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Affluent Lifestyle
Remains the Norm

"Affluent" continues to describe aptly the overall living standard in Japan in the early to mid-1990s. This is in spite of the economic downturn, which has reduced income for some people and instilled a general mood of consumer caution. While a return to the easy money situation of the latter 1980s "bubble" years is unlikely, most Japanese are continuing to lead a very comfortable lifestyle when compared to people of other industrialized nations.

Not surprisingly, Japan ranked first in overall quality of life on the United Nations' Human Development Index in 1993. The index covers life expectancy, adult literacy, years of schooling and per capita real GDP. Japan ranked 0.983 of a possible perfect score of 1.0, ahead of Canada and Norway. The U.S. came in sixth with 0.976.

Japan's impressive life expectancy gave it a strong advantage in the survey. Factors contributing to longevity, which are vital in the make-up of a quality lifestyle, compensated for a sixth-place ranking for both GDP and mean years of schooling (in adult literacy Japan shared top slot with 20 other countries). The U.S., the country against which Japan most often compares itself, led on per capita GDP and school years, and ranked among the top 21 countries in adult literacy. But this was insufficient to compensate for a 13th equal placing with Israel in the category of life expectancy. (When adjustments are made for gender discrimination in employment and salaries, Sweden takes first place overall, the U.S. drops to ninth and Japan drops to 17th.)

Comparing the U.S. and Japan, the U.N. reported that while the U.S. had one doctor per 419 people at the time of the survey, Japan's score was 663, but while the U.S. had 55 scientists and technicians per 1,000 people, Japan had 110. In the U.S. 23% of adults had not finished high school, compared with 33% in Japan.

Japanese View of Lifestyle

Many domestic surveys reveal that most Japanese do not feel that they possess the lifestyle benefits commensurate with a top economic power. However, readers who responded to a survey published in January 1993 by the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's biggest national daily newspapers, overwhelmingly acknowledged their advantaged lifestyle. Of the 2,350 respondents, 64% said they thought Japanese led affluent lives and 73% felt the present level of convenience in their lives was sufficient. On the other hand, 29% said Japanese did not lead affluent lives and 25% wished to have more convenience. Over half (57%) predicted there would be no significant change in affluence in the future, while 13% felt it would increase and 25% said living standards would worsen.

A deeper look at how the Japanese view their social conditions is provided by a survey published in May 1993 by the Prime Minister's Office. Titled the Public Opinion Survey on Society and State, the survey covered 7,184 Japanese respondents aged 20 and over from an original poll of 10,000. Respondents assessed themselves, their current lifestyle and their country. (See the bar chart titled Japanese People's Image of Present-Day Japan.)

Graph 1: Japanese People's Image of Present-Day Japan

Summarizing the positive side of social conditions in Japan, a large 70.5% chose "Japan is at peace" from the multiple answers available. This was followed by "social stability" (27.7%, primarily men), "a comfortable standard of living" (12.1%), and "a positive social outlook" (7.8%). All figures are down, however, from the previous year.

In summarizing the down side, the largest response (57.5%) was "people are too inclined to put themselves first." Second came "a prevailing attitude of irresponsibility" (49.2%), a "lack of a sense of solidarity" (22.9%, primarily men), "lack of free time or money" (22.5%, primarily those in their 30s and 40s), "anxiety and widespread aggravations" (17.3%), and "present-day superficiality" (15.7%, primarily men).

Compared with the year before, those citing "self-centredness," "lack of solidarity," and "present-day superficiality" dropped an average of two percentage points. This perhaps reflects the growing orientation of Japanese towards an emphasis on reality, substantiality and common sense, as outlined in the preceding chapter. On the other hand, at the lower end of the scale, respondents complaining of "a lack of spirit" and expressing a "gloomy" outlook increased - from 4.3% to 6.9% for the former, and 2.8% to 4.6% for the latter. Noticeably harder economic times for some people is no doubt responsible for this slight increase in despondency and gloom.

Contributing to Peace

A large majority of respondents painted a picture of Japan as contributing to the cause of peace and protecting personal liberties and rights. They see Japan as a strong economic power that is scientifically and technologically advanced, with a superior culture and arts. Fewer respondents (roughly half) saw Japan as having an affluent lifestyle and as being highly evaluated abroad. Even fewer said Japan has a strong social welfare system.

In the area of public responsibility, most respondents (64.4%) said this was declining in modern-day Japan, citing such poor public behaviour as discarding trash in public areas and disregarding traffic regulations (including bad road manners). However, aspects that cause Japanese to take pride in their country include "the high state of public order" (49.4%), "Japan's natural beauty" (36.5%), "the long history and traditions of Japan" (35.1%), "the diligence and native talents of the people" (34.1 %), and "the high level of education" (29.1 %). Love of country increased with age and was strongest in male respondents overall.

Life Indicators Looking Good

The 1993 People's Life Indicators published by the Economic Planning Agency provide an interesting study of Japan's growth in quality of life - or yutaka-sa - between 1980 and 1991. The 1993 report covers eight indicators:

bulletliving (housing, urban environment, crime prevention)
bulletpurchasing power (income, expenditure, assets, consumer behaviour)
bulletworking life (salary, hours, conditions, employment opportunities)
bulletchild rearing (spending, education facilities and environment)
bullethealth (medical care, health insurance, welfare services)
bulletleisure (paid vacation days, leisure facilities, spending on leisure)
bulletlearning (study/school hours, facilities, adult learning)
bulletsocial mixing (marriage, social participation, internationalization)

These eight indicators are qualified by feelings and evidence of:

bulletsafety and reassurance (peace of mind)
bulletfairness and equality
bulletfreedom
bulletcomfort

In the living category, for example, safety and reassurance are measured by such considerations as mortgage repayment ratios, the proximity to homes of medical facilities and the number of traffic accidents. Fairness and equality are measured by the number of years' salary needed to buy a home, differences in land costs, and so on. Freedom is measured by such considerations as the number of housing starts for family home rentals. Comfort is gauged by the number of hours in a day a home receives sunlight, the number of footpaths and cycle lanes in urban areas, the area of park space per capita, and the number of homes linked to water-work facilities, among other considerations.

Generally, the 1993 indicators show a steady increase in quality of life. In the 11 years to 1991, there was a steep rise in the purchasing power, health and learning indicators, while living and leisure registered slight rises and falls while on a general upward progression (leisure suffered a small drop between 1990 and 1991). The working life indicator crawled sideways until 1987 then rose quite sharply. The child-rearing indicator shows a steady rise, and the indicator for social intercourse rose sharply between 1982 and 1985, then embarked on a very gentle continuation upwards. Following are highlights from the PLI report.

Health the Strongest Performer

Health shows the largest rise among all categories during the last 11 years. While an increase in sickness and death from adult diseases had a negative impact on the index, this was offset by the increase in medical and nursing facilities and services. Japan's world-leading longevity is proof of fine health performance.

Graph 2: People's Life Indicators, 1980-1991

The living indicator shows a significant rise from 1987 through to 1991, with an increase in home-owned living space as well as park space per person, more homes on sewerage and water-supply systems, and more footpaths. These benefits offset a drop in rental living space per person, an increase in crime and traffic accidents and other negative factors.

Working life, after showing no progress between 1980 and 1986, embarked on a modest rise to 1989 and increased at a healthy pace to 1991. This was accomplished by an increase in net salaries, a decrease in accidents and sickness on the job, and the general shift to a two-day weekend. On the down side, overtime increased, particularly for women, and there were more transferred employees living away from their families. Between 1990 and 1991, the reduction in working hours and the further entrenchment of the five-day week, along with later retirement and increased mid-career employment, contributed to a particularly healthy rise in the working life index.

Comfort Rise Steepest Among Qualifiers

Comfort shows the steepest rise in the four qualitative indexes. The comfort index has risen in a sharp line from 1980 to 1991, as a result of positive factors in the child rearing, learning, health and living categories. This is particularly so in the areas of increased space in owned homes, more homes linked to sewerage and water-work systems, and an increase in museums and other cultural facilities.

The safety and reassurance (peace of mind) category has shown a poor performance during the 11 years, but rose slightly in 1990 and again in 1991. This was thanks mostly to the positive factors in the health and consumption categories (increased medical facilities; higher real income). Negative factors in the living, learning and social intercourse categories weighed the indicator down.

"Haves" versus "Have-Nots"

Despite the generally good news above, the PLI report revealed that fairness and equality dropped again in 1991, after rising nicely from 1980 to 1985 then plunging in 1986. These two conditions are traditionally treasured by a population which in the past has overwhelmingly classified itself as middle class. Contributing factors in the late 1980s included inequalities in real estate ownership as inflated land prices put purchases beyond the reach of more people. The rise in private spending over corporate expense-account spending (which means those without expense accounts must spend their own money), and in hiring opportunities were two important factors both in the late 1980s and in 1991.

A deterioration in financial circumstances for a significant number of people was highlighted in February 1993 in an annual nationwide poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest national daily newspaper. Of the 2,151 respondents, 36.9% replied that financially they were "slightly worse off" or "much worse off" than the year before. This proportion rose by 11 percentage points over 1992, and was the highest increase since February 1987, when a recession caused by the sharp rise in yen value caused pessimism. On the other hand, most respondents - 57.6% - indicated that they had suffered no change in financial circumstances over the past year.

In the Yomiuri poll, the greatest financial burdens on the family budget were cited as taxes, including income tax, resident tax and fixed property tax (39.2%); daily living expenses, including food and other necessities (28.7%); social security payments, that is, health insurance and national pension payments (27%); entertainment expenses (23.7%); land or housing rent, and mortgages (22.9%); and education costs (22.5%).

Japan's aging society is exacerbating any financial strain. Social welfare costs are increasing with the greater number of elderly persons, placing a heavier burden on a shrinking portion of the population. The Public Opinion Survey on the Aging Society, conducted by the Prime Minister's Office in 1991 and published in May 1992, reveals that most people are concerned about the cost of medical fees and the medical system itself. They are also concerned about the level of care for the aged, job security for senior citizens who want to work past retirement, and the challenge of providing an environment amenable to the elderly.

Fleeing the Big City

In the PLI's analysis of Japan's 47 prefectures, Tokyo received a mixed rating: worst for fairness and equality, reasonable for safety and peace of mind, quite well for comfort, and top for freedom. It came second for consumption, leisure and learning, and third for work - a fitting rating for a crowded and high-energy capital city.

Tokyo polled as the least favourite prefecture by more than half the 13,000 Japanese polled at housing fairs throughout the country in 1992 by the National Association for Real Estate Transaction Guaranty. Reasons included "bad natural environment," "high price of land and housing," "loud noise and pollution," and "high cost of living."

It is not surprising, therefore, that 1993 brought an increase in reports of Tokyo born-and-breds fleeing, or expressing the desire to flee, the capital for a better lifestyle in other prefectures. This has been dubbed the I-turn - or ai-taan - phenomenon, in contrast to the better known U-turn - or yuu-taan - phenomenon displayed by people choosing to return to outlying prefectures after some years' residence in the capital. Out-of-town university students increasingly are returning home to seek work after graduation, particularly since employment has become tougher in Japan's large corporations centred in Tokyo.

Some prefectures are offering incentives to returnees, such as low-interest mortgages, and are distributing glossy pamphlets advertising their advantages and relatively idyllic lifestyle. There is even a magazine to cater for the U- and I-turners. In addition, some companies are covering the rather high cost of commuting by Japan's fast long-distance Shinkansen trains so that employees and their families can enjoy a better quality of life far from Tokyo.

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