Russian and Japanese realities

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Dec 3 16:25:46 MST 2000

NY Times, December 3, 2000

An Ailing Russia Lives a Tough Life That's Getting Shorter


PITKYARANTA, Russia — When the chest pains first gripped him that February
day in 1998, Anatoly Iverianov was driving a tractor through one of the
birch-and-pine forests that carpet Russia's border with Finland, dragging
fresh-cut logs to a wood lot.

"I had a glass of vodka," he said. "I thought that would help."

It didn't. Mr. Iverianov was having a heart attack. Within six months he
suffered another. Two years later, he is disabled, impoverished, embittered
and sick — so sick he has been in the local hospital three times since August.

Standing in his crumbling hillside apartment, in a Brezhnev-era block
overlooking the paper factory, Mr. Iverianov added up the negatives: his
disability pension is a pittance; he is bored and useless at home;
hospitalization gives him no respite from illness.

"I've been drinking and smoking a lot," he said defiantly. "And I'm not

Quite the opposite: two years after two heart attacks, 45-year-old Anatoly
Iverianov is a Russian Everyman.

In a country whose most overworked word is "krizis" — crisis — here is a
genuine one: Russian life expectancy has fallen in 6 of the last 10 years.

It fell every month last year alone, to an average of 65.9 years for both
men and women — about 10 years less than in the United States, and on a par
with levels in Guatemala. Moreover, government statistics through last
August point to a further drop in 2000.

It is a sore-thumb symptom of a precipitous decline in Russia's public
health, a spiral not seen in a developed nation since the Great Depression,
if then. Life expectancy is not just a medical issue but a barometer of a
society's health. In a sense it is a lagging indicator of poverty, of
stress, of cohesion and stability — and of a government's ability or
willingness to take care of its own.

Since 1990, according to the most recent figures, the death rate has risen
almost one-third, to the highest of any major nation, and the birth rate
has dropped almost 40 percent, making it among the very lowest. Mortality
from circulatory diseases has jumped by a fifth; from suicides, a third;
from alcohol-related causes, almost 60 percent; from infectious and
parasitic diseases, nearly 100 percent.

Not all the toll was registered in deaths. The rate of newly disabled
people rose by half.

When Russia's death rate surpassed its plunging birth rate in the mid-90's,
demographers called it the Russian cross and suggested that it had profound

By a United Nations estimate, Russia's population of 145.6 million could
shrink to 121 million by 2050. In a report early this year, the Central
Intelligence Agency forecast that by 2002, 1 in 70 Russians will carry
H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS — almost twice the United States rate.
Tuberculosis, once nearly under control, is epidemic, and the C.I.A. says
shortages of money and medicine "are creating the context for a large
increase in infectious diseases."

Infections are only one factor in Russia's premature deaths. The leading
killers are cardiovascular disease and violence, and the victims are not
the elderly so much as young and middle-aged men. They are the working
backbone that in theory should be available to help rebuild this nation.
But the average citizen downs a world-record 4.4 gallons of alcohol a year.
Reflecting that, accidents and violence have passed cancer as the leading
cause of death after heart disease, something unthinkable for a modern nation.

Russian leaders sound increasingly apocalyptic. President Vladimir V. Putin
has warned of an emerging "senile nation," too old and feeble to compete

And the intelligence agencies in the United States believe that the
deteriorating public health picture in Russia, and in the hospitals and
clinics struggling to deal with it, could lead to political upheaval at
worst and relief emergencies at best.

Complete article at:


NY Times Magazine, December 3, 2000

The Pretenders

In Japan, losing a job is so shameful that some people will do anything to
keep the world from finding out. By HOWARD FRENCH

 Walking down a crowded street in Tokyo, it is impossible to know if that
well-dressed man you just passed actually has a job or is just pretending
to go to work. When Japan's economy collapsed in 1989, unemployment,
unheard of in the country's postwar boom, hit hard, jumping from 1 percent
then to 5 percent today. Though the saddest effect of the cataclysm is
Japan's rising suicide rate, its strangest is the number of former
salarymen who haunt the business districts of downtown Tokyo, unable to
stay home or in their neighborhoods between the morning and evening rush
hours. These men -- and they are all men -- are the newly unemployed. They
are as elusive as body snatchers, rising early every day, donning white
shirts and knotting their ties before setting out for jobs they no longer
have. Some have not yet found a way to tell their wives and families the
bad news. Others are afraid their neighbors will find out. Nearly all have
given up hope of a better future: they are middle-aged in a country that
hires young and, until recently, for life. This is not the land of second

Invisible men are hard to find. But if you ask around enough, you
inevitably find yourself in a small library on the edge of Tokyo's lush and
tranquil Hibiya Park, a place of gurgling fountains, manicured formal
gardens and beds of perfect tulips and crocuses. The library, a neat
four-story brick structure vaguely reminiscent of an American public school
building circa 1960, has become an air-conditioned asylum for the
out-of-work, a resting place for the decommissioned foot soldiers of
Japan's economic boom.

When I enter the building, I am struck by the number of men who sit, bowed,
in the large, brightly lit reading rooms or secluded amid musty stacks. On
the third floor, I pause to admire the newspaper racks, gorgeous wooden
A-frames set up on the open, polished floor. A largish man in a blue suit
and shiny black shoes stands nearby, savoring the Tokyo broadsheets, as
unhurried as if he were enjoying a Sunday brunch. The morning's papers
capture Japan's free fall in cinematic slow motion with headlines about an
accidental mass food poisoning by a milk company; two deaths as a result of
malpractice at a major hospital; and a raid on the construction ministry by
prosecutors investigating kickbacks.

Slowly easing up to him, I excuse myself for disturbing his reading, and
then pose the question. There is no other way. "Yes, I am out of work," he
answers matter-of-factly. When I ask if he might spare a few minutes to
talk about it, he suddenly grows jumpy, but then, almost hurriedly,
accepts. "I'll meet you downstairs," he says. "There is a cafeteria in the
basement." The library has a spiral staircase, and as I round the bend, I
glance back at him. He looks up as he collects his belongings and says
calmly, reassuringly, "Don't worry, I won't run away."

A score of other men at Hibiya Library were never willing to talk for more
than an uncomfortable minute or two; the newspaper reader, though
comparatively forthcoming, is nevertheless guarded -- speaking only on
condition of anonymity and refusing to say with precision even where he
lives. Still, in the stark cafeteria, he tells a story he has kept secret
for two years.

In 1998, the huge commercial real estate firm the man worked for as a
property appraiser announced that it was making some changes. "One day we
came to work and learned that they had reshuffled all of the personnel and
changed our pay system," he says. The moves, he adds in a monotone, "were
intended to make sure that you never got another pay raise again. They
began replacing experienced people with cheap hires. And they told us, 'If
you don't like it, you can simply leave."'

At the same time this was happening, the appraiser learned that he was ill.
"I was hospitalized for colon cancer," he says, taking a sip of tea. "And
after I was discharged, I was told by my superiors that if your health is
not good, that will be a problem. Finally, it seemed as if they had found a
good enough reason to get rid of me. They said it would take too long for
me to recover and return to work in good condition."

The man and the real estate firm parted ways. He stayed at home, where his
mother cooked and cleaned for him. But the uneasiness began to mount. He
was 48. He had no wife and no children. He had no hobbies and played no
sports. He had few friends outside work, and no friends, like him, who were
unemployed. Career and company had been everything. "Suddenly, I couldn't
imagine what I would do next," he says, running his fingers through his
thinning hair. "Income was not the problem. The question was, What could a
company man like me in his 40's do with the rest of his life?"

Even worse was the reality of the man's neighborhood at the western edge of
Tokyo -- a place of tiny homes and suffocating proximity; a world of such
closeness that privacy evaporates through paper-thin walls. In places like
this, so common to this city, neighbors know what you watch on TV and eat
for dinner. The smiles and bows that accompany their daily greetings only
feign to be about an exchange of news. Because the appraiser's 78-year-old
mother was firmly of this world, she could not bear the possibility of
being known as the parent of an unemployed man. She asked him to swear that
he would maintain the illusion of being employed, that he would tell no one
but his younger sister and her husband. He agreed.

And so, with little preparation or forethought, the appraiser began a life
of make-believe and disguise. "No one in my family has told anyone that
I've been let go," he says. "We would prefer that they not know anything.
There is no need." The words are exquisitely Japanese in their
indirectness. The reality, though, is much more stark. He has gone to the
government unemployment agency only once; bumping into an acquaintance
would be too hard to explain. Even the possibility of travel seems
foreclosed. "I have the money," he says. "That is not the problem. But if I
start going away a lot, the neighbors will grow suspicious." Instead, he
has settled into a fixed routine, as regular and confining as a prisoner's.
Tuesday's destination, he explains, is Hibiya Library. Exactly what he does
on other days he will not say. "If you think that is strange," he says
before leaving with the promise to meet me at the library in a week, an
appointment he never keeps, "well then, maybe it is."

Louis Proyect
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