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A bubble of growth based on inflated property prices and a frenzied building boom burst, leaving what had once been the world's most impressive economy limp and wheezing, deflated and unable to recover. All over Japan you can see the monstrous concrete stilts of uncompleted motorways or bridges stretching into the distance.
Anyone in Tokyo can undergo this rather odd experience, provided by the capital's fire brigade at several special 'safety learning centres', along with an unsettling instructional film on how to survive when the Big One strikes, as it is bound to do sooner or later.They did what Britain and America ought to do, and redoubled their efforts to make things the world wants, at prices it can afford.Well-run car and electronics companies turned out excellent products.The same children can freely walk or bike to school through neighbourhoods safer and more settled than we can nowadays imagine.As your impossibly shiny and tidy train glides into Tokyo central station right on time, platoons of cleaning women, smartly dressed in pink uniforms like a sort of SWAT team of Fifties housewives, stand ready with brushes and cloths to get it even cleaner before it leaves on its next journey.Though Tokyo is not as severely conformist as when I first saw it almost 30 years ago, some things have not changed.
Men still see too little of their children because of ferocious work pressure.
But the earthquake that is troubling everyone now is an economic one.
Japan went bust in the early Nineties in an eerie foretaste of the collapse which has now overtaken the rest of the world. Grandiose spending projects - of the kind now being planned in the United States and Europe - were tried to the limit.
They needed workers to do the jobs known as the Three Ks - kitsui, kitanai, kiken, or hard, dirty and dangerous.
The authorities decided to encourage immigration from Brazil, where many Japanese families had emigrated about a century before and where there are now more than a million ethnic Japanese. Many of them ended up in Hamamatsu, a neat if dreary industrial city, making TV sets and cars, two hours south of Tokyo by Shinkansen bullet train.
And you can't travel to Hawaii these days without a full complement of fingers, so I supply them with fingerprints as well, to cope with US immigration.' The price is nearly £3,000 a finger, plus £900 for a spare: expensive for those who have suffered double or triple amputations.