Japan is the Canary in the Coal Mine – The Great Virtual Escape

Rich in tradition and material wealth, Japan’s reclusive youths are often completely uninterested in sex, relationships, or work.

The country’s youth – especially men – are seeking escape from the job and romance market. Video game addiction and shut-in adults (almost all male) make up a large part of what could have been Japan’s workforce. Suicide is rampant.

This may involve some unique Japanese cultural and economic factors, but the trend won’t be uniquely Japanese. This transition from productive nation to virtually reclusive, depressed, and aged nation is one that may be the natural course of the First World.

Artificial intelligence, more immersive virtual mediums, and continuing existential loss of purpose and direction. These factors are likely to drive many other rich First World nations into a solipsistic virtual escape.

In this article I’ll explore what’s happening in Japan, what it may lead to, and what could or should be done about it.

The State of Japan

Japan is a remarkably wealthy and (still by global standards) productive country. The country’s productivity and wellbeing are threatened by a number of pressing issues:

  • No sex, no births – Birthrates are plummeting in Japan, where the average age is nearly 50 years old. Many Japanese youths and adults (even those with relatively healthy social lives) have little interest in sex or dating, and prefer video games and pornography to the awkward world of dating. In a recent study, 30 percent of the 2,706 men sampled and 26 percent of the 2,570 female respondents said they were not currently looking for a relationship (source: Japan Times).
  • Virtual escape – The Japanese term “Hikikomori” refers to Japan’s numerous (reportedly over a million) shut-ins, usually male, who stay indoors for months at a time – often living with their parents well into their 40s. Hikikomori often have no interaction with other people except through video games or online mediums.
  • Suicide epidemic – Japan’s suicide rates are staggeringly high. At the 14th highest suicide rate in the world, Japan (like neighboring South Korea) is unique in having such a high suicide rate with such a relatively high per-capita wealth. Most of the rest of the top 15 is taken up by poor Slavic countries.
suicide rates in japan
Suicide rates in Japan (Source), #14 globally.

The following factors are almost certainly contributing to the above conditions – including the suicide (again, largely among men) –

  • Fewer jobs are available since the economy has been relatively stagnant in the last 25 years.
  • Women refuse to date or marry men without work (this is not unique to Japan, unemployed men, or men making less than a woman, are unlikely to find dating success anywhere).
  • Men with poor prospects in the competitive working world and no likelihood for romantic success are likely to retreat from society.
  • Japan’s “bubble economy” burst in the late 1980’s, leading to a massive economic downturn that still impacts the country to this day. Real wages today in Japan are argued to be worse than they were in 1990.

I don’t believe that these issues are uniquely Japanese, but rather, are the symptoms of the future first world condition. Very educated and wealthy by any global standard, Japan’s woes will be (and are beginning to be) shared by other nations.

Japan is the Future of the Rich First World

While oversimplified, here’s my best stab at what’s likely to happen to other first world nations over the decade or two ahead:

  • A country works hard and gets wealthy, swelling with momentum and direction
  • People find careers and education as good reasons to put off having a family – or as more fulfilling than family life (which was once a tradition, and is now a choice)
  • A portion of the population loses their relevance in the job market (due to an economic downturn, or simply a change in marketable skills)
  • Men without healthy incomes are unable to marry or start families even if they want to
  • Men and women with healthy incomes are often intimidated by childcare costs, and their higher education and modern culture prevent them from preferring large families by default
  • Population ages, economy stagnates
  • Many shamed and “left behind” men either commit suicide (quickly, as in with a gun – or slowly, through abuse of drugs or alcohol) or escape into a world of simple gratification (drugs, pornography, video games)

This same trend is easy to see in countries. Video games in the relatively rich Nordic countries are one example. Opioid crisis in the United States is another example. Plummeting birth rates and reduced frequency of sex among Western youth are probably also symptoms – as well as increasing teen suicide and addiction to social media.

This all speaks to a broader pattern in the First World:

  • Countries get rich, and gain wealth but don’t gain meaning
    • Rich people are still unhappy (because the vessel is flawed)
    • Poor people are still unhappy (because the vessel is flawed)
      • Unhappy people seek gratification through increasingly virtual means
        • ^ This cycle will eventually continue into a “Great Virtual Escape”

Japan simply has a sped-up experience of the above phases.

Their economic downturn at the end of the last century has left the nation in a rough economic position for workers, they were a leader in video gaming innovation (and gaming consumption), and a culture of saving face were accelerants to what is probably a much more broad First World trend.

The Great Virtual Escape – and its Contributing Factors

The Great Virtual Escape is the hypothesis that – given the rise of virtual mediums for entertainment, social interaction, sexual gratification, and creative work – people in the 21st century are bound to live more and more in virtual worlds.

While some people will enter virtual worlds to be more productive in work or in reaching their goals, most will do so for escape and enjoyment (I explore this dynamic in much more depth in the “Lotus Eaters vs World Eaters” essay).

The transition will happen in phases:

  • Part-time virtual and augmented reality – used intermittently for work, mostly for entertainment. Despite the hype of Oculus Rift and similar headsets, VR technology is not mainstream as of yet. But Facebook didn’t buy Oculus for nothing, the phases after part-time VR get much more exciting:
  • Full-time virtual reality and AI – used for 9+ waking hours. Working, entertainment, socializing, and learning will all become immeasurable better with the advent of programmatically generated material.
  • “Body as a husk” virtual reality – Eventually, physical life will be a false reality, and the virtual world will be astronomically more interesting, fulfilling, and even productive for many people. Bodies in immersive VR and haptic worlds may be hooked up to some kind of nutrient intake system, with kinds of “pods” that allow for waste excretion and unintrrupted virtual experience – keeping the body in a kind of stasis except when absolutely necessary.
  • Brain-machine interface – A-la the Matrix. I predict that cognitive augmentation will most frequently be used for a stationary human experience, pumping virtual experience and emotional experiences into the mind. This is opposed to the idea that cognitive enhancement will primarily be used to help people walk around the “real world” with augmented moods or creativity. The “real” world will be virtual, and the virtual world safer and more fulfilling than the “real” one.
  • Mind uploading – A-la Black Mirror’s San Junipero. Given a long enough time horizon, it’s likely that minds will be able to be uploaded into a fully digital form, giving potential near-immortality, and a pliable flexibility that could only be afforded to super-powerful machines. I have proposed the idea of “the Epitome of Freedom” to be the likely result of brain-machine interface and mind uploading (what Yampolski calls Personal Universes).

Throughout this time, the companies and countries who dominate the digital world will become more and more powerful – all vying for a monopoly on the most important physical “stuff” on earth: The computational substrate that houses the bulk of human experience in virtual worlds.

Eventually, virtual worlds and brain-machine interface-enabled emotional experiences will be a preferable “escape” to suicide, at least for younger people who are familiar and comfortable with the technology.

The vessel is flawed, and humans, no matter how rich materially, or how much better off compared to their ancestors, will be plagued with anxieties, sadness, and social comparisons that give them reason to be ashamed, jealous, or depressed.

Japan might, for now, try to blame its woes on its economic condition, and there is credence to that. The human condition matters more than the economic condition, however, and wellbeing is not what humans have been built for. So what can be done?

What to Do About the Great Virtual Escape

I don’t have strong opinions about what should be done about the Escape.

It seems borderline inevitable that we will “go in” to our virtual systems. It also seems inevitable that the long-term trajectory of intelligence will eventually lead to something beyond humanity, and merging with digital substrates seems like a rather natural step on that path. I’m not certain that it’s good or bad, but it does seem difficult to avoid as programmatically-generated experiences become critical in our work, relationships, and lives.

The greatest risks to the Great Virtual Escape will be the fact that some companies, nations, or consortiums will control what happens and what is tracked in virtual space. I predict that:

“In the remaining part of the 21st century, all competition between the world’s most powerful nations or organizations (whether economic competition, political competition, or military conflict) is about gaining control over the computational substrate that houses human experience and artificial intelligence.” – from the Substrate Monopoly essay

This vying for control may be dangerous, and it’s uncertain as to how the process of mind-machine merger could occur without supreme power being granted to the party that builds and oversees the virtual worlds people enter.

I don’t see the Great Virtual Escape as inherently bad. Even if all countries became wealthy through AI and automation, and all citizens were given an excellent living wage, humans would still be unhappy.

The Great Virtual Escape transition is something many First World citizens will ask for as people become aware of the neverending anxieties of the human condition and begin to petition governments for Universal Basic Happiness (through virtual, pharmacological, or brain-machine interface-facilitated means). Certainly in the case of Japan, however, pulling over a million men out of the working world into virtual isolation has not been healthy for the economy and country at large.

Mark my words: Japan will not be the only nation to deal with this specific set of challenges. They are merely the canary in the coal mine of the First World.


Header image credit: Barron’s