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Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

The title of “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival” refers to an old Japanese proverb about making the best of a bad situation or transforming crisis into opportunity. Japan is no stranger to crisis, or to monumental “bending,” but will the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 serve as a catalyst for transformation and, if so, leading where?

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, David Pilling, ALLEN LANE

David Pilling, former Tokyo bureau chief for The Financial Times (2001-08), has written a superb book on contemporary Japan that, better than any other I have read, manages to get the reader inside the skin of Japanese society. Full disclosure, Pilling is a good friend and I commented on early drafts of this astutely observed account. But trust me, this is a great read brimming with insights and should shoot to the top of your reading list.

The narrative opens with a grim tour of tsunami-pulverized towns in the northeast, and then arcs backward to an analysis of Japanese cultural dynamics and the nation’s ambivalent relationship with Asia. Meiji Era Japan (1868-1912) grew estranged from its neighbors as it embraced Western models of industrialization and, inevitably, imperialism. Even today the reverberations of this shared past remain divisive. Pilling attributes this to, “Japan’s evolution from would-be victim of colonization to Asian predator” and “the blatantly racist attitudes that the Japanese exhibited towards fellow Asians.”

Japan may be in the process of reinventing itself for the third time, a turning point akin to its rapid modernization in the Meiji Era and the U.S. Occupation (1945-52). Yet three years on the signs are mixed at best and none of the glacial change seems to be benefitting those in the tsunami zone. Japan’s 100,000 nuclear refugees are experiencing a crisis without end, while the exodus of jobs and youth reinforce a sense of bleak prospects throughout Tohoku.

Sensibly, Pilling refrains from declaring the recent cataclysm a game changer, instead introducing us to various Japanese and how they are responding. The yearning for greater certainty and security confronts perceptions that Japan risks even more without substantive reform. “Bending Adversity” benefits considerably from Pilling’s incredible access to a wide range of people from government, industry, academia and the arts, drawing heavily on their voices to deliver a convincing and nuanced portrait of Japan. It helps that he also shares his everyday encounters and personal impressions in crafting a colorful and rounded analysis, one that doesn’t shy from criticism, but also veers away from shrill harangue. It is evident that Pilling is keen on Japan, but it is not a naive embrace.

Natural disaster and China’s rise have jolted Japan out of cautious consensus as exemplified by “Abenomics,” but can it deliver substantive reforms? Pilling explains the logic of this high-stakes gamble, but one year on skepticism is growing. Neither Abenomics nor the 2020 Tokyo Olympics offer a magic wand, but Pilling’s reappraisal of the so-called Lost Decades in the 1990s and beyond usefully reminds us that Japan was never the basket case pundits were writing off and retains considerable strengths. He also notes how change, paradoxically, is a Japanese tradition, an incremental and gradual process the author elucidates very well. Although Heisei Era (1989-) Japan’s ongoing transformation has been fitful, Pilling draws our gaze to dramatic shifts in norms, values and practices and the emergence of a more dynamic civil society.

I admire his knack for finding the fault-line in most any debate about Japan and fairly summarizing both sides. For example, we read a relatively sympathetic assessment of the nihonjinron (the study of Japaneseness) interpretation of Japan as unique and homogenous, but ultimately Pilling dismisses this analysis as mostly muddled and misleading. His dichotomizing approach is a useful leitmotif, delivering a balanced assessment that sidesteps what he terms the “sneering bitterness” that animates much analysis of contemporary Japan. Along the way, readers encounter a diversity of perspectives that subvert tropes of uniformity and conformity.

It’s a relief that Pilling is not preaching how Japan should be, but rather presents Japan as he and his informants find it. He is not telling Japan how and where to bend, but does acknowledge that, “Japan would be a better place if it were less closed, less conservative, more aware of its recently violent history and more willing to unleash the talents of its women. It would benefit if it could foster a more participatory democracy and stabilize its dysfunctional political system.” I agree with all but the last bit since I think the political world needs disruptive change.

Pilling helps us understand the deep disappointment many Japanese feel about their lousy leaders. Cut from a different cloth, ex-premier Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06), captured the hearts of the Japanese because he has guts, charisma and offered a despondent nation a vision of revival. Although his repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine were predictably disastrous for regional relations, Koizumi was much more than a reactionary zealot on a mission to rehabilitate Japan’s shabby wartime past. He sought to reinvent Japan, but the public only wanted, Pilling writes, “the sort of change that would allow Japan to stay the same.”

But at least nobody can accuse Koizumi of being a puppet of the vested interests and now he has taken on the nuclear village that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports. Abe’s flailing attempts at structural reform suggests that bending Japan in the 21st century will be a long slog, especially since the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is the bastion of a resilient status quo.

There will be a book talk with David Pilling at Temple University Japan on Feb. 12. For more info, see www.tuj.ac.jp/icas/event/bending-adversity-a-portrait-of-contemporary-japan.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan