Healthy Thinking
(One of the Japanese pastry choices at the tea shoppe in the Hikone Castle Museum)


I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use
Galileo Galilei


The major drawback to living in Japan are all the tobacco addicts here. Together with a highly salty diet, and health of those who live in Japan. That is not an exhaustive list, but it is more than enough to allow the conclusion to be drawn that the naive and blithe inhabitants of this set of islands has got some tough times ahead. Japanese, still --statistically-- enjoy living to a long age. But, even if we assume the statistics are reliable (which they invariably aren't), the situation is liable to change in the near future.

A long time ago, somewhere about the 17th century, the emperor at the time was far-sighted enough to see the threat and issued an edict banning smoking on pain of death. About a century later, this seems to have been lifted. As the eras passed into the Edo era, people had more time and money for leisurely pursuits. Sadly, smoking become one of them. During the Meiji era, tobacco was recognised for it's fiscal properties (1904: State monopoly formed by Ministry of Finance). Granted, at that time, almost all of science was naive as to the dangers. By the end of the war, many Japanese were addicted to faggots and the government enjoyed a healthy constant revenue stream (1985: 'Privatised' the monopoly; and Ministry of Finance owned 100% of shares). They went international later (1992: Acquired Manchester Tobacco). And recently, perhaps as a co-incidence with the litigation occurring in the United States, the government has been trying to distance itself (1994: 33% shares sold by Ministry of Finance). Although, it could also be the the number of users has been dropping (84% in 1966; 59% in 1994). Thanks to the 1984 Tobacco Business law, the tobacco industry enjoys a large degree of protection. However, I predict that shortly, this filthy habit is in for a rocky ride. According to research in North America, Japan is just now entering into 'Phase IV' of the country-wide tobacco usage epidemic. Based on research from North America, where smoking has been around a bit longer, 'Phase IV' is when the ageing tobacco users succumb to various smoking-related illnesses. As children see their parrents enjoy a long, drawn out, battle with some smoking-related disease (such as cancer, emphysema, etc), they may reflect on their future, and tend to stop smoking. Of course, there is still smoking advertising everywhere, but no one is immune to the effects of smoke. Thanks to sushi and shashimi (culinary delights of raw fish), Japanese have lesser incidences of lung cancer; but, stroke, heart attack, and a variety of other afflictions remain prominent. So, one would think that the demise of tobacco is imminent. But, it will take a lot longer than it took in North America. If not at least because the government has mandated and fostered a great deal of co-operation between itself and business. Both of these bedfellows will not want to see that steady stream of revenue diminish. They may not have a choice. Especially as Japan heads to a health system fashioned after the USA. Japan is at least 20 years behind the West in terms of tobacco epidemic control. What's worse is that their entire model is reactive versus proactive. Children find it easy to get cigarettes at almost anytime, anywhere; this thanks to the ubiquitous vending machines. A recent news report stated that new child-proof machines were being designed and to be made available in 3 years time. But, I suspect this is just public relations damage control. In fact, I can see this sort of thing being purposely delayed because of concerns it might interrupt the addiction cycle. (Biological note: Regardless of racial predispositions, tobacco businesses must get children to smoke to meet long-term financial goals; after 20 or so, it is harder for them to become addicted --and you've lost them forever). In terms of health care, the big-wigs are in for a scare: I expect a lot of capacity problems when all these smokers come to be cured. Lots of questions from families when members are laid to rest concerning the truly feeble warnings they were given ('please don't smoke too much as it might damage your health'). True, it is a bit better than when I was here about 9 years ago. But, if there is something that really bugs me. I think it is the realisation that for all their education and literacy (all the hopeless addicts I have met, know the threats, but continue), the Japanese are incredibly naive. In fact for a society that is so based on science, they are amazingly superstitious also --but I hope to cover that later. It seems as if they are keen to do what is best for the group and if the majority in the group do nicotine, then they must too. Likely the biggest 'nail' in many a coffin, is the Japanese 'way' of thinking that only immediate illness warrants action. This sort thinking is a godsend for disaster. Regardless of the cause (industrial pollution, tobacco, etc.). Nevertheless, I can only hope that events will converge into a wonderfull collision on the progress motorway. The interesting thing is that, although there may be some tobacco-related lawsuits in Japan, I expect them to go nowhere --there seems to be just too much complicity and coercion here. It would likely be more fruitful and expeditious for Japanese to sue via the states or a similar country. From experience at least: 50 years on and Minamata Bay is only just recovering, chemically, still not legally resolved. The courts here can get caught up in the municipal-prefecture-federal government and business game of hot-potato. And time is the only winner. The legal system is especially designed in this way to help big business wage 'wars of attrition' (all too easily) on all who would present any legal challenge. And, even if we assume the courts are 'independent' of corporate and political influence, they do not appear to be immune to the influence of 'wa' (harmony).

Most Japanese accept and enjoy a highly salty diet. This is somewhat traditional (most of the products come from the sea) in origion. But, recently, Tokyo has been getting increasingly salty. Medically, this is not good as kids with this sort of diet tend to end up in cardiovascular wards sooner when they grow up. Osaka food seems less salty, but, all the food around and about Japan is rather salty. Most Japanese expect the food to be somewhat salty. So, if you are not keen on salt, you will need to cook for yourself.

I have yet to meet a Japanese businessman who does not like powerful liquor/spirits. Many times at night, I have seen businessmen stumbling along the well-lit streets of Tokyo. Some, I think, are on the verge of alcohol poisoning. Some do this as regularly as work. Five nights a week, throughout the year. To componsate for it, in both vending machines and convenience stores (konbini) a plethora of mickeys are available to counter-act the effects of excess. You can choose from up to 20 different types of small bottles packed with vitamins, herbs, and other chemicals guaranteed to either wake you up and/or dispel that hangover.

Although you might not suspect it (unless you actually lived here for a while), noise pollution is a growing concern. Increasingly, many of the aged (and even some younger) are requiring hearing aids. Noise, and lots of it, can come from many places; some of them beyond the experience (let alone tolerance) of North America. You have the staple station announcements that occur for every platform of every train "The train will be comming soon" and "Please be cautions, the doors are about to close" (not to mention any music and alerts they would want to play). There are announcements on and throughout the train concerning where it will stop and what cell-phone etiquette is expected. There are sometimes similar for busses. Quite a few vehicles have their own theme-music also: There seem to be distinctive themes for everything from bullet trains (ShinKanSen) to garbage scows patrolling the streets. Many garages are equipped with flashing lights and buzzers that warn you when a car is emerging. If the automotive legislation has any provisions for exhaust noise that might rival that of a jet airplane, it does not seem to be enforced: I have seen some lorry-rigs with no-restriction exhaust systems that are not only deafening in their own right, but have been modified to make a whistling sound. I really pity animals with hearing better than mine! Taxi horns are the most schrill of any I have heard in the world. Even if the person jaywalks to the other side, best to honk --just as a preventative measure, perhaps. The most interesting to me is the political noise. Literally noise. There are some political factions that vie for whatever scraps of power are thrown to them by the LDP, but basically they just make a lot of noise and feel that they are doing what is best for their country. They are (mostly) the right-wingers (ou-yoku) and left-wingers (sai-yoku). Many Japanese feel that they are some political side-line of the local gangsters. They appear from time to time in vans or motorcoaches with public address systems affixed to them. Through the PA system, the speakers blare out 'mascot' music or some soap-box oratory. Especially during election time, they are everywhere. And when they need some extra funds, they park outside some bank, and start blaring their systems to the pleasure of the bank and it's clientele. Usually after a couple of hours, some representative comes out and negotiates for peace (and quiet). During elections and at other times, big stations (like Shinjuku --it is a big station, but not close to the Emperors house --like Tokyo Station) are the sites of many public displays. Van after van will come there and the incumbents will blare out their speeches. (Thanks to this 'tradition', I got to see Koizumi live --before he became prime minister). Even through many streets, you can often hear someone with a automobile-mounted public address system trying to tell you something --normally trying to sell you something. There is a weekly --if not daily-- bamboo sales truck that does this around the Shinjuku area. Another interesting source of noise are the high-pitched squeals (of the rear-brakes) of bicycles. Many riders think that riding on the streets is asking for an accident, so they ride on the sidewalk. Many of the streets in metropolitan areas have very wide sidewalks. Some 3m or more wide. So, most of the time both pedestrian and bicycle traffic can be accommodated. But, regardless of this, most of the bikes in Japan seem to have a rear brake that is very poorly designed and seldom (if ever) serviced. It is the strangest version of a drum brake that I have ever seen! The result is that everytime a stop is made --for whatever reason (be it a red light at an intersection, to avoid a collision, etc.)-- a horribly loud and schrill sound is emitted. The Japanese don't seem to notice it much. I sure do. A friend well acquainted with mechanical engineering mentioned that these brakes have good stopping ability even when wet (important during the rainy season and the typhoon season).

Material pollution is also a growing problem, but it's effects seem to wax and wane throughout the Japanese modern history. I intend to discuss this in depth later. At the moment, most of the current threats are silent disasters-in-waiting. In Japan, as in other industrialised nations, it usually it takes some horrific environmental disaster to draw public attention to the fact they are so dangerous to themselves. The mercury poisoning scandal in Kyushu about 50 years ago is an often-touted example. And, there, the situation has still not returned to normal: Either litigatively or biologically. While these occurrences do serve to illustrate the problems of irresponsible and negligent ways of dealing with pollution, they also serve as excellent ways to illustrate the failings and impotency of the Japanese legal and social systems in addressing such issues.

Now, just for accuracy, I should mention that there was recently a problem that Japan had with BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephlitis) or vCJD or Mad Cow Disease. Apparently there was initially 1 cow that was verified to having it. Then the gov't panicked and in the ensuing free-for-all, did just like Britain --lost whatever credibility remained. In total, they got about3~4 cows and instituted (or claimed to) the most thorough, expensive, scientifically-advanced system to prevent this happening in the future. But, consumers took this seriously. And they had every right to because the media is so well controlled here (the story was delayed for about 6 months to give officials at the ministry of health time for damage control). After all, it is a fatal, incurable disease where your brain becomes useless. Apparently some people have claimed to succumb to it already and the government is trying to handle settling the issue. But, for a great majority, wanting beef has left a bad taste in the mouth. The sales have, and contine to suffer greatly because of the handling of the issue. Likely a key issue is that nobody knows exactly what is going on. It is pretty well accepted in Japan that lots goes on behind closed doors. This is where the 'lords' can get together, and design their future away from the lowly masses. So, given that, and that you don't want to waste even one grain of rice, there are some questions that simply cannot be credibly answered: 'So you are testing cows now-what about already processed meat'? 'Where did the suspected meat go to (ie stores)'? 'How can you guarantee that I will (or did) not eat something that will infect me later'? These are the sort of questions that should rightly be in everyones' mind, but will never get asked--or credibly answered. It is simply incredible that the Just-In-Time leaders of the world cannot tell you where the beef went to. All that data is (or was) on a computer. The Japanese business deems it crucial to know what is where when --always. This is the key to their supplying success. But, the data concerning the beef is not forthcomming. And the ostrich Japanese public is not asking either. Now the government, learning about the public perception of local beef, gave handsome subsidies to import foreign beef. Especially USA or Australia. One company re-labled foreign beef to look Japanese to take advantage of this financial bonus. This was the same (Snow Brand) company that was still struggling with the fact it caused the largest case of food poisoning in Japanese history only one year prior. But, I think you can get the idea here: If one company labled foreign beef Japanese; what would someone from labling Japanese beef foreign? It simply not possible to tell for a typical consumer. Of course, there is likely a way to tell from the biological characteristics, but even if you had the expertize, the equipment needed for that might be noticed in a restaurant. Another interesting thing. As expected, after things were 'brought under control', a bunch of politicians had a televised beef-eating party. That should instill some confidence in the public, right? Well it did no such thing: The fact that all the meat had been especially tested for that event was leaked. Credibility of both meat and politicians (expectedly) plummeted. So right now, the beef market is rather, well, 'bull'. A recent report was highly critical of not only the way in which the government handled it (more of the same, old ubiquitous bureaucratic bungling), but especially the indifference to the end-consumer and highly preferential treatment of the meat industry.

The food industry here is completely 'alien' to countries whose governments care about the health of their people. Protected by archaic laws enacted in times of famine, Japanese food processing companies have pretty well free-reign to poison purchasers. Of course, it is hardly on purpose (I hope), but it does happen. And there is seldom any recourse available to the victims. The company is seldom (if ever) punished for its negligence or incompetence. The legal system tends to favour the business. Japanese businesses have (unfortunately) become world-renowned for their heavy-handed and Draconian approaches in dealing with opposition in any form. At least in other countries there are systems in force that keep this sort of behaviour in check. Not so for Japan. And there is far less choice than you might at first think.

Stress. Japan was the first country where insurers recognised 'death through overwork'. Their term for it was 'karoshi' [excessive labour death]. The Japanese concept of karoshi also encompasses suicides and nervous or mental breakdowns. It is one of the many unpleasant things that many Japanese (especially those in power) want swept under the carpet. (Sometimes it seems that after sweeping so much under the carpet, they named the bump, Mt. Fuji!). It appears that the Japanese company work ethic is central to the cause. The pressures are immense. They come in a myriad of forms: Schedules, superior's expectations, duties, and responsibilities to name but a few. Corporate culture also plays a big part in it. The big business cartels are quite keen to encourage such fatal behaviour. At least by Western standards, it is repugnant how those who suffer and their families are treated. It is insulting that Japan refuses to tackle this problem. It seems obvious by their behaviour that the skill-sets of everyone in the company are quite common and easily replaced. Part of the problem is how karoshi is defined. The government is keen to define it in such a way that the numbers are kept low or seen to decrease. The reality is that they are definitely increasing. Before you had the lifetime employment concept. But, even that is fleeting now. Economic turmoil, expensive society, no more job guarantees, no real social safety net all combine to create an atmosphere rife with stress. It is often sited as stress. Stress does not normally kill directly. But stress can have a very profound effect on the body. Making illness mole-hills into mountains. Considering the machismo bravado expected of many businessmen, it is likely stroke or heart-attack. The stress only exacerbating underlying problems resulting from other sources (some mentioned above).

This section would not be complete without posing the question 'Why don't they (the Japanese) care?". This might be answered on many levels. Obviously, it would be nice if they showed they care about their health and that of their children and guests. Just out of plain consideration. Or even to prove that they aren't ignorant after all. The Japanese concept of 'harmony' is at odds with this. So, is the beurocratic model that is entrusted to protect and promote industry. Another contributing factor is peculiar to Japanese protocol concerning relative group membership. The odds of reforming such a system as they have here is seemingly 'insurmountable'. Perhaps that provides a good excuse for ostrichism. Indeed, that future is too far and too ugly to either see or want to look at. Another thing to sweep under the rug. Well, they hope. Actually, you can run, but not hide from the declining birth rate. I believe current statistics indicate that the mortality rate is greater than the birth rate. Bottom line is less people in the future here. Some politicians seem far removed from the realities of birthing and rearing children. This takes time. Lots of it; and plenty of care also. This is a country where marriage is the only practical way to immigrate (even then, I have heard rumours that they ship you back from whence you came after you die). Bureaucrats know with less life, less revenue. But the systems that exist to support double income families are hopelessly overburdened and quite expensive (one parrent might as well quit and take up rearing). Many in Japan are unprepared for the sacrifices of birthing and rearing also. But, I digress. Simply put, one way to mitigate the effects of a declining population (and keeping in line with current immigration policies), health must needs be made a higher priority. Even at the cost of 'harmony' --however it self-servingly defined.