People around the world are celebrating the arrival of a new century and the start of a new millennium. We all feel we are in a new age, and few are willing to wait another year, as the purists insist, before we close out the 20th century.This is particularly true for Japan, where the last 10 years have been a dismal experience. Disasters struck, the economy tumbled, the social fabric unraveled, and the government has accumulated massive debts to maintain a semblance of prosperity which, deep down, few people feel is real. This grisly new reality calls for a new start and a new sense of purpose in the management of our nation’s affairs.

In charting a new course for the country, Japan must first debunk some of the myths that have both sustained and blinded the Japanese in the conduct of the nation’s affairs: for instance, the myth that Japanese society is the paragon of order and stability. The 1995 sarin-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system is proof enough that this country is as vulnerable to odd-ball fanaticism as any other modern, urban society. Vicious crimes have been on the rise as criminals become younger and younger.

In the economic sphere, Japan has degenerated from the pinnacle of world success to a fumbling giant that seems to have lost its sense of direction. From the dizzying heights of the “bubbling” 1980s, the economy has collapsed. Some of the proud names in commerce have vanished, industries have been on the retreat, and the financial system has survived only by dint of public largess. Once the paternalistic “life-time” employer, big corporations have had to let go of employees as they try to shape up to confront merciless competition in a globalized market.

The art of governance, too, has been in a shambles. Political parties have come and gone, and political alliances formed and re-formed, the only manifest aim being to remain in power. Politicians, to be sure, have never been held in high public esteem, but the public has always felt that political excesses could be reined in by a dedicated bureaucracy. That, too, as it turned out, has been a myth as high-ranking government bureaucrats have been found wining and dining and cozying up to the very vested interests they are supposed to oversee and regulate on behalf of the public. Even the police, once the image of sobriety and order, has seen its gleaming image tarnished by a torrent of scandals.

Amid all the social ills and economic malaise that have haunted Japan over the past decade, the nation has seen the rise of a moral vacuum that has spread from the corners on main streets to school campuses. Teenagers sell their bodies in the name of a “financially assisted relationship.” Exorbitantly priced brand-name goods become an obsession even among youngsters from the most ordinary families. Classrooms have turned into battlefields, as morals and discipline have fallen by the wayside. What has gone wrong? True, the world has undergone quantum changes with the arrival of an open information age. The end of the Cold War changed the global equation of power. At the same time, the nation went blindly through the maddening excesses when “Japan money” ruled the world. When the bubble burst, Japan suffered — and continues to suffer — a massive hangover.

As the nation awakes to a new beginning and a new age, the Japanese must take stock of our circumstances, sores, warts and all, and blaze a new path in the new century. Sometimes, it takes just the ability to view things in a new way. Japan’s low population growth is a case in point. There is genuine concern that a nation with an aging and stagnant population will lose its vitality. This worry will become reality if the government continues to resort to public borrowing to finance economic stimulus measures. Such debts will total 645 trillion yen by the end of fiscal 2000. Coupled with the steady decrease in the working-age population, it will certainly impose a heavy burden on Japanese taxpayers in coming decades, eventually depriving the Japanese economy of needed dynamism.

This nightmarish development can be averted only by determined efforts, in both the public and private sectors, to create a new Japan in which individual initiatives are genuinely respected, the fair and efficient use of tax money is secured by strengthening the accountability and transparency of politics and administration and “money worship” is given a far lower ranking in the people’s value system. In such a country, a small but motivated population, possessed of flexible thinking and a clear sense of purpose, will be a great asset and strength.

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