Further signs of change in Japan: Portent or promise?

Inspired by the quickening pace of change occurring in Japan and around the world, a few weeks ago I began drafting a blog post tentatively titled, “Japan as Number One, Again?” in which I argue (as I have in previous posts – for example, here) why I believe that Japan is poised to once again become a world leader, not in conventional economic terms of course, but in something more elusive and subtle, but ultimately more important.

However, events and other articles have overtaken my relaxed timeline for completing my draft post and I want to share some of these recent developments right away. But first, here is a preview of my draft to provide context for what follows:

Not so long ago, Japan’s economic power and drive for success gave rise to a famous book called “Japan as Number One,” a promise the country came close to but never quite succeeded in fulfilling. Now, however, Japan once again has what it takes to lead the developed world, this time by setting the example of how a developed country can return to sustainability. This time, Japan can be number one not by old paradigm standards of power and money but by the new paradigm’s demands to live in harmony with nature and each other, for there is in fact no difference. Indigenous wisdom knows that we are nature, and we are all connected as one integral whole. Japan lost sight of this truth for a dozen decades or so as they adopted an outside perspective, but down deep, they never entirely forgot it.

Keeping in mind the title of my draft I’ve been lazily composing in recent weeks, imagine my surprise when I discovered last night an article in the Japan Times about a recent symposium in Tokyo titled “Japan as Number One Revisited.” More than ten experts, from professor emeritus of Harvard Ezra Vogel – who authored the original best-seller, “Japan as Number One” in 1979 – to former Prime Minister Nakasone, participated in a discussion about Japan’s direction in coming decades.

I had high hopes I’d find mention of Japan’s fledgling international leadership in revitalizing satoyama landscapes (since Nagoya’s COP10 biodiversity conference just ended a few days ago) but the upshot was simply that despite downward trends, the panel concluded the country still retains strong points in geriatric health, food culture and technological prowess. Well then. Is that all? I think Japan has much more important things than those to contribute.

Meanwhile, I’m discovering my bullish prognostications on Japan are finding anecdotal support albeit in unlikely places. For example, take yesterday’s “Dreaming of a new Edo era” opinion piece written by a French economist in advance of this week’s Group of 20 meeting in Seoul. The author laments Japan’s resigned acceptance of its decline in world stature and supports his argument with an example that, to my mind, instead contains hints of promise:

More strikingly, stagnation has found its promoters in Japan itself. A leading public intellectual Naoki Inose, who is also Tokyo’s vice governor, has declared that “the era of growth is over.” When Japan was threatened by Western imperialism, he says, the country had to open up (in 1868) and modernize. This process has been completed. Japan is now ready to reconnect with its own tradition of social harmony and zero growth.

Referring to the 1600-1868 period, Inose calls this future the New Edo era: “A smaller population will enjoy the sufficient wealth that has been accumulated, and, from now on, it will invest its creativity in refining the culture.” The first Edo collapsed when the United States Navy opened up the Japanese market with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s “black ships” in 1853.

It isn’t surprising that Inose’s assertions come with a whiff of nationalism, and that will remain a danger during whatever transition occurs. One thing we can count on is that issues and arguments in coming years will not be black or white, but will instead be a multi-hued reflections of society’s complex fabric of light and shadow. Competing interests and forces – and their ambivalent aspirations and fears – will come to the surface and must be reconciled. It will take wise discrimination and critical thinking to sort through them and respond constructively, rather than succumb to prejudice and reactivity.

Another perspective is provided by long-time Japan resident, Roger Pulvers, in his new Japan Times article, “Color me upbeat despite the pessimism now sweeping the land.” He feels that despite clear reasons for pessimism – ambitious China next door, dependence on the US military, deflation, and the loss of societal fight, hustle, and hunger for success – the future of Japan isn’t necessarily dark. I quote at length as he mirrors many of the underlying ideas of this blog:

Yet I remain an optimist, though these days I often feel like that weird guy in a cinema with a big grin on his face watching a horror movie — while everyone else is scared out of their wits.

Where do I get this optimism from? The answer lies in two qualities of Japanese life that, I believe, will see the country through the present morass.

One is austerity. Japanese are not averse to austerity, and indeed it is considered a virtue — practically a goal in itself. Despite the gross excesses of Japanese consumerism seen in the 1980s — on balance, a very short span of time for an outburst of national greed — Japanese people remain as they have traditionally been, quite at home with less. Paucity itself and the stark absence of adornment have always been at the heart of this culture, from the less-is-more nature of the tea ceremony and the ceramic arts to the sleek minimalism of much contemporary architecture and design. Being satisfied with little is a core feature of the Japanese lifestyle.

There has been, for instance, a marked and well-documented decline in interest in cars, particularly among the young. They are just not buying them like they used to, and for them this is a deprivation of choice. Japanese people don’t mind giving up things. Maybe at some date in the future they will feel able to afford these things, maybe not. The deprivation doesn’t faze or frighten them. There is no inalienable right of consumption.

Another feature of Japanese life that remains intact despite the emergence into the public consciousness of a kakusa shakai (class-structured or economically inequitable society) is people’s basic civility.

As Japanese in their teens and early 20s go out into the world of the second decade of the century, I see no impediment to optimism if they energize, as entrepreneurship, their native ethos of austerity in the direction of resource conservation, and if they apply their shared civility to foster universal welfare and tolerance for the rights of others.

In the coming years, both China and the United States may face implosive socio-economic problems on a grand scale, and both countries may turn inward to concentrate on putting their own houses in order. Both countries, too, could profit greatly from adopting Japanese social civility and economic austerity — not as obligations imposed by force of law from above, but as virtues firmly grounded in the soil from which all else grows.

Thank you, Roger. This last sentence bears repeating [italics mine]: “Both countries, too, could profit greatly from adopting Japanese social civility and economic austerity — not as obligations imposed by force of law from above, but as virtues firmly grounded in the soil from which all else grows.” Beautifully stated.

Finally, I think it is interesting, if not somehow telling, that for all its woes, Japan remains attractive to the world’s young people. Check out this week’s headline, “Youths want to move to Japan, Singapore“, summarizing a recent Gallup study. Who knew? Surely it isn’t the promise of wealth or lifetime employment they find attractive. Could it perhaps be something more subtle and elusive beckoning our younger generation?

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joe Woodhouse on November 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Beautifully written Alan. Your writing motivates me to follow developments in Japan… austerity and civility is destined to be a winning combination in this new era of declining planetary habitability. Secondly, you make me want to visit Japan someday to see satoyama applied. I salute this beautiful country destined to be a world leader in sustainability and environmental revitalization.


  2. Posted by Carol on December 31, 2010 at 2:09 am

    Hi Alan. Your comment on OW today made me realize it’d been ages since I came by your blog. Now I’m so glad I did. This post is really interesting and stirs in me both nostalgia (I now suspect that those two key virtues are largely why I’m so badly missing living amongst the people of Japan) and hope for yes, it be truly wonderful if Japan could take such a bright path and have the world follow.



  3. Alan, I fully agree with Joe and Carol – what a great log entry. You address a number of the most important values which cultures could possibly possess. Living back in Germany again I also find them here and in other European nations, although to a much lesser extent. The US certainly displays those values, also, but I find that they are not an integral part of its society but that they are instead upheld by individuals like yourself or certain groups. That distinction is very important, I believe, and perhaps not very obvious or easily understood…? It is expressed in the beautiful notion of “firmly grounded in the soil from which all else grows” almost poetically presented by Roger Pulvers and thoughtfully repeated by you.

    To put it in a nasty way: The contaminated soil of unbridled capitalism, invented by the US and hastily copied by nations which should know better has brought forth revenue growth at all cost; never-ending surges of obnoxious advertizing; the ‘grow or die’ mentality and its accompanying cut-throat competition and hostile takeovers; and the resulting shameless and addictive consumerism to fill the coffers – the “inalienable right of consumption” (without which more and more Japanese seem to be able to do quite well, thank you very much). Let’s not forget that war (the production of weapons of mass destruction and their sale), slave trafficking, forced prostitution, and the sale of dangerous chemicals, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and pills are big biz, also. I haven’t had any US history but I doubt that the Founding Fathers had envisioned this picture of and for their beloved America.

    Now that a couple of months have elapsed since your wrote your last entry, Alan, could I entice you to pick up your writing pen again and tell us more about your initial log entry and your own thoughts regarding the ‘more elusive and subtle, but ultimately more important’ traits which some of us greatly appreciate and which seem to differentiate the Japanese culture from others? Could you provide more details of why and how Japan could lead the way if, in fact, this period were to be a ‘new era’, a paradigm shift, or simply a reorientation in terms of the ‘human’ part of human or societal development (which I’d love to see happen)?

    Btw, Japan is attractive not only to the young, but also to a young-at-heart person like me. It is exactly those ‘elusive and subtle, but ultimately more important traits’ for which I am searching having been born and raised in Europe and having lived in the US for nearly three decades. Like Carol who is missing living again among the Japanese people, I am yearning to live in a society whose ethical, moral, cultural, and – indeed – spiritual values are deeply ingrained in, integrated in, and applied to the daily life of a people who dare to be different and who perhaps could show us the way to combine the best of all worlds?

    Keep up your great blog. Happy writing!


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