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Japanese social issues await ‘new dawn’

by Anthony Fensom

Special To The Japan Times

Japan is on the way up. That much is obvious from improved business confidence, its successful bid for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the early economic successes of “Abenomics,” with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaiming to the world the arrival of “a new dawn.”

Critical Issues in Contemporary Japan, by Jeff Kingston.
ROUTLEDGE, Academic.
Rating: ★★★

However, Japan watchers have long memories, particularly those tasked with assessing social changes in the world’s third-largest economy.

Edited by Japan Times contributor and Temple University, Japan professor Jeff Kingston, “Critical Issues in Contemporary Japan” provides a reminder to the more optimistic analysts that much more reform work remains before the promised dawn breaks.

With contributions from a wide range of (mainly foreign) analysts, this work offers an excellent summary for students, or even experts, of Japan’s host of pressing issues, spanning a wide range of domestic matters, energy policy, international and social affairs.

According to Kingston, the work aims to “challenge assumptions and facile impressions” about Japan, which he describes as remaining poorly understood despite its “enormous contributions to regional stability and global development.”

“Despite two decades of sluggish growth, the ‘declining Japan’ story has been overstated,” Kingston argues, although he notes there is “no shortage of doom and gloom stories in a country where the young are said to have no dreams, women are marginalized, jobs and families are less stable, and traditions seem in retreat.”

Summarizing current Japanese issues in 300 pages is an ambitious task, requiring conciseness as well as subjectivity concerning the areas covered. It is a challenge that most of the contributors achieve, although many have their own policy agendas.

Among other political issues, readers are told of the “natural anarchic state” of Japanese politics; the Supreme Court’s seemingly limited role in human rights protection; and the effect of jishuku (self-restraint) on media reporting concerning various social taboos and crisis events such as the March 11, 2011, disasters, with journalist David McNeill particularly scathing.

“Much of Japan’s media output can only be considered a vast waste of human talent and resources,” McNeill blasts. The cost of a reluctance to challenge authority is seen in such cases as Yamaichi Securities, with nervous editors at the Nikkei Shimbun “spiking” a story about its hidden losses some three years before its collapse with debts exceeding ¥300 billion.

With Fukushima’s troubled nuclear plant still attracting headlines, the topic of nuclear and renewable energy is given a whole section of the book. Readers of Kingston’s previous works will be familiar with his attacks on the “nuclear village,” although Rikkyo University professor Andrew DeWit provides some optimism on the growth of “eco-model cities” and the potential emergence of a “distributed power revolution.”

International affairs is one section where the work would have particularly benefited from Japanese analysts. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Japan comes in for heavy criticism from the Western authors over its alleged failure to “come to terms with its past” concerning World War II and its relationships with China and South Korea.

Nevertheless, Cornell University’s Mark Selden casts blame further afield when he attributes the current island disputes involving Japan and its neighbors to the 1952 San Francisco Treaty. He accuses Washington of sowing the seeds of current conflicts by deliberately leaving specific boundaries “vague or unresolved,” thereby forging an “Arc of Crisis.”

Temple University, Japan’s Tina Burrett suggests a resolution over the Northern Territories dispute, in particular, remains unlikely given domestic political considerations on both sides, while the University of Connecticut’s Alexis Dudden warns of more trouble ahead over Okinawa and its U.S. bases.

The final two sections deal with social issues including demographics, minorities and women’s rights, with Kingston noting that “for women in Japan, careers and children are far too much of an either/or situation” despite the massive potential economic gains for the nation from a more equal workforce.

Academics Robert Dujarric and Ayumi Takenaka challenge Japan’s seeming international isolation, pointing to the negative consequences of low levels of foreign direct investment and foreign workers compared to Western nations, and Japan’s under-representation at global institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank compared to its financial commitments.

However, the proverbial “elephant in the room” for the work is the lack of economic analysis, without which it is difficult to identify how agricultural, energy, labor, trade and other identified reforms can be properly addressed.

It is difficult to discern much optimism in the book concerning the future of the Japanese economy, or indeed society in the face of the challenges presented. While Abe wins some praise for securing the nation’s entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, there is little to suggest a renaissance of the type asserted by the reformist prime minister.

Readers seeking a more in-depth appraisal would best consider other works written post-Fukushima, such as “After the Great East Japan Earthquake” edited by Dominic Al-Badri and Gijs Berends, or “Reimagining Japan” from McKinsey & Company.

Nevertheless, Japan’s policymakers could do worse than confront rather than ignore the issues raised in Kingston’s latest compilation, should they truly wish to deliver the promised new dawn.

  • Anthony Fensom

    Dear Jeff

    Thanks for your comment. However, I was merely trying to suggest that having a few more Japanese contributors would have benefitted the work overall (not just in relation to history). Any other inference concerning alleged biases etc is unfounded.

  • Jeff Kingston

    I appreciate that Fensom may not deserve being tagged with
    hanging a “JAPANESE ONLY” sign outside the entrance to Japanese studies. I see that he is trying to back away from the unambiguous assertions
    that he made in his review about an alleged bias in the chapter concerning
    Japan’s history problem. But Fensom has not answered why we need help from
    Japanese historians. He has also not indicated what set him off about our
    critique of Japan’s history problem. Rather than disqualifying our eminent
    historian for being non-Japanese, Fensom should engage his arguments and rebut them if he can. The historian he attacks is a long- term resident of Japan, fluent in Japanese, employed by a Japanese university that hired him based on merit not nationality. This acclaimed scholar has a satchel full of books and peer-reviewed articles to his credit. Fensom’s ad hominem attack is insulting and improper in a book review.
    Fensom repeats his suggestion that our volume would benefit from more Japanese contributors, but does not explain why.
    Is there a “Fensom Quota” we should be aiming for? His emphasis on the nationality of professional social scientists makes a mockery of a system that judges people by what they achieve not their nationality. Our Japanese contributors all hold doctorates from non-Japanese universities, does that disqualify them? Our Burmese contributor holds a doctorate from a Japanese university and we have all spent considerable time working and researching in Japan. These cosmopolitan realities of the social sciences make Fensom’s insistence on nationality look silly and irrelevant.