It is no secret that the tectonic plates of the American empire are slipping dramatically, though the vast majority of Americans are blissfully unaware or in denial of what may soon occur.
British historian Niall Ferguson recently described the American empire as “fragile,” and likened its state to that of a forest before a fire — one of “self-organized criticality” in which, though the dry woods appear peaceful, savage fire can erupt at any moment.
Pick your metaphor as you will, but the empire itself is overextended, overleveraged and, speaking from a Japanese perspective, over here. And if that empire were to tumble off its imperial pillars, Japan would be sure to suffer some serious consequences.
Japanese pride themselves on the caliber of their preparedness, but regarding the impending disaster across the Pacific they are in a state of impassive denial almost on a par with their American mentors. Is there nothing they can do but wait on these shores until the tsunami arrives?
I have given a great deal of thought over the past decades to a Japan that would be able to withstand a sudden — or, if you prefer, a gradual — American decline, and yet emerge stronger. The list below is no collection of off-the-wall visions, gossamer ideas blown away with ease by the hot air of politics. Please read on.
In Japan, we must pragmatically and realistically begin thinking outside the box of policy possibility, if only as a contingency plan for survival. A shift amounting to little short of a national reinvention is necessary to restore the economy to robustness and prepare it for the encroaching U.S.-triggered crisis.
The first move in such a shift ought to be to Japan’s reorienting of its diplomacy away from U.S. confrontationalism in Asia.
Until the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the U.S. had generally succeeded in combining genuinely idealistic aid, gentle diplomatic pressure and not-so-gentle military force to achieve its position of preeminent power in the world. But since 2001, the U.S. has seriously overbalanced in the direction of force in an overextension of power typical of empires edging toward the brink.
The U.S. may see China as a threat to its hegemony, but there is no need for Japan to think of China in a similar vein. The Japanese word raibaru, derived from the English word “rival,” has a somewhat softer connotation in Japanese — akin to “friendly rival.”
The cultural affinities between China and Japan, spanning a millennium and a half, will bear more on their future relationship than the political turmoil of the half-century between the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the end of World War II in 1945. That turmoil was marked by internal weakness in China that Japan exploited in establishing its empire. Now, however, both Chinese weakness and a Japanese lust for empire are things of the past.
A reorientation of diplomacy would place Japan in a mediatory position between the U.S. and China — the role perfectly suited to a people who, historically and culturally, understand both sides intimately.
Second — and as a part of this reorientation — Japan should make permanent peace with Russia and both Koreas.
Compromising on the so-called Northern Territories issues, known in Russia as the Problem over the Ownership of the Southern Kurile Islands, would be a first and important step in that direction. It also would signal to the world that the Japanese government is not captive to the fringe revanchist group that demands back all four of those islands seized by the Soviets in 1945.
As for relations with the countries of the Korean Peninsula, Japan should move toward gradual reconciliation with the North, while offering apologies and compensation to all Korean victims of its invasion and occupation. A resolution of the abduction issue can be reached more effectively in this way than through constant hostile confrontation with a regime that has proven it does not respond to belligerent challenges.
The keyword of the third part of this vision for Japan’s future is “stability.”
If there is one thing that Japanese society excels at it is stability. In fact, one wishes at times for less stability and a bit more dynamic shaking up of the status quo.
The Japanese model of growth and consolidation of personal income is the cornerstone of its stable development. Japan has shown the developing world that economic progress that does not sacrifice social harmony and traditional customs is possible; and this is something most desirable for China, in particular.
Most developing countries are faced with the dilemma of remaining poor or kneeling before the altar-facade of Western — read “American” — political rhetoric. The result of this is a string of reactionary regimes around the world that are more at home with the Americans than they are with their own downtrodden people, who may often reject Western- style modernization and end up clinging to backward local customs instead.
Japanese societal norms, stressing harmony and minimal economic trauma, are potentially great gifts to the developing countries of Asia. In order to transfer this knowhow, it is necessary to open the doors of Japan to skilled Asian migrants, bringing them to Japan on assisted programs, seeing them through a six-month language-training regime while paying them to learn, and helping to place them in the workforce. If and when they return to their home countries, they will do so with Japanese tools.
Japanese universities are today eager to attract students from elsewhere in Asia, but they are not doing enough to actively recruit them. The model here is U.S. universities, where generations of leaders from all over the world were welcomed and educated. Teams of Japanese educationalists should be all over Asia with attractive offers in hand.
Finally, why is Japanese secondary and tertiary education so hung up on the exclusive study of English? The study of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai and Hindi, among other Asian languages, should be introduced. The number of Japanese universities where such languages, with the exception of Chinese, are taught is pathetically low. English is vital, yes. But a working knowledge of another Asian language would give Japanese business people, scholars and artists a marked advantage in a century that is already being called “Asian.”
Believe it or not, I am not pessimistic about the possibility of the Japanese people moving toward this vision, since they are fundamentally non-ideological in their approach to foreign politics. Neither are they bound by the heavy rusted chains of religious dogma. Indeed, in the mid-19th century they proved themselves resilient to change at times of great social upheaval as the country was opened to the world following 250 years of national isolation — just as they did, again, in the mid-20th century after the near-total destruction of their country and savaging of their national ethos.
If historian Niall Ferguson is right about “self-organized criticality,” then the American empire is all tall trees and tinder. But if Americans can’t see the forest for those trees, why should others pretend not to? To wait for the conflagration and then seek an escape route is to condemn yourself to the flames.
One of the traditional procedures of hi no yojin (guarding against fire) is: “Do not locate burnable things in the vicinity of your home, and create a domestic environment in which fires will not occur.” Good advice from an old source, showing that a reinvention is really a reorientation of processes that, in some ways, are already in place.