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‘Strange’ is the new ‘normal’ for 2012

by Michael Hoffman

“Whatever happens won’t be strange.”

Thus the weekly Shukan Gendai sums up the prospects for the year now dawning.

Shaken by 2011, we face the blank slate that is 2012. Mankind’s history of trying to read the future is very long. We’ve sought clues in animal entrails, the flight of birds, the pattern of tea leaves, the configuration of the stars. Nowadays we look to rational analysis. Is it any better? Not if 2011 is any indication. It was a jolting, jarring year, none of whose defining events, from sovereign debt crises to revolution to nuclear meltdown, was foreseen or prepared for.

Still, a new year begins with predictions. It’s a tradition, and a human need. The general tenor of such exercises in Japan over the past 20 years has been pessimistic. Gloom is hard to rise above in a chronically depressed economy. An intensifying environmental crisis doesn’t help, nor do politicians, in Japan and elsewhere, who seem pathetically unequal to, and sometimes scarcely conscious of, the world-transforming challenges they are elected to manage.

Analysts typically look at the past year and say, in effect, “The coming year will be more of the same, only worse.” The formula has served them well for nearly a generation — why abandon it now? “Whatever happens won’t be strange” — unless, Shukan Gendai might have added, “whatever happens” is good. Favorable developments are on nobody’s radar. Good, as matters stand, would seem to require a miracle. Miracles happen, but analysts don’t deal with them. And so the prospects we must contemplate include “world economic meltdown,” a “super-high yen” that is ruinous to the giant manufacturing exporters that power Japan’s economy, and political turmoil that could see yet another prime minister fall within a year of taking office with no commanding figure in the wings to replace him.

Sunday Mainichi magazine offers its own package of predictions, no less grim — grimmer, in fact, because it includes war. There is “a very high possibility,” a researcher it consults says, of the United States attacking Iran before this month is over. On Dec. 4 Iran got its hands on a crashed American drone, with its high-tech secrets intact, to be exploited by Iran itself or perhaps sold to China or Russia. Election-year pressure could push President Barack Obama into a display of toughness. How that would affect America’s friendliest ally, Japan, is not discussed. Profoundly, in any case. Japan courts American protection against rising China and increasingly unpredictable North Korea. It also courts oil suppliers, of which Iran is one.

Speaking of North Korea, Sunday Mainichi sees the April 15 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s deified founding father, Kim Il Sung, as a natural occasion for a grand gesture — a nuclear bomb test, for instance. The magazine went to press before the sudden death last month of Kim’s son and successor, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, whose own son, young and untried, has abruptly inherited the family dynasty. Does the transition make this poke in the world’s eye more likely, or less? “Whatever happens won’t be strange.”

Here’s something strange — or perhaps not. In Japan, says Sunday Mainichi, masculinity is dying, nearing an extinction as absolute as that of the prehistoric mammoth, of which more in a moment. A commonplace of pop sociology over the past few years is that Japanese men have evolved from “carnivores” to “herbivores.” Now the evolution has gone further, the latest emergence being “sweet boys,” young men who prefer baking and consuming cakes and cookies to the activities favored by the red-blooded “carnivorous” males of yesteryear, namely drinking and chasing women. One expression gaining traction is that men have been “freed from the spell of masculinity.” It will be interesting to see where that leads.

Mammoth bones, remarkably well-preserved, were dug up in Siberia last August. In a few years, a cloned mammoth may walk the very Earth its ancestors last trod 10,000-odd years ago. Japan’s Kinki University is playing a key role, extracting DNA from cells in the unearthed bones. A mammoth symposium is slated for Russia in March, with Kinki University scientists among the participants. Woolly mammoth, meet sweet boy.

Sunday Mainichi’s and Shukan Gendai’s political experts agree on this much: Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, in office all of five months, “is fast approaching his use-by date,” as Shukan Gendai puts it. “Not if, but when,” says the magazine of Noda’s political demise. The issue is the consumption tax, which he is committed to raising. Already nine members of his own Democratic Party of Japan have bolted; the opposition scents blood. Elections this year are seen as a near certainty, as are heavy DPJ losses.

What then? Among a flurry of possibilities, Shukan Gendai raises an interesting one. With neither the DPJ nor the opposition-leading Liberal Democratic Party likely to impress a jaded electorate, the center-right, low-tax, small-government Your Party could emerge from the fringes, its cooperation with either of the larger parties contingent upon its leader, Yoshimi Watanabe, being named prime minister. The person to watch in a Watanabe administration would be less Watanabe himself than his close ally, former Osaka Prefecture governor and current Osaka City Mayor Toru Hashimoto — not a candidate himself because of his recent election to the mayoralty on a pledge to fuse the city and prefectural administrations. Like him or not — and those who dub his governing style “Hashism” obviously do not — he is the most dynamic, charismatic politician on the scene. He would make a formidable éminence grise, biding his time until he can be a formidable eminence period. To discern where a battered Japan goes from here, he looks like the man to watch.