“What’s wrong with being the world’s No. 2?”
So said Renhō, the single-monikered and, for a Japanese politician, unusually single-minded 42-year-old female member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, tapped by Prime Minister Naoto Kan this summer to serve as minister of administrative reform (aka, chief budget-slasher). Renhō uttered the question during a debate late last year on financing a next-generation supercomputer project powerful enough to compete with the US, but her plaintive question resonated far beyond the walls of Japan’s Upper House chamber.
By the middle of this year, as the stack of urgent reports concerning Japan’s stagnant economy, political paralyses, fading competitiveness, so-called Galápagos syndrome isolationism, emerging social strains amid widening income gaps, diminished labor pools and a rapidly aging population piled high, Renhō’s rhetorical query seemed to cut to the core of Japan’s mounting troubles.
She was promptly criticized, most notably by old guard politicos like former Trade Minister Takeo Hiranuma when he offhandedly reminded voters that Renhō “[was] not originally Japanese,” playing the hoary hand of nationalism by referring to her naturalization in 1985.
Born to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother, Renhō is a former pinup model and TV news presenter who maintains a very active Twitter account, YouTube channel and Ustream internet video streaming site. She favors short haircuts and lean white jackets over her almost entirely middle-aged male colleagues’ bland barbering and suits of charcoal gray. A Wall Street Journal profile of Renhō this summer called her “the ruling party’s most recognizable face,” a significant label even in a country that has gone through five prime ministers in four years.
In other words: Most Japanese needed no reminder of who she is.
And then it happened. In the middle of Japan’s month-long summer holidays, during which local papers reported that some companies were curtailing vacations or cutting them altogether to stay competitive, the international media made it official: Japan suddenly became No. 2, at least in Asia, and No. 3 in the rest of the world. China had made sure and quick work of it.
Reaction in Japan’s domestic media was mute to nonexistent. Some questioned the various methods used to calculate GDP figures, while other outlets simply ignored the story. The implied answer to Renhō’s question, which resonated deeply enough that she published a book titled Do We Have to Be No. 1? in June, has grown glaringly obvious: What’s wrong with being No. 2 is that you have to adapt to it.
Many of the challenges, hang-ups and hindrances sidelining Japan today are already squeezing the present and stalling the futures of Western nations too. Articles dreading the ‘Japanization’ of the American economy – indicating stagnant growth, slow to no government intervention and plummeting interest rates – proliferated in the Western media throughout Japan’s long hot summer.
As I wrote in these pages two years ago, far from its late 20th-century incarnation as a global icon of soaring technological advancement and societal progress, a kind of Shangri-La with superior cell phones, Japan today can look a lot more like a coal mine with a shrinking population of canaries suffocating from isolation, fatigue and lack of hope, where change is less a political slogan than a stark necessity.
“After the war, Japan copied the positive side of American society,” says author, translator and American Studies Professor Motoyuki Shibata of the University of Tokyo. “Democracy and individual freedom, higher standards of living. Even if we didn’t know what the phrases or words meant, we felt them. But since the early years of this century, we started mimicking the worst sides of America – the outsourcing and status rankings and the extremes of competitiveness. A winner-take-all mentality. That has created many problems for Japan that are difficult for us to overcome. It has also made my younger Japanese students very wary of America.”
Ironically, Japan’s adoption of American and other Western strategies for growth, beginning in the late 19th century and accelerated in the 20th, may be backfiring in the 21st – enabling Japan to show Western nationals where they’re going wrong by being at the forefront of socio-economic trauma and transformation.
“Since the 90s, after the bubble economy crisis, the whole of Japan lost confidence,” says author and essayist Ryū Murakami in an effort to pinpoint the paralyses inflicting Japan at a time of encroaching crises. “But when I was young, Japan was so much worse off. We had so many problems. The only good thing was that everyone could expect that things would be better in five or ten years. Your salary would rise. And when you turned 28, you knew you could get married. Maybe you could only buy a compact car, but then in ten years, you knew that you would be able to buy a bigger car, a sedan.
“And by that time, maybe you could also afford a little apartment. So everyone could believe that their life would just be better in 5, 10 or 15 years.”
Such mounting expectations are the engine of capitalist dreams, and Japan, as a summa cum laude student of Western economies, and a status quo-keeper par excellence, learned to dream big, sometimes bigger than its masters did. In the 1980s, Japan as No. 1 made Westerners, especially Americans, quake in their boardrooms. Big gets bigger, money begets money and expectations ascend accordingly into a nebulous notion of happiness.
“But today, young Japanese people are being victimized by corporations,” Murakami adds. “These corporations want a minimum of salaried workers so they can keep costs down and profits high, and so there are a growing number of poor young people. They are the ‘working poor’ in Japan. Some work as part-timers, some work as single-project contract workers, some are from temp-staff agencies. There is even an employment form called single-day contract work, in which you are delivered to an office to work only for that day.”
The result? “It’s harder to design one’s life, to plan any kind of future,” Murakami says. “In fact, it’s nearly impossible.”
Pessimism in the face of failing, arguably outdated economic systems, government strategies and social solutions is hardly limited to Japan. When I return to the post-2008 US, I find people drained of confidence and filled with cynicism and rage, whatever their political affiliation, facing oil spills, corruption and waste with a furrowed brow as skeptical and unrepentant as that of any Clint Eastwood hero or samurai warrior.
Kireru and hikikomori are two Japanese words that have recently found places in the Oxford English Dictionary. The former refers to a sudden loss of rationality in a violent act, what we might call “snapping” or “losing it,” or more colloquially, “going postal.” The latter – hikikomori – refers to extreme social isolationism: specifically, to the growing number of young Japanese who retreat to their rooms and digital devices, sacrificing family, friends, education and jobs. In other words: a complete “dropping out,” in 60s parlance, without the requisite narcotic and spiritual “tuning in.”
University of Tokyo Professor Shibata takes the long view. “We can go back to the Meiji era in the 1860s, when Japan opened, and with the exception of the war, even though we Japanese were pretty poor, we always hoped that [the next generation] would be living a better life.
“But nowadays,we know that the economy will be never as good as it was. People talk about the disappearance of the grand story or the big answer. When we were young, we thought that some kind of political or cultural philosophy would provide an answer about how to live. But after postmodernism, everything became relative and things are relative now. And young people, even though they don’t know anything about postmodernism, know instinctively that nobody or nothing will provide them an answer about big questions, like how to live.”
Shibata is articulating a crisis of civilization that seems especially pronounced in Japan, partly because the nation advanced so rapidly in a relatively short time, but also because its current threats are so perplexing. How could a nation so materially rich and highly educated (the official Japanese literacy rate hovers at 99 percent) be so ill-equipped to confront the challenges of the future? The face of Japan in the rest of the developed world is one of enervation and inaction, passivity borne out of boredom and bafflement.
“[My students] materially live a better life than almost anyone in the world,” Shibata adds. “But having hope or having anxiety is not really a matter of what you have. You can be quite hopeful without having anything. And you can be quite anxious about your future, even though you have plenty of things right here and right now.”
Less than a week after news of China’s ascent seemed to signal Japan’s retreat, an op-ed article appeared in the New York Times called “Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging.” Its author, literary critic and Waseda University Professor Norihiro Kato, shifted the tone of the global media narrative with a deft gesture that felt to me both arresting and true. When he first read that China had overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, Kato wrote that he reacted with “a sigh of relief”:
“Freshly overtaken by China, Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake.”
In similarly calm, evenhanded tones, Kato explained to me over lunch in New York that the character of Japan has been deformed by its efforts to sustain growth at all costs. He uses a native metaphor – the unevenness of one shoulder up and one down, what is called in Japanese migi-kata-agari, a graph that records only growth – to suggest that Japan’s postwar economic bubble was an aberration, a sign of illness.
“The relief I felt had something to do with the person [Japan] I saw there, no longer so awkwardly bent. Finally we know where Japan stands – on level ground.”
Kato went so far as to praise young Japanese for their apparent withdrawal from global economic standards. The very isolationism and passivity bemoaned by social scientists and economists alike in the face of a critical historical moment strikes Kato as a kind of 21st-century sophistication.
“Young people have grown less interested in studying foreign languages,” he writes. “They seem not to feel the urge to grow outward. ‘Look,’ they say, ‘Japan is a small country. And we’re OK with small.”
“It is, perhaps, a sort of maturity.”
Kato’s article was attacked from both left and right. Leftists in Japan and elsewhere in Asia and the West claimed he was once again promoting Japan as a superior model – Japan as No. 1 – in the face of economic decline. Rightists claimed that he was selling Japan short, ridiculing his homeland’s ultimate demise.
“Pity Japan” was the title of an opinion story in the Economist, specifically targeting Kato’s New York Times editorial, bemoaning his embrace of sustainability over constant growth. After hammering Kato for prizing maturity and selflessness, the Economist writer sniffs: “This is one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.”
“Some people called me a nationalist,” Kato told me in New York, smiling and, yes, shrugging. “They said I was claiming Japan would be ‘No. 1’ again.”
Stimulated by Kato’s suggestion that Japan’s malaise might be instead a model of modesty, I met with him to find out what he was trying to say – about relief and acceptance and how Japan might show us strategies for endurance in a limited world.
“I do think the stable 200 years of the Edo period [17th- to 19th-century Japan] can be a kind of lesson for globalization,” Kato says. “But the weak point is desire. Edo people weren’t really happy. We need to discover how to be happy with limited resources.”
Starting in the 19th century, with the reign of the Meiji Emperor, “Japan expanded, territorially and economically,” he writes. “But before that, the country went through a 250-year period of comparative isolation and very limited economic growth. The experience of rapid growth is a relatively new phenomenon for us. Japan remembers what it is like to be old, to be quiet and to turn inward.”
Turning inward is an unspoken taboo in the 21st century, with its trumpeted benefits of an inevitably globalized marketplace. But what if the so-called pathologies of modern Japan – its apparent inertia, solipsism and inward-focused “Galápagos syndrome” strategies – turn out to be, at least in part, pragmatic responses to a future of limited resources?
Junko Edahiro, an environmental activist, writer and cofounder of Japan For Sustainability, believes that Japan may be the ideal nation to represent a new paradigm: “De-ownership, demonetization, de-materialism,” she writes, “are the dominant behaviors of young Japanese.” Edahiro sees the new Japan as an ideal testing ground for concepts that remove the individual from structures of sheer consumption.
“I personally have high expectations and am paying attention to these three trends of ‘de-ownership,’ ‘demonetization,’ and ‘de-materialism,’ Edahiro says, “which are quietly progressing at the grassroots level deep in people’s minds and changing their sense of values – although articles about such trends rarely hit the headlines in economic newspapers.”
Could Japan’s retreat from globalism be a model for the rest of us?
“We might serve as a model for other countries, including the US,” Edahiro tells me from Tokyo, “if only as a model for making the best of limited resources. We are all facing the same dilemma: limited resources and aging populations.”
Is Japan uniquely suited to teaching us – Americans and others – how to survive with less? And what does “less” actually mean?
A growing number of Japanese value ‘spiritual richness’ more than ‘material abundance,’ Edahiro says. “And this fact, I think, lies behind the major structural change.”
As a half-Japanese American drifting between both cultures, my response to the so-called downsizing mentality is twofold: great, if we can sustain our habitual standards of living; awful, if we have to sacrifice what we’ve come to consider basics. In market- and consumer-driven capitalism, greed, as the line goes, is allegedly good. But in the narrowing parameters of 21st-century life, greed is fast becoming self-annihilating.
“Young people in Japan today are living without a lot of money,” says Kato, “but they are still interested in the world. They still want more. The ‘more’ that they want isn’t about money, though. They want knowledge. It’s a kind of prosperity not based on resources. Maybe we should celebrate that.”
Mottainai is the phrase Japanese use that roughly translates as wasting little and wanting not. It’s hard to fully convey as concisely in English, but it maybe underscores a lesson worth careful study. (The phrase was circulated in Western media two years ago, upon the English translation of author Mariko Shinju’s Mottainai Grandma, an environmental book for children.) What we have hitherto defined as basic needs may be extraneous, and what we need may be less wasteful – more about conservation and preservation than acquisition.
In a recent column for the Japan Times, staff writer and veteran journalist Kaori Shoji extolled Japan’s long and storied history of prizing frugality and self-control over wanton expenditure. “The truth is that the Japanese are better at saving than spending,” she wrote. “We have about 1,000 years of poverty and deprivation behind us, while the hankering to buy La Perla lingerie is less than three decades old.”
Shoji cites the native stoicism of Japan’s mighty shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, who established Edo (today’s Tokyo) as the nation’s seat of power and effectively sealed off Japan from outside meddling for over 200 years. “[Tokugawa] instilled most of the ideas of bushidō (the way of the samurai) as we know it today – including frugality, abstinence and longevity – in the ideal samurai lifestyle. He lived to make it through the super-violent warring states period of the 14th century. When he finally seized power and unified the country, he was over 70 and all his rivals were dead. Setsuyaku (saving on resources) and keizoku (continuity) were his watchwords.
“The Japanese can get pretty creative when it comes to saving – and a sizable hunk of Japanese culture has been devoted to the intricacies of the art.”
I ask Shoji if she thinks this gift for minimalistic living endures. “The Japanese temperament is suited to dealing with poverty, scarcity and extremely limited resources,” she says. “If the [American] black ships hadn’t shown up, we’d still be scratching our heads over the workings of the washing machine or the dynamics of a cheeseburger. On the other hand, with 4,000 years of frugality behind us, we Japanese have learned to be creative.”
Wouldn’t it be nice in our benighted age if we could learn from the Japanese – at least from some of their rich legacy of intelligent and dignified frugality as we all become, effectively, No. 2?
Shoji is doubtful. “I don’t think this making-do-with-what-we-got mentality would travel very far,” she admits. “The West is used to centuries of pillaging, plundering, conquering and colonizing. They would probably find the intricacies of Japanese frugality pretty ridiculous, wouldn’t you say? In terms of smart cars, smart technology, smart cities and so on, I think the Japanese are equipped with skills that are relevant on a global level. But in the day-to-day, individual practices, like hanging out your laundry to dry, packing a thermos to avoid Starbucks, forgoing the car and other personal actions that seem meaningful to the Japanese only because we’ve always been like this – I’m not so sure.”
“It may take three or four years before we can fully confront a resourceless condition,” concedes Kato. “But when we [Japanese] do, we might be able to show the West some ways to survive and be happy with less. The hikikomori (Japanese shut-ins) might actually be a new kind of survival strategy in a world without resources,” he muses. “Maybe we should study that one percent of the Japanese populace with the will to survive. Maybe we can learn something.”
Maybe, indeed. My last few years of shuttling between New York and Tokyo have proved revelatory. American systems and assumptions based on constant growth, wealth and prosperity, many of which are pathologically corrupt, are dying fast. The demands of the new world we live in feel a lot more Japanese – equitable, careful, quiet and modest. Limited resources, expanding and aging populations. We all know these factors are incontrovertible. Yet we, as Westerners, have been spectacularly ill-equipped to face them head on.
Japan is an archipelago slightly smaller than the US state of California. Its land is roughly 30% habitable, and it imports 50% of its food. Yet Japan still became the world’s second largest economy in the span of 30 years.
Japan’s inadvertent message to the rest of us may be to beat a civilized and sustainable retreat … and to try to rescue and preserve resources in the face of an uncertain future. As Shoji writes, Shogun Tokugawa outlived his rivals not through mere violence and theft, pillaging and plundering, but through the principles of saving and continuity.
Back to Renhō, Japan’s most hybrid new-breed politician, a woman who continues to provoke the nation’s old-school, old-growth establishment. “What’s wrong with being No. 2?” she asked.
Welcome to the new normal. If you’re wise enough to embrace it, nothing at all.