This last decade of the 20th century has been labeled a “lost decade” for Japan. The Heisei recession that began in May 1991 bottomed out in October 1993. In subsequent years, however, Japan’s economy continued to stagnate, contrary to general expectations. A decade of economic drift has created a sense of paralysis in Japanese society, a feeling that the nation is in a dead-end situation. That feeling lingers even as the 21st century approaches.

In its heyday, the Japanese economy inspired confidence everywhere. It was the source of national pride. Pundits calling it “first-rate,” in contrast to the nation’s “third-rate” politics. The endless slump of the 1990s, however, has punctured that pride. But the loss of economic vitality is not the only reason why the final decade of this century has been a lost decade for Japan. In my view, there is another reason: the absence of a national goal.

The second reason has much to do with the Japanese attitude toward religion. Japan, it is said, has no particular religion. The fact is that many Japanese have the flexibility to make selective use of three religions — Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity — as the occasion demands. This has given rise to the view that the Japanese are polytheists. But polytheism is not tolerated in most of the rest of the world; monotheism is the norm.

Generally, religion serves as the core of group or national identity. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington divides the world into six civilizational spheres: Christian civilization in the West, Orthodox Church in the Slavic world, Islamic civilization, Indian Hindu civilization, Confucian civilization and Japanese civilization. Only Japanese civilization is not identified by a religious name. This shows that Huntington regards Japan as a nation without a religious identity.

If Japan has no religion, what is the core of Japanese identity? The late political scientist Masao Maruyama gives a clear-cut answer in his book, “Nippon no Shiso” (Japanese Thoughts; Iwanami Shinsho, 1961). In it, referring to the Imperial Constitution of Japan, he points out that before and during World War II the Emperor system provided the moral backbone of the Japanese people.

According to Maruyama, the spirituality of the Constitution was defined by Hirobumi Ito, who played a leading role in drafting the national charter as president of the Privy Council. In an address to the opening council meeting in June 1888 (the 21st year of the Meiji Era), Ito — who served as prime minister more than once — made these points:

In drafting the Constitution it is necessary to establish an axis around which to build the nation. In Europe, religion provides such an axis. In Japan, however, neither Buddhism nor Shintoism is in a position to play such a role. Constitutional government without an axis can be extremely dangerous. The one and only axis for this nation is the Imperial Household.

Thus the Emperor system, says Maruyama, “was invested with a stupendous mission of serving also as a spiritual substitute for Christianity, which had provided the axis of European culture for 1,000 years.”

In other words, from the Meiji Era to the end of World War II the Emperor system played a quasi-religious role. In postwar Japan, however, it ceased to function as the axis because the Emperor became “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people” (Article 1 of the postwar Constitution.)

What has served as a new axis that played a new quasi-religious role in postwar Japan? In my view, it was the national goal of catching up with advanced Western nations. During the war, the Japanese living standard dropped to the subsistence level as war efforts imposed severe sacrifices on the people. But they bit the bullet, hoping for the victory that never came. The war defeat, however, created a common aspiration among the impoverished people: catching up with the West economically.

The Japanese worked hard to that end. In 1968 Japan’s GDP, calculated at the exchange rate of 360 yen to the dollar, reached the second-highest level in the noncommunist world after that of the United States, eclipsing Britain and West Germany. In per capita GDP, however, Japan ranked only 20th. The people continued to work hard. In 1987, at the beginning of the economic bubble (1987-90), the nation surpassed the United States in per capita GDP.

Thus, 42 years after the end of World War II, Japan became, for all practical purposes, the richest nation in the world. The goal of catching up had been attained. But the Japanese had lost something vital in the process. While they were coming ever closer to the goal, they felt a solid sense of fulfillment. Once they reached the finish line, however, an eerie sense of emptiness swept over them. Having overtaken rival economic powers, Japan as a while drifted into a seemingly endless pit of stupor. This is, in my view, the biggest reason Japan has “lost” the decade of the 1990s.

How should we find a new target in lieu of the goal of catching up? It is no use trying to rally the people behind a single goal. Times have changed. People should be allowed to choose different targets that suit their individual beliefs and preferences, instead of seeking one and the same target. In other words, a variety of targets should be shared by various groups of like-minded people.

For that to happen, it is necessary, first and foremost, to get rid of materialism, or the worship of material values. It seems to me, however, that the majority of Japanese are still unable to break the spell of materialism. To put it another way, those who set store by nonmaterial values, such as the environment, culture and art, are still in the minority.

In my opinion, it is unlikely that the majority of Japanese will be able to choose new targets on their own unless and until the main thrust of their values reaches into the realm of “postmaterialism.” Otherwise, the first decade of the 21st century is not likely to be a fruitful decade for Japan.

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