After Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi retired in 2006 following an enthusiastic spree of free-market economic reforms, Japan stumbled through seven years of political instability. Three prime ministers in quick succession from the Liberal Democratic Party—Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and Taro Aso—came and went without consolidating leadership. Fed up with LDP fecklessness, the Japanese public elected Yukio Hatoyama from the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, turfing the LDP from power for the first time in 16 years. Unable to deliver on his big campaign promises, including a pledge to move the US military base in Okinawa, Hatoyama resigned after less than a year in office. He passed the DPJ reigns to two short-lived successors, Naoto Kan and then Yoshikiho Noda. Political gridlock meant they couldn’t get much done either. Elections in 2013 brought the LDP’s Shinzo Abe back for another go at leading the country, this time promising an ambitious “Abenomics” economic development strategy while making no secret of his hope to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow the nation to maintain a standing army. Public reaction to the former has been enthusiastic; to the latter, ambivalent. An increasingly assertive China has many wondering if Japan should remove the constitutional constraints on its Self Defense Forces, but memories of World War II are fresh enough in collective memory to prompt second thoughts. At the core of this national debate and political maneuvering is the issue of how Japan sees itself: a bold nation actively shaping world affairs, or a peaceful middle power focused on growing an economy that assures the good life? It’s still the national question.
Arts and Culture
While its ever-changing cast of politicians was busy making speeches and promises, Japan’s creative class was enjoying a boom of its own. The last two decades have seen exceptional creative output in Japan’s fine arts, music, cinema and architecture from Japanese artists such as novelist Haruki Murakami, animator Hayao Miyazaki, artist Takashi Murakami, fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and architect Tadao Ando—though more than a few in this list would prefer to be known as artists, period, without the “Japanese” qualifier. Coinciding with a government push in the last decade to increase Japan’s “soft power” or cultural influence around the globe, exports of anime and popular music have boomed. While Japan is the homeland of anime, in the world of teen-targeted pop music it has fierce competition from Korea’s arsenal of bouncy boy bands and girl groups. As Japan’s AKB48 goes head to head with Korea’s Girls Generation in the global soft power arms race, a not unreasonable conversation is taking place in Japan’s cultural policy circles about whether the candy-coated giddiness of Japanese pop music is really the face the nation wants to present to the world. What was wrong, ask the naysayers, with a nice, quiet tea ceremony and a spot of kabuki?
An island nation with limited natural resources, for much of its history Japan found ways to live within its energy means. Oil imports enabled by its postwar economic recovery as well as hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants brought the country the energy it needed to power the Tokyo skyline, the Shinkansen, and the family sedan. When the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant began exploding after being swamped with tsunami water in March 11, 2011, however, that old Japanese reverence for nature came roaring back. Eco-consciousness, already making its way to the Japanese mainstream before 3/11, took center stage with government-promoted energy-saving measures and eco-friendly technology debuting across Japan. Japan’s wholehearted drive to go green manifests in everything from Kyoto’s electric city buses to the lightweight “cool biz” suits marketed to office workers so they’ll use less air-conditioning.
In person-to-person encounters with foreigners in temples, onsen or city streets, the Japanese are gracious hosts. At the state level, though, Japan has been somewhat of a testy neighbor of late. Wartime trauma at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army still smolders in social memory in Korea, China, and Taiwan—often deliberately stoked by politicians when it suits their needs—and Japan’s political classes have been less than tactful about expressing their less-than-apologetic historical perspective. From annual visits by Japanese lawmakers to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals are enshrined to Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s indelicate comment that the sexual slavery of Korean “comfort women” in World War II army brothels was “necessary,” Japan’s political class has not exactly gone out of its way of late to mend fences with the neighbors. Tensions flared with China in late 2012 over the Senkaku Islands, a chain of uninhabited Japan-administered islands near Taiwan that China also lays claim to, leading to the scrambling of Self Defense Forces fighter jets and massive anti-Japanese riots in China. It’s a political tinderbox that the US, bound to protect Japan under a defense alliance, watches carefully. Happily, Japan enjoys warm relations with Southeast Asia, partly due to decades of generous overseas development assistance.
It may be short of nurses to care for its aging population, but one occupation group Japan doesn’t lack are would-be oracles making dire predictions for the nation’s future. If you believe the media pundits, it’s all a bit grim: Japan tomorrow will be a hapless nation of senior citizens on a bankrupt pension system, vainly trying to defend its territory from China, which, anyway, has already taken all the jobs. The likely truth is a bit brighter and a lot more global. Fast-expanding Asian markets and closer economic integration between Japan and its neighbors mean new opportunities for Japanese exporters. Japan’s universities are aggressively recruiting talented students from around the world, hoping to nurture a global network of Japan-friendly future leaders. And while foreign residents of Japan are still less than 2% of the population, Japan made recent reforms to its immigration system, hoping to attract top talent to live and work in the country. The problems remain—an insufficiently funded social safety net, a dearth of stable career opportunities for young people, and one of the lowest birth rates in the world are just a few—but, as the nation’s reaction to the 3/11 Tohoku disaster proved, Japan’s resilience is nothing short of extraordinary.
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