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Media pundits ponder Japan’s prospects for year ahead


With the yearend summaries behind us and the stockpile of New Years’ TV variety specials exhausted, the media turns its attention to the business of looking at Japan’s future. It’s an annual ritual that rarely results in anything edifying, but 2008 may turn out to be a watershed year.

The U.S. presidential election has the potential of offering genuine change after eight years of George W. Bush, and Japan will probably have its own general election fairly soon. With the likelihood of some kind of grand coalition growing daily, the Japanese election could also mean big changes.

Last weekend, the Asahi Shimbun invited two high-profile social critics, writer Shuichi Kato and University of Tokyo Professor Chizuko Ueno, to weigh in on Japan’s prospects for 2008, and both endeavored to look further into the future since they feel that the country is at a “turning point.” In fact, Kato, who was born in 1919, believes that Japan is facing its greatest challenge since the end of World War II.

Less apocalyptic

Ueno, who is 30 years younger, sees things in a less apocalyptic light, though she agrees that Japan is on the verge of something monumental. She also takes a more optimistic view, probably because she has more of a stake in that future than Kato does, but also because she is an empiricist. As a writer, Kato is the kind of nonacademic social theorist who is prone to big ideas, which tend to be the products of observation and contemplation rather than experience and investigation.

Both agree that the U.S. presidential election will have a huge impact on the world. Kato finds this “a problem” since he doesn’t like the idea that the Earth’s fate is in the hands of the American electorate. It’s a matter that has less to do with the United States’ military weight than with its position as the center of capitalism, which makes it possible to throw that weight around. China and India are the fastest-growing economic powers in the world, but they are still dependent on America for much of their growth. Consequently, anyone with an interest in the vitality of the United States has tended to go along with its War on Terror. “International society leans toward the United States,” Kato says, and that includes Europe and Japan. “There is no balancing force.”

Ueno sees the American influence on Japan as being deeper. While Kato frames his argument with references to the Meiji Restoration and the Cold War, Ueno zeros in on the 1990s, when the government adopted American-style neoliberal economic policies and nationalism made a comeback. These were direct responses to the deflation that hung on tenaciously after the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy and gave rise to the somewhat schizophrenic administration of Junichiro Koizumi, who pledged to “destroy” the Liberal Democratic Party while paying official visits to Yasukuni Shrine, thus bringing the country’s moribund nationalism back to life.

Ueno calls the neoliberal philosophy, which favors “choice and competition” over government involvement, a “paradox,” in that many of the people who supported greater freedoms in the economic realm are now being hurt by those policies. As an example, she cites the steep rise in “nonregular” workers, who enjoy greater options in terms of job mobility but less job security.

Resurgent nationalism

Both pundits see Japan’s resurgent nationalism as more than a manifestation of nostalgia. Ueno believes that Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was more “coherent” in his policies since he was able to marry a strident version of Koizumi’s nationalism to the kind of social policies that could take advantage of it. In this regard, 9/17 is a more important date to Japanese than 9/11, according to Ueno, referring to the date in 2002 when Koizumi met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and was told that the secretive communist state had, in fact, kidnapped Japanese civilians. Ueno pinpoints the beginning of this nationalist urge to the 1991 lawsuit brought by former World War II sex slaves against the Japanese government, which caused a “shift to the right” in society. And 9/17 made that movement ascendant.

As alarming as this development may sound to some people — and Ueno is one of the most liberal-minded opinion-makers in Japan — both pundits feel some good could come of it. Abe’s idea of a “beautiful country” was too vague and unrealistic, but ideals are important. Kato says that during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) “power” was the goal, and after World War II it was “prosperity.” Since the first goal was a military one and the second economic, he believes a third way is the only solution, and suggests “welfare.”

Ueno agrees, and talks about the Long-Term Nursing Care Insurance (kaigo hoken) system, which is unique to Japan and represents a public effort to address a situation that is becoming the norm in most developed countries: society is aging. Characteristically, Kato discusses this development in an historical context, framing it as the solution to the breakdown of “the family system,” which has been accelerating since the end of the war. Ueno, on the other hand, believes that kaigo hoken has the potential to reform society. She doesn’t believe that such a reformation is possible in the United States, but “in Europe and Japan there is still a sense of social solidarity,” and while such solidarity can sometimes lead to solipsism and defensiveness, it can also bring about progressive social change, like Germany’s integrated green policies and Japan’s kaigo hoken system.

Altruism is considered antithetical to the prevailing market system, which basically rewards selfish interests, and what Ueno seems to be prophesying is the emergence of a new public-spiritedness as a reaction to capitalist dogma. Kato, whose life spanned the 20th century, is more circumspect. “I want to say there is hope,” he comments. “But I can’t say what it’s based on.”