Beneath the surface wealth
of bullet trains, cute robots and exuberant fashions,
this is the Japan few outsiders understand:
the one gripped by a deepening social depression.
This week I've highlighted the structural flaws of using GDP as a measure of "growth" and prosperity:
The conventional metrics of "growth" and prosperity have another fatal flaw:
The term social recession has two distinct meanings: around 2000, the term was used to describe the erosion of social cohesion via the decline of institutions such as marriage and the rise of social problems such as teen pregnancy.
Many commentators pinned this erosion of social constraints and bonds on rampant individualism and over-stimulated consumerism, while others pointed to urbanization, the commodification of child care, and women entering the workforce en masse to prop up household incomes.
Poverty was explicitly rejected as a causal factor, hence the term "social recession."
This concept of social recession was aptly described by Robert E. Lane, author of the 2001 book The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies:
I use the term social recession to describe a very different phenomenon:
I have defined and used social recession in this way since 2010:
Here are the conditions that characterize social recession:
At some threshold of structural denial, social recession becomes social depression: a black hole of deteriorating social mobility and opportunity for the younger generations.
I have covered these topics in depth for many years:
What I want to focus on is the willful blindness of official metrics such as GDP, household wealth and unemployment to the realities of social depression, and how these metrics can continue to register gains while the younger generations of workers sink deeper and deeper into full-blown social depression.
Japan has been running a 25-year long experiment in precisely this dynamic: obliterating official recognition with metrics designed to ignore the inconvenient realities of social depression.
Beneath the surface wealth of Japan, homeless encampments are expanding even as opportunities for young workers decline.
If the protected class that currently reaps most of the benefits of the Status Quo and owns most of the household wealth becomes even wealthier, this is logged by official metrics as "expansion," i.e. prosperity, even when this "prosperity" is limited to the financial/political Elites and the Upper Caste of the Japanese economy - what another author calls the Clerisy class: America's new class system (the Clerisy class).
The Clerisy Class is not unique to America; every structurally stagnant economy is being strangled by its protected Upper Caste.
The Status Quo also masks these realities with tsunamis of upbeat consumerist propaganda. In Japan, this propaganda manifests as ceaseless media coverage of young people with enough time and disposable income to indulge in absurdly exaggerated fashions and fads.
If all this is new to you, I strongly recommend you read my essay The Non-Financial Cost of Stagnation - "Social Recession" and Japan's "Lost Generations" (August 9, 2010).
Here are a few highlights:
Is it any wonder that in the face of such a bleak and maladaptive future, young people seek identity, community and solace in a fantasy world of fashion?
When an economy is dominated by a Savior State that issues unsustainable promises, and a society is dependent on a consumerist frenzy of fads, status signifiers and shopping for identity and what passes for community, then narcissism, restless emptiness and the aloneness described in The Hidden Cost of the "New Economy" - New-Type Depression are the inevitable results.
Beneath the surface wealth of bullet trains, cute robots and exuberant fashions, this is the Japan few outsiders understand: the one gripped by a deepening social depression.
Japan is the global bellwether in social depression, and we can already see the same symptoms and official panic to mask these symptoms in Europe, China and the U.S.