Last week in this column, in an attempt to trace the roots of the nationalism now becoming a mainstream political force in Japan, I discussed the currents that characterized this country in the 1980s. This week I will look at the 1990s, to see how the social euphoria of the ’80s led to what has come to be called “the lost decade.” (Next week and the week after, Counterpoint will consider the 1960s and the ’70s.)

There is no precise date when Japan’s economic bubble burst, but surely by 1992 all the signs were evident: falling land prices, sluggish domestic demand and a realization that the free ride afforded speculators and insider-traders in the ’80s was going to incur a stupendous cost.

In fact, the bubble didn’t pop or burst, as hajikeru — the Japanese word for the phenomenon — suggests. It merely shriveled down to size. Most people who became spectacularly rich through land and stock speculation in the ’80s have retained their wealth. Those who suffered were ordinary working people who were able, in the ’80s, to borrow large sums of money from the banks to buy real estate that was, in some cases, worth less a decade later than the amount of their mortgages. If Japanese people had taken advantage of the ’80s boom to invest in education, health services, overall social welfare and the genuine reform of the financial sector, it would have taken no more than a little stocktaking of values to equip the nation for the real challenges ahead.

In February 1992 I remember discussing the bubble over lunch with a leading businessman from the Kansai region.

“This bursting of the bubble is a good thing,” he said. “We’ll take the next five years and retool the economy on a much firmer ground. Then Japan will come out leaner and meaner once again.”

I was doubtful.

“Will those who have gained so much in business and politics really change? We’re talking here about a fundamental revision of what society considers important.”

“That sort of change,” he assured me, “is unnecessary. All we need is to wait it out. We are the most stoic people in the world.”

Three great shocks

But the decade, as it turned out, called for more than stoicism. There were three great shocks that rocked Japan in the 1990s.

The first came with all that monetary air leaking out of the bubble. The second and third shocks occurred within nearly two months of each other in 1995.

In the early morning of Jan. 17 that year, there was a massive earthquake in the Kansai region, centered on Kobe and Awaji Island. The so-called Great Hanshin Earthquake killed over 6,000 people and injured many more. But in this land of earthquakes, the truly shocking aspect was not only the terrible suffering of the victims, but the realization that the “unique preparedness” of the nation was a myth. You can talk all you want about stoicism; but what an earthquake zone needs is organizational planning and a protocol of action. These were, as it transpired, totally lacking in Kobe. However, what spoke volumes in quite another way was the army of young volunteers from all around the country who went to Kobe to do what they could for the survivors. But I will come back to this.

The third great shock of the 1990s came on March 20, 1995 when, during the morning commuter rush, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released deadly sarin gas on Tokyo’s subways. I was working that morning with a television crew from Australia; and when we went to lunch, the silent TV set in the corner of the restaurant was showing images of the attack.

“What’s going on?” asked the Australian producer.

“Oh, looks like some sort of accident,” I said.

“Really? It looks worse than that, like an attack or something,” he said.

“Naw, couldn’t be. Nothing like that happens here. Trust me.”

No one saw it coming, though many should have. I later recalled an article I’d seen in July 1994 in the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi. There had been a sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and the article speculated that Aum Shinrikyo had been behind it. It was the first time I had seen a photograph of the cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara.

We were all naive. We thought that Japan was immune to man-inflicted catastrophes, whether caused by insufficient planning on the part of bureaucrats or sophisticated planning on the part of terrorists. Many believed that the euphoria of the ’80s was somehow a permanent fixture of Japanese society. It was a permanent fixture, but only for the super-rich.

The leaders of the country in the ’90s had only a vague idea of how ordinary citizens were work ing, bringing up children and anxiously planning for the infirmities of old age. In fact, the 1980s had created a new class system, and those on top were not about to make significant concessions — economic, political or social — in order to secure the welfare of those below.

Political and military elites

Essentially that was what happened in the prosperous 1920s in Japan. Then, when the world wide economic depression hit Japan hard in the following decade, instead of reforming society to give those below a stake in its future, the political and military elites sold them a nationalistic bill of goods, giving them a false sense of pride based on colonial conquests in Asia. We all know where that road led in the end.

But to return to the younger generation of the ’90s. It certainly looked like they were a generation apart. Flocking to Kobe, they expressed compassion, and acted on it, assisting people who were outside their own small group. Japanese people have always identified sympathetically with the disadvantaged outside their family or interest group — but they have rarely done any thing to ameliorate their plight. Now it certainly looked as if there was a new volunteer spirit in Japan.

Thanks primarily to the esprit of young people, Japanese were beginning to recognize the needs of the disabled. Environmental concerns were being taken seriously. For a time it appeared that the failures of the system in the ’90s might lead to true introspection and genuine reform.

But it was not to be. The young people went on home, blending right back into their apathetic society; and new, compassionate values to provide social security for all were not institutionalized.

Some leaders, such as Morihiro Hosokawa, prime minister for less than nine months in 1993 and 1994, and his successor, Tsutomu Hata, prime minister for only a few weeks, may have wished to create a society in which all Japanese people benefited from the kind of prosperity seen in the ’80s. But the Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers who came before and after them, particularly Kiichi Miyazawa and Ryutaro Hashimoto, were nostalgic for the supposed “one big happy Japanese family” of prewar Japan. Their social consciousness was lower than a lizard’s duodenum.

The lessons of the ’90s were left unlearned, and it fell to prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe to turn the nostalgia for unity into government policies that value the pride of patriotism, and abstract symbols of beauty, over those that could ensure fair shares for every citizen and resident of Japan in the 21st century.

This is the second in a series of four:
1st installment: More than money was found wanting in ‘the lost decade’

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