The bad news from Japan

For all the hype about China, for all of India’s current growth, Japan remains the world’s second largest economy. But just about no one talks about Japan any more. Even in my Davos days, the handful of Japan-focused sessions we scheduled were attended almost exclusively by Japanese participants. No one else wanted to know.

It doesn’t take a very long memory to recall a very different time, when books about the Japanese challenge to American dominance were business bestsellers. The all-powerful MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) was intelligently directing resources to key sectors so Japan’s leadership could continue to grow. Their companies had already swept the car industry and consumer electronics. It was only a matter of time before semiconductors, computers, finance and pharmaceuticals would yield.

The bursting of the Japanese bubble put paid to those visions. MITI was replaced in 2001 by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. There are plenty of world-beating Japanese companies, but after 15 years of economic sclerosis, no one hails the Japanese model as worthy of emulation.

I went the other night to the launch of a book that attempts to explain what went wrong – and continues to go wrong – in Japan. Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun is, in effect, a social psychology of a nation (I’ve known “Z” for 30-some years, since our time on The Daily Princetonian together). He examines in depth the hikikomori, the roughly 1 million Japanese that shut themselves in their bedrooms and don’t emerge, sometimes for many years. Zielenziger argues that the hikikomori are symptomatic of a nation that is choosing to retreat into its own shell.

“Japan is a monoculture in a world that needs a rainforest,” Zielenziger says. The intense focus that worked from 1945 to 1990, he argues, doesn’t work in a globalized, networked economy that provides the highest rewards to nimbleness, adaptability and innovation.

Zielenziger’s exposition of his book was so unremittingly dark that I felt like asking ironically, “So what’s the bad news?” Unfortunately, there is some truly bad news in prospect. Zielenziger sketched a scenario where soon-to-be prime minister Shinzo Abe connects with the lost generation of 20-35-year olds to provoke a period of powerful, resurgent nationalism. In a Japan that is nuclear capable. In a Japan that views China’s growth far more as a direct challenge than as an opportunity. And on a global stage where the US may well be happy for Japan to be its security surrogate in east Asia.

Update Zielenziger also has a blog, where he seems to be covering Asian political and economic news more broadly (he was Tokyo bureau chief of Knight Ridder for seven years, and travelled extensively throughout east and south Asia). One of the latest posts expands on his comments the other evening about Shinzo Abe.

9 thoughts on “The bad news from Japan

  1. David Derrick

    But all the recent news about Japan has been good. And Koizumi’s going out having shaken up bureaucracies and vested interests far more than any of his recent predecessors did. And the hikikomori exist in Korea too, every bit as much, from what I read. In the 60s the Japanese then-equivalents were shutting themselves up in the Malayan rainforest.

    The psychological weirdness of Japan may not be anything to do with economic competitiveness. And Korea is supposed (and in many ways is) Japan’s psychological opposite. The other type is what I call the Japanese backpacker – friendly, laid-back and balanced. Not wildly ambitious, not ambitious enough, but not obsessed with work or reclusive either. And not racist or nationalist. And more typical of what Abe might have to deal with – and definitely not material for that so-often (as with Germany) predicted resurgent nationalism.

  2. Lance Knobel

    The recent news on Japan has been better, certainly, although I’m not sure it should be characterized as good.

    Zielenziger says Korea doesn’t have hikikomori, and part of the book presents Korea as the healthy alternative. Rather controversially, he thinks the difference is that Korea has a significant amount of Christianity, which, like all western religions, promotes selfhood.

    Not being expert on the subject, I suspect Zielenziger is taking a position on the extreme. Sometimes, however, that can be very illuminating.

  3. David Derrick

    I’m definitely no expert, but I suspect Korean Christianity partly developed in opposition to Japan. I like Zielenziger’s rainforest metaphor. The question for Europe is whether the rainforest will work here. What does it mean? Mere co-existence of cultures is not anything at all, just discrete pockets rubbing along. “Quarters” in an Ottoman town.

    As soon as you make a bridge, you synthesise, don’t you?

    So there’s a sharp paradox there. Neighbourly separateness is separate cultures, the only overarching element being “tolerance”. And we don’t even have much of that.

    But there is no halfway respectable hankering after monoculturalism. That had its last fling in the 20s and 30s and was barely respectable then, and usually highly disreputable.

    GK Chesterton (who was respectable) said: “Modern internationalists talk as if people of different nationalities have only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality, that is the moment of supreme danger.”

    We’re living through this moment of danger.

    Imperialism, which he loathed, was about viewing other cultures in the abstract – or precisely not needing to understand them. It was an adventure and an ethical avoidance. Was he therefore a precursor of Edward Said, or just a nostalgist for monoculturalism?

    The answer is both. Real engagement was not a fuzzy or easy thing, but extremely demanding. So demanding that he suggested you might as well stay at home and start with your next-door neighbour, whom he presumed was English, but as exacting as anyone. So exacting that people preferred not to deal with him at all, but to “travel”, and shoot lions and elephants, and spectate other cultures: cue Mr Said.

    The Japanese are clinging to monoculturalism. But they may as well get with the system and find out where it leads.
    The trouble is, no-one else CAN do “Japanese” things like the Japanese!

  4. David Derrick

    “Rainforest” and civilization have had opposite resonances in the past.

    Civilization was something sharp and definite and the direct opposite of “jungle”. Civilizations’ ruins were even literally buried in jungles.

  5. Lance Knobel

    A couple of data points from the book launch discussion. Today, 10% of marriages in Tokyo are to foreigners. But those Japanese/foreigner marriages are having children at 2.5 times the rate of “pure” Japanese couples.

    Unless a lot of those mixed families leave Japan (which Zielenziger thinks they may, implausibly IMHO), that means that about a quarter of the children in Tokyo schools in a few years will be mixed.

    Can the monoculture survive that?

  6. David Derrick

    Finally, if you haven’t heard Matthew Paris’s wonderful recent series of talks (BBC R4) about what Gibbon would say about Europe today in relation to his theses on Rome, try to find it!

  7. Michael Zielenziger

    A couple of quick responses to comments about Japan and Korea. Christianity spread in Korea not only as a means of opposing Japanese colonization. It also led to literacy — it was the Missionaries who reenergize the use of hangul — and to the creation of Western hospitals and universities. Christianity became virtually synonomous with “modernism” and helped created a different culture of social trust and individuation modern Japan still lacks.

    What does this have to do with competitiveness? Japanese society was perfected for the industrial age; not so the post-industrial age. Obedience and discipline takes you very far, but won’t permit “creative destruction.” In the very success of Japan were the seeds of its own undong.

  8. David Derrick

    I understand Mike’s point. And although I’ve zig-zagged away from the main argument, let me add a qualifier to my points.

    Chesterton’s prescient thought about multiculturalism was actually bleaker than I expressed it. It was not just fuzzy avoidance fantasising about other cultures (Said’s “Orientalism”) that was questionable — it was the moment of apparent understanding that was dangerous.

    Islam thinks it understands the West and it often derides it, and worse. We think we understand Islam and we seem to do similar.

    The radical young Islamists of Bradford and Birmingham don’t really understand England or its cultural achievement at all — but how can you blame them given the poverty of English culture that many of them actually experience? … Ditto in reverse.

  9. Earl Kinmonth

    The figure for one million hikikomori in Japan is based on a since repduated claim made by a publicity seeking Japanese shrink. The phenomenon is neither widespread in Japan nor peculiar to the country. The same syndrome is known in the US and when the BBC broadcast a programme depicting hikikomori as peculiarly Japanese, their web site received numerous protests from British viewers who said the Japanese examples were similar to their own children or their own experiences.

    The same can be said for all the other social pathologies depicted in Shutting Out The Sun – they are nowhere near as prevalent in Japan as depicted and can also be found in various European countries, sometimes in greater measure. Indeed the term NEET comes from Britain, a country where a feature of all large cities is numerous able bodied young men (and some women) panhandling.

    Moreover, as social pathologies go, hikikomori is trivial compared to those that afflict young people in the US. Take a look at the incarceration rates for young men in the US, especially Blacks and Hispanics. Then come back and tell me how screwed up Japan is.

    The America that Michael Zielenziger sets off against Japan seems to be one located in the posh residential areas of Berkeley rather than Oakland that is so close. Maybe he should spend some time with case workers and police in Oakland and learn a little bit about social pathologies in the US before he starts writing about Japan.

    He might also learn to read Japanese, but that is another issue.



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