Rebuilding Human Bonds amidst Japan’s Disconnected Society PART I

The Duty of Security: A Zen Priest confronts the Culture of Depopulation, Poverty, and Suicide in Rural Japan

In January 2010, Japan’s national broadcasting station, NHK, aired one of its many well-made and influential documentaries; this one a disturbing look at the widespread breakdown of human relationships and connections (en ) in a nation that has deeply valued subtle and intimate communication through its long history. The title of the one hour program was The Disconnected Society (mu-en shakai 無縁社会)[1] detailing the over 30,000 people nationwide who annually die alone and have no relatives or friends who claim their bodies—a phenomenon the producers dub “disconnected death” (mu-en shi 無縁死). The Disconnected Society subsequently became a buzz word in public discourse to encapsulize the many social ills facing Japanese society, such as the 30,000 plus annual suicides, an uncountable number of people thought to be over one million who have shut themselves off from society (hikikomori ひきこもり), and the rising number of workers dropping dead from overwork (karoshi 過労死). The term itself also reveals the deep existential crisis of this situation that will be explored in this chapter. Its roots lie in Japan’s Buddhist culture as mu-en is most commonly used to denote a person who after death has no surviving relatives to engage in the ancestral rites of the hybrid Confucian-Buddhist religiosity of most Japanese.

The opening vignette of The Disconnected Society follows the search for the identity of a 73 year-old laborer who died seated in front of the TV in his home in the Tokyo urban sprawl. His origins are traced back to the prefecture of Akita located on the northwest tip of the main island of Honshu with its gorgeous nature and long, brutal winters of heavy snowfall. From this vignette, the viewer begins to learn of the large number of men who migrated into Tokyo and the industrial hubs of surrounding Kanto after World War II in search of employment. One also sees the decline of the communities left behind by the young who have moved away while the elderly hang on amidst economic decline. An example of this decline can be seen in the hamlet of Fujisato-cho, located an hour’s drive north of the capital city Akita and sitting at the gateway to the Shirokami mountain range (shirokami sanchi 白神山地), a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite the lure of domestic and international tourism to this area, the only place to find a café and a cup of coffee in a nation otherwise overloaded with them is at a government-built community center next to the village hall where a man with a shaved head and a few assistants will serve you one. For those foreigners endlessly in search of Japan-chic, they will be happy to know this man is a Zen priest—but the romance ends here. This café was established in 2003 by Rev. Toshide Hakamata—abbot of the local Soto Zen denomination Gesso-ji Temple—in response to the wide range of human relationship problems in his community: specifically, the growing numbers of hikikomori; elderly living alone and often being found dead alone in their house (koritsu-shi 孤立死)[2]; and an unabated spate of suicides that has kept the province of Akita ranked in the top three nationally for over five decades.

the rough winter landscape of Fujisato-cho

The lack of attractive public spaces, like the chic cafes of urban Japan, is one of the many signs of social decline in rural Japan, but taking a deeper look one can see many other indicators. For a start, Rev. Hakamata explains[3], there is the problem of depopulation. In 1980, the population of Akita was 1.25 million, but in 2017 it dropped below 1 million at an annual rate of minus 14%[4], giving it the steepest rate of decline in Japan. While the population of Akita city has not changed much over time, the environs around it have gradually depopulated. Behind this demographic, we see the shift of young people moving from the countryside into Akita city to raise new families, thereby replacing those who have moved to more urbanized regions such as Tokyo and keeping the population of Akita city steady. Left in the lurch are the elderly, increasingly living on their own in the rural areas where they often “die alone” (koritsu-shi). This chain drain from rural to small town (Akita) to metropolis (Tokyo) has left its economic imprint with Akita having the lowest level average annual income in Japan in 2017 at 2,900,000—compared with the highest of Tokyo at 4,740,000. Hakamata notes that at the local level, in 2018 Fujisato-cho had the lowest wages of any town in Akita with an average annual income of ¥2,070,515, which also ranked as the fourth lowest in the entire country, considered “working poor” in Japan. In 2010, Rev. Hakamata recounts, the Japan National Council of Social Welfare performed a study in Fujisato-cho and found that among those of working age from 18 to 55 years old, 113 had cut off social and cooperative exchanges; in other words, they had become hikikomori—further disabling a community dominated by the elderly at 47% of the population with an “unproductive” youth.[5] The final dark cloud in the long winter of Akita is their suicide rate, which was the highest nationwide for from 1995 to 2013 and then for 3 more years from 2015-17. Suicides peaked in 2003 at 44.6/100,000 to the national average of 25.5. While they dropped to 22.1 by 2019, that mark was still the highest in Japan compared to the national rate of 16.0.

Before establishing the café, Rev. Hakamata founded the Association for Thinking about Mind and Life, a suicide prevention group, in his town of Fujisato-cho in 2000. The Yotte-tamo-re Café located in the back of the city hall in the lobby of the Three Generations Exchange Center in the center of town was a strategic response by the Association to confront their fraying community. Since the suicide rate among men in the area is high, they further innovated creating a Yotte-tamo-re bar at a community meeting place for men who work all day to gather for a drink and engage in conversation. While known as part of the growing national movement of Buddhist priests working on suicide prevention, Rev. Hakamata’s focus has always been wider, looking towards the overall rebuilding of communal bonds and community culture. In this way, he is distinctive and crucial to the wider engaged Buddhist movement in Japan, because he has engaged in the deeper work of structural and cultural analysis—the heart of the 2nd Noble Truth that uncovers the deeper causes and conditions to individual suffering and social injustice. For Hakamata, something had gone deeply wrong in his home region that, when he was born in 1958, still had the strong communal bonds, culture, and customs celebrated in Japanese folklore.

Rev. Shunei Hakamata

Diving into an historical analysis of his community and Akita, he discovered an important shift in 1965. From 1930 to 1965, the suicide rate in Akita was below the national average, and in 1955 at 20.2 was well below the growing national rate of 25.2. However, in 1965 it began to exceed the national average, and by 1970 it was 4.5 suicides/100,000 more. So what happened? How did Akita and so many other Japanese rural communities that had shown centuries of resiliency and continuity crumble so quickly and easily in such a short time? It has been a long and arduous path for Japan not just from the opening of their nation to the world in the Meiji period to the destruction of World War II. Since then there has also been this great migration and shift from traditional agrarian culture to an urban consumer one that has culminated in the Disconnected Society.

While this migration occurred in stages from the slow development of cities in Japan beginning even before the Meiji period, the administration of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda (1960-64) marked a new level of intensity with the national campaign to develop Japanese economic prestige for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics through “doubling personal incomes” (shotoku-baizo-keikaku 所得倍増計画). Launched in 1960, the policy aimed for a 7.2% growth rate over ten years, which was achieved within seven. By the second half of the 1960s, average annual growth had climbed to an astounding 11.6%. As Hakamata notes, however, this involved an abandonment of “any management of environmental pollution in order to compete at an unrestrained level”, resulting in the severe deterioration of air quality in urban areas and numerous environmental tragedies like Minamata disease. The succeeding administration of Eisaku Sato (1964-72), still under the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), tried to lessen the impact of this over emphasis on pure economic growth by developing policies for “social development”.

Hakamata notes, however, that this involved “the call to raise up farming communities by raising up their economies.” As investment in mechanization increased and money poured into the farming communities, people were encouraged to remake and modernize their traditional thatched roof houses. However, as the people began to buy farming machinery and invest in modern facilities for their houses, debts also accrued which could not be repaid by only engaging in agriculture. At the same time, urban Japan had an increasing need for industrial labor to fuel the economic boom through the expansion of manufacturing and heavy industries. Such jobs were aplenty at this time, and mostly male villagers began the practice of working in the fields during the peak farming seasons of spring and autumn while spending the rest of the year in the factories of urban Japan. The common tale of the workaholic, absentee father at this time meant for rural families seeing their men only a few times a year for planting, harvesting, the summer Obon festival, and New Year’s.

For Hakamata, “The year 1965 is unmistakenly the point at which the village community begins to collapse.” He explains that originally, village community was built around cooperative labor, especially the seasonal coming together of the entire community to plant and harvest rice while sharing labor, song, and relationship or “karmic bonds” (en 縁). However, with the introduction of mechanized farming, a nuclear family of three to four people could plant and harvest an entire rice farm by themselves. Hakamata points out a fascinating and essential point in this cultural shift, noting that the term used in such times of community “work” was shigoto 仕事. Shigoto was one’s duty to the community, such as engaging in communal farming, reinforcing dikes during the rainy season to prevent floods, and dropping all work to attend to the funeral and needs of families whose loved ones had just passed. People in these communities also had a second term, kasegi 稼ぎ, which referred to the “work” one could do on the side to earn additional income for one’s self and family. Hakamata notes, “Whether you were taking a break from kasegi or happened to be free, it was established that shigoto took priority.”

This distinction, however, was untenable for urban Japan, where one’s work to make money outside of the community in a company became one’s duty, even national duty as part of Japan’s rising out of the ashes of World War II. As such, these terms became conflated with kasegi falling out of common use and shigoto becoming the standard one for “work” in Japan with the now subliminal impact of its being one’s duty. Hakamata notes, “The basic rule of the company is that whatever is happening, one cannot take a break from kasegi. If there was a rule for employees to take breaks for community duties (shigoto), it would cause problems for the companies. Therefore, doing things like helping out with funerals has gradually became impossible.” Perhaps this here lies the root of modern Japan’s destructive “addiction” to work and to overwork. An American will much more likely quit a job in which they feel overexploited without a particular sense of duty or loyalty to remain on. A Japanese, however, seems to have the inability to say “no” and to walk away from such “work”, perhaps because of centuries of cultural DNA that tells them if they do so, it will lead to their ostracization from society and their personal, existential failure as an individual. The end result of this toxic conflation of kasegi and shigoto is another hallmark of the Disconnected Society, karoshi 過労死, defined as “death from overwork” most often due to “heart attack and stroke due to stress and a starvation diet”.[6]

These are the types of major cultural shifts that Rev. Hakamata has sought to uncover in his work. Another important shift that he has taken note of concerns the concept of “security” (buji 無事), explaining that traditionally “the utmost priority was the ‘security’ of the village”, such as in the work to secure community infrastructure and safety. Like the concept of shigoto, Hakamata explains, “security” was eventually applied to the urban company, and “the ‘security’ of the company came to be thought of as the ‘security’ of oneself”. This translated into not only service to the greater collective of the company by the worker but also the protection of the worker through the practices of lifetime employment and seniority based on length of service. This was a system that was put into place around 1954 after the Japanese government under the guidance of the United States crushed numerous radical labor movements by workers emboldened by socialist and Marxist orientations in the immediate post-war period.[7] However, the neoliberal model that sees such a formalized labor system as a barrier to competitive growth emerged as dominant in the United States from the 1980s and once again created an irresistible push on Japanese economic policy. First in response to the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s and then with the neoliberal reforms of the Junichiro Koizumi administration (2001-2006), this system of employee security was dismantled.

Hakamata explains the effect of this shift by citing Iwao Nakatani, one of the leading economists and opinion leaders in Japan, who in 2008 had an about face and wrote a book called Why Does Capitalism Self-Destruct: A Proposal to Revive Japan. Nakatani explains, “In the thinking of Neo-liberalism, we are divided into individual units living in a society, and the utmost respect is afforded to the freedom of ‘atomized’ individuals. Therefore, the values of a communal society—such as security, safety, trust, equality, solidarity and so on—have no importance placed upon them.”[8] For Hakamata, the core problem lies in this kind of market economy that atomizes people and attempts to optimize their desires. He notes, “In village society, there is a sense of the control of desire. There was no concept that it was good to allow desire to develop freely. In order for bonds within the family and the community to remain strong, it was necessary to control desire. In the same way, religion was used to restrain human desire.” At this point, he makes the critical insight that, “Perhaps humans are becoming more immature, or perhaps we have been infantilized, made to be immature. We have been encouraged to quickly raise our hands if we want something … The free development of desire is the engine for turning the economy. For this to take place, it is better for people to remain childlike in terms of desire.”

As with shigoto morphing into karoshi, a new culture of “convenience” (benri 便利) and “disposability” (tsukai-suteru 使い捨てる) evolved and has come to dominate urban Japanese thinking. Not only has this led to an obvious violence towards the natural environment in high level consumerism but it has also put another brick in the wall of the Disconnected Society in which people and relationships have become disposable. To better understand and to begin our transition to life among the working class in urban Japan, we must shift to another rural region in the ancient heartland of Japan.

GO TO Part II: A Shingon Monk brings “Light” to the Structural Discrimination of Laborers & the Victims of Nuclear Contamination


[1] The Disconnected Society: The Shock of 32,000 “Disconnected Deaths”  無縁社会~”無縁死”3万2千人の衝撃. January 31, 2010.https://www6.nhk.or.jp/special/detail/index.html?aid=20100131

[2] Koritsu-shi 孤立死 is the more standard term for those who die alone, literally “isolated death”, whereas mu-en shi   無縁死 is a term invented by the NHK producers to denote those who have not only died alone but who have no one to claim their bodies. Akita Prefectural Office. Monthly report of population and households. July 1, 2020. https://www.pref.akita.lg.jp/pages/archive/9910

[3] All citations from Rev. Hakamata come from the author’s translation of his article: “From a Disconnected Society to an Interconnected Society” Hakamata Toshihide Shun’ei and Jonathan S. Watts The Eastern Buddhist NEW SERIES, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2013), pp. 77-94. Updated data comes from a private correspondence on August 20, 2020.

[4] Akita Prefectural Office. Monthly report of population and households. July 1, 2020. https://www.pref.akita.lg.jp/pages/archive/9910

[5] This amounted to about 10% of the population of which half were over 40 years old. https://wpb.shueisha.co.jp/news/society/2019/10/12/109919/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karoshi

[7] Eisenstadt, S.N. Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View. (London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 139.

[8] 中谷巌Shihon-shugi-ha naze jikai shitanoka? Nihon saisei-he no teigen 資本主義はなぜ自壊したのか?日本再生への提言 (Tokyo: Shuei Publishers, 2008).

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