Photograph: Richard Hendy/Spike Japan

Outside Tokyo and its other metropolises, Japan is dying a strange death. It’s due to demographics. First: advances in medicine and a diet high in raw squid have helped to make Japan the oldest society that has ever existed in the long history of human societies. Second, because of its ridiculously low birth rate and frosty attitude to immigrants, Japan is now the first large industrialised country to experience a population decrease as a result of natural causes. In short, as its oldsters get even older, and its youngsters spend all their time commuting on packed trains in identical black suits instead of having wild unprotected sex, Japan’s population is shrinking. Very rapidly, in fact. In 2008, it lost 79,000 people. If such trends continue, the Japanese child and working-age population will decrease by almost half in the coming 50 years, while the ranks of the elderly will swell.

What does this mean? To Richard Hendy, whose ongoing online essay Spike Japan is some of the funniest and saddest writing on contemporary Japan today – and to whom I am in debt for the statistics in the preceding paragraph – it means rust. Lots and lots of beautiful rust.

A self-proclaimed “luster after rust”, Hendy travels the Japanese hinterland taking photos of crumbling architecture and shuttered buildings. He goes to the remote, and not-so-remote, places from which the population is disappearing. He tracks abandoned railway lines. He takes pictures of deserted schools. He wanders through silent factories. And he revels, if that’s the right word, in the melancholy beauty of his adopted country’s air of neglect. He says things such as “What a patchwork quilt of corrugation” or “Look how delicately the embers of rust lick up and down the ridges and furrows; how the windows shed tears, grow beards of rust”. Meanwhile, he unspools a wry and uniquely informed commentary on Japan’s twin woes: economic (aka “the malodorous pall of the Bubble”) and demographic. Together, these two demons have all but utterly consumed hundreds of towns, thousands of villages. Hendy is determined, in his odd way, to honour them.


Chris Michael