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As Japan goes through a transformation, so too might those who do the observing

by Florian Coulmas

JAPAN’S QUIET TRANSFORMATION: Social Change and Civil Society in the Twenty-first Century, by Jeff Kingston. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, 358 pp., 3,657 yen (paper).

Nothing is permanent but change. The idea of transience has a long tradition in Japan, coming to the fore at times and receding into the background at others. Reinforced by the uncontrollable elements of nature, it is never completely absent from the Japanese mind.

In “Japan’s Quiet Transformation,” author Jeff Kingston argues that there is a particularly strong sense of change in Japan at present, because things are indeed changing at an accelerated pace.

On the whole, if we can believe Kingston, the ongoing changes are for the better. “Japan,” he says, “is a better place to live in 2003 than in 1990.” Still, the question remains: For whom is it a better place to live? For the author, for foreign residents, for everyone, for those who lost their jobs in the meantime?

Kingston, who is well known to the readers of this paper, is a keen and knowledgeable student of Japanese recent history and politics. This puts him in an excellent position to write about contemporary Japan. In this very informative book he draws a vast canvas.

With the exception of the various troubles involving North Korea, Kingston takes up about every single issue that has made headlines in Japan since the early 1990s: Social ills such as rising unemployment, corruption, juvenile delinquency, prostitution by high-school girls, truancy, bullying, classroom disintegration and other problems plaguing the educational system, rising divorce rates, child abuse, suicide, corruption, bid-rigging, whaling, mad cow disease, the distribution of tainted-blood products to hemophiliacs, the history textbook controversy, the national flag and anthem bill, official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, the pill, Viagra, gender roles, “freeters” or the voluntarily underemployed, “parasite singles,” the fight over whether women should have the right to retain their maiden name — to list but some of the topics discussed, in passing or at great length.

Some of the analyses are well founded. Kingston’s deconstruction of the construction state, the collusion of politics and concrete, is as insightful as it is depressing.

Others are less compelling, for instance that Tokyo resists a total ban on whaling by way of getting its own back for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan is too weak, Kingston argues, to confront the United States over serious issues such as nuclear disarmament and, therefore, props up its self-esteem by refusing to comply with some of Washington’s lesser demands.

The best parts of the book deal with a number of reform projects undertaken by the Japanese government since the early 1990s, such as various administrative reform measures designed to clip the bureaucracy’s wings.

A series of scandals involving bureaucrats have damaged the reputation of the once unassailable civil service, and the flagging economy has greatly reduced the general tolerance for graft. These developments have generated a reform climate.

As Kingston shows in detail, significant reforms such as information disclosure, a new nonprofit organization law and improved food safety, among others, are beginning to have an effect, producing what he calls “Japan’s quiet transformation.”

It is not so quiet, though. Indeed, Kingston speaks of a social revolution and a legal revolution more than once. And he compares the reforms of the 1990s with Japan’s well-nigh total makeover during the Meiji restoration.

Not every historian will accept this analogy, but it serves a good purpose of directing the reader’s attention to the profundity of ongoing reform. Signs of change are everywhere in Japan today, the general trend being to strengthen the citizen and to trim down the power of government, a development Kingston wholeheartedly seems to welcome. He manages to draw a very rich and differentiated picture of Japan’s so-called lost decade of the 1990s that, under his skillful pen, turns out to bear the seed of renewal.

To be sure, renewal is called for and Kingston leaves no doubt that he welcomes change, applauding some developments and bemoaning others. It is good to know where the author stands; however, he doesn’t always avoid blurring the line between disinterested reporting and judgment. More than once Kingston’s descriptions are shot through with the pleas and complaints of the concerned citizen.

He points out that Japan is a “flawed democracy” with a “stunted and sclerotic civil society.” However, he never tells us whether his reference point is an abstract textbook ideal of democracy, or a particular country where democratic government is beset by fewer shortcomings and distortions of such an ideal than in Japan. Is it a statement of fact or an opinionated admonition? If the latter, who is it directed at?

To a similar tune the author declares “the government will have to learn to listen rather than riding roughshod over the people.” He may be right, but who is speaking here — the dispassionate analyst, the enraged taxpayer, the activist?

This is not always clear perhaps because Kingston has changed as much as Japan. As time goes by, the curious onlooker turns into an involved partaker who feels entitled to speak his mind, saying what he thinks ought to be the case and voicing his misgivings about things he disapproves of in the society that has become his.

It is about this quiet transformation that one can read between the lines of this book.