Observations on Japan
An insightful examination of a country that has fascinated the world for centuries.
CURRENTLY based in Hong Kong, David Pilling is the Asia Editor of the Financial Times, having reached this lofty professional peak largely as a result of his stellar performance as the Tokyo bureau chief for the salmon-pink daily from 2002 to 2008.
Pilling returned to Japan to cover the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. And now he has unleashed one of the most authoritative contemporary studies of our northern Asian neighbour that often both awes and baffles outsiders.
Bending Adversity is a highly informed and entertaining read that illuminates the mysteries of the island nation – the world’s thirdlargest economy – in the far north-east of this region.
Much attention is given to Japan’s centuries-old resistance to external influences. Indeed, regardless of its economic growth rate, Western marketeers are perennially vexed at Japan’s refusal to embrace global consumerism beyond McDonalds, and French and Italian luxury apparel.
To make his many lucid points, Pilling provides outstanding reportage consisting of interviews, facts and research; all beyond reproach.
One point I found particularly striking and thought-provoking: Only two million out of Japan’s population of 127 million are of a different ethnicity, most of them Koreans. This fact leads to Pilling’s assertion that Japan received a geopolitical hammer-blow similar to the one dealt to Germany at the end of World War I.
During the Paris peace conference of 1919 that followed that war, Japan attempted to have the principle of racial equality made part of the founding covenant of the League of Nations (the UN’s precursor). The Western powers thwarted this entirely reasonable request.
For them economics trumped ethics – they had established their control over the world’s natural resources through their empires, and didn’t want newly industrialised Japan muscling in on the colonial power game.
Although largely a history book, Pilling’s study begins and ends with the triple-disaster – earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown – that struck Honshu Island’s northern Pacific coast, devastating an area of hundreds of kilometres.
Regarding Fukushima, Pilling cites systemic failures in Japan’s energy sector that is hobbled by a management culture that maintained unquestioning loyalty over rational riskassessment.
Going back from this point to the mid-19th century, Pilling points out that island-nation Japan reacted to aggressive American attempts at colonisation by becoming hermit-like, and ferociously imperial and xenophobic.
But Uncle Sam could not be kept at bay forever. Japan became a de facto American colony after her defeat in World War II. But the Americans were well-behaved occupiers. And also, by having its military outlawed in its post-war constitution, and with the United States overseeing its defence and foreign policy, the vanquished nation was able to focus on industrial and technological growth instead.
This growth was extraordinary, and Japan become a model for emerging markets. The four tigers of the 1980s – South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – all took their cue from Japan with commendable results.
Japan’s recovery from the Pacific War amazed the world. And so did her relatively speedy recovery from the triple catastrophe that struck its northeastern shores on March 11, 2011.
But Japan has an enduring habit of amazing us. From the early 1950s until the late 1980s, Japan was a turbo-charged economy, eliciting admiration, envy, and accusations of unfair trading from competing economies.
The Japanese economic miracle growth started from a low base in late 1945. Her cities had been bombed to rubble, two – Hiroshima and Nagasaki – were even nuked. Her industrial base was obliterated, and the population was starving, demoralised and defeated. But through the tenacity and patience of the Japanese people, the picture swiftly improved. Corporate giants like Honda and Sony astounded the world, and sold round the world.
Then the bubble burst, and the West got to gloat (at least until the more recent global financial crisis to afflict it). In the early 1990s, Japan experienced a vexing and long-lasting economic slow down, with years of glacial or negative growth. Meanwhile neighbours South Korea and mainland China raced ahead.
Over two decades after this unhappy watershed, Japan has yet to find the will and the means to reboot itself.
But this book intimates that stimulus for change may have arrived in March 2011, with a realigning of expectations and priorities.
Nevertheless, much head-scratching remains in Tokyo’s centres of power over how to realign Japan to the 21st century. The economy is still in the doldrums. And yet crime and poverty levels remain low.
It’s a complex – and in places, paradoxical – picture of a nation at a crossroads. Pilling’s detailed delving into Japanese society, history, and the Japanese psyche, is revealing and engrossing.
The author is the third of the great observers of Japan from the West.
The first was the late American professor Edwin Reischauer, whose books The Japanese (1977) and The Japanese Today: Change And Continuity (1988) both performed much of the service Bending Adversity does today.
The second is Gregory Clark, the Australian former diplomat, journalist, author and educator who has resided in Japan since 1969.
On the evidence of this outstanding work, Pilling is now our preeminent Japan watcher for the 21st century.