The bad news is, Japan is beset by seemingly insoluble problems. The good news is the word “seemingly.” No nation whose rise to economic superpowerdom began a bare decade after being bombed to rubble in history’s most destructive war will ever find anything truly “insoluble.” Japan will astonish us yet. Give it 34 years, says Clyde Prestowitz. Give it till 2050.
His name rings bells in Japan — alarm bells mostly, because Prestowitz, an American labor economist who served in the 1980s as economic adviser to the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, earned notoriety here as a prime “Japan basher.” The title of his 1993 book speaks volumes: “Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It.”
The ’80s were a fraught phase in Japan-U.S. relations. Japan was rising, the U.S. sinking. Japan, the former pupil, was suddenly presuming to teach. American opinion was divided. Some were eager to learn, others to bash. Prestowitz, accusing Japan of unfair trade practices that included rigid protectionism while taking full advantage of the open American market, sardonically declared Japan the real winner of World War II.
Japan stumbled badly in the ’90s and has yet to regain its footing. Its mood at times verges on despair. Its economy wanes, its population shrinks, dementia rises, youth and youthfulness seem extinct. What of the future? Does Japan have a future?
It does, and a brilliant one, says — of all people — Prestowitz. His new book is titled “Japan Restored.” The restoration he pictures will be in full swing by 2050: GDP growing at a brisk 4.5 percent per year, population 150 million and rising (currently 126 million and falling), median life expectancy 90-plus and rising, economic resurgence powered by robotic and medical technology second to none in the world.
This will be Japan’s third rebirth, Prestowitz explains in an interview with Sapio magazine. The first, a pell-mell adaptation of Western technology and institutions, began with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The second was the lightning rise from the ashes of war. The third, so far a mere figment of a visionary’s imagination, might well seem inevitable, given a past like that.
Insolubility, to Prestowitz and like-minded thinkers, is a state of mind: Your problems are as insoluble as you think they are. To Prestowitz, official ado over the government’s “Cool Japan” campaign is a measure of how the mighty have fallen.
“Japan is committing suicide,” he laments to Sapio. What is Cool Japan? Manga, anime, Japanese food — cool, but hardly the economic lifeblood of a nation whose cutting-edge technology, world-leading research and fierce work ethic could be setting the world on fire.
By 2050 cars will be driving themselves; 3-D printers will be coughing out products as blithely as 2-D printers today cough out words and phrases; robots will be doing so much for us that we risk finding ourselves with nothing to do for ourselves — and Japan to be stuck in manga- and anime-land instead of leading this charge into the future? In 2050 we’ll travel from Japan to the U.S. in 2½ hours, land at robot-manned airports, stay at robot-staffed hotels — will Japan, a world leader in robotic and supersonic technology, consign and resign itself to has-been status? Unthinkable! says Prestowitz.
The Japan-basher turns Japan-booster — why? To be sure, there’s a political subtext, which journalist Ryuichi Teshima highlights in a separate Sapio article. Geopolitics is evolving almost as rapidly as technology; the U.S. in the 21st century is no longer what it was in the 20th — namely, the world-spanning superpower, the global police force. Its withdrawal leaves a power vacuum. Is China alone to fill it? Prestowitz, says Teshima — and Prestowitz acknowledges as much — wants Japan, a staunch U.S. ally, sufficiently “restored” to uphold the interests it shares with the U.S. against China’s rising civilization with its markedly different interests and values. Hence the encouragement.
Be that as it may, the key question is not Prestowitz’s motives but the soundness of his argument. Is Japan on the brink of a rebirth? Will the Japanese of 2050 look back on the first decades of this century as a time of trial and sorrow overcome just in time to catapult them into the good life and their country into world leadership?
Central to the optimists’ faith is the notion that Japan’s problems, legion and serious though they may be, are systemic rather than chronic. Tweak the system, solve the problems.
Take the birth rate, for instance. Its decline or stagnancy during the past three decades has left Japan elderly and unyouthful, with all the economic, social, psychological and medical woes that entails: shrinking population, shrinking work force, proliferating disease — most terrifyingly, dementia; the health ministry projects 7 million dementia sufferers by 2025.
Is it possible to be optimistic while giving this state of affairs its due? It is indeed, Sapio hears from Chukyo University demographer Shigeki Matsuda and Kyushu University professor emeritus Takehiko Fujino. Regarding the birth rate, consider Sweden, says Matsuda. Ample government grants to pregnant women and mothers of small children keep child-rearing costs down; 80 percent pay for parents on child care leave eases a conundrum that has bedeviled Japan: combining work and family. Thus Sweden’s birth rate is 2.0 per woman as against Japan’s 1.4, though in Sweden only 2 percent of women are full-time housewives while in Japan it remains the norm for women to quit their jobs after childbirth.
As for dementia, current drugs are retardants, not cures — but that will surely have changed by 2050, says Fujino. In his view, dementia is no more fundamentally incurable than any other medical condition. With Japanese medical research ranking among the world’s best, defeatism seems unwarranted.
There’s a good deal more in this vein from various Sapio contributors. Energy? Exit nuclear power, enter renewables; result: energy self-sufficiency by 2050. Language? Mastering English hasn’t come easily to the Japanese, but educational reform can take care of that — or if not, suggests one analyst, Japan’s global resurgence will turn Japanese into a global language in any case.
There’s a curious omission in Sapio’s package: politics. You’d think it would come up somewhere in a discussion of this sort. A “restoration” calls for wise leadership. Is it in evidence? Is it on the horizon?
Maybe, with 18- and 19-year-olds gearing up to vote this year for the first time, we should ask them. Sapio doesn’t, but the Asahi Shimbun does. Canvassing young opinion earlier this month, it asked, “Do you have a good impression of the state of Japanese politics, or a bad one?”
Good, say 5 percent. Bad, say 57 percent. None, say 35 percent.
Michael Hoffman’s new book, “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan,” is out now.
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