Ob­ser­va­tions on Ja­pan

An in­sight­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of a coun­try that has fas­ci­nated the world for cen­turies.

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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.

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