Getting Used to Terror

As we mourn France’s tragedy, Japan provides a sobering lesson on the price of peace.

Japan does not have, and is not likely to ever have, a problem with terror. It will almost certainly never suffer an attack like France’s weekend tragedy. But is also a nation that is in inexorable economic and demographic decline. That appears to be the trade-off all Western nations face: peace or prosperity.

Like all Western societies, Japan reaped the fruit of economic prosperity and is now, for reasons I discussed in an earlier post, declining both economically and demographically. One in four Japanese citizens are older than 65, and sales of adult diapers now surpass those for babies. The impact of this demographic shift on the economy, and on the lifestyles of the working-age population, is everywhere to be seen. Its workforce shrinking, Japan’s economy has more or less ground to a halt. The rapid increases in compensation for working Japanese are now a thing of the past as austerity forces employers to cut back pay. Most recently, the government has had to begin raising taxes on employed Japanese to support its expenditure on the elderly. A generation ago, young Japanese could look forward to a lifetime of rising incomes. Today, only the elderly still feel that optimism.

In its decline, Japan leads other Western countries by a couple of decades, but we’re virtually all on the same path. Some countries, like Italy and Germany, have already begun their demographic declines. Even those whose populations are still growing healthily, like Canada, can thank immigration for this. Take newcomers out of the picture, and even Canada would be contracting.

The relative openness to foreigners of Canada, the USA or Australia mean that even as their economic growth rates slow, long-term prospects look promising, not least when compared to Japan’s. But these are countries built by generations of immigrants, who helped develop their countries’ expertise at integrating newcomers and enabling them to make homes in their adopted countries. Two years ago, after two decades away, I spent some time lecturing in Canada. I marvelled at the way my students, a mixed bag who represented the whole planet, related to one another. Veiled young Iranian girls, Ethiopians in hoodies, Jamaicans in button-down shirts and Brazilians with strong Canadian accents all hung out together, played hockey and interacted on Facebook, expressing a degree of attachment to their homeland that humbled a lapsed Canadian like me.

Yet while Canadians like to say that the world could solve its problems if everyone just became more like them, it’s not an easy thing to pull off. The country, often derided by foreigners for being boring, got that reputation because its national culture is pretty vague, subdued and indistinct. Beyond ice hockey and perhaps Tim Horton’s donuts, there’s not a lot that Canadians would say defines them. The result is that the country allows newcomers a wide berth when it comes to grafting their own practises onto a constantly-evolving national culture.

Contrast that with European countries, where rich and centuries-old cultures define life. To be Italian is not just to like pasta and speak the language, and many Danes or Dutch don’t think veiled women can really be considered nationals. I used to lecture in France, and I recall conversations with the children of North African immigrants who, despite looking, sounding and behaving French to me, would say that they would still get asked where they were ‘from’ — and Marseille wasn’t the answer their interlocutor was looking for. The suburbs of French cities are filled with vast, depressed housing estates brimming with discontented minorities who often feel they don’t get a fair hearing.

Osaka, November 2015

Osaka, November 2015

When it comes to Japanese policy menu, on the other hand, immigration is simply not an option. Aware their country is on a path of economic and demographic decline, most Japanese seem to have accepted this with equanimity. They might encourage the vast army of stay-at-home mothers to enter the work force but, aside from letting in the odd highly-skilled specialist, they don’t intend to increase immigration to boost their labour supply. To judge from the subtle racism Japanese show towards all ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) — the spaces, patronising remarks to correct the supposed ignorance of foreigners, the common lack of interest in overseas travel, the rarity with which even educated Japanese people speak or understand any foreign languages — they prefer their country to die Japanese than to rebirth itself with new inputs.

However, an obvious consequence of Japan’s consequent homogeneity is a high degree of order around shared norms, a degree of stability that remains the envy of other Western countries. Crime is very low, and a single woman can walk home late at night with little fear. Children as young as three can be seen in school canteens, serving one another first before serving oneself. At a shared meal, nobody eats the last item on the dish. Formal gestures of respect govern all interactions. Thus, in- and out-groups are not really a feature here, and there is no obvious source of discontent driving marginalised groups to rebel against societies they feel reject them.

Europe faces a choice. Does it go the Canadian route, accept more immigrants, and take the risks that go with that — either to its stability or, if it is to go the Canadian route and allow immigrants to change their societies, to its cultures? Or does it go the Japanese route, close its borders, and slide into irreversible decline? What do we love most, money or identity? Material prosperity or our cultural and spiritual endowment? That’s a tough choice, with no obvious answer.

European governments, which by and large tell their citizens they will both preserve their cultures and make them richer, are avoiding the dilemma. Until they face it, their citizens may have no choice but to get used to terror.



  1. Margaret Mair · November 14, 2015

    Interesting to read your remarks about Canada, particularly as any view of Canadian society depends on where you’re looking from. A nation that acknowledges it is a nation of immigrants brings its own subtle distinctions to bear on the place of those immigrants, older and newer, within its social order. The ideal of inclusion is not always the reality individuals or groups experience.


  2. John Rapley · November 15, 2015

    Unquestionably, Margaret. But I think the nature of diversity is that there is an element of give-and-take which tries to strike a balance that leaves nobody substantially more unhappy than anyone else. I would certainly not say Canada is perfect in that respect; I would simply say that so far, Canada does integration better than most other societies I have observed.


  3. Bernadette · November 18, 2015

    I think that it may be time to check the pulse of the patient again. There is increased fear and isolationist thinking even in the most immigrant welcoming societies. Using the Canada/Japan comparison, the issues of crime, racism (subtle or violent) and identity are reasons to make even resettled immigrants in the North American continent question an open arms/ gates policy. A quick scan of social media reveals a very distinct line being drawn between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The idea of peace as preferable to any promise of prosperity or in fact a requirement to truly appreciate material gain may simply be idealist. Yet most of the world seems to be still working out where they stand on the issue given the globalized, compressed and interconnected nature of relationships between people as opposed to the posture of governments. Getting used to terror is not an option anyone wants to accept. For many the ultimate development goal is peace, prosperity being defined not just in tangible or material stock. The question of identity is the challenge we all face as Humanity: immigrants, citizens, refugees, military /security/political specialists are trying to figure out ‘them/us’ in relation to IS (and other radical elements) and it’s evolving traits and guerilla tactics. On the off chance that the enemy may be within, thanks to immigration, the natural response to the fear (fight or flight) that makes terror a useful tactic will continue to cause varied opinions and lack of unity on how to treat with this challenge. How do you successfully fight or flee from who/what is within?


    • John Rapley · November 18, 2015

      You put your finger on some of the very real challenges, Bernadette. In contrast to some of the breezier depictions of this being a challenge the West has faced before and will face again with equanimity, I think it’s too early to say how these things will play themselves out. But an open and honest debate about the options seems inescapable to me. Dancing around the issues is no longer an option.


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