Thursday, 17 March 2011

On the desirability of a young population

Other lessons from Japan
Business Mirror

The images coming out of Japan show a nation that seems stuck in time from last Friday while the rest of the world attempts to go about its business. However, we all know that we are witnesses and perhaps part of a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Governments around the globe try to react in some way to show that they are “doing something”—from Asian countries testing Japanese imports for radiation to Germany shutting down seven nuclear reactors to the Philippines reviewing disaster plans. All of these efforts look somewhat foolish and futile when compared to the pictures of hundreds of thousands of Japanese disaster refugees struggling without proper shelter, food and water, like inhabitants of the worst possible “Third World” country.

And we ordinary citizens are all asking “why” and “what if” and, in the end, saying, “Thank God, it was not us.”

Yet, a year ago, it was Haiti and, more recently, Chile and then New Zealand that experienced devastating earthquakes, giving us all the same kind of pictures and videos of helplessness and desolation.

Now, though, with Japan in our focus, we realize that no one, no country, no economic class is immune from these kinds of events. All the development and money in the world ultimately cannot stop the forces of nature. We saw here in the Philippines during Typhoon Ondoy that the multimillion-peso SUV floated away in the floodwaters just as easily as the fishball vender’s pushcart.

There are lessons to be learned from Japan applicable to every nation and perhaps every person, since we all live each day under one threat or another that can change or even take life away.

The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, made a startling comment before reporters. From the CNN religion blog: “On Monday, Ishihara had told reporters, ‘I think (the disaster) is tembatsu (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for the disaster victims,’” according to Kyodo News, which translated Ishihara’s remarks from Japanese. “Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”

John Nelson, the chair of theology and religious studies at the University of San Francisco, said Ishihara’s remarks about divine retribution hark back to Japanese Buddhist ideas that fell out of favor decades ago. He said the Japanese term tembatsu could also be translated as heavenly punishment. “The way [Ishihara] used it was a prewar understanding of the will of heaven or the gods to discipline the Japanese people.”

If Ishihara is correct about divine retribution (and who are we to question the mind of God one way or the other?), then all governments and all people are under judgment. Which government official, including in the Philippines, does not lead with ego believing that the people, the sheep, are fed only because of his or her efforts. Which politician does not make a supreme attempt to pander to and please all groups for political expediency?

However, there are consequences for a nation and people that become arrogant with too much ego that has become “rusted” onto the national mentality.

In the 1980s Japan was the country that had risen from the ashes of World War II to become the dominant economic force on the planet. Nothing could stop “Japan, Inc.” Traditional ways and beliefs were cast aside in favor of a new Japan that the “New Japanese” person would create. The marriage rate dropped almost in half from only a decade earlier and having children was an unnecessary burden. Besides, having children was for less fortunate people who could not afford the finer things in life.

Japan is now faced with a historical rebuilding of their country. But who is going to do it, and who is going to pay for it?

Nearly 25 percent of Japan is over 65 years of age. The median age (as many people below and above) in Japan is 45. Only 13 percent of the population is under 16 years old. The current population growth rate is a negative 0.3 percent. Japan will have nearly twice as many people die as are born this year.

The numbers for the Philippines are the opposite. Over 65 years makes up 4 percent of the population. The median age is 23, and the birth growth rate comfortably replaces those who die at 1.9 percent.

We have all seen the pictures of the damage. It will take years to repair and replace the thousands of miles of roads, the hundreds of bridges and the hundreds of thousands of buildings. Japan does not have the young labor force and will rely on workers from countries like the Philippines to do the work. It is estimated by the UN Population Division that Japan will need to “import” 1 million workers per year over the next two decades to supplement its labor force.

Japan has the highest public debt burden ratio to gross domestic product of any major country at more than 200 percent. The Philippines debt is 50 percent. Japan will be forced to borrow more money to rebuild, and how is it going to pay that debt in the future? The most productive earning years are between 40 and 50. Over the next 20 years as government and private-sector debt is repaid, there will be nearly 50-percent less “peak-earning-years” workers as there are now. More and more of employees’ wages will go for debt servicing government taxes.

In literally less than one hour, Japan saw a portion of what it has built in the last 60 years swept away. Perhaps, Governor Ishihara is at least partially right about too much pride and arrogance and the consequences, what we might call karma. That is something we all need to learn.

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