It has been an eventful year for Japan since David Pilling’s “Bending Adversity” was published to critical acclaim. For many, including its reviewer in The Japan Times, the book was considered one of the year’s — if not the decade’s — best books about Japan.

Bending Adversity, by David Pilling
416 pages.
Penguin, Nonfiction.

“Bending Adversity” takes a detailed look at Japan during the bubble years and the lost decades since, and with a new edition set to be released this month, I took the opportunity to speak with Pilling — currently the Asia editor of the Financial Times — about how his book has aged in light of recent events.

“I would’ve had more on Abe,” he says, in response to a question about what he would have done differently. “In my original draft there was quite a lot. Like him or loathe him, I think he’s the most important Japanese prime minister for 20 years.”

That importance is clearly tied in with Japan’s security and foreign policy situation, which has changed significantly over the past 12 months. Re-reading the book’s chapter on the 2004 Iraq hostage crisis as the kidnapping of Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa was unfolding, I was struck by the difference in responses between the two situations. Does the public support for Goto in the wake of his death — compared with the vitriol that greeted the returning hostages in 2004 — foreshadow a change in the public mood toward security? Pilling sees two probable responses.

“One is ‘If you go out into this hostile world then this is what’s going to happen. Better to retreat to a peaceful Japan.’ Abe is on the other side of it, saying ‘Japan must stand up’ — that will resonate,” he says.

But Pilling feels the Middle East is not high on the list of pressing issues for Abe.

“China will be the swing factor. I’ve seen that change in the time I’ve been engaged with Japan. There is much more nervousness and impatience with the anti-Japanese rhetoric. Abe plays into that.”

Pilling’s central thesis in “Bending Adversity” is that modern Japan can be defined by one question: How does it engage with the rest of the world?

“After the Meiji Restoration, Japan had to deal with the world, otherwise the world was going to deal with it. That led to imperialism and disaster.” A line was drawn by the American occupation and the question, in a sense, remained unanswered. But what about after the war?

“Japan wanted to become a ‘great’ nation by proving it could become as good as the West in economic and technological terms,” says Pilling.

The collapse of the bubble and the lost decades that followed seem to suggest the economic miracle wasn’t the answer.

So what is? If the events of 2011 weren’t enough to jolt the country out of its rut, it’s hard to imagine what else could. Pilling suspects that Japan would need a huge existential crisis to really unleash the kind of mass civil disobedience Japan experienced in the 1960s when students protested in the streets and passionately argued for a better future.

He should know. Pilling is now based in Hong Kong where recent civil unrest and mass protests brought the city to a standstill. He dismisses the anti-nuclear movement in Japan as in any way comparable.

“I think it was quite telling that after the Fukushima disaster the anti-nuclear movement was much bigger in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets. The Germans took quite radical action in terms of nuclear policy. You didn’t see anything on that scale in Japan.”

Some see no end to the problems. Recently Nobel laureate Shuji Nakamura urged young people to leave Japan if they are at all ambitious. Perhaps history is to blame?

“Japan has never had a real bottom-up revolution. The Meiji Restoration was organized top-down. After the Second World War, Japan changed direction radically but that was directed by an occupying force.”

After the turmoil of the 1960s, he says, “the Japanese people were weaned off radicalism and onto the idea that their lives would get better by dint of economic progress. The contract was broken after the collapse of the bubble.”

“Bending Adversity” was researched between 2002 and 2008, while Pilling was Tokyo bureau chief for the Financial Times, and the result is a synthesis of years of interviews and research.

“One thing I was very keen to do was to allow Japanese people to speak, arguing across each other and with each other, because I wanted to show that Japan is a much more diverse, argumentative place than many people give it credit for,” he says of his approach to that research.

It may be disconcerting when someone such as former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is allowed to present some of his more repugnant ideas without direct criticism, but balance and objectivity require it.

In the interview, Pilling is as even-handed as he is in his book, choosing not to take a position on many of the issues he raises.

“You could definitely criticize my book for not coming down hard on one position or the other. To me the world is essentially gray, muddy, interesting,” he says.

His presentation and style suggest he thinks the answer should be left to the Japanese to work out for themselves, but there is no end in sight for writers who will continue to offer up solutions in ‘state of the nation’ books like “Bending Adversity.”

“I understand why people think Japan is this strange, different place that they can’t quite grasp,” he says. “I’m not immune to that, but intellectually I’m quite critical of the whole idea. I think it’s a fetish.”

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