Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Culture Clash: Social Security

I have gotten my first Culture Clash request from my uncle Hans. He proposed a number of questions and I hope to answer all of them in what I write below, but as always if you are still wondering about something then let me know and I will do my best to answer!

Because of recent failures in the American economy questions have sprung up all over the world as to how it is affecting other countries. Here in Japan the economy has been affected, “The government has noted a jump in layoffs in many industries, especially heavily export-dependent sectors including the automobile and electronics industries, while voluntary retirement among regular workers also is rising.” (Daily Yomiuri)
However in relation to the US dollar and other currencies the Yen has remained strong. The reason for this is that Japan has been averting risk. Instead of taking bold moves that might dramatically strengthen or weaken the Yen it has taken very small steps in a negative or weakening direction. Japan’s economy has gotten weaker, but compared to the US the progression hasn’t been nearly as fast. However the outlook is bearish and no one expects quick recovery on either side of the ocean.
On a side note I wanted to say something else. The Federal Reserve in America, that institution that prints our money and raises and lowers interest rates, they are not government owned. It is quasi public, meaning that while it is a government institution it is not government owned. Personally I see this as creating a conflict of interest between the public and private investors.

Now on to public healthcare and welfare in Japan. Japan does have social welfare. Japan also has public assistance programs benefiting about 1% of the population. About 33% of recipients are elderly people, 45% were households with sick or disabled members, and 14% are fatherless families, and 8% are in other categories.
For instance, fatherless mothers get about 40,000 yen a month per child and depending on where they live might receive other assistance like housing. From what I have seen there aren’t too many people who abuse this, like in other countries, and end up with many children and no job. Japan’s population is actually on a sharp decline, which brings up a whole host of other social security problems.
An elderly person’s pension is dependable one where or how long they or their relative/spouse worked. A retired person’s main pension usually comes from the company they worked for. The Japanese government pension system provides benefits to insured persons or their survivors, when they retire from their working-lives, become handicapped, or die. A character of Japanese public pension system is the universal coverage of Japanese population by social insurance pay-as-you-go scheme. The pension from the government is about 50,000 yen per month. Which is not a lot, my rent is about 55,000 yen a month. I have seen some TV programs about this, but couldn’t get anymore than that some people were upset that the payment was so low.
As for people who “just don’t want to work” there are a few categories that they may fit into. In Japan there are people called NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). As far as I can gather there is no government support for these people in the form of payment, but the government does provide counseling and training to them if requested.

As I see it the system here works pretty well. Like everywhere else there are people who abuse it, but it seems to me that in Japan that happens less. Japanese society has giri, a sense of social obligations and amae, the concept of dependance. Both of these largely influence how people view themselves and the society they live in, but to explain these concepts further I will write another blog later.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


We are so small. There is something that I thought about as I crossed the Sea of Japan to Korea. In recent years there has been much talk of global warming. While global warming is a real threat I want people to think of this too. We are fragile. We ride around in our planes trains and automobiles. We make our own little bubbles in which we exist and matter. Often we believe that we are strong, but we are not. Our planet is strong. It will kill us. Our planet is so much larger than us. If we continues to abuse it as we have been, continue to grow and consume, our world will destroy us as only nature can.


There were two things on my agenda for South Korea. First, see the liger at Everland Amusement park. Second, go to the DMZ. The DMZ is quite an interesting place. Its one of the most heavily fortified places on earth. Not to mention that North Korea has the 5th largest standing army on earth at over one million soldiers. This line, or area rather, was created in 1953 after what is known in America as the Korean War. This line runs approximately 155 miles and 2.5 miles wide, across the Korean Peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel, which was the boundary between North and South Korea before the war. This split the country, and many families, in two.
Numerous incursions have occurred over the years as North Korean soldiers have infiltrated the southern side. In fact since the boundary was made in 1953 about 500 soldiers have been killed at this line, including 50 Americans.
Another very interesting thing was four tunnels that the north had built going under the DMZ. These were first discovered in the early seventies and one by one more were found. There are now 4 known tunnels. I visited tunnel number three and got to walk through a part of it. It’s small. I had to wear a helmet and walk in a crouch the whole time. Of course Aya and our guide had no trouble. As our guide explained, most North Korean men would be 150cm tall or less and there was no need to make the tunnel bigger.
Although the line itself isn’t funny, the bravado shown here is. The North Koreans set up fake towns to make the north look populated. In one place, when the south put up a flag pole they put up a bigger one directly across the line. I’m not sure about the South Korean side, but I am sure there have been some taunts.

Although relations between the two has seemed to get better in recent years. The North has even opened up for some trade with the south and allowed tours to be conducted in the North.


One of the most exciting things in going to South Korea was getting to see a real Liger. I was unaware that this animal existed until the movie Napoleon Dynamite came out a few years ago. When reading up on South Korea I found a small note that there was a liger at the Everland amusement park. So of course Aya and I went.
Ligers have been around since the 19th century. The breed between a male lion and a female tiger produces this beautiful creature. There is also a tigon, which is the breed between a male tiger and a female lion. Both of these unions have occurred in the wild, but they are extremely rare in that setting. Although fertility goes down, but ligers are fertile and can produce offspring. There are cubs at Noah’s Ark Zoo in Germany.
But the coolest fact about Ligers is that they are some of the biggest cats on earth. In fact the largest cat in the world is a liger named Hercules who lives at a zoo in Miami. He is 10 feet long and over 1100 pounds. There is another Liger called Sinbad that is reported to now be the same size and weight, although Hercules is the official record holder. Here is a video from National Geographic on Sinbad and Ligers. Please note that in this video Sinbad is only 900 pounds and is now larger.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fun Fact

Japan’s fish consumption per capita per year is 152lbs; which means a little less than a half pound of fish per day per person. To put that in perspective, the US consumes about 46lbs per person a year!

The Mountains that Surround Me

The snows in the mountains started about a month ago now and it is a reminder to me of how beautiful they can be. The picture with the apples trees in the foreground is three steps out my front door. Where I live is in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains. In the southern end of the basin, where I am located, the mountains are high, but the northern end has the highest mountains of the area as you can see from the pictures above of snow capped mountains. Green rolling “hills” surround where I live while Mt. Iide and Mt Bandai punctuate the northern boundary of the Aizu Basin.
Japan has a very extensive range of mountains as it should being the work of millions of years of volcanic activity and plate shifting. Almost everywhere in Japan is mountainous and Japan’s most famous Mountain, Fuji, is in fact a volcano. It is also the highest peak in Japan at 3776m. While the mountains near me are lower, Iide at 2105m and Bandai at 1819m, most of the mountains in the Japanese Alps are near the 3000m mark. To give some perspective to this lets look at some of the other more famous mountains in the United States. The highest mountain in the Appalachians is Mount Mitchell at 2037m. On the west coast the tallest is Mt. Hood standing at 3429m. Timms Hill, 595m is the highest point in Wisconsin.
I love these mountains because it made Aizu a special place by cutting it off from the rest of japan so thoroughly and it has developed a lot of its own culture because of that.