The Malta Independent 14 December 2018, Friday

The elderly, hipsters and agriculture

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 7 January 2018, 09:04 Last update: about 11 months ago

When I was a boy, Rete 4 used to broadcast a Japanese animated series called Star Blazers. It featured the sunken WWII battleship Yamato – ‘Yamato’, Japan’s traditional name, resounds with patriotic fervour in Japanese hearts – which is brought up from the bottom of the sea and refurbished as a spaceship. It then embarks on a quest for survival.

The metaphor of post-war Japan rising from the ashes was so striking – the original Japanese dialogue was even replete with sexual innuendo signifying the nation’s potent regeneration (the Italians duly sanitised it) – that some have even considered the cartoon series nothing but Fascist in tone and outlook.


It represented the rebirth of a nation, the post-war quest for economic growth at all costs.

Like other vanquished peoples before them, the Japanese started to imitate their conqueror. In the post-war years, Japan imported the American nuclear family model to replace the extended family of Japanese tradition.

The economic experiment succeeded, and Japan flourished.

Not only did the economy bloom, but the country experienced a second baby boom accompanied by another, enormous boom in housing, a necessity dictated by the new wave of young ‘soldiers’ (and their families) who manned industry in the economic war that a demilitarised Japan declared against the world.

The enormous housing estates, called danchi and constructed on pristine farmland on the outskirts of big cities, attracted people who could satisfy strict requirements. For instance, only those who earned 5.5 times the rent could apply for an apartment.

These once-desirable flats today look like chicken coops, one on top of the other, in rows of soulless blocks extending as far as the eye can see. One danchi outside Tokyo is so large that two train stations had to be built to cater for the droves of workers who would commute six times a week to the burgeoning city. Now its population has dwindled, and it’s mostly old people who live there.

Economic growth at all costs cost a lot in social, environmental and human terms.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times carried an article on what the Japanese call “lonely deaths”. Old people die all by themselves, forgotten and lonely, having spent the last years of their lives enduring daily depersonalising loneliness.

Almost eerily, this scenario had been foreseen by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in his Gulliver’s Travels. In one of his travels, Gulliver visits a country where people called ‘struldbrugs’ attain immortality at the age of 80. Then they find that their friends and immediate family have all passed away and they envy them, and they have no contacts among the younger generations whom they envy for their youth. They become detached from society, and society strips them of virtually all their rights.

In his book L’origine des systèms familiaux (2011), the French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd argues that the English nuclear family system could explain the rise of capitalism, “because it permits the social flexibility necessary to uproot farmers and the individual mobility necessary to try out new technologies” (p. 18). So, perhaps, Swift’s “prediction” was not so eerie after all.

Japan is not alone in having lonely elderly. Only last March, The Guardian published an article claiming that a survey found that “three-quarters of older people in the UK are lonely”.

In 2013, Italy’s Corriere della Sera ran an article entitled ‘The Elderly: more loneliness, more hardship’, claiming that even in the South (where, according to one oft-cited study, there used to be “’familism’) “social support is lacking”.

Late capitalism’s onomastic quest to maximise wealth for wealth’s sake, its hard-headed insistence on reducing people to means of production whose social and family ties are severed, and its staunch belief that the economy should guide politics (local version: the ‘Fourth Floor’), have reduced people to atoms floating in the void of loneliness and depersonalisation.

Indeed, depersonalisation at the very beginning and at the very end of the human being’s existence is a defining characteristic of late, neoliberal capitalism.

As usually happens, the hyenas and the jackals prey on the vulnerable. One week after The New York Times published the article I mentioned above, the same newspaper published a follow-up opinion piece. “Japan’s aging, dying, atomized present is one version of our future,” opined the writer, “and a not-so-distant one, already visible in late-middle-age despair and elder exploitation.”

Exploitation: that’s where the hyenas and jackals enter the scene. Just one extreme example: an article in The Guardian published in October 2011 entitled “Japan’s 77-year-old porn actor: unlikely face of an ageing population”, claims that in recent years one-fifth of Japan’s adult movie industry (worth almost a billion euros every year) consisted of movies featuring actors in their 60s and 70s, with names such as “Forbidden Elderly Care”. Clearly, the demand in Japan to overcome old-age loneliness is very present, and is worth something like €200 million per year in adult movies alone.

For all those hipsters in Malta who wave the flag of anti-censorship, dope-smoking, libertarian values and all that 1968 stuff, they had better rethink their objectives, as their enthusiasm for what they cherish has led other countries along paths that the liberals could never have imagined (or at least, one hopes they could never have imagined).

And no, this is not djuq (bigotry), but simply reading the signs of the times.

To be a true hipster today, you have to be conservative.


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Book review: Il-Biedja f’Malta by Stanley Farrugia Randon (2016)


The capitalist family model probably contrasts with the preceding family model, centred round the farm and agriculture. I have been meaning to review a beautiful book about Malta’s agriculture and I think it would not out of place to do it now.

I’m referring to Stanley Farrugia Randon’s Il-Biedja f’Malta, a labour of love but also of intelligent, acute observation and meticulous collection of facts and data.

This handsome 347-page volume, printed in full colour on thick, glossy paper and written in a suave and suasive Maltese, looks like an exhaustive overview of the subject – and probably is. The way it is divided reflects clarity of mind and vision, making it not only an invaluable reference book but also a pleasurable read for your free time if you happen not to be directly involved in agriculture.

The book makes fascinating reading and not just for being a goldmine of information on agriculture itself: it covers probably all the vegetables and fruits grown in Malta, as well as the methods and machinery used and how to counter parasites and disease. It is equally a goldmine for the linguist and those interested in folklore: Dr Farrugia Randon not only preserves the language of agriculture, but also the proverbs and other lore related to it.

The book opens with a brief, yet detailed history of agriculture in Malta. One aspect that caught my eye was that today’s agricultural land measures one-third of that in 1647, one-sixth of 1888, and one-half of 1956. That said, today’s land is better irrigated than ever in the recorded past, and the number of glasshouses is on the rise.

Regarding the future of agriculture, Dr Farrugia Randon is realistic. Few young people choose full-time farming to earn their living, and the vast majority of farmers today are older than 55. Yet, he warns us, in the event of calamity history teaches us that our ancestors had to rely on local production for survival. I think this warning should be heeded to by policy-makers. Indeed, I wonder what plans Malta has in case of natural disasters or other calamities.

Society has to be grateful to APS Bank for sponsoring this high-quality publication: our book market is so small that, without the bank’s generous help, this sumptuous book would not have been possible. 

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