Why not giving that insect a swatting might be indicative of a wider societal issue.

by Nick Adams

Not too long ago, I was walking down one of those tight, crowded roads where the footpath seems more like an afterthought than an intention. Being near a station, the road passed under the tracks, rendering the footpath even narrower than before. As is common in such locations, there were bicycles parked against the railing in the semi-neat, semi-abandoned style that is so unique to Japan.


As the usual mingle of pedestrians thinned down to single file to go under the bridge, I found myself slowing and eventually queueing. Progressing forwards, I started hearing anger voiced towards something or somebody. Soon after, I found the culprit; a bicycle had fallen over and was blocking the path. All the Japanese ahead of me were, one by one, stepping over the fallen bicycle and cursing it for getting in their way or cursing the owner for letting it be such a nuisance to everybody.

When it came to my turn, rather than thinking of a random Japanese curse, I instead calmly put my bag down, bent over, picked up the fallen bicycle and lent it gently against the railing. I then turned round picked up my bag, smiled pleasantly at the clearly gobsmacked Japanese behind me and went on my way to calls of “sasuga gaijin da ne” (just like a foreigner).

This situation of SEP – or Somebody Else’s Problem – seems inherent in Japan. Think of a restaurant with an open terrace or weekday commuter train in the summer. You see a mosquito buzz slowly towards many Japanese and rather than killing it on the spot, he or she will flap lazily at it until it either wanders off to bother somebody else or just goes out of sight.

The thing is that should that mosquito manage to bite somebody, it can then lay around 2/300 eggs that, species dependent, can turn into adult blood sucking mosquitoes within anything from four days to a couple of weeks and they will indiscriminately try to bite more people.

Assuming ideal breeding conditions, a two week gestation period, 50% female and half of those biting successfully, that gives over 250 million mosquitoes from just that one in only two months. Even with not all of them being the biting type and some being killed, that still leaves a significant number.

Ever wondered why there seem to be so many mosquitoes in autumn? Simply put, nobody is trying to stop them because the mind set is “provided that it doesn’t bite me now, it is somebody else’s problem”. If they could see 250 million mosquitoes two months down the line, I wonder if they would think differently?

On these basic levels, one could easily argue that it does not really matter and if this is the level it stopped at, I would agree. The thing is that the mindset stretches thoughout society.

For instance, every year Japan collects money in taxes and every year, without fail, the payments for health care and pensions for the elderly exceed this amount two-fold. Already being at a deficit, we then go on to watch highly efficient uses of government money just before the end of the financial year – sprees of unnecessary road repairs, for example – as they have to use all their budget to be guaranteed the same size of budget in the coming financial year.

Why does nobody do anything about it? I think the answer is simple – at the current pace it will be at least 20 years if not more before it becomes a serious problem. Why risk upsetting the balance we have now when, in 20 years, it will not be us making the decisions? It will be somebody else’s problem.

This type of problem can be seen in many places. The significant lack of children should logically mean high availability of childcare but no, looking round the central wards in Tokyo reveals that only Chiyoda-ku does not have a long waiting list to fit children in to nurseries.

For any kind of future for the children, most standard Japanese education has to be substituted with juku – the cram school costing about 250,000 per term – for the student to reach the top universities in Japan. Japanese private schools generally cost about 1 million yen per child per year and international schools around 2 million or more. With no tax benefits for children, an overpriced education system and not enough spaces in nurseries, is it any wonder that the birth rate continues to fall?

Then again, the statisticians tell us that we have about another thousand years or so at the current rate before the Japanese race becomes extinct. Why change things now? The system ‘works’. By the time this becomes a significant problem, I’ll be dead and my grand children (assuming I have any) will be dead too. Even more than the others, this is somebody else’s problem.

If you look around you, you can see this syndrome everywhere. The quick fix, the easy way out. I am not sure if this is to do with saving face or not rocking the boat but this attitude is going to be the undoing of the entire Japanese nation.

The next time you are out and about, do pick up that bicycle or kill that mosquito and hope that, by putting in that little extra bit of effort to make everybody’s life easier, the Japanese around you might get the idea too. You never know, one of them might even coin the Japanese version of ‘prevention is better than cure’!

Image: sebra / Shutterstock.com