With its economy spluttering, large parts of its northeastern region still devastated by the effects of the mammoth Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 — and releases of radioactive materials that followed — its population shrinking and aging at unprecedented rates and its citizens despairing of dysfunctional politics, Japan’s entry into a new Year of the Snake appears unlikely to yield much of the steady progress that these years traditionally herald.

Indeed, the country’s myriad problems — including fundamental divisions over such crucial issues as energy, defense and trade policies — can appear so deep-seated as to make it difficult to know even how to begin to set things right.
In an effort to cast some light into this darkness, The Japan Times has enlisted a range of especially talented individuals to respond to a simple question: What are the three most important things that Japan must do in 2013?

Comprising business people, artists, academics and politicians, our 10 respondents offer a stimulating and diverse array of suggestions to help this country reset its course for the better before 2014’s Year of the Horse gallops in with all its supposed symbolism of nobility, class, speed and perseverance …

Yoshiharu Fukuhara

A grandson of Arinobu Fukuhara, who founded today’s Shiseido Co. Ltd. as Shiseido Pharmacy in 1872, Yoshiharu Fukuhara devoted his career to the family firm, leading it for more than a decade through 2001 and overseeing its rise to become one of the world’s largest cosmetics companies. Long active as an advocate for cultural policy reform, he has been Director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography since 2000.

Once again this year, Japan — particularly in the fields of politics and the economy — will probably remain more or less at a standstill. But we can’t just complain and hold our heads low; we must think deeply about the kind of country we want to leave for the next generation and act positively to create that. To do that, we should:

1) Develop the ability to see the unseeable: We can’t just rush to embrace whatever simplistic buzzwords politicians and the media throw at us. We must voice our responses to them clearly — yes or no — and, in addition, we must develop the ability to see the truth that lies hidden behind the data we are shown. The key lies in improving education, in a broad sense.

2) Value diversity: In the name of specialization, modern life has tended to divide human beings into narrow categories. But the fact is that there is no such thing as an economics person, a cultural person or a consumer; each person not only works, but makes, consumes and plays. We have to think about the world as we would about individuals — with myriad components.

3) Reappraise the world along the often undervalued axis of culture: Culture is something that is born from humans’ desire to live a better life. If each and every one of us creates his or her own idea of richness, and expresses that to the world in their own way, then it will contribute to Japan’s strength as a nation, and we will be able to create a country that has a clear role — and a clear value in and to the world.

Noriko Hama

An economics professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business in Kyoto, Noriko Hama is also a Japan Times columnist.

I believe that the three things Japan should do in 2013 are raise wages, raise interest rates — and cut the crap.

The deflationary spiral refuses to budge because people’s wages do not go up. People whose earnings are stagnating are justifiably cautious about spending. To the extent that people remain cautious about spending, domestic demand in Japan will never reach levels satisfactory enough to make the economy go round in an acceptable way.

The same goes for interest rates. A zero rate of interest may be a blessing to borrowers, but it is anathema to people who depend on income from their assets for a living. Retired senior citizens who looked forward to a leisurely life on the strength of such income have had their hopes shattered. You cannot bully people into spending their money when they have much less of it at their disposal than they had assumed would be the case.

The crap that needs cutting is the notion that growth is the cure-all and rising prices would resolve all our problems.

Growth is, of course, nice when you can get it. But if you are a fully grown being it is only logical to assume that you will not be doing that much growing anymore. Indeed, if wages and interest rates are allowed to go up and people’s spending levels also go up accordingly, that may result in a reasonable rate of overall economic growth after all. It will be nothing spectacular, but it doesn’t need to be in a mature economy such as ours.

As for prices, the worst possible situation is one in which prices go up but wages do not. That could indeed be the straw that breaks the camel’s back — even the back of such a very large camel as the Japanese economy.

Yusuke Iseya

Yusuke Iseya is a popular actor, with film credits that include “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007) and “Thirteen Assassins” (2010). He also founded, and currently directs, the Rebirth Project, a grassroots project for recycling.

1) Have an appreciation of the long-term changes affecting mankind and the environment. The first step would be for people who are alive today to reappraise their way of life. That is essential for sustainable life on this planet.

2) Understand and actually formulate and act on proposals to implement a new kind of Internet-enabled democracy — so-called Crowd Government, or Gov 2.0.

Whether at the level of nation states or individuals, problems can be understood and shared through their presentation on the Internet. Through online discourse, people are able to become conscious of problems as being their own, and thus be more inclined to actually find solutions. That process itself will lead to their own personal maturing. Too often, Japanese people view the future as something that someone else will determine. However, it is something one must create oneself.

3) Understand “education” for what it really is: the way to make the future. The thoughts and actions of adults, and way that those are passed on to children — this is the process by which the future is made.

Toyo Ito

Toyo Ito is one of Japan’s best-known contemporary architects. His buildings include the Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture (2001), the Italian luxury footwear retailer TOD’s Omotesando Building in Tokyo (2004) and the 55,000- capacity, multipurpose National Stadium in Kaohsiung, southwestern Taiwan (2009).

1) Reconstruction planning that is genuinely suited to local conditions: At present, reconstruction efforts in areas of the Tohoku region affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011 are being led by the central bureaucracy, and they are being applied across the board without regard to local conditions. A new approach should be adopted immediately — one that takes into account the unique history and culture of that region and that is led by the residents themselves. If we don’t move now on this, the towns there will come to resemble the kind of bland urban sprawl that currently surrounds Japan’s large cities. This should not be seen as an opportunity to “modernize” the area. In Japan’s rush to “modernize” after the war, that part of the country was left behind, and for this very reason it now has the potential to become a model for the kind of society and environment that should come next.

2) Shift to a kind of lifestyle that is open to nature: There is much in the lifestyle of those people from the northeast — their relationship with nature, the importance they place on social communication — that those in Japan’s lonely cities can learn from. In the cities, people are severed entirely from the natural environment; their homogenous, artificial surroundings make them lose their innate animal sensibilities. By restoring the kind of lifestyle that Japanese people used to have — a lifestyle that was open to nature — the nation’s people and towns could become greatly enlivened.

3) Create a uniquely Japanese model of an energy-efficient society: The kind of lifestyle suggested above will also make possible the development of a uniquely Japanese energy-efficient society. The Western model of closing a building off from the natural environment and trying to improve thermal insulation is ultimately incompatible with the traditional Japanese relationship with nature. Now is the time to reconsider the modernization carried out in the 20th century — when we simply imported Western culture wholesale — and instead create a lifestyle model that adopts instead of denies Japan’s traditional culture.

Lin Kobayashi

A former student at a Canadian boarding high school, and graduate of both the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California, Lin Kobayashi is now Executive Director, Foundation for International School of Asia, Karuizawa, which is set to open in 2014 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, as Japan’s first residential international high school.

We’re told that the population of Japan will decrease by about 30 million by 2050. For Japan to be able to sustain economic growth, the key task it faces is to improve its rate of workforce participation. To do that, I think three things are necessary: 1) Measures to stem the decline in the number of children being born; 2) Activation of women in the workforce; and 3) Immigration.

Addressing the decline in the number of children being born would be the most basic way to deal with the problem, but any improvement there will only have an impact on the working population in 20 years’ time. I think what we have to do immediately is provide the female population with diverse work options, improve graduation rates across the board and positively accept, educate and enable the activation in the workplace of immigrants.

As a corollary to that, we have to create a society capable of accepting that diversity, and to do so we have to change education. At our school, which will provide education at the high school level, we will accept students with diverse backgrounds from around the world and, as a boarding school, we will nurture tolerance of diversity. It is just one small experiment, but hopefully we can be a catalyst for further change throughout the entire Japanese education system.

Tetsuya Kumakawa

After a decade with the Royal Ballet in London that saw him become its first-ever principal dancer from Asia, Tetsuya Kumakawa returned to Japan and founded the K-Ballet Company in Tokyo in 1999. While remaining as K-Ballet’s artistic director, in 2012 he was appointed to the same position at the city’s highly prestigious Bunkamura Orchard Hall.

For one, Japan should be concerned that its government has been adopting ambiguous attitudes toward neighboring countries. As a nation, Japan should have firm ideas on issues and create a mechanism through which to put such ideas into action.

Secondly, Japan should make earnest efforts to cultivate people who can lead the nation and negotiate on an equal footing with those from abroad. In schools we should educate students in such a way that each of them would start thinking about current affairs and the historical

backgrounds to them as being their own concerns. We should also create more opportunities for students to exchange their views through discussions.

Lastly, I hope to see more people exhibiting human sensitivities. To express something is to express yourself. I hope Japan will have more people with the strength to lead the nation culturally. Public (national and local government) support for the arts has been subject to cuts, but without arts there can be no real prosperity for a nation.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa

As an academic fellow at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Kiyoshi Kurokawa served as chairman of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. In its report released in July 2012, Kurokawa famously branded the three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011 as “a disaster made in Japan” — to a significant degree due to the socialization process in the country.

1) To create a Diet-commissioned independent panel for important issues such as the disposal of spent fuels from nuclear power plants, just like the panel set up in the wake of the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The Fukushima accident commission’s work marked the first attempt in Japan to make a separation of the three powers (legislature, administration and judiciary) function in the government of this democratic country. Currently, there is no clear demarcation of those branches — in particular of the legislative and administrative branches. Rather, the very strong administrative arms of each of the quite independent ministries craft most policies based on their own rigid agendas, so depriving the nation of the basis for a functioning democracy. And among the bureaucrats, as may be expected, those at the Finance Ministry command virtually all the powers.

2) To rapidly expand, promote and support study-abroad programs and student exchanges from the junior high school level all the way up to graduate levels, both short-term and long-term. It’s extremely important, in this age of globalization, for Japanese people to spend some time abroad as individuals before they start working and assume a corporate or organizational identity. If you live abroad at a young age, you will cultivate a healthy sense of patriotism toward your home country, because while staying abroad you will be asked a lot of questions about Japan and feel as if each one of you is an ambassador. You can also make friends with people you could do business with in the future in this highly interconnected, global world.

3) To promote and support women’s advances in society. Japan should create a quota for female executives. To help achieve that, it should be made easier for women to hire babysitters and nursing-care providers from overseas by easing visa regulations for them. More places should also be made available at daycare centers, too. Japan ranked 101st in gender equality out of 135 countries in 2012, according to the World Economic Forum, despite the percentages of women going to college and graduate schools being on a par with their male counterparts. By utilizing female talent, Japan can incorporate different ways of thinking, working and governing.

Hideki Noda:

One of Japan’s leading dramatists, Hideki Noda has also been the artistic director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre since 2009. From April 9, he will appear on stage at that publicly funded theater in the title role of “L’honneur de Napoleon,” a new play written and directed by dramatist Koki Mitani. This will be the first time for Noda to appear in a play written by anyone other than himself.

I can’t come up with three things, but I feel strongly about one thing.

Just about everyone seems be preoccupied with the economy, saying how it is bad and how we must bounce back economically. But what’s important to remember is that many Japanese are not proud of the country’s cultural assets. I wonder why nobody comes up with a plan to invest in cultural projects from the viewpoint of creating jobs, for example. People only think that the economy is born out of the narrowly defined so-called “economy,” but if you think seriously enough, cultural projects make great public works undertakings. I hope (the policymakers) will abandon the idea of spending public money only on what is visible. I hope the government will help finance big projects taking place on the front lines of culture, whether they involve music, paintings or drama.

For example, the theater I’m in charge of is short of staff. Even when we have good ideas, we don’t have enough people to put them into action. When you compare that with the situation in South Korea, the lack of funding is utterly striking in Japan. Exposing young people to great cultural performances by inviting top-notch artists to Japan would no doubt add to their assets and enrich their thinking, but often our budget only allows us to invite one out of many great groups from abroad. So even when we host an “international” festival, it’s not really international.

Also, public support for cultural projects comes on a year-to-year basis. I don’t think our theater is doing this, but some public theaters buy unnecessary items, such as chairs, at the end of the fiscal year (in March) just so they can use up the public money — just like how road repairs pop up everywhere toward the end of the fiscal year. Many public theaters also think it’s a no-no to turn a profit. I think such attitudes are unhealthy, and they must change.

Dave Spector

A Chicago native, Dave Spector’s sharp wit and fluency with the language have contributed to him remaining a regular fixture on Japanese television since the early 1980s.

First of all, despite all the negative newspaper headlines, Japan is in much better shape than people give it credit for. I have been bullish on Japan for years, and see little on the horizon to shake my confidence. I do, however, have a few tidbits of advice from the peanut gallery …

1) Become foolish: There are far too few companies or entrepreneurs working on “the next big thing” in the garages of Japan. I keep waiting for Japan to finally produce an Apple, Facebook, Twitter, etc. In Japan, we see the same venerated corporate players year after year like so much old wine in old bottles. Don’t get me wrong, Japan Inc. is still alive and well. However, my non-Japanese business friends tell me that Japan lacks both a venture-capital community with the courage to invest and young innovators willing to take the risk to follow Steve Jobs’ advice: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

2) Become a drama queen: I am a card-carrying member of Japan’s TV commentator community, and I am impressed because so much of Japanese TV is broadcast live, is highly entertaining (well, for the most part) and skillfully produced. Sadly, Japan falls short in TV drama and movies, where Hollywood — and, more recently, Japan’s Asian neighbors — just run rings around it. Japan’s postwar golden age of cinema somehow disappeared not with a bang, but with a whimper. South Korea seems much more willing than Japan to learn from abroad — apprenticing from Japan when it comes to making, say, flat-screen TVs, and from the United States when producing top-notch dramas and music with a beat you can dance to.

3) Get back in the game: Japan used to be a hot topic in the U.S., but as a result of its so-called two lost decades, Japan is simply not uppermost in the minds of people outside Japan. I would be rich if I had a dollar for every Western media article on Asia that fails even to mention Japan. All the talk seems to be about China, ad nauseam. Some smarter than me say Japan is a successful postindustrial society. Japan has to tell its story better. It’s too good of a story to keep secret.

Futoshi Toba

Futoshi Toba is mayor of the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, which was one of the communities worst-hit by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011.

1) To speed up the rebuilding process should be Japan’s top priority. It’s been one year and nine months since the disaster struck, and all this time, while we have asked the national government officials to expedite various procedures to let us move quickly into rebuilding our city, they have stalled. For example, when we have complied the legal procedures to prepare for bringing soil down from the mountains (to develop plots of land), we have just been left waiting for six months to a year. We need the national government to simplify procedures to achieve its most important objective. That’s my biggest request to the Cabinet of the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

2) Our relations with the United States are weakening, while our ties with Asian neighbors (are taking a turn for the worse). We should reinforce our ties with the U.S., but it’s even more important to improve our relations with China and South Korea. We cannot change our geographic neighbors. Abe was instrumental during the administration of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06) in working to move forward on the issue of repatriating Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea. So, with that in mind, I hope Abe will work to improve relations with the rest of Asia.

3) Japan’s inadequate crisis management needs to improve. I’m very concerned about what Japan is going to look like 10 or 15 years from now, when we will have finally managed to rebuild our communities. Many people in the countryside, like in our city, are very worried that we will head into a war again. Therefore, in addition to being friendly with our Asian neighbors, we need to be prepared for crises. This applies also to our response to the (Fukushima) nuclear crisis, which has not been good enough. In short, we lack the ability to respond quickly to crises. I hope these things will change this year.

Assisted by Nobuko Tanaka.

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