The Dreams of a Shrinking Nation
I’ve been thinking a lot about the decline of the Japanese birth rate lately. It’s a peculiar obsession, admittedly, but one that should worry Japan lovers everywhere. And while it wasn’t on my mind as I hurried up Wilshire Boulevard early on the evening of Oct. 1, it would be later as over 2,000 Japanese people spilled into the streets of L.A.’s Korea Town after witnessing a concert by Japanese mega-stars Dreams Come True.
An hour before show time, a serpentine line at the Wiltern Theater entrance ran east down Wilshire, swung south onto Oxford Avenue until it petered out by a concrete Ralph’s supermarket that would apparently serve as a fallout shelter in the event of nuclear war. My wife and I joined the line with a certain weariness. She was from Japan, and we’d endured similar lines 10 years earlier while applying for her green card. They had been the kind of insufferable queues that would have made even refugees from tyrannical, war-torn nations reconsider U.S. residency.
Standing in front of me was a fellow gaijin (foreigner), a Spanish ESL student who was managing to brutalize both the English and Japanese languages as he flirted with his leggy Japanese companion. He too was thinking of Nippon fertility, but not quite in the manner anxious demographers were hoping for. His line of seduction was a simple one: cultivating a faux vulnerability by repeatedly mispronouncing Japanese words, and then feigning attentiveness as the girl corrected his Catalan whine. The whole spectacle, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, made me nostalgic for certain excesses of the Franco regime.
My wife, who normally possesses the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes, was oblivious to Don Juan’s machinations. In the mid-1990s, she and her coworkers had spent hours in Tokyo karaoke rooms singing Dreams Come True tunes, and the anticipation of seeing them in a club-like setting instead of a soccer stadium, sent her into a velvety netherworld far above the streets of Los Angeles.
To appreciate the significance of a Dream Comes True show at a small L.A. venue, you might imagine yourself living in Japan and learning that U2—who in our imaginary scenario are unknown among the natives—will be playing at an intimate Tokyo club. Even if you are a hipster who dismisses U2 because they are too old, too commercial, too (fill in the blank), you will still fork over 3,500 Yen to see U2 up close—it’s Bono after all.
After 30 minutes we shuffled into the theater where hundreds of people loitered in the Art Deco lobby surveying its grandeur. How a could a country with so many people—and with so many in a foreign city on a random night—be facing a population implosion? The answer, while complicated and the result of countless social and historical factors, boils down to this: Japanese women are on strike. Many of them, with new-found economic and social freedoms, are choosing to marry later in life, if ever. And when they do tie the knot, having kids is not automatic.
In 2008 the fertility rate in Japan fell to 1.37, well below the 2.1 rate it takes to replace mom and dad when they pass from the social order. This may sound great to Greenpeace activists, but in a country with zero immigration and a rapidly aging population, these trends pose serious risks to the future economic and social stability of the country.
At 8:30 pm the lights dimmed. After several minutes of sustained clapping and yelling, a supporting band of two guitarists, one keyboardist/percussionist, a five-man brass section, a black American MC, a drummer and a bass player took the stage. The supporting cast was quickly joined by three male dancers, singer/songwriter Miwa Yoshida and the musical brains of the operation, bassist Masa Nakamura.
Miwa, who is as cute and spritely as any 46-year-old woman can be, bounded onto the stage as the band launched into their opening number. And then the crowd, as if finally given the succor they required, roared and bobbed in place. My wife turned to me, and looking as blissed out I’ve ever seen her, yelled, “I’m so happy.”
As I looked around at the swaying crowd, I realized this is what The Beatles had been anticipating back in 1966. In that historic pop-culture meeting of East and West, the lads had been dumbfounded when the Japanese remained seated and restrained during concerts. I suppose after the dystopian meltdown of 45,000 screaming adolescent girls at New York’s Shea Stadium, an encounter with cultural reserve can feel like, well, a snub really. It wasn’t that the Japanese didn’t adore The Beatles—for they did and still do—it was simply that Japanese youth hadn’t yet learned to rock. Now, 45 years later, the Japanese have their very own rock icons and no problems expressing exuberance.
To get a flavor of the Dreams Come True experience, imagine the E-Street Band formed, not in Jersey, but in the Silicon Valley and fronted by Gloria Estefan. Mix in sudden and quite inexplicable dance numbers by The New Kids on The Block, and you’ve pretty much got it.
The band formed in 1989, and it was only three years later that their album, The Swinging Star, sold over 3 million copies—a record in Japan at the time—and cemented their status as musical icons for the next two decades. Miwa—who is so adorable you want to leap onto the stage and bear hug her—dominates the stage with an unstudied charisma that overcomes her less-than-polished choreography and musical accompaniment that sounded professionally generic.
Bassist Masato Nakamura, 53, who writes the music and is the Pete Townsend to Miwa’s Roger Daltrey, resembles a disheveled and pudgy computer programmer. He wears his Yamaha bass high on his bulbous stomach, which works for black Jazz bassists, but looks positively dorky when a rock musician does it. You want to holler out, “Hey Masa, did you ever see Paul Simonon of The Clash? Hang it way down below your waist—and use a guitar pick.” But then why would he listen to me? He’s the one with thousands of adorable Japanese women hollering out to him. Maybe he knows a thing or two about being cool.
After several songs, Miwa breaks off into a lengthy Japanese monologue, which from her tone and inflection, leads me to believe we’re having a “We support the troops” kind of moment. I wonder what troops she’s talking about. The Japanese sent a battalion of soldiers to Iraq in 2004, but they had been restricted to humanitarian work, and had safely exited two years later. It then occurs to me that the Japanese haven’t had to remember their combat troops doing anything since 1945, when they were on the island of Okinawa, and they were fighting our troops. Later, I learn Miwa had expressed gratitude for the opportunity to cheer up Japanese expatriates still weary from the March tsunami—a gesture that nearly brought my wife to tears.
Miwa, like many Japanese women under 50 these days, is single and childless. In her case the story is a bit more complicated, for she was seriously involved with a younger man—he was in his 30s—but he died from cancer a few years into their relationship. This bit of biography helps me understand why she brought her band to America for a series of small-venue concerts in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Seattle and New York City to comfort her fellow countrymen. In spiritual terms, I suspect Miwa—in contrast to many pop stars on both sides of the Pacific—has had a “dark night of the soul,” which often gives one great reserves of compassion for others. And if it’s possible for a performer to demonstrate empathy for an audience by giving entirely of one’s self, than Miwa did this, she accomplished her mission.
The Korean men and women inside the BBQ restaurants and soondubu shops paid little attention to the crowds as the exited the Wiltern. Dreams Come True is a particular Japanese obsession, and like many of the obsessions of island people, it doesn’t travel well. I suspect that the patrons, huddled close to their smoky grills and deep in conversation, felt they knew the Japanese already, or at least the Japanese their grandmothers and great-grandfathers had told them about. But these Japanese were no longer from an avaricious, expansive nation with a rising population. Japan was now in full retreat, and this was Los Angeles after all, where memory is a vice and forgetfulness a civic virtue. “Sometimes,” I could almost hear the locals muttering, “It’s good to forget.”
And while it’s possible not a single soul in Korea Town was thinking of history or demographics that night, there were certainly hundreds of people thinking of love, or at least what passed for love on a Saturday night in the big city. And while it is true that marriage and love are often mutually exclusive in our world, there are very few people who haven’t wished—if just even for a second—to be loved within the bounds of the radical “death-do-us-part” solemnity.
As my wife and I strolled down Wilshire Boulevard trading impressions of the show, we passed by the venerable Wilshire Bridal & Tuxedo shop. In a brightly-lit window two torso mannequins held court, one outfitted in a black tuxedo with a red bow tie and the other in a pearl-colored ball gown. The effect of such elegance and luminosity in grungy, nocturnal Korea Town was like seeing a harvest moon slung low in the sky, or even witnessing your first snowfall.
In Japan, a country without priests or psychologists—or even the concept of self-esteem—they have, instead, dreams. And among Japanese people born since 1970, “following your dream” has become a kind of mantra for the possibility of change, of having a fulfilling life within a rigid social order.
I begin to wonder if the Japanese couples, young and fierce in their strides, will glance up at the nuptial attire in the window. There are so many handsome couples that I’m tempted to dispense with propriety and gawk in admiration. I can’t help but picture each of them in their wedding day finery: the sidewalk of Wilshire Boulevard transformed into the aisle of a chapel as the miraculous occurs right before us, and it begins to snow in Los Angeles. First it will be a solitary flake, paper-thin and resembling origami in its perfection, and then another, and soon the air will be filled with the silent static of winter snow. We’ll all point up at the snow-covered palms, and from there we’ll fix our eyes on a harvest moon, egg-shaped and ivory-colored, which takes our breath away. And I won’t, even for a moment, second guess any of it. For I was there: I witnessed the band and listened to the music. I believe.