May 31, 2012

A yen for yen

As late as 1871, when the new Meiji government replaced the Edo period mon-based currency with the yen, 1 yen was defined as .78 ounces of silver or 1.5 grams of gold.

Rapid currency devaluation caused by fluctuations in the price of silver led to Japan going on the gold standard in 1873 and defining the yen as equal to 50 U.S. cents.

After the hyperinflation of WWII, the yen was pegged at 360 yen to the dollar. The U.S. abandoned the gold standard in 1971. The yen was allowed to float in 1973. Today the yen has risen in value to 80 yen to the dollar, a troubling "success" in export-driven Japan.

In 1871, the Japanese government issued 1 yen gold coins and 1 yen bank notes. In 2012, 1 yen is worth about 1.3 cents, and one yen coins are stamped out of aluminum.

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May 28, 2012

The Reverse Roe effect

The Japanese government recently reported that the "under-15 population  declined for 31st straight year" and the "number of newborns in 2011 came to a record low." Taking note of these statistics, Nicholas Eberstadt observes that

Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction. [Though] it is not clear that Japan's path will be a harbinger of what lies ahead in other aging societies.

Eberstadt is right on that last point. Japan is quite different from other rich countries, in large part because of its very dense infrastructure and the great ability (largely unnoticed by western commentators) of ordinary Japanese to radically adjust their cost of living.

Still, I'm not sure that "Japan's path" will prove much of a harbinger even in Japan.

At the heart of these concerns is a curiously conservative ideology infecting the full spectrum of liberal and academic thought. It is perhaps best summed up in William F. Buckley's famous definition of conservatism: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop."

First, seeing the world in static terms: whatever is will always be; whatever the current trends, they must be expected to continue forever. Any deviation from what was, or the expectations of what should (and ought to) be, becomes cause for great alarm. Steps must be taken!

Nothing illustrates this better than the recent flurry of "Japan going extinct in 1000 years" stories (coming a quarter century after the "Japan as #1" fad).

Second, an apocalyptic world view, which places every generation at the fulcrum of history, its hands on the levers that will move the world into or away from the precipice. But lurking beneath the sackcloth and ashes are towering egos convinced they can rule the world. And nature.

A fertility rate of 1.4 actually masks a more interesting reality: that a lot of women have no children, and a few have more than none. It's the mirror opposite of what James Taranto calls the "Roe Effect" (there are fewer abortion supporters every generation for the obvious reason).

The Roe Effect kicks in elsewhere. A real problem in Japan (echoing Steven Sailer's theory that family formation inversely tracks cost of living) is that owners of cheap land are loathe to sell and eat the losses, taking the sunk cost fallacy to the point of actual extinction.

It's yet another problem that will eventually fix itself. The people who have land and no children won't be around that much longer to not have either. The cost of family formation will drop as a result, meaning those who want to have more children can afford to have more.

As Troy cynically points out, thanks to Japan's much briefer post-war baby boom, the medium-term demographic problem in Japan "pretty much solves itself" by dying out quite promptly.

Now, if you're Greece, you may plumb run out of people while struggling past this dip. But if the worst case scenarios all come true, a century from now Japan will have the same population as—Great Britain right now. On the same amount of arable land. Hardly the end of the world.

Related posts

Demographics (and manga)
How to live long and prosper
The Medicator (they'll be back!)
The undiscovered country

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May 24, 2012

Down on the farm

Ryô and Kuwada find themselves back in present-day Kudoyama (population: 4,827). Towns like this survive on the tourist trade, or as sleeper communities within commuting distance of larger cities like Osaka, Nara, and Wakayama.

Japan's farm-based rural communities are in far more dire straits.

The 1947 land reforms during the Occupation strengthened the agricultural sector and quashed a nascent communist movement by turning hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers into land owners and small businessmen. But it has since become an economic albatross.

The Japanese government shovels out farm subsidies 100 times (on a per capita basis) as generous as the U.S. government, forcing consumers to pay ten times the world market price for rice alone. Despite this largess, observes Kazuhito Yamashita, over the past 50 years,

the share of agricultural output in gross domestic product dropped from 9 percent to 1 percent, the food self-sufficiency ratio from 79 percent to 41 percent, and agricultural land from 6.09 million hectares to 4.63 million hectares.

And it's not keeping 'em down on the farm either. As Amy Chavez puts it,

In all my years living in Japan's countryside, I've never seen any significant return to the rice fields. Most people are lucky to make it back to their ancestral home once a year for O-bon on a 300 kph bullet train.

Japan needs another land reform movement as profound as the one in 1947. The current system encourages enormous inefficiencies and is ruinously expensive. Unfortunately, as in the United States (to saying nothing of Europe), no politician dares to antagonize that voting block.

So it's not going to get fixed it until it's thoroughly broken and we're all broke.

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May 17, 2012

Foot soldiers

The soldiers Ryô encounters in Serpent of Time are mostly ashigaru.

Ashigaru were originally tenant farmers recruited (or "volunteered") for service by the land owners. As local conflicts expanded into full-scale wars, they became the "regulars" in the clan armies, with the samurai forming the officer corps.

Though during the social upheavals of the Warring States period, these class distinctions often broke down.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a peasant ashigaru under the command of Oda Nobunaga. He rose through the ranks to become generalissimo of the country, though he was denied the title of shogun because of his commoner roots.

Oda Nobunaga was the first warlord to realize that firearms in the hands of large numbers of ashigaru could turn the best samurai into cannon fodder, and successfully executed large-scale battlefield maneuvers.

But realizing that the "great equalizer" was inimical to feudal order, once the Tokugawa shogunate solidified its rule in the early 17th century, the ashigaru were made lower-class samurai and systematically disarmed.

Under the world's most successful gun control regime, firearms were banned and weapons technology was frozen in place. Specialty steel making continued apace, forging swords that were rarely used (despite what you see in samurai movies).

As a result, following Commodore Perry's arrival two hundred years later, Japan found itself grossly outgunned, facing off with 16th century cannon and matchlocks against state-of-the-art British, French and American warships.

It was one of those Sputnik moments, and Japan responded by scouring the world for the latest technology, eventually building a navy that in 1905 thoroughly thrashed the Russians with both superior tactics and weaponry.

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May 14, 2012

Role of a lifetime

NHK's "Big River" (Taiga) historical series and Asadora Showa dramas usually cover most or all of the protagonist's life. This presents an interesting casting challenge.

A typical approach is to cast a child for six Asadora episodes (a week's worth), and just the ninety-minute premier in a Taiga drama. And then quickly introduce the "star" of the series, who plays the character from her teens to her forties or fifties.

The last two Asadora series, Ohisama and Carnation, made a third casting change, bringing in an older actress to play the protagonist in her seventies and eighties. (This transition is often more jarring than going from child to teenager.)

In the Taiga drama Atsuhime, the main character (Tenshôin) and the actress Aoi Miyazaki were within five years of each other for much of the series. Tenshôin died at the age of 47. The last decade of her life was covered in a single episode.

Another approach is to lie a little. The 25-year-old Juri Ueno played the eponymous character in Gô, the wife of the second Tokugawa shogun. I didn't notice anything amiss until the episodes covering the year Gô lived with her stepfather, Shibata Katsuie.

One of the mini-documentaries that accompanies each Taiga series episode featured the famous statue in Fukui City of Shibata (out of frame to the right), his wife (on the left) and stepdaughters. As you can see here and here, Gô (in front) was ten years old at the time.

In the previous scenes with her famous uncle, Oda Nobunaga (below), Gô couldn't have been older than eight. And while Juri Ueno can pass as fifteen, she can't play ten, let alone eight (she's almost as tall as he is, to start with).

Of course, these scenes were less about Gô than about these towering figures of the Warring States period, whose actions would drastically affect the rest of her life. I consider this sort of cinematic fibbing a perfectly acceptable use of dramatic license.

The current Asadora starts with Umeko as a teenager. The 24-year-old Maki Horikita has a slight build that easily allows her to play half a dozen years younger (for that matter, few teenage characters in Hollywood are played by actual teenagers).

I'll be interested to see how long Maki Horikita stays in the role. Many Japanese women between thirty and fifty are blessed with a timeless quality, so it wouldn't be that much of a stretch to stretch it that far.

As Dick Clark said, "If you want to stay young-looking, choose your parents very carefully." Or be on good terms with the casting director.

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May 10, 2012

Wanted posters

Below are facsimiles of Edo period wanted posters on display in the Toei Kyoto Studio Park (English). You can take a virtual tour of the jidaigeki (historical movie) sets here.

These are working sets. Like Hollywood westerns, the jidaigeki has fallen in popularity, though NHK makes at least two television series a year, and now then one of its commercial competitors comes up with a truly inventive series like Jin.

Courtesy Nelson Cunnington.

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May 07, 2012

Japan's wicked witch

Japan's Empress Himiko can be compared to King Arthur, a historical character that exists more firmly in folklore than in actual history. Unlike Arthur, Himiko is depicted as more of a Merlin, less the tragic hero than the dissolute villainess.

Himiko ruled the Yamatai Kingdom during the second and third centuries. She was erased from the earliest Japanese histories, Kojiki (712) and Nihon Shoki (720), but is repeatedly mentioned in contemporary Chinese dynastic records.

The Chinese histories suggest why later regimes wanted to pretend she didn't exist or greatly downplay her standing:

Then a woman named Himiko appeared. Remaining unmarried, she occupied herself with magic and sorcery and bewitched the populace. Thereupon they placed her on the throne. She kept one thousand female attendants, but few people saw her.

The "keyhole" (kofun) burial mounds associated with the era also reflect Korean influences on the Yamatai court that the Nara and Heian courts might have wanted to expunge for political reasons (she does seem the King John sort).

Like Camelot, the geographical location of the Yamatai Kingdom is hotly debated in Japanese archeology, with new theories cropping up on a regular basis.

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May 03, 2012

Foxes and raccoons

Buckwheat noodles with deep-fried tofu strips simmered in a hot broth are known as kitsune (fox) soba in the Tokyo area and tanuki (raccoon) soba in the Osaka area.

The kitsune and tanuki often pair up in Japanese folk and fairy tales, with the fox as the Dean Martin character (the cool hipster) and the tanuki as Jerry Lewis (the comic relief).

A good example is Studio Ghibli's Pom Poko, which has a bunch of bumbling raccoons trying to save their land from a housing development. They don't get a lot done until a smooth-talking fox shows up.

Pom Poko is also the only Disney flick that includes a running joke about a rather particular part of the male anatomy. Tanuki are well-endowed down there, making them symbols of fertility and wealth.

Usually depicted sporting a straw hat, carrying a bottle of booze in one hand and the Edo period version of a checkbook in the other, they're always ready to either get down to business or party hearty.

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