Japan has its own shapes for some traffic signs but perhaps not for long

Japanese officials are considering changing the shape of their traffic signs to better match the design of signs elsewhere in the world:

Japan is considering a revamp of its stop signs to suit easily confused tourists, The Japan Times reported recently. Japan’s current signs are fun and different, but they’re also red triangles that look suspiciously like the yield signs in the U.S. and other nations…

The stop-sign makeover would not come cheap. The government estimates the bill for replacing every sign in Japan with a more “global” design would total 25 billion yen, or $214 million.

The triangular stop signs are one of the last vestiges of unique Japanese signage. In 2013, Tokyo began to switch from signs using “romaji”—English transliterations of Japanese words—to signs with straight-up English translations. The Geospatial Information Authority of Japan announced earlier this month that it would change the symbols on foreign maps to reflect representations used throughout the globe: an envelope for a post office, a stick figure in a bed for hotel, and a peaked white box with a cross in the middle for a hospital, among others.

Japan has historically gone against convention when it comes to signage. It’s not among the 64 countries party to the United Nations 1968 Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which lays out global rules on, well, traffic signs. According to the guidelines, a “stop” sign is either circular, “with a white or yellow ground and a red border,” or octagonal, “with a red ground bearing the word ‘STOP’ in white in English or in the language of the State concerned.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised but I am still fascinated: there are international conventions on road signs? Given the importance of driving around the world, this makes sense but it seems to be an odd signal of globalization: the exchange of goods and information is aided by the infrastructure of common road signs.

The only thing that might make this story even more fascinating would be some data on the consequences of having different road signs in Japan. How many accidents has this caused? Have their been prominent cases where tourists misinterpreted the signs?

Japanese homes seek to optimize space – includes ninja approach

Here is a look at how some Japanese homes maximize their limited space:

Take for example, Tatsumi Terado and his wife Hanae who lives in a house with no interior walls, hardly any barriers and some ladders to get around. The young couple call their house the Ninja — because they need to be as nimble as one to go from one room to another…

Radical design is featuring more and more in Japan’s residential landscape and is a hit among the country’s young generation. It is as if the compact spaces the Japanese have to live in are pushing the architects, and their clients, to think out of the box and let their whimsical ideas take off…

“Houses depreciate in value over 15 years after being built,” says Tokyo-based architect Alastair Townsend, “and on average they are demolished after 25 or 30 years, so the owner of a house doesn’t need to consider what a future buyer might want.

“It gives them a lot of creative license to design a home that’s an expression of their own eccentricities or lifestyle.”

In addition to the limited amount of space, another factor appears important: houses aren’t expected to last that long. While McMansions are often criticized for a lack of quality construction and design, few people would suggest most would be demolished 25-30 years later. Think of some of the small and relatively bland houses built after World War II in places like Levittown that are still standing and have been tweaked quite a bit. Put these two combinations together, less space and less need to last long, and home designs could be more unique and customized.

It is hard to imagine circumstances under which Americans would have such short-lived homes. We have expectations that homes should last, should be places where memories can be made and sustained over decades. Builders construct edifices and neighborhoods that are meant to at least look permanent – thus the aping of older architectural traditions. Plus, there might be environmental concerns: you would have to design a house differently from the beginning for it to be disposed of not much later.

Stark demographic figures for Japan

A post at New Geography lays out several population figures for Japan:

In 2007, Japan’s population reached a tipping point. It was the first year in its history (excluding 1945) where the number of deaths exceeded the number of births. In 2007 there were 2,000 more deaths than births. In 2011 that figure rose to approximately 204,000, and it’s a figure that is accelerating. Indeed, at 23.1%, Japan has the highest proportion of over-65s in the world, and at 13.2%, the world’s lowest proportion of under 14s. Japan’s population peaked at 127.7 million in 2007, and is forecast to shrink to a mere 47 million by 2100.

While the topic of declining fertility rates in many industrialized nations has been discussed for a while now, I’m still not sure we are prepared to deal with the idea of declining populations. Particularly in the United States, we associate population increases with progress. An example: cities that lose population are seen as doing something wrong while cities that are growing are successes. A similar mindset exists with religious congregations. Japan is clearly an advanced nation yet what happens if it loses more than half of its population in the period of a century? And what happens if this is done by choice? Throughout human history, population loss is typically tied to factors like disease, ecological conditions, and war, not by a populace who isn’t interested in having more children.

A thought: what if we end up in a Children of Men type world that is brought about because humans simply don’t want to have children anymore?

Victor Davis Hanson on the autonomy of the American suburbs

In a column about how disasters can particularly affect complex centralized nations like Japan, classicist Victor Davis Hanson discusses how autonomy and decentralization is a primary feature of American suburbs:

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain…

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

In a wider sense, America’s strength has always been found in the self-reliant, highly individualist, even eccentric citizen.

An interesting argument that perhaps comes down to which is the higher value: avoiding the problems of suburbs including not wasting energy and the other commonly-cited ills of suburbia such as a lack of community, consumerism, a place primarily available to those with money, etc. vs. suburban (and more rural) citizens that are “independent-minded, free, and self-reliant.”

I can imagine some of the responses to Hanson’s claims about suburbanites:

1. Are they really free and self-reliant? Even with their single-family homes and relative autonomy, suburbanites are highly dependent on others for goods like roads and relatively cheap oil that make such suburban life possible. What about the need in the suburbs to “keep up with the Joneses” and perhaps slavishly pursue the newest update of the American Dream? Is the autonomy primarily due to the location and its lower population densities or because many suburbanites have the means or wealth to do what they wish (as do wealthier city dwellers)?

2. Are the problems of centralized systems in the face of major disasters enough to outweigh the benefits of more centralized systems in less troubled times? If a major disaster were to hit a major American metropolitan region and its suburbs, would the average citizen be better equipped to handle the situation?

“Why is there no looting in Japan?”

With news continuing to pour out of Japan regarding the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, one journalist asks, “Why is there no looting in Japan?

And solidarity seems especially strong in Japan itself. Perhaps even more impressive than Japan’s technological power is its social strength, with supermarkets cutting prices and vending machine owners giving out free drinks as people work together to survive. Most noticeably of all, there has been no looting, and I’m not the only one curious about this.

This is quite unusual among human cultures, and it’s unlikely it would be the case in Britain. During the 2007 floods in the West Country abandoned cars were broken into and free packs of bottled water were stolen. There was looting in Chile after the earthquake last year – so much so that troops were sent in; in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina saw looting on a shocking scale.

Why do some cultures react to disaster by reverting to everyone for himself, but others – especially the Japanese – display altruism even in adversity?

This is an interesting question that I am sure a number of sociologists could respond to. This sounds like a Durkheimian issue about social coherence: what holds Japanese society together, even amidst disaster, while other Western societies have less social coherence in the presence of a disaster?

Quick Review: Babies

I watched the film Babies recently with the hopes that I might use a portion of it to illustrate the idea of socialization in my Introduction to Sociology course. I didn’t end up using the film but I still have a few thoughts about this 2010 film:

1. The film follows four babies: one each in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and San Francisco. Between the four of them, there were some contrasts. But I’m not sure there was enough variation in these cases. Outside of the Namibian baby, the other three families were fairly Westernized. The Japanese and American baby seemed to experience similar things. If the goal was to draw attention to how babies develop in similar stages yet do so in unique cultural settings, I think this could have been improved. This is a problem that also plagues case studies: cases need to be selected in such a way that they have variation on the key variables of interest (culture in this instance).

2. The movie has no narration – it is a compilation of scenes tracking their development and there is some instrumental music. This leads to a lot of “awww” moments but the film struggles to say something larger.

3. Some of the scenes were quite well put together. The shots of the Mongolian child seemingly out in the wilderness on his own (a constant backdrop of mountains and cattle) were impressive.

4. I know this is an inherent problem in a film that attempts to follow four children through several years of life but I didn’t feel like we had a good understanding of the broader context the babies were in. There was little or no information about their parents or families. I felt like we saw a lot of scenes meant to show the different stages of development but little of the full story. Since the film was somewhat short (just under 80 minutes), ten or fifteen minutes of this information could easily have been added though it would have altered the approach.

Overall, this was an engaging film as it is interesting to watch the children grow up. There is much potential in these scenes but the film as a whole struggles to make a larger point.

(This film was okay in the eyes of critics. According to RottenTomatoes.com, 69% of critics – 67 out of 97 – said the film was “fresh.”)

More demographic issues, this time in Southern Europe

Amidst news that Japan experienced a record population drop in 2010, today, the New York Times reports on Southern Europe where there is a lack of jobs for the young even as a growing elderly population requires support and how this has led to a “pervasive malaise among young people”:

Indeed, experts warn of a looming demographic disaster in Southern Europe, which has among the lowest birth rates in the Western world. With pensioners living longer and young people entering the work force later — and paying less in taxes because their salaries are so low — it is only a matter of time before state coffers run dry.

“What we have is a Ponzi scheme,” said Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University and an expert in fiscal policy.

He said that pay-as-you-go social security and health care were a looming fiscal disaster in Southern Europe and beyond. “If these fertility rates continue through time, you won’t have Italians, Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese or Russians,” he said. “I imagine the Chinese will just move into Southern Europe.”

The problem goes far beyond youth unemployment, which is at 40 percent in Spain and 28 percent in Italy. It is also about underemployment. Today, young people in Southern Europe are effectively exploited by the very mechanisms created a decade ago to help make the labor market more flexible, like temporary contracts.

Whoever is going to tackle these issues is going to have be very brave or thick-skinned.

While the consequences of long-term low birth rates are becoming more clear, why is there not more discussion about boosting these birth rates? How exactly did the birth rate drop so much? How did it become so desirable for nations and individuals to have so few children? Could governments provide incentives to families so that they would have more children?

It will also be interesting to track how this “malaise” works its way through the younger generation. Could this be the first generation in a while that has a tougher life than their parents in terms of having to work longer and harder just to keep society afloat? What are the social consequences of this malaise: less productivity, less interest in civil society, general unrest?

Record population drop in Japan

Numerous industrialized nations are facing a demographic challenge: an aging population coupled with a low birth rate. Japan is one of these countries and experienced a record population drop in 2010:

Japan faces a looming demographic squeeze. Baby boomers are moving toward retirement, with fewer workers and taxpayers to replace them. The Japanese boast among the highest life expectancies in the world but have extremely low birth rates.

Japan logged 1.19 million deaths in 2010 — the biggest number since 1947 when the health ministry’s annual records began. The number of births was nearly flat at 1.07 million.

As a result, Japan contracted by 123,000 people, which was the most ever and represents the fourth consecutive year of population decline. The top causes of death were cancer, heart disease and stroke, the ministry said.

Japanese aged 65 and older make up about a quarter of Japan’s current population. The government projects that by 2050, that figure will climb to 40 percent.

This will have some enormous social consequences in the coming decades: an growing older population will require more and more government services that will be paid for by a shrinking base of younger workers.

One important piece of the story seems to be missing in this article: immigration. Japan has historically been relatively closed to immigration where other industrialized nations have various rates of immigration. In the United States, population growth has been fueled by higher birth rates than some other industrialized nations plus high levels of immigration. As countries continue to think about this demographic shift, could more nations see immigration as a solution to looming budget issues related to government programs for the elderly?

Quick Review: The Cove

On the surface, The Cove is not a typical film that I would watch: a documentary about nature. But I found The Cove to be engaging. A few thoughts about this award-winning 2008 documentary:

1. The story follows the actions of Richard O’Barry as he tries to expose the slaughter of dolphins in a protected cove in Taiji, Japan. O’Barry’s backstory is very interesting: he was the trainer for Flipper but immediately switched sides to protect dolphins after one of the show’s dolphins died (he says she committed suicide) in his arms. O’Barry assembles a team of people to help expose what is going on in Taiji as some in that community attempt to stop him. To me, O’Barry is the heart of this film – his decision and actions to try to save dolphins shows remarkable dedication and stubbornness in the face of difficult odds.

2. It is hard not to like dolphins: they are intelligent and are graceful. But O’Barry suggests one part of their appearance that may work against them: they appear to humans to always be smiling and this masks the times when they are in pain or are suffering.

3. Why do whales and dolphins get all of this attention, both in this film and from zoo or aquarium attendees? There are plenty of animals that are mistreated and locked up. There has to be an interesting social history here.

4. One of the side plots in this film is Japan’s role in the International Whaling Commission. This international body has difficulty stopping Japan from doing anything. Again, this could be a whole story or film in itself: how Japan skirts international law and advisories to conduct whaling activities.

5. One strong point of this documentary is that O’Barry’s team actually attempts to do something (and it is set up like the plot of some action film) as opposed to documentaries where people talk the whole time and viewers are shown statistics.

Overall, I enjoyed this film: the fight against what happens in Taiji, Japan makes for an interesting tale.

(This film was highly rated by critics: it is 96% fresh at RottenTomates.com with 116 fresh reviews out of 121 total.)

Explaining a short-term dip in chronic homelessness

A sociologist provides an explanation for the short-term dip in chronic homelessness in the United States:

Amid increases in poverty and unemployment, [the United States and Japan] have seen continuing decreases in street homelessness. The most recent Homeless Assessment Report to the U.S. Congress states that the chronically homeless, or those who have been on the streets or in shelters long-term and have disabilities, decreased by 10 percent from 2008 to 2009. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has reported a national decrease of street homelessness of 16 percent between 2009 and 2010…
While the provision of subsidized housing is crucial to get people off the streets, a lesser-known component in both nations has been the flexible, holistic and trust-building work of frontline staff persons at organizations linking people to and keeping them in housing.
This argument suggests that it is not just about providing resources (such as housing) to help reduce chronic homelessness but having staff help point them to and keep them using such resources.
I wonder how much data there is to back up this argument. Additionally, do governments see/acknowledge the value of these staff positions, particularly in lean economic times?