Why are Japan's famously reserved citizens becoming more violent?

PHOTO: AFP

The argument involving two men on the evening train escalated quickly once they got onto the platform at Chigasaki, southwest of Tokyo.

The older commuter was angry at the music he claimed could be heard coming from the younger man's earphones, so he shoved him so hard the younger man fell onto the train tracks.

Apparently not convinced that he had made his point forcefully enough, he then delivered a series of kicks to the younger man's head as he attempted to climb back onto the platform.

The older man, who has not been named, was arrested on June 8.

The same day, police also arrested Yutaka Arai, a 71-year-old resident of Tokyo's Adachi Ward, after he left messages in the letterboxes of neighbours telling them that their children were too noisy as they waited for their school bus near his house.

According to police, one of the messages said: "Do not let your children raise their voices. If you cannot do that then do not complain, no matter what happens."

Arai has denied that the message was a threat, but the authorities are taking no chances after a hikikomori, or social recluse, earlier this month attacked a group of children and their parents as they waited for a school bus in Kawasaki City, killing one girl and a father before he stabbed himself to death.

For a nation that is famously tolerant of other people's behaviour, and where most prefer to look the other way than intervene in a situation they consider to be uncomfortable or none of their business, recent headlines suggest more Japanese people are giving freer reign to their furies.

"I was on a train coming home from university one evening and a fight broke out between two men right next to me," said Issei Izawa, a 20-year-old student. "I don't know what started it and I don't think they were drunk because it was not that late, but it was a bit of a shock - especially because there were a couple of schoolchildren there as well."

Izawa said he could not compare the situation now with before as he had only been commuting to college for over a year, but he said he got the impression that office workers, both male and female, "are really tired and really stressed" - enough to spark a confrontation that previously they would have walked away from.

Masakatsu Yamamoto, who is in his late 40s and works for a Tokyo-based company, said he believed intolerance towards others was not solely a Japanese issue, but any such incidents might be more noticeable - and newsworthy - in the country because they run counter to the image of Japan as a society that is largely peaceable and respectful of others.

"I see society here becoming faster and faster because of technology, the media, instant communication, smart phones - and people not having the time any more to wait for someone to get back to them," he said. "We expect speed and we become less tolerant when that does not happen.

"I also think that we are living more in the two dimensions of the screens that we are looking at and that we are able to ignore or 'get rid of' someone in that world, and a few people are somehow blurring the online world with the real world and acting in a way that they would not normally act."

Yamamoto also senses a reduced sense of "belonging" in Japanese society, to a community or even family.

As a child, he would go to the park to meet his friends and, when he was older, he would socialise and meet new people in bars and restaurants.

"I don't think people physically meet up with other people as much or in the same way as they used to," he said. "It can be done through the screen and that is what people tend to do, even though it often means there is no physical connection."

Ken Kato, who owns a small business in Tokyo, said younger generations of Japanese are worried about their incomes, particularly those on part-time contracts with limited job security, while a larger shadow hanging over the entire nation is the growing number of old people and the knowledge that one day there will not be enough young workers to support them.

"In the old days, a company used to be more like a family and they would look after the staff until they retired," he said. "That is no longer the case and it's much easier to lose your job nowadays. That's a cause of insecurity for many people, and that can cause stress."

According to government statistics released on Friday, there were just 918,397 births in Japan during the 2018 financial year, down by 27,000 from the previous year and the lowest since national statistics were first collated in 1899.

Meanwhile, the country's 1.36 million deaths were up more than 22,000 from the previous year, setting a new post-World War II record. This meant Japan's population contracted by 444,085 individuals, exceeding the 400,000 level for the first time.

The public's concern about the shrinking population has been exacerbated by the government, which on Tuesday withdrew a report suggesting the public pension system would soon not be able to cover the growing number of elderly people.

Finance minister Taro Aso said the report, issued earlier this month, had "caused extreme worry and misunderstanding and runs counter to the government's existing policy".

"The public pension plan will never collapse," Aso said.

That claim runs counter to the study, drawn up by a panel of the government's Financial Services Agency, which estimates that one in four Japanese will live to the age of 95 and that a couple who reach that age will need at least Y20 million (S$252,377) in assets to cover the shortfall in pension benefits they would be eligible to receive.

The study concludes that citizens need to do more to plan for their retirement by managing their assets and investing for their later years.

Mieko Nakabayashi, a former politician who is now a professor in the school of social sciences at Tokyo's Waseda University, said she felt that while Japanese society is still largely very tolerant, it is changing.

"I see people getting angry quickly and for relatively small things," she said. "I sense there is more friction between people and while it's not a huge problem yet, I do feel that it is getting worse and that worries me for the future.

"I think our society is becoming more competitive, which causes stress and friction, and our economy is not as good as it was in the past."

That opinion is supported by responses to the 2015 International Survey of Life and Hope, which compared the outlooks of people in Japan, Britain and the United States.

When asked whether they were "very happy", 23.8 per cent of Britons replied in the positive, along with 33.2 per cent of Americans. In Japan, the figure was 18.5 per cent.

On hope for the future, 86.7 per cent of Britons agreed they were hopeful, along with 93 per cent of Americans, while in Japan, the figure was just 54.5 per cent. Even more tellingly, only 7 per cent of Americans said they had no hope for their future; among Japanese, the figure was 45.5 per cent.

"Many people don't see the future being as bright as future generations did, and they are maybe frustrated," said Nakabayashi from Waseda University.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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