Books > Bending Adversity: Japan and the art of survival

27 March 2014 | by David Pilling

Bending Adversity: Japan and the art of survival

Land of the rising sun rises again

Reviewed by Simon Scott Plummer
ALLEN LANE, 432pp, £20
Tablet bookshop price £18                   
Tel 01420 592974

Japan signalled its re-emergence as an economic power from the ruin of the Pacific War with the staging of the Tokyo Olympiad in 1964. With its harmonious shop-floor relations, tight quality control and “just-in-time” inventory systems, it subsequently became a model for industries in the West.

It is a measure of how far that image has changed that a book on Japan should appear with the word “survival” in its title. In the early 1990s the bursting of stock and property market bubbles plunged the country into more than two decades of low growth. Today, rather than worthy of emulation, it exemplifies, for the eurozone in particular, the dangers of prolonged deflation.

Economic failure has been accompanied by yet more of the natural disasters which have always ravaged this seismically volatile country. In 1995 the port city of Kobe was struck by an earthquake. In March 2011 a swathe of the north-east coast, including the nuclear power station at Fukushima, was devastated by an earthquake-induced tidal wave. Add to this the man-made horror of a chemical attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995 and the picture of Japan’s recent misery is complete.

The catalyst for David Pilling’s book was the tidal wave or tsunami. Asia editor and former Tokyo correspondent for the Financial Times, he uses it and the other setbacks which Japan has suffered since 1990 to look at how its society has changed. His approach is descriptive (“Japan as I find it”) rather than prescriptive (“Japan as I would like it to be”) and carries a warning against generalisations. 

The result is a kaleidoscope of opinions: from a retired Bank of Japan official, writers, a professor of Japanese literature, members of the post-bubble generation, survivors of the tsunami, a financier, a producer of high-tech components, a young man taken hostage in Iraq, an American political scientist. These interviews reveal disillusionment with corrupt and incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, the difficulty of finding work following the collapse of the lifetime employment system, the release that that has brought from wage slavery, the gradual emancipation of women, growing opposition to the nuclear industry, and doubts about economic growth as the be-all and end-all.

In short, these are the stirrings of a civil society, seen in the emergence of voluntary groups which went into action after the two earthquakes, a demand for greater government transparency, fierce opposition to a new national registry of Japanese citizens, and the role played by freelance journalists in reporting from the radiated area around Fukushima.

The problem for Japan is that the stirrings recorded by Pilling find scant recognition in parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan gave them a voice during its three years in power but in 2012 it was trounced by the Liberal Democratic Party under Shinzo Abe, one of the country’s most nationalistic leaders since the war. Abe wants to reinterpret the pacificist constitution imposed on Japan by the Americans in 1947 to allow its armed forces to take part in collective defence. He espouses a revisionist view of history calculated to infuriate victims of Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

He has spoken of rejecting a detailed ­apology for that ­aggression, made by a socialist prime minister in 1995, in favour of a “forward-looking statement appropriate for the twenty-first century”. Last December he ­visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the souls of the war dead, including 14 convicted Class-A war criminals, are honoured. 

Meanwhile, the man he appointed as –director-general of the supposedly impartial public broadcaster NHK has brushed off the forcing of foreign women into Japanese military brothels as common practice in any country at war. Another appointee has ­reportedly dismissed the massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937 as propaganda, and a third has argued that the emperor should be regarded as a living god.

In December the government passed a state secrets law which flies in the face of the public’s wish for greater right of disclosure. A more liberal society may have emerged over the past two decades but the Abe administration is moving in the opposite direction. It does, however, command a majority in both houses of parliament and, as Pilling demonstrates, it is making a bold attempt to reinvigorate an economy burdened by huge public debts, an elderly population and powerful vested interests within its own ranks.

The country’s chief ally, the United States, would like Tokyo to play a greater role in collective defence. It is also relying on Abe to sort out the relocation of its marine air station in Okinawa, which has been made more ­complicated by the re-election last month of a local mayor hostile to the move.

The prime minister’s popularity will rest on maintaining a higher rate of growth. By contrast, his revisionist agenda is proving controversial with a public still attached to the 1947 constitution. And while Washington may welcome a stronger Japanese military profile, it is alarmed by the government’s ­reckless provocation of China and South Korea.

In 2020, Tokyo will host its second summer Olympiad. By then, Abe hopes, deflation will be a thing of the past and constitutional restraints will be looser. The first has yet to be proved. The second risks further alienating Japan’s neighbours. Unlike their predecessor, the next Games could be dogged by political controversy.

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