When the pop singer Justin Bieber was in Japan in the spring of 2014 he asked his driver to make an impromptu stop at a shrine in Tokyo. Naturally, Bieber posted some photos of his shrine visit online, but instead of getting likes, his photos prompted outrage. Bieber, like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before him, had — albeit inadvertently — dropped by the Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of millions of war dead are enshrined, including those of war criminals. Sensing a PR disaster, Bieber quickly apologized with the classic nonapology apology: “To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry.” He finished by declaring: “I love you China and I love you Japan.”

Modern Japan, by Jonathan Clements
John Murray, Nonfiction.

“Japan might learn something from his (Bieber’s) readiness to apologize,” writes Jonathan Clements in “Modern Japan: All That Matters.” Clements uses the Bieber vignette to espouse on a few points about the “heavily politicized shrine,” which frequently threatens Japan’s diplomatic ties with Korea and China.

“Japan’s wartime past continues to matter deeply to those still waiting for an apology for the Burma Railway, the Rape of Nanking or the use of Korean ‘comfort women.’ Few of these issues matter to the Japanese, many of whom are products of a euphemistic education that denies there is anything to apologize for,” Clements writes.

“Modern Japan” spans the period of a single lifetime — about 60 years — beginning with the Occupation, through to the halcyon bubble years and the long economic stagnation of the 1990s and 2000s, the 3/11 disaster, and ending at the present day. Clements lived here in the ’90s, first as a translator in the anime industry and then as an editor. A prolific writer, Clements has written books about anime as well as Japanese history; he currently lives between Finland and China, where he is a visiting professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

Coming in at under 140 pages, “Modern Japan” can be digested in a single sitting: “It’s a crash course you can take on the plane to Tokyo, with enough of an evolving argument so that the more you read, the more it reinforces a sense of what I think visitors need to know to hold their own in conversations and to comprehend what’s going on around them,” Clements says.

A book this concise presents challenges, above all, the question of what information can be sacrificed.

“I spent several days at the beginning just paralyzed with the size of the job of throwing stuff out! I ended up asking myself: ‘If I was stumbling off a plane at Narita, what would I really need to know?’ ”

Because of its limits, Clements adopts a mostly descriptive outlook. Readers won’t find a panacea for the range of disparate problems facing Japan, but they will get a grounding on some of Japan’s seemingly insurmountable problems: a rapidly shrinking and aging population; “Abenomics” and the quest to reverse two decades in which economic growth has averaged at 1 percent; and “Bieber diplomacy” aka geopolitics in East Asia.

“I almost feel sorry for Abe. I look around him and ask, ‘Where is the loyal opposition with viable alternatives? Are there any viable alternatives?’ He’s pinning a lot of hope on the 2020 Olympics, and the opportunity they’ll offer for investment and infrastructure, but he’s inherited a system that is already trying to tax its way out of the problems it had before he came into office. He’s steering the Titanic, and it hit the iceberg 20 years ago,” says Clements.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of World War II; all eyes and ears will be on Abe’s response to the war. While nobody is expecting him to declare his love for China, or Korea, as Bieber did, both countries want greater atonement.

“The scars of World War II run awfully deep. I’ve had a high-ranking Chinese professor, who majored in Japanese, literally choking back tears as he explained how he felt — not only that the Japanese have not sufficiently atoned, but that the younger generation are seemingly unaware what they should even be atoning for,” Clements says.

“I expect that whatever Abe says in August 2015, it’s going to be reported differently depending on where you are. In China, Abe’s popular profile is very much based on foreign policy. The Chinese are understandably jumpy about any decision that is liable to increase the reach and presence of the Japanese military.” The irony here is that the main driver of Japan’s remilitarization is China’s militarization.

Clements bookends his concise history with a series of listicles intended to guide and advise readers on all things Japanese. Some of these undoubtedly stem from his own experiences here.

It’s a challenge to distill modern Japan into a short book; what Clements has included will ground you and get you thinking.

“Japan is still living five years into the future,” he says, “but whereas that was once a breathless boast of oncoming technologies and trends, today it’s a warning of the crises that could also face the developed world as a whole.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.