Japan ailing? Japan suffering? Nonsense. “Japan is the richest country in the world,” proclaims Sapio magazine. And the best. And the happiest. The brightest future looms.

It’s an interesting identity crisis Japan is going through. Is it a rich country or a poor country? Fortunate, or unfortunate? Rising, or sinking? A positive example to the world, or a cautionary tale? Some see it one way, some another. Both sides cite the same data, differently interpreted. Point of view is all.

Poverty is relative, of course, and few Japanese apply the word in all its literal starkness to their own country. Still, the majority view seems to tend toward pessimism. Japan is aging, dwindling, economically languishing, its society increasingly riven by the rising wealth of the few as against the sinking resources of the many. A sad, lonely country is Japan, say pessimists. Economic constraints and the attrition of off-screen social skills have crimped marriage to the point where some 20 percent of people aged 18-34 see themselves as “lifetime singles.” A global United Nations survey of happiness ranks Japan a sad 53rd.

But numbers are deceptive, standard indicators not exhaustive, present-day quagmires potential springboards to future resurgence. A crisis of confidence is Japan’s real problem, says Sapio — one cure for which might be consideration of the envious eyes cast on Japan elsewhere. “After the Lehman Shock of 2008,” writes economist Tatsuhiko Yoshizaki, “people all over the world were awed by Japan’s perplexing stability.” Tensions surfaced but the social fabric held firm, as it did not in some other places. Nine years later there is much to be said for the argument that spiraling chaos in much of the developed world has touched Japan but not engulfed it.

“The richest country in the world” is not simply the wishful thinking of a right-leaning publication that takes Japan’s “land-of-the-gods” ideology seriously. A U.N. assessment backs it up, writes economist Kiyohiko Fukushima in Sapio. Initially released in 2011, it drew worldwide coverage but was generally ignored in Japan, dismissed as too upbeat for the prevailing mood.

Gross domestic product isn’t everything, is the U.N. assessment’s core premise. In pure GDP terms, Japan’s economy doesn’t sparkle, but factor in four other assets and its luster brightens. The four assets Sapio lists are: natural capital, human capital, productive capacity and social cohesiveness. Natural capital interpreted exclusively in terms of oil, gas and minerals has long had Japan bemoaning its “resource poverty.” On the other hand, the climate is (when not in disaster mode) kind, the soil rich, renewable energy abundant and awaiting its due exploitation.

Human capital refers primarily to a highly educated and motivated workforce; productive capacity to that plus an undisputed national technological genius. As for social cohesiveness, it withstood not only the Lehman Shock but also the seismological and nuclear catastrophes of March 2011. With those assets factored in, says the U.N. report, Japan leads the world in per-capita wealth, the U.S. coming in second, Canada third.

Happiness is even harder to measure than it is to define. The U.N., in its annual World Happiness Reports, takes into account such noneconomic factors as good government, physical and psychological environment, equality, tolerance and education. Last year’s top three were Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland; the U.S. was 13th; Japan, as mentioned, a dismal 53rd.

Writer Emi Kawaguchi-Mahn, a 30-year-plus resident of Germany, has thoughts on that, the boldest of which is: “I think Japan is the greatest paradise on Earth.” It’s scenically beautiful and morally pure. Europeans, she says, as former colonizers, naturally classify some human beings as inferior to themselves. Europe’s callous import of foreigners as cheap labor during the high-growth postwar years sowed seeds of conflict whose latest and most extreme form is terrorism. Whether Japan’s relative security reflects moral innocence or sealed borders is a question we need not consider here.

There is a certain inbred ethic in Japan, Kawaguchi-Mahn claims, that she misses in Germany. The high quality of Japanese service is emblematic. Japan’s trains run on time, its nationwide parcel delivery network is comprehensive and efficient, everything works and works well — why? Because of Japan’s enviably high-level basic education. More Germans than Japanese graduate from university, but 7 million Germans are functionally illiterate, as against a negligible number of Japanese. Systems work here because the masses are educated enough to make them work.

And they want to make them work. They feel a personal stake in the common enterprise known as society. The frequency of strikes in Germany shows that the average German does not, Kawaguchi-Mahn says. The average German is engaged in a perpetual struggle for personal advantage, for “rights.” If they’re won at the expense of the collective, too bad for the collective. Europeans fight, Japanese harmonize.

Few foreign nationals’ recorded impressions of Japan are without some awed tribute to Japanese manners, Japanese kindness, Japanese honesty. Australian economist Peter Drysdale, who studies the Japanese economy, marvels to Sapio about having back within two hours a computer he’d absent-mindedly left on a train. “This,” he enthuses, “is Japan’s social capital!” — unquantifiable, but a fact all the same.

The growing rich-poor gap? You should see Europe’s, says Kawaguchi-Mahn. Japanese who do count their blessings. And all those shuttered shops on Japan’s small town main streets? Don’t they highlight the country’s demographic dead end — an aging, dying off rural population turning out the lights as they leave? By no means, writes economic analyst Tsukasa Jonen. Shops that foundered as outmoded mom-and-pop outlets might flourish as bars, for example. A declining population and other problems are not national death throes but, rightly regarded, spurs to creative thinking. Meiji Japan (1868-1912), the era that built the industrial and commercial powerhouse we know today, had, Jonen reminds us, a population of 30 million. Today’s is 126 million.

What lies ahead? Meiji times four, for better or worse? Meiji, while industrializing Japan, also mythologized it. Pre-Meiji, most Japanese had more or less forgotten the ancient “land of the gods” myth. The Meiji regime revived it and force-fed it. For better or for worse.

The first installment of a two-part series. The second installment will be published on Feb. 26. Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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