Bright lights, big city: a bustling crossing in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo in 2013. Photo: MARTIN ROEMERS / PANOS
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What the west can learn from Japan’s “lost decades”

Roland Kelts wonders whether Japan-style stagnation would really be so bad in the west.

I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, mostly Tokyo and New York and a few other American cities, several times a year. The contrast is jarring. Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure was creaky and basic services such as ground transportation were chaotic and unreliable.

I steel myself before landing, my mind tallying variables and unknowns: will my luggage land with me and emerge on the dingy carousel? Will the taxi that I booked online in advance arrive on time, at the right terminal, or at all? Will traffic impede me on my journey?

And then there’s the view. Whether it’s the outskirts of Queens on the way from New York’s JFK International Airport or the fringes of the Los Angeles highway off-ramps by LAX, everything seems a bit run down and decrepit.

Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze.  All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading during touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of and nothing is broken. As I ease into town, usually on the limousine bus service, the streets outside are teeming with well-dressed urbanites heading home from work or out to restaurants, everyone in motion with purpose and meaning.

But that’s not what the papers say. Japan has experienced more than two decades of a stagnant-to-recessionary economy since its 1989-90 bubble burst. It has become the world’s economic whipping boy, described repeatedly as “the sick man of Asia”, incapable of revival, doddering off into the sunset.

The reports of Japan’s societal stagnation are no prettier. Stories about the country’s ageing population and plummeting birth rate abound – with the latter hitting a record low last year amid dire predictions of a disappearing Japan. At current rates, demographers estimate that the overall population will drop by 30 million by 2050.

Japan’s 2014 fertility rate is low – 1.4 births per woman – but David Pilling, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, notes that South Korea’s is lower and those of other developed countries, from Taiwan and Singapore to Germany and Italy, are similarly low. “Much of the world is going Japan’s way,” says Pilling. “If Japan is doomed, so are many others.”

However, Pilling adds, the alternative isn’t necessarily better. “Can we really only conceive of a successful economy as one where the population increases year after year? By this measure, Pakistan and many African countries should be screaming success stories. They’re not.”

Japanese men and women, meanwhile, are tagged as “sexless”, caught up in a “celibacy syndrome” (sekkusu shinai shokogun) that has both the married and the single declaring their lack of interest in sexual relations. Japan’s young shut-ins (hikikomori) are socially withdrawn digital hermits who confine themselves to their bedrooms, video games and online chats. The so-called herbivore or “grass-feeding” men (soushoku danshi) avoid competition in any arena, be it romantic or professional. Their female counterparts greet them with a shrug, collect their pay cheques and dine out with their girlfriends.

Intuitively, you might think that this shrinking, even disappearing Japan should not look and feel as good as it does. To visitors, expats and residents alike, Japan is still one of the richest, most civilised and convenient countries in the world. There should be potholes in its streets and pickpockets in its alleys. Shops, restaurants, bars and factories should be darkened and idle. Trains should be late and the passengers poorly dressed and busking for change.

The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of the safest major cities in the world put Tokyo on top, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, at number three. While smaller and mid-sized Japanese cities betray some of the conventional signs of economic hardship (boarded-up storefronts and sparsely populated shopping malls), in a world beset by rising fanatical violence and rancorous racism and inequality, safety is nothing to sneeze at.

In his 2014 book Bending Adversity, Pilling grapples with the cognitive dissonance at the heart of 21st-century Japan: is it a harbinger of global stagnation? Or is it a model of global sustainability? In the book’s most-quoted passage, a British MP, on arriving in Tokyo in the early 2000s and surveying its lively environs, is reported to have said: “If this is a recession, I want one.”

I caught up with Pilling, who is now based in Hong Kong but frequently returns to Tokyo, to ask if he has had a change of heart about the resilient, sustainable Japan that he outlines in his book. He remains deeply sceptical of the knee-jerk pejoratives associated with stagnancy.

“Do rich societies really need to get richer and richer indefinitely?” he asks. “A lot of improvements in standard of living come not through what we normally consider as growth but through technological improvements.”

Pilling considers Japan’s stagnant years as a time of remarkable domestic growth, if not the kind associated with standard economic measurements such as GDP. “Many would agree that the standard of living, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, has improved significantly in the so-called lost decades. The city’s skyline has been transformed; the quality of restaurants and services improved greatly. Despite the real stresses and strains and some genuine hardship, society has held together reasonably well. If this is what stagnation looks like, humanity could do a lot worse.”

 

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What makes one society hold together “reasonably well”, while others fail? You have only to look to the Japanese language for insight. Common words such as ganbaru (to slog on tenaciously through tough times), gaman (enduring with patience, dignity and respect) and jishuku (restraining yourself according to others’ needs) convey a culture rooted in pragmatism and perseverance.

After the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, the international media were awash with stories about the dignity and almost super­human patience of survivors, many of whom peacefully waited hours in single-file lines for relief supplies, only to be turned away in the frigid weather and asked to try again the next day. No one rushed to the front; no one rioted. In shelters, meagre foodstuffs such as rice balls were split in half or into quarters to make sure that
all had something to eat.

Nearly everyone was on the same page: Japan’s population is 98.5 per cent Japanese, as defined by citizenship. While ethnic diversity has its advantages (and some academics point out that, when you analyse the population’s regional roots, Japan is quite diverse), a set of common cultural values, instilled from birth, may strengthen resilience in the face of crisis and adversity.

The journalist Kaori Shoji tells me that having little to hand and learning to make the most of it are essential components of the Japanese character. “The Japanese temperament is suited to dealing with poverty, scarcity and extremely limited resources. If [the American commodore Matthew Perry’s] black ships didn’t show up [to open Japan to western trade] in the 19th century, we’d still be scratching our heads over the workings of the washing machine or the dynamics of a cheeseburger. On the other hand, with . . . centuries of frugality behind us, we have learned to be creative. Frugality doesn’t have to mean drab stoicism and surviving on fish heads.”

Japan’s stagnation, pilloried by economists and analysts in the west, may turn out to be the catalyst for its greatest strengths: resilience, reinvention and quiet endurance.

Until a couple of years ago, I lectured Japan’s brightest and best at the University of Tokyo. My Japanese students were polite to a fault. They handed their essays to me and to my teaching assistant with two hands affixed to the paper, as if they were handling sacred artefacts. They nodded affirmatively when I asked them if they had understood what I’d said, even when they hadn’t. They were never late to class and they never left early.

When I pressed them on their future plans, however, they expressed a kind of blissful ambivalence. “I’d like to help improve Japan’s legal system,” Kazuki, a smart and trilingual student from Kyushu told me. “But if that doesn’t work out, I just want to be a good father.”

Sayaka, a literature major from Hokkaido, asked me if I understood her generation’s dilemma. “We grew up very comfortable,” she said. “We learned not to take risks.”

The lack of risk-taking – anathema to today’s “fail-fast” Silicon Valley culture – would seem to indicate stagnation writ large. But what if it’s a more futuristic model for all of us, even superior to Japan’s sleek, sci-fi bubble-era iconography: all hi-tech and flashy yen but no soul?

The Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato, a columnist for the New York Times, sees a radical example in Japanese culture that he describes as a model of “de-growth”, of returning to other measures of growth that transcend stagnancy, focused instead on quality of life.

“The shape of wisdom as well as self-worth has drastically changed,” he tells me at his office in Takadanobaba, north-west Tokyo. “We can point to periods of change: the late 1980s with Chernobyl, or the early 1990s with the end of the USSR and communism, or the early 2000s with 9/11. And finally, the early 2010s, with 11 March 2011 and Fukushima Daiichi.”

Kato sees our world as one of fundamental transition, from dreams of the infinite to the realities of the finite – a transformation that Japan grasps better than most. “I consider younger Japanese floating, shifting into a new qualified power, which can do and undo as well – can enjoy doing and not doing equally.”

I ask him if Japan’s model of stagnancy as strength can educate the rest of the world in the possibilities of impoverishment. “Imagine creating a robot that has the strength and delicacy to handle an egg,” he says. “That robot has to have the skills to understand and not destroy that egg. This is the key concept for growing our ideas about growth into our managing of de-growth.”

Handling that egg is tricky. A spike in volunteering among young people in Japan after the nuclear disaster suggests that, despite the global hand-wringing over their futures, they are bypassing the old pathways to corporate success in favour of humbler forms of participation.

In 2005, the Tokyo University graduate Mitsuru Izumo, who had a cosy law firm gig in his lap, left to found a start-up, Euglena.jp – a way of feeding the world’s poorest using algae hybrids. A Keio University graduate is now selling stitched bags from Ethiopia. Haruka Mera of the website Ready For? is thriving by facilitating global crowd-funding campaigns for Japanese start-ups.

Mariko Furukawa, a researcher for the Japanese advertising firm Hakuhodo, thinks that the “think small” mentality of young Japanese is turning stagnancy into sustainability. She cites the proliferation of agri-related start-ups – peopled by young Japanese who are leaving the cities for rural environs, despite the low returns, and who don’t seem to care about globalisation.

“These small techs should really add up to something and we may be able to replace [stagnation] with new innovation, not necessarily new technology,” Furukawa says. “I think the Japanese ability to innovate in such things is very strong. And so, because these city planners and urban designers are talking about downsizing the cities, wrapping up into smaller furoshikis [rucksacks], so to speak, the awareness is there; they know what needs to be done. In this sense, we may be at the forefront of developed economies.”

Furukawa notes that many European nations facing similar dilemmas don’t have the same tools to address them. “Europe has been suffering from low growth. But I don’t know if they are that innovative at new ways of living.”

Japan’s Blade Runner image of yesteryear – a futuristic amalgamation of hi-tech efficiency coursing through neon-lit, noirish alleyways in sexy, 24-hour cities – was really a blip in the nation’s history. Today, the country is more about quality of life than quantities of stuff. In its combination of restraint, frugality and civility, Japan may serve as one of our best societal models of sustenance for the future.

Roland Kelts is a contributing writer for the New Yorker and the Japan Times and the author of “Japanamerica” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article is published simultaneously as part of the “Stagnation” season of the Long + Short, Nesta’s free online magazine of ideas and innovation: thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge