To Western eyes, contemporary Japan has a kind of earnest childlike wackiness, all karaoke machines and manga cartoons and nuttily sadistic game shows. But, to us demography bores, it’s a sad place that seems to be turning into a theme park of P. D. James’s great dystopian novel The Children of Men. As readers may recall from earlier citations in this space, Baroness James’s tale is set in Britain in the near future, in a world that is infertile: The last newborn babe emerged from the womb in 1995, and since then nothing. The Hollywood director Alfonso Cuarón took this broad theme and made a rather ordinary little film out of it. But the Japanese seem determined to live up to the book’s every telling detail.
In Lady James’s speculative fiction, pets are doted on as child-substitutes, and churches hold christening ceremonies for cats. In contemporary Japanese reality, Tokyo has some 40 “cat cafés” where lonely solitary citizens can while away an afternoon by renting a feline to touch and pet for a couple of companiable hours. In Lady James’s speculative fiction, all the unneeded toys are burned, except for the dolls, which childless women seize on as the nearest thing to a baby and wheel through the streets. In contemporary Japanese reality, toy makers, their children’s market dwindling, have instead developed dolls for seniors to be the grandchildren they’ll never have: You can dress them up, and put them in a baby carriage, and the computer chip in the back has several dozen phrases of the kind a real grandchild might use to enable them to engage in rudimentary social pleasantries.