By Roberto Savio*
Tokyo, October 2012. – In the 1980s, Japan was the dragon of the world. All cutting edge technology ? cars, gadgets, cameras, medical equipment and new management systems ? came from Japan. Then the country started to slow down, and it basically went to sleep.
However, its levels of production and financial reserves were still sufficiently high that decline at the global level did not matter much for the average citizen. Of course, Sony was substituted by Apple and it is now China that has the image of the dragon, having surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world, but the quality of life for the Japanese citizen was certainly better than that in almost all other countries.
Now, its citizens are awakening to the fact that social achievements cannot be taken for granted if the economy does not grow. The rate of unemployment in Japan stands at under 6%, a risible figure by European standards, but unprecedented there. In the past, a company job meant a job for life, but this is no longer guaranteed; neither is the possibility for young people to find a job immediately after leaving school or university.
The yen has soared, from 163.65 against the euro in 2010 to the 97.7 of today. Exports have become increasingly difficult. Japan is a country with no natural resources and must import all raw materials. It did, however, manage to solve the lack of fossils, coal and oil, becoming the world?s largest producer of atomic energy. And its car industry is still the most likely successful survivor of the inevitable worldwide consolidation of the car industry. Of the 1 million robots now existing in the world, nearly 400,000 are in Japan. The country remains a model of immaculate streets, of order and discipline, of a strong civic sense, where the combination of Shintoism (based on nature), Buddhism (based on man?s individual achievement) and Confucianism (based on social achievement), have created a rare balance between nature, man and society, unknown in any other country of the world.
It is beyond this short article to dwell on how history, under an uninterrupted line of emperors, can explain the deep differences with China, which has been for Japan what Greece was for Rome, but it is important to say that since the modernisation of Japan, as a reaction to the arrival of the U.S. fleet led by Admiral
Matthew Perry in 1853, the political history of Japan is probably the most mediocre ever.
After the victorious war with Russia in 1904, which put the country on a par with the others, Japan?s military circles were able to take over and started a number of conflicts which ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Under the push of General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the occupation forces which ran Japan from 1945 to 1952, democracy was introduced with voting rights for woman, and since then a number of transparent elections have been held. But the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has run the country practically without interruption since the Second World War, has become an increasingly self-referring political machine, and the other political parties have not been able to create vibrant alternatives.
Now, what is new and disturbing is a wind of nationalism which has created totally unnecessary confrontation with China over a group of small islands, the Senkaku (or Diaoyu for China). Three major towns – Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka ? are run by nationalist leaders, the mayor of Osaka is setting up a new nationalist party, and the new leader of the LDP, Shinzo Abe, is a strong nationalist. But there is a clear and growing disconnect between politicians and the people. While this is a global trend, here it is very striking.
Japan is a country accustomed to live with earthquakes and tsunamis. The big earthquake which struck Kobe in 1995, causing 5,100 deaths, was hailed by the world as an example of Japanese resilience and social solidarity. Reconstruction started immediately, and a vast, collective and voluntary effort quickly healed the town. But the most recent earthquake in March 2011 and its accompanying tsunami have created an unprecedented challenge. Over 650 kilometres of Japan?s northeastern coastline were devastated and some 20,000 people died. The estimated cost of the damage is 200 billion dollars, but the costs of reconstruction are still unclear. Suffice to say that the Ishinomaki District Debris Project alone, one of many on the coast, has a budget of 244 billion dollars to dispose of and recycle 6 million tons of debris just for its small area.
A visit to the project, with a scenario of damaged cars, tree trunks, and mountains and mountains of debris as far as the eye can see, leaves the visitor with the sudden awareness that we can destroy climate but we cannot control it. But a visit to the area also gives a clear sense of how political leadership, while still functioning at local level, has become totally insufficient at national level. In one of the very self-managing provisional settlements of 400 families displaced by the tsunami, leaders complain that 18 months after the disaster they still have not been visited by any representative of national government, apart from the five fleeting one-day visits by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. The government has yet to decide which area is safe for reconstruction or not to allow displaced people to go back and start reconstruction. The coastline remains basically empty, beside debris clearing activities. For a people accustomed to receiving directives and then implementing them brilliantly, this lack of orders has left many idle and bitter.
Parallel to this decline of the political institutions, the private sector is becoming sluggish, the population is ageing at a speed unknown elsewhere and, like any closely integrated and homogenous society, migration is not encouraged. In their spare time, Chinese students work in jobs that the Japanese do not like, but once their studies have finished they cannot remain. China is abuzz with stories about ?those lazy Japanese?.
Japan has slipped to 25th place in the most recent Global Innovation Index of the United Nations, falling out of the top 20 for the first time since the Index started in 2007. The Japanese electronic giants of the 1980s are no longer coming up with any significant innovation.
No risks are being taken. In 2011, it was touted that members of venture capital funds (companies which
bet on innovation) raised 314 million dollars, 35% higher than the previous year ? but in the same year, Silicon Valley companies raised 12.6 billion dollars!
So, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, a sense of insecurity about the present, and a sense of doubt about the future, is descending on Japanese society. The Shinsei Bank?s just published Salaryman Pocket Money Survey shows that the average male salaried worker now receives an allowance (usually allocated by his wife) of 437 dollars per month, half of what he received in the roaring 80s. This is unleashing forces until now dormant in Japan.
More seriously, the number of recipients of government welfare aid topped 2.1 million in June this year, a record high; Japan has a population of 128 million. This has created a great shock in Japan, while it would be a dream elsewhere – the trend is ominous.
Civil society and volunteers are on the increase. The discontent with politicians is becoming open, in a country where it used to be bad manners to criticise authorities. Perhaps the most notable reactions is among women, who are becoming independent, do not look at marriage as compulsory, and do not regard a man as their primary destiny. An extreme reaction is the sudden vanity of girls, who now take much time make up, with some dressing in an extravagant and provocative way, as a sign of challenging society. It is difficult to day whether these new forces will be enough to balance the decline of political institutions and the ageing of the private sector ? but it is the best hope to which today?s Japanese can cling.
*Roberto Savio is founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News.