JLPT BC 166 | What a Rat Experiment might Tell us about Japan’s Population Problem

JLPT BC 166 | What a Rat Experiment might Tell us about Japan’s Population Problem post image

When I first moved to Japan loved the city. It was nice and compact and everything is in one place. As long as you are a decent walk away from a train station you can get anywhere pretty easily without the use of a car. If you needed to buy anything that can’t be found at a store, no worries you can just order something online and give them a 2 hour window to deliver it to you. You have to live in a shoebox, but that’s the price you pay for convenience.

Japan is incredibly convenient because everyone lives so close to each other. There is actually a lot more space in Japan that people can live on. For example, Shimane prefecture is so desperate for people that they are giving away houses as long as you plan on living there for 25 years (kind of). So there is literally free space available for anyone that wants to live out in the countryside.

And cities have been getting a lot of love lately. People are starting to see them as a solution for a lot of problems with the environment as well as just being the new cool and convenient way to live. In recent years, city planners have been making cities much more inhabitable. New York City is a shiny example of that. They have shut down a lot areas to vehicular traffic and making them people-only zones as well as introduced bus lanes and bike lanes to allow for easier transit.

So living together is great for everyone, the environment, and life in general. People love the city. It’s almost like a little utopia. So, what could possibly go wrong with it? (queue ominous music)

The Utopian Rat Experiment

John Calhoun did an experiment where he gave rats plenty of food and water and enough space for a good number of rats to live. He eliminated disease, natural predators. Everything just kind of came to these rats without much effort. The idea was to simulate the ideal environment that we humans live in and see what would happen.

Rat population initially grew at a fairly rapid pace after a few months of settling in. Rats were making love and getting down, chowing down on the free grub and generally enjoying life. It was a good time to be alive for the rats.

Then, before the actual physical capacity of their little utopia had been reached the population started to level off. Keep in mind that they still had plenty of food and water. That wasn’t limiting them. The population just leveled off. Then after a period of a year or so of this leveling off, the population started to rapidly die off and finally went extinct. This was back in the good old days when killing off animals was no biggy apparently.

During this leveling off, Calhoun noticed a lot of interesting behaviors that pretty much led to the population’s downfall. Mothers stopped caring for their young. Fathers would first leave their kids and then their mothers would leave them. Sometimes they acted as if they simply forgot the children existed.

There were other rats that kept themselves immaculately clean, but didn’t do much else. They simply ate, slept and cleaned. They didn’t even get it on with other rats. And apparently they were pretty stupid as well.

On top of all that, they were constantly fighting with each other toward the end, despite the fact that there was not that much to fight over. There was plenty of food and water to go around. The only thing in limited supply was space. But they blooded each other’s tails with bites.

What about Japan

So, is the same thing happening in well-developed countries like Japan? Well, it isn’t exactly a rat colony and there are a lot more complexities to the Japanese system obviously. The country isn’t a big box in someone’s barn or lab, but there are some alarming signs that similar behavior is starting to become more prominent.

Child Abuse

In the rat utopia experiment mother’s abandoned their kids. There have been a few sensationalized news stories of mother’s abandoning their children, but nothing statistically relevant. However, child abuse has been on the rise for the last few years. Or at least, reports of child abuse have been on the increase.

Reporting of child abuse cases started in 1990. And good statistics weren’t really available until 2000 when it became a requirement for people to report cases of child abuse that they witnessed. Reporting has gotten better, but it is still believed to be under-reported for a variety of reasons.

Corporal punishment used to be a pretty standard practice in Japan 20 or 30 years ago. Natives of my generation have told me of having to receive spankings on a pretty regular basis at school. There was a famous case a few years ago of a coach who would beat up on his team captains.

And if you ask some conservatives in their 40s and 50s, a good majority believe that this should continue. That not having corporal punishment is making the next generation weak. I’ve personally seen a few minor cases of child abuse in public, a mother slapping their child for instance. It seems like for some of the population it is an acceptable way to discipline your children.

A recent report found that child abuse costs $14 billion annually, about the estimated cost of loses from the Tohoku earthquake. It is a hidden problem that is just starting to get more and more press and exposure, but not nearly as much as it should.


There is a good number of metrosexuals in Japan. I see at least a few a week precisely positioning each of the hairs on their head in the bathroom on a windy day, only to leave the restroom without washing their hands (sorry ladies, more men than you realize do this, eck). They are definitely a unique bunch that I have a hard time relating too, but hey, to each their own.

There is also another breed of men in Japan called herbivore men. They don’t even bother to search for a mate, but instead eat, work, watch porn, and sleep. A lot of Western media have reported that this means the Japanese population doesn’t have an interest in sex, sourcing a now famous annual survey that asks people about their feelings on sex. But, the porn industry is alive and well in Japan.

In fact the Japanese market accounts for 20% of porn profits worldwide, more than double the States. The spend an estimated $157 per capita compared to a paltry $47 per capita in the States. Of course some believe this divergence is more due to Japan’s ability to get more people to pay for porn than to actual consumption. Being that the States apparently loves pirating everything porn.

So with all the porn consumption going on, it is hard to believe that the sex drive of the average Japanese person has magically evaporated. It’s just that for whatever reason, they don’t feel motivated to work for it anymore.

In the rat experiment, alpha males started to horde the ladies in their own little rat apartments, and the weaker rats simply gave up on the whole ordeal. That doesn’t exactly seem to be the case here though. I don’t know too many people in polygamous relationships unless there is some underground network somewhere I haven’t come across.

Fighting amongst each other

The rats also started fighting amongst themselves, constantly competing for a position in the colony. That doesn’t seem to be happening in Japan. There are definitely established positions in the society, but competition for them hasn’t quite become a bloodbath either figuratively or literally, yet, anyway.

I think this is thanks to the relative modesty that most people in power try to show. However, lately, there has been more pushing in the political arena with the recent security bills that got shoved through. And this has been met with loud protest. This might be the start of something new, or just an anomaly though.

Japan is Always the First

Although the media loves pointing out this phenomena in Japan, it is definitely not unique to Japan.  Media like to tout that Japan is the most crowded country in the world (it isn’t even in the top 10) or that its fertility rate is the second lowest in the world as I saw in one article (again, not even in the top 10).  It just so happens to be the 3rd largest economy and everyone likes to look on because, well, it might be them soon.

But, I think with the awareness of the fact that, if we act like a bunch of animals and give into our instincts we will be in for a lot of hurt, at least a number of people will realize that we need to look at the world a little differently.  We need to start acting like intelligent beings instead of falling for our instincts.  Because we are one of the only species who can successfully reject our inborn instincts and create a different path.

I think there is still hope yet for Japan.  I have met plenty of mothers and fathers that stand by their family through thick and thin.  Yes, it is a lot rougher than before, but not unbearable.  It just takes a different set of tools and lot more know how than before.

I’ve heard the biggest problem facing Japan at the moment is people finding mates.  I feel like this is due to a shift in values and roles of the sexes over the years.  It used to be men provided all the cash.  In a lot of ways, they still provide the majority of the cash in a relationship, but women don’t need their money to be happy.  Men need to make women happy with their personality, i.e. be interesting people, and that is something some men find to be a mystery.

Talking to a lot of my female friends, that is the number one complaint that keeps coming up – men are too boring.  Yes, of course there is at least some concern about money.  Can they provide for me and a family?  But, there is a new requirement and a lot of men don’t spend a lot of time developing that.

What do you think?

This podcast went a little long this time.  I’ll cut it off here, but I’d like to hear what you think of this experiment.  Do you think humans are doomed to this behavior?  Can we fight our animal instincts?  Let me know in the comments below.

 Photo by Tatiana Bulyonkova

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Andy September 3, 2015, 1:39 pm

    I think finding mates is a general problem in the Western world as well. In many cases the rat phenomen of the alpha males hording ladies to their apartment and leaving the rest without partners can be seen in reality as well. Even though women are more independent nowadays (which is a good thing, I think) the alpha male is still defined by status, money etc. So that alpha male will attract many females and for the rest of the males maybe porn is just the easy way out? Porn is way too accessible and they don’t have to bother with being exciting and attractive to ladies.

  • Lucía September 3, 2015, 10:45 pm

    I don’t know what to say. This revelation is very disturbing indeed. But thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Kao September 8, 2015, 2:35 am

    Interesting article with a lot of great facts! However, I think Japan could learn from some countries who have successfully turned around their birth rates, like Sweden and France. What France and Sweden did is make it rewarding (extra benefits given to families who have children) and make it possible for women to integrate working and having children https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00089/. Even though Abe has made policies that he says will help women have children and still remain in the workplace, his solution is actually counterproductive to that aim. Where Sweden and France have introduced more childcare centers and made it possible for women to bring their children to the workplace, Abe suggests that women leave the workplace for three years and stay home to take care of their children. This is a terrible solution in that the woman is separated from her job for three years, and when she must go back to work, she must deal with the same problems of overwork (Japan has quite a problem with people staying way overtime) and lack of integration into the workplace again when the children are about four years old. However, due to Abe’s conservative values regarding women’s places in the home, it isn’t surprising that his solution to help them create families is to make policies that allow them to stay home for a long period of time.

    I think that Japan’s “overwork” culture (Japan is, after all, a culture that has coined a word for death by overwork: “karoshi”) is a major problem that contributes to the falling birth rate and lack of enthusiasm for young people to date or have sex. It is common for workers to stay just as long as their bosses to avoid looking bad, and what occurs due to this is that people stay at work when they have no work to accomplish. Rather, they socialize with colleagues or do menial tasks instead of going home. I think this is another reason why Japan is able to hold on to many outdated bureaucratic systems (like faxing papers, stamping attendance onto papers, etc.) instead of switching to more modern, computerized systems. People “have” the time to deal with these time-wasting duties. Another problem is that people who have managed to have families and must go home to take care of them will rely on young, single people to pick up their slack. This means that these people don’t go out and live life because they feel obligated to do this work since they “have time.” This culture has also leaked into children’s lives. Since the parents of Japanese children don’t come home until late, many children stay at school doing club activities (until 7 or 8 at night at my school) and will later go to cram schools until 11 at night. Teachers are expected to stay that late at night as well to take care of these students who are clubs.

    Lastly, Japan’s current system makes it hard for women to work if they want to have a family. Many employers consider whether they would rather hire a married woman, who may get pregnant, or a man, who will definitely still come to work if his wife gets pregnant (because she will be expected to stay home). Women who remain single have better job opportunities. Not only this, it is very expensive to raise children in the system Japan has now. Japanese schools and universities are very expensive with their tuition and uniforms. Many young adults in Japan would rather forego these challenges and stay single and enjoy the money they make. I really can’t blame them. Until the system changes, many young people will continue to choose the “single life” option that is the most rewarding for them.

    Sorry for the long post! I am working in Japan at a high school currently, and many of these problems I can see happening all around me. My students also get to debate about these issues in class. I hope that Japan’s new generations will recognize that the system is very flawed and make changes that emulate successful plans in other countries.

    • Clayton MacKnight September 14, 2015, 12:54 pm

      I agree with a lot of this. The biggest problem is overwork. And the funny thing is that nobody likes overworking. From Presidents to line workers, I’ve talked to them all, and nobody says, yeah we have to put in those long hours its important. Most of them say stuff like ‘ugh, I have to go out drinking with my co-workers again.’ or something similar. In a lot of companies, people will gossip and goof off during the day and then get work done after hours when ‘they can focus more’ because there are less people there. It seems to me that a slight shift in corporate culture could lead to a massive productivity boost.

      Companies like Softbank and Rakuten have the right idea and are doing well competing against ‘the invaders’ (Amazon and foreign telecoms). I think after a few of the giants fall (Sony and Sharp are teetering on the brink), some will wake up to the reality of fast business. In truth, there needs to be more competition, and more deregulation. The gloves need to come off, and companies need to duke it out more. Innovation typically comes from adversity. Granted South Korea and China are giving a lot of Japanese companies a run for their money, but they still need a little more of a work out. There hasn’t been any ‘creative destruction’ in Japan for a long while. Sure, there have been a few shake ups here and there. Toshiba took a massive hit this year for instance. But there needs to be a little more of that I think.

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