Slate weighs in on missing old people, can’t manage to stay on topic

Slate has an article on the missing centenarian scandal, and it could have been better. Go read the writer’s take. Unfortunately, the subtitle is wildly inaccurate, “macabre Japanese trend – mummify grandma and collect the pension – what America can learn from these macabre tales of mummified Japanese centenarians.”

I will concede that she is more or less right on most of the facts, taken separately. But ultimately this article leads nowhere and tells very little. It tries to combine many separate issues – the missing old people issue and the “parasite single/aging society” common explanations for the Japanese malaise – without really making the case for why they go together.

What bugs me most, though, is the detached approach. In reviewing her book The China Price, a Bloomberg writer called her style “breezy, almost florid” – spot on, if this article is a guide. I wish more writers would actually try to have some empathy for the situation here rather than looking down on Japan from a distance.

23 thoughts on “Slate weighs in on missing old people, can’t manage to stay on topic”

  1. Harney is a friend of mine, and someone who has significant experience with and empathy for Japan.

    As the article is for Slate and is more focused on “what America can learn from Japan”, it may not be as empathetic as an article focused on the situation in Japan itself.

    Harney’s own take on her own blog has a different tone and focuses more on Japan’s specific situation (which she couldn’t do due to the focus of the Slate piece, I believe):

  2. I don’t think lack of empathy or knowledge is the issue so much as the article itself, which is actually less coherent and just plain worse than the writing on her blog.

    The problem is that it was a sloppy piece that doesn’t properly explain explain the connection between its main sections. OK, so old people live alone, young people live alone – great. And? Yes, an intelligent reader can connect the dots, but without the author even bothering to do so, what is the point of it?

  3. I’m reading this NYT Magazine article ( on “emerging adulthood” and the following passage made me think of this article:

    Two years ago Karen Fingerman, a developmental psychologist at Purdue University, asked parents of grown children whether they provided significant assistance to their sons or daughters. Assistance included giving their children money or help with everyday tasks (practical assistance) as well as advice, companionship and an attentive ear. Eighty-six percent said they had provided advice in the previous month; less than half had done so in 1988. Two out of three parents had given a son or daughter practical assistance in the previous month; in 1988, only one in three had.

    Both of these narratives kind of assume that there is something typical about the mid to late 20th century experience, from which we are now degrading, but I think they are off.

    Is it possible that, in both America and Japan if not the entire developed world (to varying degrees), the phenomenon of young adults becoming entirely independent of their parents and establishing independent households at an early age was nothing but a bubble? Did we merely go through a period of such abundance that it was possible for each generation of each family to have its own household, duplicating a number of resources several times over, but we are now moving into a period of relatively less wealth in which we are still better off than our predecessors in many ways, but still have to return to a somewhat more traditional multi-generation household in order to maintain sufficiently comfortable life styles for all generations?

  4. Roy nailed it.

    Another dimension – 日高 六郎 in 戦後思想を考える makes the argument that all of those 50 year old salaymen sitting around grumbling about “kids these days” only have jobs because postwar youth were encouraged to orient their lives around “consumption” rather than “independence”. This created the consumer stratum that carries Japan’s economy on its shoulders (the export economy, it is said, depends on the competitiveness of the domestic economy to hone products – this has worked historically for cars, video games, etc.) Hidaka talks about the irony of, somewhere in Japan at some time, a salaryman rolling his eyes at her daughter’s latest purchase only to realize that he was the one who hankoed off on the import/manufacture in the first place.

  5. Roy may well prove to be right but the same comments were being made around the late eighties and early nineties in the West. I can recall people saying then that previous generations just had the good fortune to be born at a time when buying a house secured them financially but no-one would now have the chance to do the same and so would have to depend on their parents. Within a few years we went on one of the most sustained rises in asset prices we’ve yet seen with the bursting of the internet bubble as a mere hiccup.

    I’m certainly not saying that will all happen again but it does point to the difficulty of forecasting the future.

    What’s striking about Japan is that, since 1990, new generations haven’t had great opportunities domestically. There have been occasional rallies in real estate and the tech bubble enriched a few private investors but not the kind of moves to allow young people to build a base in the way their parents did. That’s a fairly unique experience among developed nations over that period.

  6. I think Germany and France might mirror the Japanese experience in this area – home ownership rates are low (43 and 55%) compared to the UK and US (69 and 68%) across the board and VERY low for under 40s.

  7. Also, while there may have been more opportunities in the Anglo-sphere than in Japan during this period, this is also the time that has seen young people in those “good” careers really only getting some professional momentum from around age 30, and often with well over $100,000 in debt.

    Opportunities have also demanded that people move. My father was able to buy a house near where he grew up for the equivalent of three years of takehome when he was 30. I make considerably more, but in an area where something similar would cost 12 years of takehome. Something smaller with a 1 hour commute each way would still equal 4-5.

  8. Germany and France have never had as high ownership rates so the absolute levels are not the best measure. One effect of the real estate boom in France was to switch behaviour and I think that 55% figure might be a little dated. Germany saw weak real estate markets by comparison with much of the rest of Europe but had a strong equity market so asset building was on the menu there too.

    I’m not advocating home ownership here or looking at quality of life but instead trying to compare the opportunities available for building a financial base. The generations coming into the workforce in the West from 1990 had just as good or, arguably, better opportunities than their parents or grandparents. Not so Japan. Fuelling this, they had – for better or worse – far easier credit conditions which was certainly not true in Japan.

  9. “I’m not advocating home ownership”

    Do you think that there is a strong case that can be made against buying a home in, say, the US or UK right now and opting for rent + investing instead?

  10. Good points across the board, BTW.

    I was thinking more in terms of life paths than opportunities. Whatever chances existed, post 1990, I’m not sure that the generation whose 20s corresponds with the aughts was really able to make much of them. Not scientific, I know, but of people form my high school and university classes that I know well, those still living with their parents (or in properties owned by their parents) outnumber those who own their own houses or condos by something like 5 to 1. I’d be very surprised if anyone I know of my age cohort has $10,000 more in savings or investments than in (non-mortgage) debt.

  11. Welcome to the world of planned obsolescence and extracting rents.

    Lately, I’ve been fairly amused by Japanese movies from the 1960’s, where the generation of now-curmudgeons was being complained about by the generation that survived the war. Some of the generation gap dialog in movies like “Arashi wo Yobu Otoko”, or the “Musekinin Otoko” series, or even Ozu’s “Akibiyori” are borderline hilarious when you listen to them 50 years later.

  12. I’ve almost bought a house that stands right next to my mom’s about a month ago because my neighbor got broke and the court puts it on the auction.The price was nearly sixth of what my father had paid for in 1994.
    I’m 40 this year and now in need to buy my own house/condos.I’ve been living either with my parents or what my firm has been offering(and they are kicking me out this year because of my age).
    Can’t say exactly what deflation has brought to our condition of living since the living cost drastically lowered in the past twenty years.

    Anyway,here’s the take from James”Containing Japan” Fallows from The Atlantic monthly.”Japan Surrenders”

    However,Fallows claims he didn’t write the headline.Yeah,sure.

  13. The personal look at his own old neighborhood was interesting, but I was really annoyed to see this junk repeated AGAIN:

    “As The Washington Post recently pointed out, only half as many Japanese students are now enrolled at U.S. colleges as 10 years ago—the opposite of the trend in almost every other nation. The tight job market has discouraged students from doing anything as “risky” as spending time outside the Japanese school system.”

    Except of course more Japanese are studying abroad in TOTAL, just in China and Australia instead of the US. As the reader response that Fallows posted on his blog says, that suggests a maturation of attitude, rather than fixation on the US.

  14. “If you know China mainly through stories of its economic successes, you’re surprised on a visit that it’s still so poor. If you know Japan mainly through stories of its failures, which are real, you’re surprised that it’s become so rich.”

    Looks like he nailed this, however.

  15. “living cost drastically lowered in the past twenty years.”

    Even with the yen sky high, I can really notice this in just the last 10. There are things that I used to bring to Japan in bulk because they were expensive or hard to find – now there are some daily things that I buy before going back! At a more “healthy” (or am I just being self-serving here given that I earn dollars) $1 = 100 yen, Japan seems inexpensive, especially compared to UK, Australia, and NZ.

    Concerning the insularity issue and US higher ed, we’ve critiqued this from myriad angles already but a piece that I saw recently caused me to consider a new one.
    Japan is often compared to Korea in this area. Japan has 1,230,000 millionaire households (not counting property of residence) compared to 92,500 in Korea. Japan has 5 or 6 times as many millionaire households as Korea per capita. Korea, for all its growth and competitiveness, still seems like a hard place to build world class wealth for ordinary individuals, hence one possible explanation for high rates of both students studying abroad and emigration.

    In effect, I think this recent discussion of Japan’s students in the US is on the borderline of treating Japan like a third world country. The UK has about 10,000 students studying in the US compared to 30,000 for Japan (Japan, at twice the population is higher per capital by a third) and has a similar trend to Japan with more diverse choices of other Anglo countries (Canada 3000) and elsewhere in Europe. And yet there are no small number of articles out there about how “more” UK students going to the US to study is indicative of an “increasingly” hungry and internationalist body of UK youth, while in Japan, despite having a HIGHER absolute rate, is “insular” simply because of a downward trend! “More” is relative and in any case, countries like Japan and the UK with excellent domestic schools and increasingly pluralist economic engagement don’t need to make like India or Korea.

  16. Fallows is not a great analyst by any means — I liken him to Robert Kaplan. He always tells the story well but manages to spin it toward a very wrong conclusion much of the time. I have to love the fact that Fallows covers all the topics I am interested in, roughly proportionally to my level of interest, and he blogs the more intelligent responses/retorts to his articles.

    Anyway, I’ll throw this on the table: I have a negative net worth thanks to student loans, and while I plan to pay off those loans in the near future, I have no interest in amassing wealth beyond a certain amount of emergency liquidity. The idea of “retiring” or having a “financial base” is itself a construct of social norms and isn’t necessarily a requirement for happiness or even a Good Thing for society; see, for instance, the popular book Die Broke.

    My father retired a few years ago and soon found himself absolutely despondent at sitting around the house all day. He ended up taking a much lower-paying job selling plants at a local home center just to stay busy and stay in contact with people, and he is happier than ever. I can’t imagine “retiring” myself, as lying on a beach for more than an hour puts me on edge. My wife grew up in Tokyo, living in apartments or condos all her life, and can’t imagine living in a house.

    At the end of the day, I’m happiest investing my money in travel, beer, electronics, books and fantastic wedding parties. I don’t need or want a house or a 401(k), and I don’t believe in financing my kids’ education, so why should I hoard money or dump it into a fixed asset that just forces me to work harder? I suspect many of my peers, in both Japan and the States, feel the same way after seeing what their parents and grandparents got from a lifetime of relative austerity. In many cases, it’s little more than spoiled descendants and a huge tax bill.

    Aceface, congratulations for holding out for so long.

  17. “I liken him to Robert Kaplan”

    Sound of a gauntlet being thrown down.

    I certainly can’t imagine buying a “house” house. How many North American men really want to, I mean REALLY want to work all week only to have their day of rest become a “scrape the deck” day? “Build a table” I can see, but too many people I know become prisoners of their houses rather than being liberated by them.

  18. God knows why but when reading Joe talking about society and social norms and then citing “Die Broke”, I assumed it must be some crucial German work. “Perhaps it’s ‘The Brook,'” I thought, “Using the image of flowing water as a metaphor for the headlong flow of a life”.

  19. I just ran across this article from a few weeks ago on a similar situation in Greece:

    Hundreds of millions of euros are thought to have been unwittingly wasted in payments that were dutifully deposited into bank accounts every month. Of the 500 recipients, aged over 110, more than 300 had died in the past seven years.

    “One pension, for example, was paid to someone who had died in 1999,” said Koutroumanis.

    The crackdown, part of a historic drive to end state extravagance, will probably save the public sector up to ¤100m (£82m) a year. Although most of the handouts had lain idle in banks, some had continued to be claimed by fraudulent relatives.

    After narrowly averting bankrupcty earlier this year, Greece has promised fellow eurozone nations and the IMF – the providers of up to ¤110bn in emergency loans – it will clean up its act.

    Furious efforts are now underway to compile a pensioner registry.

    Prime Minister George Papandreou’s government, which recently completed the first ever census of civil servants, admits it has no idea of the real number of public employees.

    The discovery of dead Greeks claiming pensions emerged as the ruling socialists attempted to clamp down on profligate practices, starting with chaotic account keeping.

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