What kind of country will Japan be in the 21st century? The millennial forecast is in and it looks like this: Japan’s cultural elite is quickly converging around the notion that Japan should be the first boutique state of the 21st century — distinctive, well designed and expensive.

Futurist Kimindo Kusaka maintains that Japan is already well on the way to becoming a global prototype for the 21st century — a culture-driven, hedonistic, consumer paradise, with cellular telephones and Pokemon toys in every pocket and amusement parks around every corner. Why would anyone not aspire to be like the ever mobile Japanese, always on the move dialing, eating, playing and shopping?

How do they to do it? Just ask the young ladies cruising the posh Gucci shop in the fashionable Aoyama Diamond Hall. “We live at home, the company pays our commuting costs, and since we make under $35,000 a year we don’t pay any taxes. It’s great!”

By almost any measure — number of concert halls, museums, high-speed trains, electric toilet seats, high-school students carrying Louis Vitton bags, or average individual prosperity — Japan is perhaps the wealthiest nation on earth and they know it. In a Yomiuri Newspaper opinion poll on Dec. 8, 87 percent of Japanese said they considered themselves satisfied and fortunate in work, family and health.

Accomplishing this wasn’t simple. Yet with less than 2 percent of the world’s population, no natural resources and less than 0.3 percent of the earth’s habitable space, Japan accounts for 13 percent of global GDP. It has the world’s highest saving rates, $313 billion in foreign-exchange reserves, gross national assets of 74 trillion yen and a 500 trillion yen. No wonder then, that Japan could squander 1.364 quadrillion yen since 1991 with inefficient and nonproductive economic policies and yet very few Japanese are upset about it.

Even Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi speaks calmly about moving Japan more quickly in the direction of greater prosperity. On March 30, he launched his Japan Committee on the 21st Century at the lavish Akasaka Prince Hotel to proclaim that Japan would become a model state for the world, richer and even more civilized. Defying political and economic logic, his popularity continues to rise and his ruling party could turn out to be the big winners in next year’s election.

Heita Kawakatsu, an Oxford-educated professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, is one guru behind the new “Japan as beautiful as the slopes of Mount Fuji” image. He advocates that Japan use its national economic might for cultural and spiritual development at home and abroad. The economic logic behind this, developed in response to the 1970s oil shocks, is that as long as Japan can stockpile enough money, no one — not the International Monetary Fund, not the United Nations, not the U.S. Japan-bashers, not even U.S. President Bill Clinton — can force Tokyo to do anything it doesn’t want to do.

Prize-winning historian John Dower maintains that Japan is in good part the way it is because of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. occupation of Japan. He argues that that by stripping Japan of the right to defend itself militarily with the new Constitution’s Article 9, by reducing the Imperial family to a symbolic role, and by handing the education of youth over to pacifist teacher unions, the Occupation forces stripped the Japanese of any sense of national identity. As a result, Japan has been spiritually adrift for 50 years.

That is why the Japanese today just enjoy their designer culture, eating sushi and living in the fast lane. That is why karaoke, computer games, digital cameras, Hanae Mori’s designs and Sony Walkman electronic gadgets are the benchmarks for measuring Japan. Americans may have created the information superhighway, but it is the Japanese who before long will be driving their digital high-tech gadgets down it.

Essayist Kenichi Matsumoto maintains that the pre-World War II “territorial game” was replaced with the postwar “wealth game,” and in the 21st century Japanese are into the “identity game.” Now there is no need for Japan to claim superiority over anyone else because, as Harvard’s Samuel Huntington says, all cultures are considered equal and cannot be ranked against each other. According to him, Japan has already created its own modern, non-Western, de-Asianized civilization.

Like it or not, the Japanese continue to defy Eurocentric logic. For a decade now, champions of Anglo-Saxon cowboy capitalism and weak government principles have mistakenly pronounced Japan dead over-and-over again. In March 29, 1995, economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote an early obituary for the Japanese economy in The Washington Post. His article, titled “They have met the market and lost,” argued that the revisionist view of Japan’s vastly superior economic system was like the Berlin Wall now, collapsed and full of holes.

On Jan. 31 1997, Paul Gigot followed up in the Wall Street Journal writing that “The great Japan debate is over. Guess who won?” He attacked the same “Japan policy-wonk superstars” for worshipping the bureaucratic-led Japanese model that was slowly reducing the Japanese economy to rubble.

Now, even MIT economist Paul Krugman, who hates to be wrong, is depressed with what he calls the Japanese “lack of intellectual courage” to act on what they know to be (his) good economic advice.

But we shouldn’t despair. One journalist, according to a recent issue of the National Journal, did get it right, even though he probably wasn’t thinking of Japan at the time. Edward Bellamy wrote in his best-selling 1888 novel, “Looking Backward 2000-1887,” imagine a “blissful socialism that knew no money, poverty, jails or social distinctions, in which lawyers had vanished because the world has outgrown lying.”

So what do the Japanese really want in 2000? They clearly want the opportunity to be patriotic and they want to move forward on their own terms. Political leader Ichiro Ozawa calls what Japanese want “normality.” Japanese also remain convinced that their boutique-state economics is better than all the stress and risk of the free market. So for now, they will move forward happy to remain a prosperous, lightweight nation with time to tend their exquisitely manicured millennial culture.

We also have an inkling of what the Japanese don’t want to do. They don’t want to take on global leadership until they can decide where they want to go; they don’t want to be a military power until they are forced to be one; and they don’t want to be like the U.S., though they continue to admire it.

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