Books

'Japan' by Jeff Kingston: Taking stock of a country in a time of transition and change

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Anyone following Japanese politics in national newspapers over the past 30 years of the Heisei Era (1989-2019) might be congratulated on keeping track of what often seems to the rest of the world like pretty colorless current affairs — excruciating sagas of corruption scandals, periodically enlivened by territorial disputes over islands and fierce debates over consumption tax.

Japan, by Jeff Kingston.
240 pages
Polity, Nonfiction.

But, as Jeff Kingston argues in “Japan,” a concise, highly readable overview of Japan’s political evolution from 1945 to the present, observed from an overarching historical perspective, there are important patterns to be seen. We are in the process, Kingston contends, of Japan’s “third transformation,” following its embrace of radical industrial reform after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and then the country’s reinvention of itself as a pacifist, economy-first democracy after World War II.

This third transformation may see Japan move from an economy based on manufacturing to one with a greater dependency on the service industry, and from a pacifist nation into one with an offensive military capability.

The policies of the American Occupation of 1945-52 — turning away from prosecution of suspected Class-A war criminals and the thoroughgoing purge of the zaibatsu with the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947 — helped foster “Japan Inc.,” the nexus of government and corporate interests, often at the expense of the welfare of the general populace.

In the 1980s, when the strength of the Japanese economy led to surging stock and real-estate prices that caught the attention of the world, the close workings of corporations and government bureaucracy through the practice of amakudari (“descent from heaven”) was much admired. High-level bureaucrats defecting at retirement to well-paid advisory positions on company boards seemed like part of the secret recipe that was allowing Japan to conquer the world.

But with the asset bubble collapse and ongoing economic malaise, the practice is now perceived as a chief cause of sclerosis and corruption, though it became so ingrained that it has proved extremely difficult to stamp out. Witnessing the practices that are at the heart of “Japan Inc.,” it’s perhaps not surprising that a slew of companies from Recruit Holdings Co. to Sagawa Express Co. attempted to buy themselves political leverage and government contracts by utilizing the gray areas of the law.

On the domestic front, Kingston pinpoints the demographic changes that have negatively impacted Japan’s social equilibrium and sense of contentment. When the baby-boom generation in lifetime employment positions hit their maximum earning levels in the 1990s, the response of the corporations — still reeling and uncertain from the bubble economy collapse — was to hire cheap, nonregular staff, leading to kakusa shakai, a society with a surge in wealth disparities between the haves and have-nots.

The current demographic time bomb — with 27 percent of the population over age 65 and the population projected to fall to 100 million by 2050 — leads to one startling calculation that 381,000 immigrants a year are needed to maintain Japan’s working-age population. Resistance to immigration, however, following a flawed policy introduced in 1990 of accepting back Brazilian Nikkei, remains intense, even while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been attempting to introduce new time-limited forms of immigration.

Internationally, Kingston portrays Japan as an American vassal state, forced to accept the junior, submissive role in the arrangement of American geopolitical interests, signing up to the American-imposed “peace constitution” and its clear renunciation of offensive capacity, and now, paradoxically, increasingly under the cosh of the Americans to shoulder the burden of regional security and containment of China.

The historical background of the first five chapters leads to the climactic final analysis of “Abe’s Japan,” in which Kingston lets rip on a prime minister who he remarks “has done more than all his predecessors combined to deliver on the Pentagon’s long standing wish list” beginning with his (seemingly unconstitutional) collective self-defense legislation of 2015 and continuing with the siding with Washington over vociferous local opposition in the construction of a new airbase on Okinawa.

Kingston sees the revision of Article 9 (the famous renunciation of war clause) of the Constitution as Abe’s main, long-standing policy objective rather than the dubious confection of Abenomics — a mix of quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus that lacks the essential “third arrow” of structural reform.

Abe’s concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as his support for controversial historical revisionism that refuses to fully acknowledge Japan’s war guilt, also comes under sustained attack.

All of this is reasonable enough, but perhaps rather downplayed are some of the counterbalancing forces that have prompted a defensively conservative brand of politics in Japan. It would be enlightening to have some discussion of the ways in which the governments of China and South Korea have found historical animosities with Japan a convenient card to play to distract their own populaces. Similarly, it would have been interesting to examine the impact of America’s hugely divisive culture wars on Japan.

Kingston’s book is prefaced on the concept that Japan is a culture of forced constraint of individual expression, where “the nail that sticks out is hammered,” accounting for the continuing acceptance of conservative governments often acting contrary to public interest — whether covering up the devastating effects of Minamata disease, covertly allowing American nuclear weapons on to Japanese territory or restarting nuclear reactors that, in the wake of Fukushima, appear like a ticking time bomb in Japan’s future.

A strong tradition of dissent exists within Japan, Kingston argues, but protest is often transformed into an “unhappening” by simply not being reported in the mainstream media in the name of preserving wa (harmony). Looked at from the perspective of the savage tribal divisions currently rife in the U.S. and U.K., the sense of “harmony” prized in Japan, for all its flaws and frustrations, is perhaps not to be taken lightly.