Moving to Japan for me was like fast-forwarding to the future and rewinding to year 2000 at the same time. Trains whiz between buildings in the sky but on them sit grown men with flip phones and pagers. Robots serve you food but you can only pay the bill in cash. Neon streets are gobsmackingly futuresque but their stores sell CDs and comics.  These contradictory occurrences are common in Japan, and while they used to startle me when I first arrived, they serve to present Japan’s neat tapestry of groundbreaking progression and old school nostalgia.  Here’s why it works in some instances, and not at all in others.

Relic Tech & Media

Whilst Japan sits at the forefront of robotics, technology and vehicular engineering, there’s also a massive circulation of relic products other countries might deem obsolete. 

Mobile phones are called “keitai denwa” (携帯電話) and keitai culture is massive. In other developed countries, you’d only see smartphones but, in Japan, you’ll see all kinds of cellular devices flickering around you on your daily commute. The much-loved, old and hardy phone with brilliant battery life for constant emailing and texting is still so popular that it even has its own name – “garakei, which translates to “Galapagos phone”—a reference to the isolated, “origin of species” model. Kids and teens are also seen with replica cell phones of the early 2000s, fitting into Japan’s youthful Kawaii culture. Tamagotchis and Gameboys are still used but not just as hipster timepieces as they would be in the Western world.

Whilst Japan sits at the forefront of robotics, technology and vehicular engineering, there’s also a massive circulation of relic products other countries might deem obsolete. 

Whilst print media takes a nosedive worldwide, Japanese comic books (called manga まんが) are still wildly popular and available at every corner shop. DVDs, CDs and VHRs, which the Western world might consider an extinct species of audio and video consumption, still thrive here, evident in the prosperous Tower Records all around Tokyo. And just a few years ago, Forbes reported that CD purchases made up 85% of all music sales in Japan. Film cameras and disposables are also massive here. Japan boasts the biggest and best collection of camera shops in the world, so it only makes sense they would stock up on every kind. I myself started printing out actual photos and collecting film just to join the trend. 

Why does this work?

Firstly, Japan loves collector items. Secondly, Japanese people take good care of their belongings. You can walk into any second-hand store (there are many nationwide) and purchase an old Famicom relic from your childhood – and it’s guaranteed to still be in mint condition. In the rest of the world where ‘new=better’, people are at risk of losing the true value of technological innovation. Japan’s nostalgic culture teaches people to cherish their belongings, as well as helps punctuate the fast pace of life with an air of simplicity. As an English teacher who spends every day with Japanese kids, I can vouch that they can sit for hours practicing the ancient art of origami, entertained with just a piece of paper. This stands in stark contrast to the tweens I au-paired for in America who begged their dad for months for the iPhone X. There’s just something more wholesome about Japanese youth. 

It’s cash over cards for Japan

Japan’s simplicity adds a wholesomeness to its youth and accommodation to its older generation.

Whilst even emerging economies move towards becoming cashless, Japan remains a cash-loving society. There are a variety of reasons as to why this is. Firstly, due to the economic stunting from by World War II, circulating cash kept (and keeps) people from spending above their means. And because of the low or negative interest rates that lasted for decades, people felt the best way to save money was to keep it at home or under their mattress.  Other reasons include there being a plethora of ATMs around – seriously, there are around 200,000 in Japan. Others hypothesize it’s to accommodate the older generation (65+) which makes up a quarter of its total population who are used to paying in cash. In fact, Japan’s aging population can be used to explain all the above, and more.

Perhaps it’s not so much so that Japan works in this way, but that it simply would’ve had no other choice. Japanese work culture still operates on a seniority system where the hierarchy and wage are based on how long you’ve been there, and not necessarily on merit. Because of the belief that Ikigai (生き甲斐), or life purpose, is interwoven with your job, coupled with the high life expectancy, people end up working for a longer time than usual. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is known for encouraging this, as it means more people pitching into the tax base for longer, easing the burden on government spending for its exponential growth of the older population. Because of reduced power to the youth, a lot of old-school systems, like fax machines and standardized processors, have stuck around – along with stagnant mindsets about the workplace.

Old-school mindsets are the downfall

Whilst Japan’s nostalgia can be cute and quirky, it’s not so kawaii when it comes to women in the workplace. Today, only 13% of management positions are held by women, despite Abe’s promise to get it up to 30% by 2020. Women are still largely stay-at-home moms or, if they do work, most are employed at irregular hours and are still expected to do the cooking, cleaning and child-rearing when they return home.  Since Japan is an efforts-recognized culture rather than a results-driven one, there is not much understanding when it comes to shifting hours around in order to accommodate family responsibilities, and Japanese women unsurprisingly bear the brunt of this. And did you know most customer-facing firms require women to wear heels all day? It’s no wonder the birth rate is declining – being a Japanese wife and mother must be tough, let alone a working one. 

Japan’s simplicity adds a wholesomeness to its youth and accommodation to its older generation. At the same time, it seems to stunt the proper, political progression it could make.  Is Japan only circulating its history because it’s struggling to move forward? Does the cute memorabilia actually act as inequality’s Horcrux? “No”, I yell, as I clutch tightly to my Tamagotchi collection. But maybe it’s time we call a spade a spade…

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  • Candice Buckle

    Candice Buckle is an international journalist looking to use her words for global change. A proud South African who is currently based in Tokyo, she travels to expand her knowledge of other cultures and make connections all over the world. In her free time she enjoys exploring and taking photos, going to the movies, and sharing good food with good friends.