The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945

24 June 2018

From The Guardian:

Italy’s pro-fascist King, Victor Emanuele III, abdicated in disgrace in the spring of 1946. Mussolini was dead – but not quite departed. Neo-fascists had stolen the dictator’s corpse from its grave in Milan: the unburied body became a potent symbol of totalitarian resurrection. On 2 June that year, Italians were asked to decide by referendum if they wanted to become a republic. A clamour of books, films and newspapers exhorted them to join the democratic world. Raised under fascism, many Italians had never seen a ballot box before. For the first time, Italian women were allowed to vote. Armoured cars stood outside the polling stations in anticipation of violence; there was none.

John Foot’s lively history of Italy since 1945, The Archipelago, describes how the referendum divided the nation grievously. The impoverished south remained monarchist; the prosperous north, republican. All across Italy at this time, Rita Hayworth’s raunchy hit Amado Mio (from the Hollywood blockbuster Gilda) boomed out from bars and cafes. In the north, the Hayworth anthem seemed to crystallise the republican spirit. The Duce and his cohorts had gone for good; the nationalist myopia of fascism was no more.

Needless to say, Italy is unrecognisable today from the nation that ousted the royal family in 1946, says Foot. With high levels of political corruption and tax evasion, the nation-state is under immense strain.

. . . .

“Italy had never been an entirely mono-cultural or mono-ethnic country,” he writes. Albanians, Normans, Arabs, Greeks and Germanic langobardi (“long-beards”, later Lombards) have intermarried to form an indecipherable blend of Italic peoples.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

And here’s Rita Hayworth singing Amada Mio:

Welcome to Blaine, the Town Amazon Prime Built

21 June 2018

From The Verge:

Roll off the highway into Blaine, Washington, and the first thing you’ll notice is Edaleen Dairy; on a summer day, a dozen people might be lined up outside waiting for ice cream. Across the street from Edaleen is 5D Packages and its competitor Mail Boxes Plus. Turn onto H Street, which passes for a main drag, and before you hit the US Post Office, you’ll spot 24/7 Parcel, Border Mailbox, and Security Mail services. Take a right at the post office and loop back around to Peace Portal, and you’ll also find Blaine Enterprises, Pulse Packages, and Hagen’s mail pickup.

That may seem like a lot of mailbox stores for a town of 5,000 people, but Blaine isn’t just any small town: it sits right on the 49th parallel that divides the United States and Canada. As the only US border town located in the shadow of a major Canadian city, Blaine’s economy is uniquely dependent on the relationship between the two countries. It’s a position that also leaves the town vulnerable to the vagaries of e-commerce trends and exchange rates. That vulnerability has only been exacerbated by mounting tension between Washington, DC and Ottawa, an emerging trade war, and the looming threat of a boycott.

For the past decade Blaine has flourished, thanks to the discrepancy between the explosion of e-commerce in the US and the still-developing e-commerce network in Canada. Blaine’s handful of residents have grown accustomed to a regular stream of Canadians who come to town specifically to pick up their US packages. For these Canadians, Blaine is simply a mailing address: the nearest, cheapest, and most convenient way to order packages from Amazon and other major US retailers.

But as Amazon continues to step up its Canadian operations and a growing number of American (and Canadian) retailers have made it easier to ship to Canada, Canadians are no longer as dependent on their US mailing addresses. Between economics and politics, Blaine will soon be forced to reckon with an uncomfortable question: is there a future for the town if it no longer serves as Canada’s front porch?

. . . .

It wasn’t too long ago that Blaine boasted only a handful of mailbox options. Then came the dawn of online shopping. As e-commerce operations for major US retailers like Macy’s, J.Crew, and Best Buy took off in the early 2000s, they tempted Canadian shoppers who were already familiar with the brands. Although Amazon hung out a shingle in Canada in 2002, its operations were initially limited by regulations intended to protect Canadian publishing. While expanded into more product categories, contained only a tiny fraction of its US offerings well into the 2000s. And Canadian retailers were in no rush to match the e-commerce boom of the US: imagine selling to a population the size of California’s, but shipping products across the entire land mass of the United States. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.)

As a result, Canada’s armchair shoppers were left to drool over the online offerings of retailers to the south — many of which, if they could be delivered to Canada at all, arrived with an unpredictable bill for shipping, taxes, and / or customs duties.

. . . .

I’m one of those cross-border e-shoppers. As a dual citizen who has spent many years living on each side of the border, my Blaine mailbox, Trader Joe’s, and Target runs have allowed me to scratch my American retail itch even after settling in Vancouver. My family set up our Blaine mailbox in 2010, and we now make monthly pilgrimages to pick up such elusive goodies as Hanna Andersson’s kid clothes (cheaper to ship to the US), a round of Rent the Runway outfits (won’t ship to Canada), or a new set of drinking glasses (so much more expensive on, you wouldn’t believe it). These pilgrimages became even more frequent when Ben & Jerry’s stopped distributing New York Super Fudge Chunk in Canada. Once you’ve committed to hitting Blaine for a monthly ice cream restock, you might as well order some shoes, board games, or toilet paper from

. . . .

[Jeffrey Lazenby, the city’s revenue officer] traced Blaine’s revenue windfall to a sales tax agreement that was put in place in the mid-2000s which allowed states to levy sales taxes based on where a package was delivered, rather than where it was sold. Though the agreement only led to municipalities keeping a sliver of those state sales taxes, that sliver can really add up when you’re the point of delivery for tens of thousands of Canadian residents. In 2017, Blaine collected nearly $1.7 million in sales tax, which is two to five times the amount collected by comparably sized towns not on the Canadian border.

That $1.7 million in sales tax isn’t all earned from Canadians who are buying discount housewares on Amazon: some of it comes from local purchases or online purchases by actual residents of Blaine. But between the sales tax and a penny-per-gallon gas tax that’s largely paid by the many Canadians who cross the border to fill their tanks, Lazenby calculates that taxes paid by Canadians make up 5–10 percent of the city’s revenues. And that’s just the direct revenue. Lazenby estimates that three-quarters of Blaine’s employment is related to the border in some way.

Link to the rest at The Verge

Publisher defends diversity drive after Lionel Shriver’s attack

19 June 2018

From The Guardian:

Lionel Shriver’s blistering assertion that, “drunk on virtue”, Penguin Random House is putting diversity ahead of literary excellence has been dismissed by the publisher, which said on Monday that “books shape our culture, and this should not be driven only by people who come from a narrow section of society”.

Writing in the Spectator, Shriver took issue with an email sent by the publisher, which lays out its goal that by 2025, its authors and staff will reflect the diversity of UK society. The email said: “We want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.”

Shriver wrote that this meant “we can safely infer … that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling”.

She added: “Drunk on virtue, Penguin Random House no longer regards the company’s raison d’etre as the acquisition and dissemination of good books. Rather, the organisation aims to mirror the percentages of minorities in the UK population with statistical precision. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.”

. . . .

Shriver, who has expressed similar opinions in the past, was supported by Toby Young, who wrote on Twitter that “the problem with Penguin’s new, virtue-signalling inclusion policy is that any BAME, gay, trans or female authors it publishes from now on will worry that they haven’t been chosen on merit, but because they tick a diversity box”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Impatient former Hong Kong library worker arrested after stealing customers’ personal data to borrow books faster

19 June 2018

From Hong Kong Law and Crime:

A bibliophile who worked in a Hong Kong public library has been arrested for using the personal information of about 130 customers without their permission so she could quickly borrow their loaned books.

. . . .

The 25-year-old woman, who formerly worked for a contractor company for Tseung Kwan O Public Library and was responsible for handling returned library materials from readers between 2015 and this year, was arrested on May 24, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which operates the library, and police.

A police source said she had used the personal data of users to file loss reports for library cards on their behalf. After the report, customers would no longer be able to renew loaned books and were required to return them immediately. That would allow the woman to borrow those items.

Link to the rest at Hong Kong Law and Crime and thanks to Gary for the tip.

The Bats Help Preserve Old Books But They Drive Librarians, Well, Batty

18 June 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

During the day, as visitors file through the University of Coimbra’s 300-year-old Joanina Library, the creatures remain hidden behind the grand, gilded bookcases.

At night, they come out to protect the books.

They are a group of perhaps a dozen resident bats. As lovers of literal bookworms—they eat the moths and beetles that devour glue and paper—they are also the library’s unwitting conservationists. And their presence is driving Joanina’s staff batty.

The bats are getting too much attention. The librarians want people to know Joanina for its books and the knowledge they contain, not for its flying mammals. Instead of fielding scholarly inquiries about rare, hand-illustrated Bibles or century-old world atlases, staff members find themselves mostly answering questions from visitors about the lives and habits of the bats.

“It pains me,” said Jorge Manuel Neves Justo Alexandre, who has been caretaker of Joanina since 2000. “Here you have all this beauty, this knowledge, and they are asking where the bats poop.”

Mr. Alexandre was recently discussing the issue with Celeste Mateus, a library worker who was vacuuming the main entrance, when a visitor interrupted. “Are the bats behaving?” asked Pinto Almeida, a judge from the Portuguese town of Coriscada.

. . . .

The university—which was named a Unesco World Heritage site five years ago—is partly to blame for the problem. It promotes Joanina’s bats on its website and in booklets, and the gift shop sells pencil covers of a smiling bat holding a candle and reading a book. The university drew around 500,000 visitors last year, more than double the number in 2013, said Joanina deputy director António Maia do Amaral.

The library’s bats are small, often no more than 1 1/2 inches long, from a species called pipistrelle. A second species, called European free-tailed, may be present as well, based on a bat expert’s evaluation of the sounds they made during an inspection years ago.

The creatures are seldom seen during the day, when they mostly sleep behind the shelves. They sometimes fly out at night through cracks in the doors to feast on flies. Mr. Maia do Amaral said that visitors’ best chance to see them is on evenings the library holds classical music concerts.

No one is sure how long bats have been at the library, built in 1728 and furnished with black lacquered shelves, wood carvings and gold brought in from the Portuguese colony of Brazil. The library’s six reading tables are covered every evening with leather shrouds, which shield the wood from corrosive bat droppings and need to be vacuumed regularly. Mr. Maia do Amaral said he found old documents that showed the university imported lengths of leather from Russia in the late 1700s—he suspects for the same purpose.

. . . .

Mr. Maia do Amaral acknowledges that many of the library’s visitors aren’t really interested in those facts. “An old director used to grumble that the bat obsession was offensive to the library’s intellectual nature,” he said.

Still, he appreciates the bats’ help in preservation. “The glue used in old books in particular is made for an insect banquet,” he said, calling the bats his “honorary librarians.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal and thanks to Patricia for the tip.

PG says the photos of the library in the OP are spectacular. If the WSJ’s paywall won’t let you through, you can do a Google Image search for the Joanina Library

‘Ruling Through Ritual’: An Interview with Guo Yuhua

18 June 2018

PG doesn’t want TPV to become a political blog, but with the shrill nature of political conversations in the United States, he thought a brief look at a real dictatorship where people are unable to say what they believe might be useful.

From The New York Review of Books:

Guo Yuhua is one of China’s best-known sociologists and most incisive government critics. A professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, she has devoted her career to researching human suffering in Chinese society, especially that of peasants, the promised beneficiaries of Communist rule.

Born in 1956, Guo grew up in one of the “big courtyards” of government housing compounds for the country’s ruling elite. Her parents were military officers who served in the central government. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, senior leaders like her father were persecuted; he died in 1968 of liver cirrhosis after being denied medication.

Moderates in the government eventually deployed the military to recover control of government institutions from Maoist fanatics. They also allowed some minors to join the military—a privilege that allowed these youths to avoid being exiled under Cultural Revolution dictates to labor in the countryside. Thus, at just fourteen, Guo joined the signal corps, for which she worked at repairing communication equipment in the southern-central city of Wuhan, until she was allowed to return to Beijing in 1980 to study.

Typical for people of her age who lost years of their lives laboring in exile, she was an older student, gaining admission to university at twenty-four. She studied folklore at Beijing Normal University and obtained her doctorate in 1990. 

. . . .

Guo is best known for Shoukuren de Jiangshu: Jicun Lishu yu Yi Zhong Wenming de Luoji (The Narration of the Peasant: How Can “Suffering” Become History?), a book published in 2013 in Hong Kong but banned in China. It tells the story of a village in Shaanxi Province that the Communists occupied in the late 1940s, and then, over decades, put through a series of torturous social experiments—an allegory for what took place across much of the country. Her research on rural communities, and the relationship between the state and society, has led Guo to become a sharp commentator on current events. She publishes an oft-censored web blog, as well as a microblog titled “Yuhua Watches Society” on the social media app WeChat.

. . . .

Ian Johnson: In 2016, Xi Jinping made a speech offering a “China solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions.” In early March, you posted an essay on WeChat saying all you wanted was for China to become a “normal country,” one that respected rule of law, freedom of speech, and other liberties—in other words, one that it didn’t justify authoritarianism as Chinese exceptionalism. How did your piece come about—and how ever did it get published?

Guo Yuhua: There’s a magazine called China and World Affairs that’s run by a think tank based at Tsinghua University. They sponsor talks dominated by leftists, but occasionally they have so-called right-wingers like myself. At the end of 2016, they had a discussion on the “China solution.” Everyone got ten minutes to present their papers and then we left.

There was no discussion? That’s strange!

It’s not strange. Of course, they can’t have a discussion. If there were a discussion, people would’ve come to blows!

What did you say?

My point was simple. In my heart, [I feel that] the Chinese model doesn’t have any special characteristics. It doesn’t offer anything special. And I don’t have high standards. All I want is for China to be a normal country. What do I mean by “normal?” I just want China not to go backwards. Just don’t get any worse, that’s all I’m asking for.

They were supposed to publish the article in their magazine but delayed a year. Finally, they did so at the start of this year. So I tried to post it on my WeChat account. I called it “The China Solution: Becoming a Normal Country.”

And they published it?

No. I tried and tried. I said, “Look, it’s been published by this academic magazine so why not publish it?” Finally, they relented if I changed the title. So I called it: “Chairman Xi Jinping Discusses a ‘China Solution’ While Celebrating the 95th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China.” And it worked!

How did someone like you manage to open a public account on WeChat?

I had such a hard time. I changed the name but nothing worked. Finally, I got in touch with someone from Tencent [the company that runs WeChat]. In recent years, I‘d done some research with them on the effect of the Internet on society. So I knew people from their research department. I asked, “why can’t I open a public account?”

They said they’d look into it and got back to me and said, “You’re right, you really can’t.” I asked why and they said, “You’re restricted but let’s do it like this. You open the account and we’ll assign a person behind the scenes who will accompany you.” So I did as they said and when it started that person said, “I’m your first follower!”

Your personal censor! Why does Tencent do it? What’s in it for them?

They want to have readers. If it’s just boring stuff being published it’s not interesting for them, either. We had contact and they knew me. They know that my stuff isn’t extreme. It’s fairly academic. But the restrictions are still strict. For every five articles, two or three are cut. Sometimes, I have to argue with them—like over the Xi article—I say, “I can publish it in that academic magazine, so why not with you?”

So that’s the way it is. The space gets smaller and smaller. If you want to publish your own work, it’s harder and harder. If you struggle, you might not have any [space]. But if you don’t struggle, you definitely won’t have any. So my motto is: “If you can say a bit more, say a bit more.”

. . . .

That’s probably because blogs are more public than WeChat accounts. It’s hard to tell who’s reading a blog, but to read your WeChat public account people have to register, so the government can keep track of its readers? Why did you start commenting on public events?

I started in about 2010, maybe because I deal with sociology. You’re often dealing with trends or hot topics in society. All of them have a sociological angle and you can use a sociological analysis to write and publish on them. In this society, everything that seems impossible or completely weird actually does happen, so how can you not comment on it? Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

. . . .

Someone you mention often is Pierre Bourdieu. You wrote that his work of listening to people and entering into their lives is part of a sociologist’s “political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of social suffering of ordinary people.” Why does this interest you?

I wanted to know how villagers had experienced the last fifty years. Ji Village was in the Communist Party’s base area in the war—it was located in Northern Shaanxi Province, near [the Communist base of] Yan’an. As you probably know, people there live in caves. It’s the Loess Plateau and famous for its caves. In this village, the main family was surnamed Ma. One of their sons went to Japan to study architecture and when he came back he designed a magnificent cave complex for his family. But before the Ma family could occupy it, Mao expropriated it. He lived there for several months. He wrote some of his key essays there.

I see in this the same expropriation that the Communist Party has imposed on China’s history and rituals. Memory has been occupied. If you go to today’s villagers and ask them the name of that cave, they’ll say, “Chairman Mao’s Old Home.” No one will say the Ma Family Home. In China, this is common.

. . . .

You started your academic career looking at funeral rituals in northwestern China. What is the broader significance of rituals?

The entire structure of Chinese society consists of political and revolutionary rituals replacing original folk rituals. The original rituals that people once practiced—such as burial rituals—weren’t allowed. The government said it was backward, superstitious, and wasteful. But the Chinese Communist Party, in running the villages—and even in running the entire country—governs through political rituals such as struggle sessions, chanted slogans, military parades. They’re all rituals and they all replaced folk rituals.

In the Cultural Revolution, every family got a wired loudspeaker, and every morning and evening began with the broadcasting of revolutionary songs, articles criticizing people, central government instructions or local news. This became all-pervasive. Nothing in the Qing Dynasty [1644–1911] or the Republican Era [1912–1949] was comparable. Only the Communist Party pushed it to the grass-roots level of every family having this.

They need rituals in order to rule. It’s like the Nazis with those rallies where everyone is marching as one. They need those kinds of things. But originally folk beliefs were diverse. Yet the Communist Party can’t leave this alone. They want everything to be systematized.

. . . .

Do you think students today are more gullible than in the past?

Overall, they’re worse. But there are some who want to figure things out. To win admission to Peking University or Tsinghua University, they can’t be idiots. Especially in science or technology, they’re smart. But when it comes to ideology, they don’t have the common sense of a child. Because you have to understand that from the time they were in kindergarten, they’ve been brainwashed.

But you’re still able to teach?

It’s fine, but I’ll be sixty-two in July. They forced [the prominent Tsinghua historian and critic] Qin Hui to retire at sixty-three. In the last couple of years, a lot of people [in Beijing universities and research institutes] have been asked to retire at age sixty. About one hundred, in all. And if you look at them, most were liberal intellectuals.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Morality clauses: are publishers right to police writers?

16 June 2018

From The Guardian:

When the American Libraries Association awards its Andrew Carnegie medals in New Orleans later this month, there will be no winner for excellence in non-fiction. Sherman Alexie, the poet and novelist who was due to receive it for a memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, has declined the award following allegations of sexual harassment.

Last month, the novelist Junot Díaz withdrew from the Sydney writers’ festival and from chairing the Pulitzer prize board after being confronted by his own accusers. As the allegations swept through social media, another writer, Mary Karr, joined the fray, tweeting of her distress that her testimony to DT Max, the biographer of her one-time partner David Foster Wallace, about Foster Wallace’s abusive behaviour had been marginalised. “Deeply saddened by the allegations against #JunotDiaz & I support every woman brave enough to speak. The violence #DavidFosterWallace inflicted on me as a single mom was ignored by his biographer & @NewYorker as ‘alleged’ despite my having letters in his hand,” she wrote.

Such high profile cases are far from rare as the #MeToo movement spreads across the creative industries. They come at a time when writers are facing increasingly draconian attempts by publishers to police their behaviour, calling into question centuries old assumptions about the desirability – or even the possibility in today’s networked world – of separating writers’ lives from their work.

. . . .

Morality, or morals, contracts have existed in the film industry since 1921, when Universal Pictures introduced them in response to Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for manslaughter, but they are relatively new in the publishing industry. One such clause, introduced by HarperCollins in the US, stipulated that the publisher could terminate a contract in cases of “conduct [that] evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals”, or in the case of a “crime or any other act that will tend to bring the Author into serious contempt, and such behaviour would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales”. Caroline Michel, a leading literary agent, said this week that the use of morality clauses had doubled in the US over the past year. In a recent speech, Royal Society of Literature president Marina Warner warned that “being good” should not be conflated with “good writing”. But where is that line drawn?

Clearly, reputation doesn’t matter to a controversialist in the way it does to literary authors such as Alexie or Díaz, who are facing serious damage to their careers. In the weeks since 10 women came forward with accusations against Alexie, the Native American author has been subjected to a cascade of punitive measures. His name has been stripped from a scholarship awarded by the Institute of American Indian Arts, all references to him have been “deleted or modified” in the blog Native Americans in Children’s Literature, bookshops and libraries are destocking his books and his US publisher has said that it will be postponing the paperback of his memoir (though his UK publisher, Penguin Random House, says it will continue to reprint his work as required).

. . . .

The high emotions surrounding the behaviour of writers are starkly exemplified by the case of Foster Wallace. Though Karr feels understandably aggrieved that her experience wasn’t taken more seriously by his biographer, she would be wrong to think it wasn’t noted. In a blog written at the time, Kristen Roupenian – who went on to write the New Yorker short story sensation “Cat Person” – described her dismay at discovering in Max’s book that the literary hero she worshipped as a student would probably have dismissed her as “audience pussy”.

She wasn’t looking for a boycott of his work, she wrote. “All I expect is a quiet, un-showy disqualification for the role of hero, mentor or saint. I would like the ‘statue’ (Wallace’s word) of his public image to be carefully dismantled, for the overblown ideas we have of him and what his life meant to slowly begin to deflate. I would like him to become just another writer, imbued with no moral authority beyond what is contained in his words on the page.”

. . . .

As the pressure has mounted, London-based authors’ agent Lizzy Kremer has taken pre-emptive action – drawing up a new, industry-wide code of conduct on behalf of a coalition of authors, booksellers, agents and publishers. The voluntary code was partly inspired by London’s Royal Court theatre, which constructed one in reaction to its own sexual misconduct scandal involving a former artistic director. Among the theatre’s first responses was a call out for testimony about sexual harassment to help it to identify “patterns and scenarios”. In a detail that chimes strongly with the publishing industry, the report drew attention to the dangers of a “blurred social context”: “13.3% of reported incidents happened at work parties … with alcohol.”

“Publishers feel an obligation to use their personal social media accounts to publicise books and to go out for drinks,” says Kremer. “People forget that these are not friendships, they are friendly business relationships. You have to understand what’s off limits.”

In a personal blog, she recalled meeting up with a younger woman who told her of several “small yet frightening liberties” that men in publishing had taken at parties and in offices over the years. “One of the things that interested me about the [Royal Court] report was its emphasis on the vulnerability of the creative person,” says Kremer. “Obviously it’s not the same in publishing – you don’t have to get changed in communal dressing-rooms – but it’s another industry with a culture of asking employees to give something personal of themselves.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

For Japanese Novelist Sayaka Murata, Odd Is the New Normal

12 June 2018

From The New York Times:

Keiko, a defiantly oddball 36-year-old woman, has worked in a dead-end job as a convenience store cashier in Tokyo for half her life. She lives alone and has never been in a romantic relationship, or even had sex. And she is perfectly happy with all of it.

Her creator, Japanese novelist Sayaka Murata, thinks that makes Keiko a true hero.

“Keiko doesn’t care — or maybe she doesn’t realize — when she is being made fun of by others,” said Ms. Murata, 38, of the narrator of “Convenience Store Woman,” her 10th novel and first to be translated into English. “She did not want to have sex at all and that was fine with her, and she chose that life. I really admire her character.”

“Convenience Store Woman,” which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature two years ago and has sold close to 600,000 copies here, will go on sale this month in the United States. Written in plain-spoken prose, the slim volume focuses on a character who in many ways personifies a demographic panic in Japan.

Japanese media is filled with stories about declining marriage and low birthrates, as well as references to ominous surveys about young people who are virgins or have forsaken dating and sex, a narrative that the Western press finds particularly alluring when writing about Japan.

. . . .

In the novel, Keiko’s friends and family are mortified on her behalf, urging her to find a man and settle down or move to a more professionally fulfilling job. Keiko observes their anxiety with head-cocked bemusement. “Here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t,” she thinks, after a reunion with a group of married high school classmates who seem appalled by her nonexistent love life.

. . . .

“I wanted to illustrate how odd the people who believe they are ordinary or normal are,” said Ms. Murata during an interview in a smoky subterranean cafe in Jimbocho, Tokyo’s book district, where she sometimes comes to write. “They are the so-called normal people, but when you switch the direction of the camera, it is they who appear strange or odd.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

It’s not original with him, but PG says the future belongs to those who show up for it.

Although a demographic collapse has not been seen in a large Western economy during the past couple of centuries, it’s a real phenomenon. Japan’s population is projected to fall from 127 million to 87 million by 2060, at which point more than 40% of the population will be older than 65.

It has little to do with the business of writing, but PG is intrigued by the combination of demographic, social and emotional conditions that cause or accompany demographic collapse. In a recent poll, Japanese respondents were asked if the next generation of children would be better or worse off than their parents. The largest response was “worse off” with a 72% share of the vote.

The current population of Japan is 127 million. One of the government’s major goals is to prevent the population of the country from dropping below 100 million by 2060 instead of the projected 87 million.

Demographic collapse has occurred in societies less advanced than 21st century Japan. For example, from about 1500-1650, the Native American population in North and, particularly, South America experienced a precipitous decline, primarily caused by diseases brought to the New World by European explorers and settlers.

However, the demographic collapse of a wealthy nation through a lack of interest in bringing children into the world, as compared to disease, war, etc., is something that, in PG’s admittedly limited knowledge has not occurred before.

Opening the borders and encouraging large-scale immigration is one solution that comes to mind, but what makes Japan Japanese is the uncounted daily hours spent in the tutelage of Japanese children, primarily by Japanese mothers, teaching what it means to be Japanese and how proper Japanese behave and don’t behave.

If 15 million Indonesians move to Japan and continue the demographic growth rate that has taken Indonesia’s population from 75 million in the 1950’s to over 225 million today, Japan’s culture will become markedly more Indonesian in its character. While correlation is not causation, PG notes the median annual household income in Japan is estimated to be $42,000 while the median household income in Indonesia is about $6,900.

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