is, of course, never enough time. The idea that we might work less and more highly value reproductive labor doesn’t fit into a profit-driven system.

Obviously, disposal must be just as convenient as purchasing and consumption. I perhaps dislike no innovation more than single-stream recycling, which has become the standard around the United States in recent years, replacing previous systems in which residents were required to accomplish the laborious task of sorting their paper, glass, and plastics into separate bins. This old system—which is the standard in Europe and Japan—ensures that each material is properly handled and can be recycled at a relatively high quality. Single-stream systems were first developed in California in the 1990s, where innovators undoubtedly viewed the seconds it takes to sort your own trash as an inefficient process needing to be fixed. Why should we sort our own trash when we could just pay some people in a factory to do it, even if almost half ends up in the landfill because it’s so contaminated with other materials? (see this NPR story). In fact, why should we as consumers even bother to learn what can and cannot be recycled, when we can just abdicate all our civic responsibilities and throw anything we aren’t sure about into the recycling bin—someone else will figure it out! Peeking into an American recycling dumpster is a pretty good way to lose a bit of faith in people’s ability to maintain a commons. I’ve seen wooden chairs, snow shovels, filing cabinets and other things tossed into the dumpster in my building in Denver. Instead of engineering an effective system for resource recovery, recycling has basically been turned into a green trash can with a “responsibly disposed” label that allows consumers to relieve themselves of the guilt of consumption and the effort needed to consider where their trash actually goes. In the near future I will be able to auto-order 24-packs of Izze sodas from Amazon Dash (a habit I might have hesitated about if I had to haul them from the supermarket) and chuck the glass bottles into my recycling bin without so much as a thought about the absurd environmental inefficiency of this system. The palliative of recycling has been thoroughly integrated into the wasteful activity of consumption.

This is part of the genius of our current manifestation of capitalism—to make environmentally/socially conscious people feel good about ourselves for consuming and discarding “responsible” products (sure enough, Keurig Coffee now says it will make its coffee cartridges recyclable by 2020). Slavoj Zizek uses the example of “chocolate laxative” to illustrate this demand for sanitized products that contain the remedy to their own detrimental effects, but this way of thinking is endemic to our ideological landscape, not just in products like decaf/free trade coffee, but in our faith in philanthropist billionaires to stem the effects of inequality born of ruthless financial capitalism, or the common American belief that war is necessary to maintain peace (see Iraq War architect John Bolton’s recent NYT Op-Ed “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”). I would argue that the same merging of problem and solution also underlies a great deal of the innovation taking place in Silicon Valley, albeit in reverse: In order to solve a problem and earn a profit, you first have to create a problem in people’s lives, either by wrecking old systems or by inducing desire through marketing and media—you need to convince them that going to the supermarket is too much of a hassle, or that the public bus is too dirty and slow to take you across San Francisco. You sell them a problem they didn’t know they had and the solution together, in one sleek app (or button).

The world that Silicon Valley is building with its “sharing economy” and “Internet of things” is indeed frictionless, where each individual’s interaction with the world is mediated by sleek two-dimensional interfaces (both in virtual and real spaces) that connect them to the massive and invisible backend of our global production system (a psychological division of space summed up smartly by Venkatesh Rao here). Have we considered enough how this compression of our social experience into superficial interfaces alters our world view and our sense of responsibility to fellow citizens, including the great swath of humanity who lives on the other side of this psychic divide—making, packing, and shipping our things and sorting our trash? A frictionless interface is designed to make one forget the complexities and social structure of our global production system, and allows us to wash our hands of responsibility and guilt for the ecological and social consequences of our actions by incorporating solutions into the detrimental actions themselves (and if you’re ever struck by any severe pangs of guilt, you can always text a donation to the WWF or Oxfam). While a frictionless society may be good for boosting profits and market efficiency, friction is essential if there is to be any space at all for genuine social and communal life, democratic politics, the fermentation of non-corporatized culture, or environmental stewardship. If frictionless innovation is the only kind of “progress” that our society can produce, then we seem certain to be headed for a disastrous future indeed. Innovation of a different kind is needed: the emergence of new values, lifestyles, social arrangements and politics that don’t rely on profit, exploitation and environmental destruction. That is something Amazon is unlikely to find a way to sell to you.

Vacant house reuse in Bunkyo, Tokyo — (2)

Since the beginning of November we have held our first two cleaning events at our vacant house in Tokyo. Roughly a dozen people came to help on November 3. In addition to several friends mainly interested in renovation, we also had half a dozen collaborators from a group called Matsuri Japan, which is partnering with us on the project. The group has several dozen members and its goal is to promote and bring youthful energy and passion to all sorts of festivals in Japan. It is said that there are over 300,000 festivals in all of Japan, from shrine festivals to local street festivals to music festivals, and yearly events such as these form the core of community life in Japanese society. With their involvement, we’re planning to eventually utilize the house not only as a community space and location for small events, but also as a platform to interact with the community and participate in many of the local events on the nearby shopping street.

The house started out in a rather severe state of decay, with a collapsing ceiling, rotting floorboards, and other issues. Our first day was mainly focused on dealing with the major problems. We started out my clearing out debris from the collapse of a closet floor upstairs, which was falling through the ceiling into the first floor living room. Among the items that came crashing down: a bowling ball! The small hole to the second floor already lets some light in, but we’re also thinking about enlarging it to make the living room a nice two-story space.




The bathroom floor was unfortunately too damaged to save. We will need to build a new floor, but luckily the toilet still seems to work. For the major renovations, we are planning to host a series of workshop events where a carpenter or expert will guide volunteers through the process. After making a great deal of progress on our first day, we called it quits and gathered in the most usable room in the house, on the second floor, for fresh coffee and snacks. Each person offered a reflection on the day and thoughts about how to use the house going forward. Several common themes emerged in the discussion, including 1) a desire to keep the definition of the space as flexible as possible and to host a very broad range of events of different genres for different audiences, 2) a feeling that more than the “final product” of the space that will emerge from the renovations, the project’s value lies in the process of working together and building a network of collaborators, and 3) awareness that the situation of the house and the nearby shopping street are widespread across the city and country. It would be great if the group could become a platform for supporters to help work on projects developing community solutions to these issues everywhere.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On our second cleaning day of November 8, we covered up the rotting floor with wooden boards given to us by the shopping street and a nearby shrine and sanded down the splintered edges of wooden pillars and beams. In the second floor room, we lay down a carpet and hosted our first small event, a two-hour gathering by a reading circle. In just two short days, the house has been transformed from a dark and unwelcoming place into a semi-usable space that is showing more and more potential. More than anything, its been greatly rewarding to make connections with people each bringing ideas and enthusiasm for creating a community.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACold weather is likely to limit the frequency of our events during the winter, but our hope is to have most of the renovation done before the spring in order to get the maximum use out of the space during the one-year project. I’ll keep posting on our progress!

Vacant House Reuse in Bunkyo, Tokyo — (1)

Out of the nearly 6.8 million homes in Tokyo, approximately 750,000 are vacant. There are nearly 12,000 empty homes in Bunkyo Ward alone, the district where I live in central Tokyo with a little under 200,000 residents. As population decline accelerates and many people continue to prefer newly-constructed housing to renovated units, the problem is almost certainly going to grow much, much larger in coming years. While the rise in vacant houses, shops, and offices poses a threat to public safety, community vitality, and municipal finances, it also presents opportunities for adaptive reuse and conversion of buildings for purposes that couldn’t have emerged when land prices were rising. Reuse of buildings is a growing trend across the city, for guesthouses and sharehouses, co-working offices, art galleries and studios, cultural centersevent spaces, restaurants, cafes and book shops.

A friend and I were recently approached by the head of a small community shopping street near Edogawabashi, in southwest Bunkyo, regarding an empty house in the neighborhood. The owner, whose older sister lived in the house before moving to an assisted care facility, was reluctant to demolish the structure and sell the land for new construction and was seeking ideas for how to use the house for the community’s benefit.


My friend had renovated and lived in an empty store space on the street a few years ago and had a good relationship with the community, and the two of us were wanting to start a similar project together, so we were immediately intrigued. The house is approximately 50 years old, and the structure and its condition do not make it a great candidate for expensive renovations. Instead, we have decided to gather a group of people from various backgrounds who are enthusiastic about renovation and local communities and do an experimental DIY project for a one-year period, spending as little money as possible and using the space for art exhibits, local events, study groups, and anything else people can dream up.

We held our first event yesterday for interested friends to visit the house and offer ideas about its reuse. Once we assemble a core group of members, we’ll decide our strategy and solicit help from a broader network of friends and supporters to help with the renovation and create programming for the space.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the United States an abundance of vacant houses is usually a sign that a place is in deep trouble, economically and socially, such as Detroit, where gentrifiers are now buying up houses for pennies for renovation. But in Japan, vacant houses are appearing in varying numbers just about everywhere, reflecting the society-wide decline in population (there just isn’t any demand for old houses) and the fact that the country doesn’t have much of a secondary market for real estate, which means that even in popular neighborhoods, owners or heirs often hold onto empty properties for years.

That means that vacant houses are often located in very vibrant places. The one we’re working on is adjacent to the Jizodori Shopping Street, and only a few minutes walk from the upscale Kagurazaka district. Our aim is to create a flexible space where outsiders and local residents can interact, add vitality to community life, and think about the future of the neighborhood and the city. Hopefully, the network we build over the next year will lead to additional opportunities to work on renovation and community revitalization in the future. For starters, we need decide how we plan to renovate the house and what we can use it for. It also needs a name.


I’ll post more updates about our progress as we decide our course of action and begin renovations. If you’re interested in helping or have any good ideas, please let me know!

I met at least one local resident yesterday who didn’t appear entirely enthused about our presence. Hopefully we can win him over in the months to come!


I-turn to the countryside: pioneering alternative lifestyles

Small numbers of city dwellers are now returning to the countryside. Can a new degrowth paradigm be discovered in the interplay between urban and rural life?

The following is the fifth section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

Just as life does not end with adolescence, neither does civilization’s evolution stop with the end of growth. We are in the midst of a transition parallel to an adolescent’s transition into adulthood. Physical growth ceases, and vital resources turn inward to foster growth in other realms.
Charles Eisenstein

Economic growth and urbanization

In every society that has undergone a transition from a rural agrarian economy to an urban industrial economy in the last 250 years, development has been defined by closely correlated processes of growth and expansion: of energy consumption, economic output, population, and urbanization. If economic and population growth are indeed coming to an end, it seems likely that we are entering a new stage in the urban-rural relationship as well.

Like the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and the United States before it and much of the Asian and African continents today, Japan’s cities swelled as modernization and industrialization gained steam beginning in the 1870s, creating the complex division of labor, economies of scale, and industrial clusters that drove economic expansion. But the stable dualistic relationship between countryside and city only began to dramatically shift during the postwar economic expansion. During the height of the economic miracle between 1955-1970, approximately nine million new migrants flooded into the three metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. During this period, Japan made use of its “demographic dividend” of a relatively young, urban workforce to fuel its economic boom.  


By 1970 three quarters of the total population were urbanites, but more importantly, urbanization altered the nature of the rural economy, blurring the former dichotomy between city and countryside and functionally integrating even remote areas into a nationwide urban and regional system. Out-migration areas (kasochi) now face interrelated crises of demographic collapse and economic dependency on the metropolitan core. Nearly 8,000 settlements in 2006 were classified as marginal villages (genkai shūraku), with more than 50% of residents over 65. Farming and fishing are in decline without young people to sustain traditional industries, and many areas are now dependent on national government subsidies and public works spending to maintain employment.

The I-turn and the rebirth of rural life

Urbanization generated enormous wealth and delivered a higher quality of life to millions of new middle class consumers, but with the postwar employment system increasingly tenuous and a growing feeling of purposelessness and insecurity among young city dwellers, Japan’s rural roots are once again garnering attention as a source of meaning in the post-growth era. Today a small number of young people, mid-career professionals, retirees, artists and environmentalists are returning to the countryside in a phenomenon known as U-turn or I-turn (a play on inaka, the Japanese word for countryside). This was the premise of the award-winning 2008 film Departures, in which a gifted cellist living in Tokyo gives up his music career and moves back to his empty childhood home in a small city in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan, where he finds work preparing the deceased for cremation. Abandoning a highly specialized and prestigious career in the city for a stigmatized profession in the countryside causes internal and interpersonal conflict but ultimately allows him to reconnect to his roots and find meaning in his life.

I-turn made more headlines in 2009 with the debut of Shibuya Rice, a novelty brand produced by none other than young women from Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya district, a mecca of the gyaru (“girl”) street fashion and lifestyle sub-culture. Shiho Fujita, the aspiring singer and entrepreneur who started Shibuya Rice, has encouraged young urban women try out the nogyaru (“farm girls”) lifestyle by working on a 24 hectare farm in Ogata, Akita Prefecture. While dismissed by some as a stunt, the sight of urban fashionistas getting their hands dirty making food certainly stimulated thought about how city dwellers, typically alienated from the production of their food, could play a role in alleviating Japan’s frighteningly low rate of food self-sufficiency, which has declined from 73% in 1965 to just 40% in 2007, the lowest among major economies. Indeed, some young people discouraged by dismal job prospects are looking to rural agriculture as a possible future career path. An agricultural job fair in Osaka in 2009 attracted 1,400 people, and the government had to turn away applicants for lack of space for a recent $13 million program that helped train 2,400 urban youth in farming practices.

While sort-term youth farming programs have proven popular, some people are now seeking to forge economically sustainable lives in the countryside for the long-term. The Japan Organization for Internal Migration, or JOIN, runs an extensive website that encourages urban dwellers to resettle in rural communities by providing information about locating an empty house, how to farm and create a business, and how to live sustainably.

The end of growth is one factor behind growing interest in rural life. A 2011 information session in Tokyo run by I-turn veterans attracted over 220 college students considering alternatives to traditional employment. One organizer explained, “these are kids born in an era in which material abundance has already been realized. As adults, their interest in simple economic growth or making lots of money has declined relative to other values. Therefore, here and there we are now seeing young people, even talented people who would be sought after by any firm, calmly quitting their jobs and moving to the regions” (1).

I-turn pioneers often form intentional communities that result in a positive feedback loop and draw more migrants. The town of Ama in the Oki Islands between Japan and Korea has become famous for attracting hundreds of well-educated, young urbanites. Between 2004 and 2009, 234 I-turners, mostly between 20-40 years old, settled in the town of 2,400. Yuji Abe, a graduate of Kyoto University and former Toyota employee, told the Japan Business Press that he grew disaffected with urban life. “What’s the deeper meaning of selling inexpensive, good cars?” He quit his prestigious job and moved to Ama because he “wanted to prove that you can survive and live a spiritually rich life without being in the city or a big company.” The town is now working to save its declining high school and position itself as a national leader in community revival practices. In another example, the island of Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which for 35 years was the most rapidly aging community in Japan, has recently halted its population decline as young people have come to the island to start farming and enterprises including jam-making and fishing. Like Ama, some of the newcomers decided to move after hearing the experiences of those who moved to Oshima before them (2).*

From efficiency to sufficiency

Many young I-turners speak of rediscovering deep interpersonal connection and nature upon moving to the countryside, and their experience reveals the shortcomings of the logic of efficiency that underlies urbanization and economic growth: life loses meaning when people become mere cogs in a complex urban economy and use money to purchase all our human needs. I-turners have literally left this logic behind, but others are showing that it is possible to incorporate such principles into urban life as well (explored further in chapter two). 

I-turn, of course, is not a viable solution for a highly dense urban society. It does, however, embody the discursive shift from the logic of efficiency to a paradigm of sufficiency that is necessary for a degrowth economy. It is important to emphasize that degrowth cannot be realized by breaking free of modernity and returning to a lost ideal of pre-modern life; advocates must engage with the pressing problems of wider society in an age of globalization. With this in mind, in the mid-1990s, Naoki Shiomi developed the concept of han-nō han-x, or “half farmer, half x,” as a model for practicing subsistence agriculture and also pursuing one’s calling in modern society. The idea has become popular around Japan (and Taiwan, where Shiomi’s book has been translated into Chinese), and today there are writers, activists, teachers, artists, and craftsmen who split their time between tilling the land and pursuing their career. While it sounds like an unrealistic lifestyle for someone engaged in a busy career, especially in an urban area, Shiomi emphasizes that simply devoting any time to self-sustenance can improve happiness: “You can be a farmer only during the weekends or for just one day a month. It doesn’t matter how much time or area you do farming. What matters is to get back in touch with natural plants in our lives as much as possible.”

Advocates and practitioners of simple, non-competitive alternative lifestyles, rural or urban, are frequently inspired by the concept of satoyama, a term that describes traditional landscapes formed and sustained by prolonged harmonious interaction between humans and nature. Located next to forested mountains, residents of satoyama communities sustainably harvest resources such as wood and mountain vegetables from natural areas, and also cultivate rice paddies and fields that over time become an essential part of the ecosystem. This view of humans as part of nature, not above it, is crucial to adapting to our environmental crisis, and is often lost in the discourse of “green growth,” “sustainable development” and other ideas rooted in a self-confident faith in engineering and efficiency.

Conclusion: a new type of happiness

This chapter has explored the ways in which Japan’s prolonged experience of economic stagnation and hesistant attitude towards economic liberalization and globalization has laid the groundwork for a degrowth economy. A variety of trends, particularly among youth of the post-bubble generation, are undermining the growth economy and hastening the transition to new conceptions of wealth and happiness. As the Japanese political world experiences upheaval in coming years, I expect that political faults will increasingly emerge along degrowth lines: between an older, conservative, establishment wing that advocates for growth through economic liberalization and efficiency, and growth skeptics who will be increasingly adept at articulating a vision of a post-growth society and a more human economy based on concept of sufficiency. Japan, and the rest of the global North, has an opportunity to move past the adolescent period of development to enjoy the fruits of post-growth adulthood, but only if it begins to see its crises as opportunities for real change.

In the next chapter, I will explore how Japanese architects and urban planners are designing for degrowth, perhaps providing inspiration for the transformation of other aspects of society.


(1) “zoku~ satoyama shihon shugi  – kaso no shima koso 21 seiki no furonteia,” NHK Eco Channel, 31:00.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.

*Many I-turners maintain blogs or websites. Examples here, here, and here. More on Ama Town here.

Grass-eating boys, freeters, and postmodern ennui: the unlikely foundation of the degrowth economy

Commonly maligned social and cultural trends suggest that Japanese are seeking less competitive lifestyles

The following is the fourth section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

Even if the population declines and the size of the economy shrinks, if citizens can live comfortably there’s no problem whatsoever.
Wouldn’t it be great just to live modestly, and find a niche market with no external enemies?
What we should strive for is the life of the panda. Neither the hunter nor the hunted, living in the bamboo grove. Yes, the “bamboo-eating people,” wouldn’t that be wonderful?
—columnist Takashi Odajima (Japanese link)

In the 1960s and 70s, the postwar period of economic expansion in Japan ushered in a mass urban middle-class of nuclear families, rooted in a clear gender division of labor between the male domain of bureaucracies and businesses and the female domain of the domestic sphere (1). This arrangement was highly in a sense the culmination of postwar aspirations for Western-style modernity and wealth. While the full time housewife took charge of domestic life, the hardworking salaryman remained largely absent from participation in the household and family, working extremely long hours in devotion to his company or organization. However, by the 1980s this model of men and women reduced to single-faceted professional or domestic roles began to lose appeal to children raised in the suburban communities of the new affluent Japan, write Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan write in Imagined Families, Lived Families:

In many respects, the ideal new families had been made possible by the consumerism that accompanied economic expansion; but when the economic bubble burst and the recession exposed the illusion of permanent and stable employment for the diligent work force, the children found that attaining a better living than their parents through hard work and better education was no longer guaranteed (1).

Hashimoto and Traphagan believe that “the economic downturn and the restructuring of the “postwar” social system [at the beginning of the 21st century] has created a context in which people have been forced to confront and reconsider past categories and assumptions about life, family, school, and workplace” (2). But with the social contract to which they subscribed coming under increasing stress, many older people regard the narrow ambitions and inward nature of today’s youth as a cause, not a result, of Japan’s economic decline. Young people are said to lack their ancestors’ spirit of perseverance (ganbaru seishin), which has been replaced by a pervasive and paralyzing aversion to risk (risuku kaihi no seishin). One common explanation is that the relaxation of educational standards during the 1990s, and the implementation of what came to be known as the “slacker education” (yutori kyōiku) has dulled kids’ tolerance for competition and hardship. The result is introverted, unambitious, non-aggressive personalities. “Japanese kids no longer have the hungry spirit we once had,” one English educator who had studied in the United States in the 1960s told me forlornly in 2011, “and as a result Chinese and Korean companies are leaving us behind in the global market.”

Do youth really deserve blame for Japan’s economic decline? In a 2010 essay collection titled Escaping Elders, Youth without Desire, novelist and social commentator Ryū Murakami argues that today’s middle-aged generation is “solely concerned with escaping from the coming collapse.” Because this generation currently dominates the media and national politics, the mainstream conversation about Japan’s post-growth predicament has often focused on restoring the old system to vitality, while marginalizing the voice of youth, who have a clearer understanding of the need for fundamental institutional reform. Thus, government job policy continues to be to support major companies to maintain existing employment levels, even as growing numbers of youth are denied entry to the security of corporate Japan. The government has also been slow to reform the social system to accomodate growth in non-traditional families, including single mothers. As a result, many young people have become alienated from a political process that ignores their interests.

Changing gender roles

As the generation that grew up in the post-bubble era enters adulthood, gender roles are beginning to break down. In recent years, the term “grass-eating boys” (sōshokukei danshi) has come into use to describe the growing numbers of men who lack the ambition or aggressive tendencies of their “meat-eating” peers, choosing cultural pursuits or personal enrichment instead of participating in the race for promotion and status (See this Japanese guide written by a self-described grass-eater). They prefer cooking dinner to the salaryman’s late-night drinking, value avoiding conflict more than asserting their will over others, and spend their money on cheap fashion items from Uniqlo instead of fast cars.

Equally non-aggressive in romance as in careers, the increase in grass-eaters is a factor contributing to the higher average age of marriage and the declining birthrate. The corresponding term “meat-eating girls” describes women who have the traditionally masculine traits of being more assertive in their careers and personal lives. Murakami argues that “grass-eating boys” is simply the latest in a string of popular words coined by the mass media to mask deeper inconvenient truths about social, political, and economic conditions. The term, in his estimation, precludes discussion of the true implications of “the decline in ambition, both of individuals and society as a whole,” just as the phrase “winners and losers” (kachigumi and makegumi) in the early 2000s was a simple way to shrug off the widening gap in prosperity caused by the Koizumi reforms and globalization.

Society has moved slowly to adapt the modern institutions and norms of family, work, and school, which were so conducive to economic growth and social stability in the postwar era, to accomodate the breakdown of gender roles. The growing number of non-conforming individuals is a sign that rigid familial and professional arrangements need to change in order to fully welcome women into the workplace, as well as to create space for less competitive men to pursue alternative careers and share in domestic labor. As the postmodern family and identity gradually arrives in Japan, society will evolve in a pluralist direction that will enable individuals to pursue more diverse lifestyles. But there are other paths to pluralism besides adopting a competitive form of individualization that is the social counterpart to American-style neoliberalism. Reflecting the decline in personal and national ambition that Murakami alludes to, degrowth would instead point towards a new pluralistic social structure rooted in a paradigm of flexible cooperation—an economy that allows everyone to be their natural selves, but embedded within mutually supportive familial and societal arrangements. The ability to construct such a social structure may be one of the benefits of being a relatively homogenous nation.

Changing career goals

Not only gender roles, but perspectives on the institution of work are changing as well. The symbol of today’s labor force may no longer be the salaryman but rather the lowly freeter (furita), a term used to describe underemployed or freelance youth, whose numbers have risen from 0.5 million in 1982 to over 1.8 million today (Japanese link). While some young people forego the long hours and lack of freedom associated with regular employment by choice, others who are unsuccessful at finding a job in the increasingly tight job market are left with no choice but to pursue part-time work.

The typical “voluntary” freeter subsists on little money, spends her free time on individual pursuits, and may not care very much about pursuing a career or attaining a higher level of material comfort. The rise in part-time workers is undoubtedly a result of the weak labor market, but it also stems from a mood of ennui that comes along with living in a highly developed postmodern society where basic necessities can be gained without much struggle. A subset of this group are the so-called “parasite singles,” living off their parents’ savings at home, while other disaffected youth are classified as “NEET,” or not in education, employment, or training. At the worst extreme, millions of young people have shut themselves in their rooms in a tragic phenomenon known as hikikomori, incapable of even facing their own parents, much less finding a job and participating actively in society.

I do not wish to be misunderstood as saying that the myriad social and economic challenges facing young people in Japan should not be treated as serious problems. It is clear that the structure of Japanese society today and the effects of economic stagnation are driving many young people towards underachievement, social isolation, economic insecurity, and unhappiness, and these trends must be discussed and debated. But what is too often lost in arguments over how to deal with the social challenges facing today’s youth is that these are not mere aberrations, but rather symptomatic of a deeper, irreversible shift towards a post-growth, post-consumer society. Japan’s future will not be saved by jamming the round peg of post-growth youth through the square hole of a growth-oriented society. Each challenge must be situated within the broader vision of achieving a degrowth society, and only when the community can offer a compelling and achievable new paradigm of happiness will underperforming youth once again find a place to grow and contribute more fully to society.

Until that point, passive resistance to the status quo in the form of freeters, grass-eaters, and “dropping out of society” will serve to undermine and hasten the demise of the present system. In the next section, I profile one way in which young people are actively prefiguring the degrowth society they wish to see in the future.


(1) Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan, ed. Lived Families, Imagined Families, (New York: State University of New York Press, 2008), 9.

(2) Ibid, 9.

(3) Ibid, 1.

Part five here

Can innovation save the world? TED and social change

Charles Eisenstein says he will request that TED remove his talk from their YouTube channel after it blocks two speakers for being “far removed from mainstream scientific thinking.” Read his insightful post here, and explore some of the people he links to. Really interesting if you care about social innovation and the epistemological underpinnings of our society’s approach to bettering the world. In many ways, TED is really the perfect symbol of our current age of cultural discourse: unquestioned faith in technological innovation and science, valorization of individual success within a competitive market of ideas (as Eisenstein puts it, the belief that we are all “separate individuals in a world of other that we must conquer and control”), the commodification and compression of ideas into bite-size thrill-inducing stories, all of which is conducted within the narrow confines of what is deemed acceptable intellectual inquiry and interesting by the wealthy benefactors and attendees of the conferences.

I like TED, and I think they’re well intentioned and present lots of really good ideas, but I do think we suffer from a cultural complacency towards what’s wrong with the world today that stems from a TEDish belief that somehow just by being smart and having nifty ideas we’re going to be able to solve the very intractable problems we face. So long as we base our public policy solely on an unreconstructed dogma of scientific, technological, and economic progress that have gotten us into our mess in the first place, I doubt we’ll make any true progress in actually saving the world.

Above is one of the speakers in question. Say what you want about his specific points, but his argument gets at a larger point about how scientific objectivity is the new faith of the modern era, which causes us to lose sight of larger interrelated phenomena and misunderstand our relationship to the natural world. Even economics, which started as only a subfield of social science inquiry into political philosophy and human relations, became an unquestioned hard science in the eyes of many and led us over a cliff in 2008. Today our faith in green technology to save us from the jaws of ecological destruction and our obsessive updating of gadgets to avoid the implications of social disintegration are similarly leading us over a cliff that will only be avoided if we think more holistically about restructuring human society.

Deconsumerism in Japan

A shift towards non-material lifestyles reinforces economic stagnation and deflation

The following is the third section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

Twenty years after the burst of Japan’s colossal asset-price bubble, today’s college graduates are children of the post-growth era. One of the most significant cultural changes in post-growth Japan has been the decline in materialism, a remarkable reversal from the era of high economic growth, when aspiring families dreamed of owning the “three sacred treasures” of a television, washing machine, and refrigerator, or the height of the bubble, when Japan’s cities were overflowing with conspicuous consumption of luxury goods and entertainment. In his Times op-ed, Norihiro Kato described the new kind of post-growth Japanese youth:

Three years ago, I saw a television program about a new breed of youngster: the non-consumer. Japanese in their late teens and early 20s, it said, did not have cars. They didn’t drink alcohol. They didn’t spend Christmas Eve with their boyfriends or girlfriends at fancy hotels downtown the way earlier generations did. I have taught many students who fit this mold. They work hard at part-time jobs, spend hours at McDonald’s sipping cheap coffee, eat fast food lunches at Yoshinoya. They save their money for the future.

These are the Japanese who came of age after the bubble, never having known Japan as a flourishing economy. They are accustomed to being frugal. Today’s youths, living in a society older than any in the world, are the first since the late 19th century to feel so uneasy about the future.

The stable postwar society of their parents’ generation has given way to a permanent state of economic uncertainty. In such an environment, it is impossible for many to pursue a traditional lifestyle of finding a stable job, buying a house, and starting a family. Junko Edahiro, the founder of the NGO Japan for Sustainability, describes various adaptation strategies as part of a coming “era of De”:

The first “De” is what I call “De-ownership”—the shift from owning things, to sharing things. Car dealers in Japan are desperately trying to sell cars to young people but young people are quite happy with car-sharing, saying “owning a car is not cool.” The second “De” trend is the “De-materialization” of happiness—instead of seeking happiness by buying and owning material goods, people find happiness in person-to-person relationships, contact with nature, and being in harmony with themselves. The third “De” is “De-monetization” of life—creating happiness in our own lives without being ruled by the monetary economy…this lifestyle evolution is spreading quietly in Japan

yoronWhile Japanese youth are often profiled abroad as prolific consumers of fashion, merchandise, and luxury goods and services, a growing section of the population today is expressing indifference to many material goods. Beginning in the 1970s, middle-class professional women used to save up to purchase handbags from top European brands, which became a symbol of economic success and social acceptance. According to surveys, the percentage of consumers describing luxury goods as very important declined from 51% to 32% between 2004 and 2008, reflecting a decline in demand that has forced many outlets to close down. Tokyo department stores are now staking future growth on attracting the flocks of Chinese tourists who now journey to Japan to shop for brand items, a fact of particular irony when one considers that replicas of many items could be purchased in China for a fraction of the price.

Men’s magazines from the bubble era were filled with stories about sports cars and opulent lifestyles in the stylish districts of Roppongi and Ginza. Today, many car magazines have gone out of print, and the typical men’s magazine revolves around far less competitive pursuits (Japanese link). Common themes are inexpensive travel by train to natural and historical sites around Tokyo, or urban adventures to find the city’s best coffee joints or bookstores.

Indeed, the collapse of the domestic car market is one of the most visible and oft-discussed manifestations of Japan’s declining consumerism. Car sales fell 14 percent to 4.25 million in 2011, down from a peak of 7.77 million in 1990, at the height of the bubble. This decline was initially seen as a result of tighter budgets and the economic uncertainty created by the recession, but it appears that the long-term trend is the result of a broader cultural shift away from a materialist mindset in which high-value items such as cars are seen as status symbols and a reflection of individual identity. In fact, in a 2007 survey, only 37% of young people indicated that monetary constraints influenced their decision not to buy a car. 74% said they did not feel a necessity in their lives to own a car (Japanese link). In stark contrast to the previous generation, when a luxury car was a crucial aspect of the middle class lifestyle, car-sharing services are now expanding several hundred percent per year.

A 2009 car industry report acknowledged the role of the cultural environment in causing declining sales, in addition to the effect of demographic change. In a survey of young people, cars were the 17th most-desired product or service, a decline of 10 places in comparison to 20 years ago. The report concludes, “there is a strong tendency for young people who grew up in the post-bubble low-growth era to hold a pessimistic view of their future lifestyle.” The report also cites educational reform as contributing to a decline in competitive spirit: “With the implementation of less stringent education, the number of classes have declined, and the introduction of objective evaluation in place of relative rankings has reduced the opportunities to experience competition with others.”

Young urbanites now frequently regard cars as an exorbitant waste of money. One 21 year-old university student said on the matter (Japanese link), “there is a car aficionado in my class, who worked part-time jobs to save up $12,000 and bought a car, and he’s treated as a strange person. At parties it is not uncommon for a girl to ask what type of cellphone I have, but I’ve never heard someone ask about cars.”

Deconsumerism is a phenomenon being observed in many forms in every rich society today. It is driven in part by the rise of digital communications technology and the internet, which make it easier to live a satisfying life without copious material possessions and has enabled up-and-coming companies such as Zipcar and AirBnB and ad-hoc services such as couchsurfing to create services that make it easy for users to participate in the sharing economy. Today freedom is found through access to networks and services, rather than through individual autonomy achieved through capital accumulation and ownership. These principles are now informing alternative lifestyles emerging in Japan.


Chapter one, part four here

Turning away from growth

The 2009 election of the DPJ, China’s passing of Japan in GDP in 2010, and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster could be a cultural turning point towards degrowth in Japan

The following is the second section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.

If Japan does in fact lead the way into the degrowth future, the period from 2009 to 2011 may be looked back upon as the time when the national discourse started to shift decisively away from a fixation on restoring economic growth. In particular, two events have provided cause for genuine debate about the future of the country, and offer hope that Japan may turn the page on the long era of political confusion and social listlessness commonly referred to as the lost decades (ushinawareta 20 nen).

In 2010, Japan surrendered it 42-year-old title as the world’s second largest economy to its neighbor and rival China, touching off a round of soul-searching and discussion of the country’s future. Some commentators pointed fingers towards feckless politicians, incompetent corporate leaders, uninspired youth, and devious international rivals (including Chinese theft of intellectual property) in an attempt to explain away Japan’s troubles in a way that would suggest some easy to define, if challenging to implement, solution that might restore growth—clean up government, adopt better management practices, send students abroad, take a hard line with other nations.

At the same time, many accepted the news with a sense of resignation, even relief. “Finally we know where Japan stands—on level ground,” wrote literary scholar Norihiro Kato in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. Japan […] may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.”

This optimistic perspective elicited disdain from The Economist, where a writer penned an opinion story titled “Pity Japan” and declared Kato’s piece “one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.” But the idea that Japan’s status as a “mature economy” (seijuku keizai) should be embraced is growing increasingly widespread among Japanese politicians, scholars, and ordinary citizens. Renhō, a well-known Japanese MP and at the time the cabinet minister in charge of government revitalization, sparked discussion in 2010 when she published a book titled Why Do We Have to Be No. 1?” One must only take a fleeting glance at the statements of U.S. presidential candidates to recognize that Japan is in a different political universe when it comes to the question of growth and national power.

Little remains of the enthusiasm for economic liberalization of the early 2000s, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi advocated privatizing government and fostering a society of jiko sekinin, or self responsibility. While there is broad awareness of the need to reform some suffocating aspects of the Japanese labor market and economic regulation, there is a sense that Japan must pursue a different path forward than the Anglo-American model of unbridled economic liberalization and globalization. This sentiment contributed to the resounding victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2009 general election, which ended the nearly continuous rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955. Days after the landslide, newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama penned an New York Times op-ed laying out a political agenda that appears almost lifted from the pages of degrowth literature:

In the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization. In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.

How can we put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens? That is the issue we are now facing.

In these times, we must return to the idea of fraternity — as in the French slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” — as a force for moderating the danger inherent within freedom.

During three years in power, the DPJ enormously disappointed expectations, and was eventually ousted by the LDP in a landslide of their own in December 2012. However, opinion polls suggest that voters did not restore the LDP because of faith in their platform, but rather because of the DPJ’s mismanagement and inability to fulfill its promises. The newfound vulnerability of the LDP, a party inextricably tied to the postwar development state that was all but invincible during the period of economic growth, could be read as just the beginning of a period of political realignment and change. The fact that voters responded so positively to a political party whose platform was rooted in degrowth ideas, and subsequently lost faith in that party when it compromised on its promises, is a sign that Japan is ready to embrace alternatives to neoliberal globalization.

The second profound event to transform the contemporary political and cultural landscape of Japan was the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami along a 500-kilometer long stretch of the Tohoku coast caused damage in excess of $235 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster in history according to the World Bank. Simultaneously, while the long-term effects of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station are not yet known, the cost of cleanup and compensation is expected to reach as high as $257 billion. The disaster is significant not only for the enormous human and physical damage or the additional strain that recovery efforts will place on national finances, but for the way it has reverberated in a society long confident in its technological prowess. Not only were humans helpless at the hands of nature, but our best efforts to harness nature’s power for the sake of economic growth backfired with horrendous and terrifying consequences. The trauma of the Fukushima disaster is already pushing the Japanese in the direction of degrowth.

In the aftermath of the disaster, famed novelist Haruki Murakami reflected on the potential for the event to be a turning point for Japanese society:

After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again…

I don’t think people think of America as a model anymore. We don’t have any model at this moment. We have to establish the new model.

What Murakami suggests, and the stagnation of Japanese society makes clear, is that Japan is in need of a new narrative. From Fukuzawa Yukichi’s late nineteenth century call for “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika), through the Imperial government’s rallying cry of “rich country, strong military” (fukoku kyōhei), to Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda’s “income doubling plan” of the 1960s and the oft-evoked slogan “oubei oitsuke, oikose!” (Catch the west, pass the west!), the Japanese have many times successfully organized themselves around common national goals. With the burst of the bubble, the organizing narrative of the period of economic catch-up evaporated, leaving a void of purpose that went unfilled during Japan’s lost decades. Today, the project of economic degrowth beckons as Japan’s next calling.

Of course, degrowth for the sake of degrowth is every bit as pointless as growth for the sake of growth. Therefore, it must be a project of degrowth for the purpose of environmental sustainability, individual happiness, and social cohesion and equality. Achieving a convivial degrowth society on a national scale could establish Japan as a truly transformational model to a world hungry for answers to today’s intractable challenges, akin to the way the American and French revolutions established the Enlightenment ideas of liberty, justice and equality as the basis for legitimate democratic government over the last two centuries. With this goal in mind, I will turn below to ways that degrowth has already begun to inform how ordinary citizens have responded to decades of economic stagnation.


Chapter one, part three here