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?

The primary goal of the people of Meiji was to catch up with and overtake the West at its own game. Let us make no mistake. That game was called empire, although monopoly was certainly played as a concomitant diversion. The Japanese wanted to join the Kaiser’s club, to stake out parts of Asia for itself as the Western powers had done; and they were not averse to turning the trappings of idealistic Meiji nationalism toward cynical and sinister aims.

The early strategy of conquer and possess of the Showa era, the first part of which ran from the mid-’20s until the mid-’40s, led to defeat at the hands of the Allies in August 1945, and the Japanese people set their collective mind in the latter years of the era on a more valid, if related, goal. Why should the West, they argued, have a monopoly on prosperity? If we can only buckle down and work as one united nation to foster economic growth, they figured, then we can achieve the goal of Meiji, enter the first-world club and we won’t have to subjugate other populations to do it.

It all seemed the indisputable national ethos and, moreover, it worked. The Japanese miracle was recognized and applauded by the world. Developing countries looked to the Japanese model, as opposed to the European or American ones, as the epitome of collective aspiration. On television talk shows in the 1980s, Japan was touted as the ideal state in which happy, problem-free people toiled selflessly and freely in the interests of the public, and hence their personal, well-being . . . until it all seemed to crumble in the early ’90s and everyone, from political leaders to ordinary citizens, began asking the single question to which no one had an answer: Where did it all go wrong?

The metaphor chosen by Japan to describe its economy in the 1980s was that of the bubble. It was a time when a modest area of land in the Tokyo metropolitan area was said to be worth more than California. A friend of mine, a senior planner in the Japanese government, devised a plan for Japan to buy the state of Montana. I thought it was a great idea myself, although I was obliged to point out that Montana was, in fact, owned by lots of different people and it might be hard to coordinate a sale.

Japanese were buying the sexiest overseas assets–golf courses in California, landmark skyscrapers in New York, prime swampland in Queensland, Australia — for hideously inflated sums. This was the equivalent of the Roaring ’20s in America. The fishmonger at my local fish shop sported a Louis Vuitton apron for gutting his garfish . . . and yet he still could afford neither the time nor the money to take a decent vacation with his family.

The bubble that burst around a decade ago was no bubble at all. The image was a con, for the benefits that it brought were surely not spread evenly throughout the society; and the consumption frenzy that it engendered left essential areas of the economy, personal and corporate, neglected and vulnerable to degradation and rot.

As the air drained out and the proverbial bubble shriveled, firms were left with massive debt, highly questionable accounting practices and, in some cases, shoddy quality control. All of these defects had to be airbrushed over in the interests of what was slowly coming to be seen not as the Japanese model but rather as the Japanese myth. Naturally, however, the politicians, whose financial and moral base came from the overly-subsidized countryside and the heavily protected manufacturing elite of the larger cities, were convinced that the essential pattern of national growth forged in Meiji and refined in late Showa was not flawed. All you have to do, they believed, was “retie your loincloth,” as the phrase goes, and sweat it out. Japan, once again, would stand up and conquer.

This, alas, did not happen. The politicians responded by not only repeatedly retying their loincloths until the fat men all but lost their voices but also by digging in their heels. They are still trying to prop up the old edifice by pouring on concrete to maintain its outward appearance. The result is walls that are heavier and more prone to collapse. The Japanese people have always waited patiently outside of that edifice until allowed inside once again to view the miraculous improvements bestowed upon them by their leaders.

But this time things have changed. There is a pessimism haunting this society and it is not going away: the belief, held deep-down, that the time-honored structure of the Meiji state has seen its better days; that a new national ethos and a new source of collective pride must be found and nurtured.

This is the transition to the next phase of Japanese social life. The side effects of this transition are apathy and hopelessness. Yet the Japanese people are gradually coming to realize that it is they themselves who must take responsibility for the misdirection of the past decade, that their dedication to their own personal welfare has now become the sole route to social betterment.

Not a minute goes by in Japan without someone in the media blaming politicians and bureaucrats for the unprecedented floundering and waste that plague Japanese life today. But the Japanese people have themselves been the most skilled masters at evading personal responsibility for any action that might touch their lives.

I am convinced that the Japan that you will see in the coming decades will be fundamentally different from the Japan of the 20th century. And it will come about through the realization by the Japanese people that, for better or worse, they have no one to blame for their fate but themselves.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.