Japan, When The Signs Of Decline Are Not About Economics

Civic values are ultimately worth more than dollars and yen.

In the streets of Tokyo
In the streets of Tokyo
Kondo Daisuke


TOKYO — It's been my habit, over the past 25 years or so, to pass the New Year in Beijing, and so it was that I found myself there once again this year.

As soon as I got off the plane, I subconsciously pulled out a ready-prepared protective mask from my pocket. This has also become a habit over the years. This time, I even took the trouble of ordering a particularly expensive mask — it cost more than $16 — from AS ONE, a famous Osaka company that claims its products reduce particle intake by 99%.

But after just about a minute, I removed the mask because the sky looked sunny and washed in blue. While still in Beijing, I learned the following week that the Chinese government has shown a remarkable determination to win the so-called "blue sky war." And I was pleased to hear it, because clean air is a crucial part of people's wellbeing, which was the government's original goal, after all, in pursuing economic development.

By contrast, upon returning to Japan a few days later, I was confronted by some not very good news, things I found quite appalling, in fact. The first was an incident on Jan. 8, Coming of Age Day, a public holiday in Japan, where on the second Monday of January, 20-year-olds celebrate their entry into adulthood. Apart from their wedding day, this is the only occasion when a young, unmarried Japanese woman dresses up in a traditional furisode, a formal kimono with long swinging sleeves.

The garments are exquisite and costly, and given how rarely people wear them, most rent rather than buy their furisode. But when hundreds of young women showed up that Monday at event venues in Tokyo and Yokohama, ready to get their kimonos from a Yokohama-based, kimono-rental company called Harenohi, the staff was nowhere to be found. Nor were they reachable.

While in Beijing, it is common to put a protective mask — Photo: Kentaro Iemoto

Television coverage showed young women bursting into tears at the various ceremony venues. They were heartbroken, and not just because of the lavish amount of money they had advanced (reportedly about $3,400 each for a complete kimono outfit). It was also that they were being exposed — and on the very day they joined the adult ranks — to a society rife with lies and injustices. Like many in the Japanese public who watched the drama play out on our TV screens, I felt real sympathy for these young women.

Then came the second bit of upsetting news, this time involving a Japanese kayaker caught up in a doping scandal. Tokyo is set to host the next Summer Olympic Games, in 2020. The Japan National Olympic Committee (JOC), therefore, has stepped up its support for Japan's medal-winning competitions, which include canoeing.

Last September, Seiji Komatsu, 25, won an overwhelming victory at Japan's canoe sprint championships. Mr. Komatsu is a darling of the Japan sporting world, and a medal contender for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. But after the competition, a doping test showed that he has taken a banned muscle enhancer.

It has long been a point of pride for Japan that its athletes are clean, that they don't cheat. Which is why the Komatsu scandal was so troubling, and not just for the sport of canoeing. It impacted the society as whole.

As punishment, Komatsu was disqualified from competing for four years, meaning his chances of competing at the Tokyo Olympics were also ruined. In the meantime, Komatsu continued to insist that he's never taken any anabolic agents. No one close to him ever suspected the athlete of wrongdoing, furthermore, and according to the Japan Canoe Federation, Komatsu had no previous record of taking banned substances.

Unmarried Japanese woman dresses up in a traditional furisode — Photo: Wikipedia

Then, on Jan. 9, the true story finally came to light. As it turns out, a rival athlete at the canoe sprint championships, Yasuhiro Suzuki, 32, spiked Komatsu's water bottle with a muscle-building substance. The Canoe Federation learned about the incident from Suzuki's father-in-law. Suzuki himself later confessed. "Komatsu is so young," he was reported as saying in the press. "There is no way I ever going to beat him. I acted out of desperation."

This new twist was unlike anything Japan's athletic world had ever seen before. It was unheard of. And while the public was relieved that Komatsu's honor had been restored, they were dismayed by his rival's dishonesty, which for many, was even more shocking than the original doping scandal, especially since the first person Komatsu sought for advice after he tested positive was none other than Suzuki, an older athlete he trusted and looked up to.

Central to the Japanese belief system is something called seizensetsu, a Confucian ethical theory that sees human nature as fundamentally good, and emphasizes the virtue of aspiring to good deeds and practices.

Followers of Christianity believe that God is watching. The same goes in Islamic society. There's also Allah. In both cases, people try to steer away from evil deeds so that they can make sure they'll gain entrance, after death, to the kingdom of God. Most Japanese people, in contrast, do not have religious faith and are not bound morally by any gods. They guide themselves toward goodness, and away from bad behavior, internally.

Even on a quiet rural road where nobody is watching, and with no car in sight, a Japanese wishing to cross a road will wait until the pedestrian signal turns green. Most Japanese people do not suspect someone they meet for the first time. When they see a stranger in their immediate vicinity in their neighborhood they'll nod politely. Traditional Japanese houses don't even have locks.

This is why the two unfortunate events mentioned above are so upsetting. Because for me, they're a sign that our morals are degenerating, that Japanese people are gradually losing their greatest virtue: honesty. And that, more than any kind of social or economic indicator, really does mean that Japan is in decline.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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