National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

It's a small world, with no respect for islands

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

To what extent are your problems my problems? To what extent are Syria’s troubles Japan’s?

To no extent at all, judging by the paltry number of refugees Japan admits. Europe, of course, is engulfed. But that’s Europe’s problem.

Is it still possible to think that way? Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2001, in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun last month, deplored Japan’s chilly aloofness from the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. (She spoke before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge of generous financial aid to refugees, but probably wouldn’t have changed her tone much on that account.) Japan, she said, is still “an island country,” an anomaly in an age of advancing globalization and shrinking distances — but Japan does have a long “island country” history behind it, and history is not lightly escaped from.

The following historical sidelight is revealing in more ways than one. It concerns Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian merchant who spent decades in China and whose famous book about his Oriental adventures describes Japan as “most fertile in gold, pearls and precious stones, and they cover the temples and the royal residences with solid gold.” Now that’s interesting, remarks former Foreign Ministry bureaucrat Masaru Sato in a talk with Shukan Post magazine. Why, Sato wonders, given Japan’s supposedly fabulous wealth, would Polo, given his wanderlust and commercial instincts, not have paid Japan a visit? Every Japanese schoolchild knows Marco Polo as the man who introduced Japan (“Cipangu”) to Europe — but how many Japanese know that he had good reason to avoid Japan, having heard rumors that would give any prudent man pause: namely, that the Japanese were cannibals?

That’s one trouble with being an “island country” — people spread the damnedest rumors about you, and as strange as you look to the outside world, so the outside world looks to you. Strange means suspicious, which is just short of hostile. Estrangement is not healthy in a world as empowered with weaponry as ours is.

The Shukan Post article is a conversation between Sato and sociologist Daisaburo Hashizume, and the headline reads, “The monotheistic world that the Japanese people don’t know.” Why don’t they know it? Because they’re not monotheists and they’re on an island.

The point Sato and Hashizume seek to make is that under new security legislation passed last month Japan is likely to be militarily more involved with the outside world than ever in its history, save for a disastrously venturesome phase in the decades prior to 1945 — knowing too little about it not to be at risk of stumbling dangerously. The crises currently absorbing the world’s attention are monotheistic ones, involving Christianity and Islam. Japan, Sato and Hashizume imply, had better learn to understand the way God talks to monotheists.

A dangerous place, this 21st-century world. Syria may seem a long way off, but China is next door. Among the bewilderingly various and shifting arguments the Abe government advanced during deliberations on the unpopular security legislation is China’s dramatic military and economic rise — can Japan remain “pacifist” (as opposed to “proactively pacifist”) beside such a neighbor? The monthly Sapio, however, considers China from a different angle — its impending collapse.

Collapse? China? That sounds improbable. The civilization is 5,000 years old and is now — seems now — stronger than ever, but to Sapio, the reeling Shanghai stock market is symbolic of where the nation as a whole is heading: down, its fall as dangerous to Japan, in different ways, as its supposed rise is held to be.

Analysts for years have suspected shaky underpinnings beneath China’s double-digit economic growth. They smelled a bubble, which now looks to be bursting. If it is, or if it does — chaos, say the pessimists. A soaring economy is an unelected and unpopular government’s sole claim to legitimacy. Sapio shows, briefly but graphically, what people are capable of when they’ve lost the equivalent of tens of millions of yen in no time — knives come out, in worst-case scenarios, for a dazed orgy of violence. Individual cases are cited — few, but the crisis is young, and China’s population, as everyone knows, China’s government best of all, is 1.4 billion.

Ripples have already reached Japan. For all the bilateral political strains, business ties are close, and major Japanese corporations report declining sales to China to match the plunge of 2012, the year of frenzied anti-Japan activism in China over Japan’s nationalizing of the China-claimed Senkaku Islands.

The flow of Chinese tourists into Japan is eloquent testimony to the failure of the Chinese government’s crude efforts to vilify its island neighbor. This past January the Japanese government relaxed visa requirements — rich Chinese, welcome. By July, 2.76 million had already visited this year, more than the 2.4 million for all 2014 and 4.4 times the 620,000 who came in 2004. So far so good — tourists are shoppers and spenders and Japan’s economy, none too robust, can use the infusion. Will it last? Not if Sapio’s forecast is reliable. But if Sapio’s forecast is reliable, reduced tourism is the least of Japan’s worries.

The first of them — in chronological order, not in order of grimness — is the evolution of the high-spending shopping tourist into the economic migrant. The more China’s economy shrinks, the greater the migration. Economic migrants are not welcome, but a thriving underground fake passport industry in China can make a migrant look like a rich tourist. The fee is high (100,00 yuan is the figure Sapio names — roughly ¥2 million), which means deep debt, which means intense pressure to pay it back, which means illegal unemployment in Japan — at best. At worst: crime.

It’s when trickle turns to surge that Japan’s real trouble begins. Economic and social upheaval on the level Sapio fears cannot but swamp Japan, Chinese numbers being what they are. Japan had better prepare, the magazine warns: “After economic migrants and ‘tourists’ with fake passports take over the country, it will be too late.”

Sadako Ogata has a reply to that. Japan, she says, “is too fixated on safety. There’s no doing anything good without risk.” The fact is, Syria’s problems, and China’s, are Japan’s. It’s a small, open, exposed world. There are no islands to hide on anymore.

Michael Hoffman’s forthcoming book is “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” due out in November.

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