A malaise is abroad in Japan and that malaise is apathy and hopelessness. Ever since the Meiji era -- 1868-1912 -- when the modern state of Japan was established and developed, the one thing that the Japanese people imbued their national effort, their prodigious diligence, with was a sense of hope: that little by little the country could and would be improved and strengthened, that it was possible for a non-European nation to thrive and prosper.

American hope was based on personal aggrandizement, the sense that you contributed to your country's welfare by ensuring your own. But Japanese hope was founded on the notion of communal aggrandizement, where the commune is taken as the entire nation. Personal pride stemmed from how much you contributed to the whole without making undue demands on the common bounty.

The fact is that for the first time in nearly 150 years, this foundation, in its ethical and practical makeup, is breaking apart. Japan has entered a period of profound social transition. What will the new structure look like? And more critically for the Japanese themselves, what will it be like to inhabit it?