Japan is a world leader in technology and and in growing older, but also a Juggernaut of innovation in other, less glamorous fields. The following entries show how Japan is building a prettier, more efficient country of the future, starting with a municipal staple that hides the rivers of poo that run beneath us each and every day...
Japan's streets are studded with decorative manhole covers that are so nice they've inspired a generation of "drainspotters," some of which travel from distant corners of the globe.
It started in 1985 when a high-up construction ministry official suggested that decorative manhole covers could raise awareness and public support for sewage-related issues. Bureaucrats in other countries would have ignored the suggestion in favor of growing their own salaries, but the conscientious Japanese embraced their artistic nature, and now the country boasts an estimated 12,000 decorative manhole covers, with designs specific to the area.
The most common themes are natural, including endemic animals and plants. But festivals and other cultural scenes, as well as landmarks, are also common. No tentacle monsters, though. At least not yet.
Manhole cover from #Hakodate, #Japan pic.twitter.com/8rrMWGAk7v
-- Cool Japan Pictures (@CoolJapanPic) March 23, 2015
Manhole cover from #Hakodate, #Japan pic.twitter.com/8rrMWGAk7v
There's even a 1990s-style GeoCities webpage (it's still an active hosting service in Japan) devoted to the practice, the Japan Society of Manhole Covers, which appears to be uploaded almost daily with contributions from freelance drainspotters.
Some are more dedicated than others, like Hidetoshi Ishii. Over the past couple of decades Ishii has been logging up to 100 kilometers a day on his bike like some crazy Final Fantasy sidequest, and has visited approximately 1,700 municipalities and taken more than 4,500 photos.
The manhole covers are so popular that the Sewer System PR Platform even released trading cards based on the sought-after art.
The cards are so popular that they reached the one-million issued mark in 2017. They say you can't polish a turd, but these sewage covers might be the next best thing.
Apparently, there's no good way to demolish buildings that are 100 meters or taller. Big wrecking balls are too cumbersome and implosions are too messy. And in the 21st-goddamn-century there needs to be a less primitive way to disassemble big things.
A few firms in Japan, like the Taisei Corporation, are employing a floor-by-floor demolition approach. It's called the Ecological Reproduction System, and it guts the building from the inside, then uses cranes that generate electricity to move the materials to the ground.
The eco-friendly method slashes carbon emissions by a whopping 85 percent and "reduces noise by between 17 and 23 decibels and dust levels by 90 percent." Check it out in action, pitted against Tokyo's 463-foot-tall Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka.
Like Japan's human population, its buildings trend towards the elderly side of the age spectrum. At least 99 of Tokyo's 30-40-year-old skyscrapers will approach their theoretical expiration date in the early 2020s, according to the Taisei Corporation's Hideki Ichihara. You know, if the world doesn't go up in flames by then.
Speaking of the aging population, Japan is one of the oldest countries in the world with nearly 27 percent of its 127 million people are aged 65 or above, as of 2016. And as of 2015, 1 in every 8 men and 1 in every 5 women in this demographic live alone.
And Japan is running out of workers to care for its increasingly-ubiquitous old people. Governmental agencies predict that by 2025 there will be a shortfall of 375,000 caregivers. In typical Japanese fashion, they're solving the problem with robots.
Not faceless industrial robots, but whimsical robot bears like the 300-lbs Robear, built to carry frail or disabled elderly persons and assists them in going to the bathroom, getting into or out of bed or tubs or wheelchairs. Robots probably won't replace nurses and other staff, at least not for awhile, but they've been deployed as helpers in about 8 percent of Japanese nursing homes so far.
One such robot is known as Dinsow:
Dinsow is $2,500 personal "health tracker," that also reminds its charge to take their pills, and automatically Facetimes calls from family members or doctors,, so seniors don't have to fumble around with confusing smartphone technologies.
And then there's Pepper, a $1900 humanoid "carerobo" from Softbank:
Pepper is more of an emotional-and-spiritual-support robot who, according to its makers, can discern human emotions, reply in kind, and "make jokes, dance, and amuse people..." with its programmed "...heart and emotions." At the Shintomi nursing home in Tokyo, it leads sing-alongs and group activities.
Other robotic implements are also in use, like Cyberdyne's exoskeleton, which helps staff lift and carry patients. We're almost positive the fact that it shares the name with the evil robot coporation that ends the world in the Terminator movies is pure coincidence.
Other types of automated tools are in use as well, including sensors alert staff to patients that are in danger of falling out of bed, and others, like biometric poo sensors placed on the body, track intestinal movement and predict when someone might need to use the bathroom.
Overall, robotics have helped around 1/3rd of surveyed seniors become happier and more autonomous, and about 5,000 care homes in Japan are utilizing robotics of some kind. The main impediment is cost, but subsidies and financial assistance from insurance groups like AIG provide a boost and could revolutionize the elder care industry. That, the machines will take over and plunge us into a cyberdystopia. It's a coin-toss at this point.
Nowadays, parents are making all sorts of efforts to protect their ever-dumber children. Safety locks are on everything, you can't get the good Kinder Surprise eggs unless you go to the Russian market, and kids are overall likelier to be discouraged from basic kid stuff, like walking to the park.
In Japan, children are as independent as they were in the 50s, and often go out alone and navigate bus routes and subway stations to run errands for the family or see their friends. Partially, it's because Western parents worry about exposing their precious little ones to street crime and perverts. Japanese parents worry about those things too, but Japan has some of the safest streets in the world, and the only are perverts are emigrant weebs.
Another reason, according to cultural anthropologist Dwayne Dixon, is "group reliance," the ingrained belief that it is every one's unshirkable duty to serve their compatriots. Children are given household tasks and taught to be self-reliant at 2-or-3-years-old, and at school they learn to serve food and clean up after themselves - some schools don't even have janitors, because kids do all the work.
So if grandma needs cigarettes or whatever the kids are happy to run and get them, because it benefits the community. Japan even has an entire television show devoted to this premise, called Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Errand), and it's been running for 25 years. Think of it as the complete opposite of COPS.
New safety features are eliminating many of the dangers of driving, but the biggest risk to everybody's safety sits behind the wheel. And Japan found a simple, non-insulting way to draw attention to drivers' potential shortcomings: stickers.
For example, new drivers have to display the Shoshinsa mark, or "green leaf mark," to let other commuters know that the occupant is a novice.
Beginners must keep the decal for at least their first year, though they're free to leave it on as long as they'd like. Theoretically, they can leave it for several decades, at which point they'd have to switch to the Koreisha mark, recommended at 70-years-old and mandated at 75.
In 2011, some folks realized that a dying leaf might not be the best way to represent the elderly, so the sticker was replaced with a multi-colored clover that doesn't remind old people of death. Or at least not as much.
More recently in Okinawa and Hokkaido, The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport unveiled new "a foreigner is driving" magnets for rental cars, as part of their preparations to welcome the assload of tourists that will no doubt flood in as the 2020 Olympics draw near. Though these aren't legally required like some others.
A few other countries, like Australia and India, also assign specific decals to designate those with limited driving abilities. In the United States, only New Jersey mandates that beginners identify themselves, with a small red square on the license plate.
Unlike the Japanese, who proudly exhibit the stickers because it's their patriotic duty not commit vehicular homicide, New Jersey's teens sometimes forgo the decal because it's "uncool." But they probably shouldn't, because a study found that it "reduced crashes by 9.5 percent during their first two years of use," resulting in 3,200 fewer accidents. But is it really worth it if it makes you uncool?