Magazine | April 4, 2011, Issue

Earthquake Demographic

‘Why is there no looting in Japan?” wondered a headline in the Daily Telegraph. So did a lot of other folks. Various answers were posited:

The Japanese are a highly civilized people — which would have been news to the 22 British watchkeepers on the island of Tarawa who were tied to trees, beheaded, set alight, and tossed in a pit less than 70 years ago.

Alternatively, Japan enjoys the benefits of being an ethnically homogeneous society — which didn’t prevent the ethnically homogeneous West Country of Britain from being wracked by widespread thievery during the floods of 2007.

Most analysts overlooked the most obvious factor: Looting is a young man’s game, and the Japanese are too old. They’re the oldest society on earth. They have a world-record life expectancy — nearly 87 for women. A quarter of the population is over 65 — and an ever growing chunk is way over. In 1963, Japan had 153 centenarians; by 2010, it had 40,399; by 2020, the figure is projected to be just under 130,000. This isn’t a demographic one would expect to see hurling their walkers through the Radio Shack window and staggering out under a brand new karaoke machine only to keel over from a massive stroke before they’ve made it through the first eight bars of “I Will Survive.” Any looting in Japan’s future is likely to come from rogue platoons of the “Yurina” — the well-named robot developed a year or two back by Japan Logic Machine to help out at the old folks’ home: Yurina can change your diaper and then carry you over to the tub for an assisted bath. But I would imagine we’re only a half decade away from advanced-model Yurinas that can unionize, negotiate unsustainable retirement packages, and rampage through state legislatures menacing non-humanoid politicians opposed to collective bargaining.

Age is unjust. You’re in pretty good shape, you’re sharp as a tack, you have a comfortable life in a nice neighborhood — and then you slip on the ice in the last weeks of winter, and you never quite make a full recovery.

That’s Japan after the earthquake, and tsunami, and nuclear accident. A month ago, the land of the rising sun looked to be arranging a more agreeable sunset than the rest of the ever more geriatric West. It would never again be the economic colossus of the Eighties, and its loss of second place in the global economic rankings to China was a symbolic blow. Fifty percent of Japanese women born in the Seventies are childless, and in a decade the childless percentage of the much smaller number of women born in the Eighties will be even greater. But, unlike Europe, Japan had no restive unassimilated immigrant populations to complicate demographic decline, and it was managing its descent into societal senescence with some inventiveness: There are “cat cafés,” where lonely seniors without grandchildren to coo over can while away the afternoon enjoying the sensual pleasure of stroking a kitten of their choice; and prototype humanoids with facial-expression-recognition technology that can tell whether you want a cup of tea or a tuna sashimi. Oh, sure, it all sounds a bit creepy, but there are worse ways of ending up than at the tender mercies of a robot nurse whose soft flesh-like hands are less calloused than those of harassed British NHS nurses, and, come to think of it, less prone to infection-spreading. Also, your robot-carer can be programmed to speak the same language as you.

#page#And then the tsunami hit. Old societies are always vulnerable. Old societies running up debt levels of 200 percent of GDP in an attempt to jump-start the economy before the clock runs out are even more vulnerable. AP reporter Jay Alabaster captured the scene at the Senen General Hospital in Takajo: The food and medicine were kept on the ground floor and were lost when the tide rushed in. Five days into the catastrophe, the stench from waterless bathrooms in continuous use by the elderly choked the building. Upstairs, four nonagenarians had died, and 120 of their fellow patients huddled in the dark and cold without their pills, their treatments, their monitors.

When the earthquake strikes, who clears the downed electric lines from the roads, pulls you from the rubble, supervises an orderly evacuation? Young people. Where will they be when the 2025 tsunami washes in? Can you make Yurinas that swim? Or will the tide disable their circuits? Can they be programmed to move you to higher ground? Or locate the aspirin cabinet the earthquake tossed down the elevator shaft?

The tsunami has accelerated Japan’s date with demographic destiny, as the economic downturn accelerated Europe’s. As for America, the Taliban think that’s all about demography, too: If a 50-year-old American mother has just one son, she doesn’t want him in Afghanistan. If a 50-year-old Pashtun has five sons plus a half dozen grandkids hard on their heels, well, you look on these things a little differently.

Shortly after I came to live in New Hampshire, a local buttonholed me at the general store one morn and asked if I would help out with Old Home Day or some such small-town event. “Yeah, sure,” I replied, and fished out my checkbook. “No, no,” she said. “We need warm bodies.” I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase in that context before: able-bodied persons who can actually do something. But she’s right. That hospital, like other buildings, withstood the worst earthquake in history. But they’re short of warm bodies, and whether Japan can withstand that remains to be seen.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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