As the year 2010 approaches its end, if I were to express the mood of today’s Japanese nation in color it would be gray bordering on charcoal.

However, as I go about giving talks on contemporary Japan in this country and overseas, the audiences, who are generally well aware of the situation here, tend to color that mood in a darker shade — one akin to black.

There is no doubt that a sweeping pessimism rules the land. The reasons for this are clear.

First, in a word, China. The People’s Republic of China has overtaken Japan in the size of its economy. Despite monstrous inequities in its social fabric — political, social and economic — what might be termed China’s “bluster factor” is working a charm on the world’s leaders. Appeasement is the new confrontation. Nonnuclear Japan, with a Constitution that forbids aggressive military action, seems to be at a loss how to react to and deal with the ill winds coming off the Sea of Japan.

Second, in another word, America. No one, it seems, not even the president of the United States, can afford to buck the military, which, like those godawful blobs in corny sci-fi B movies, just keeps sliming along, devouring anything in its path yet getting hungrier and hungrier.

The military-industrial complex (as U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about in his farewell presidential address in 1961) was bad enough; now we have the military-technological complex — the blob has a brain.

Third, deflation. Those who take joy from consistently decreasing prices don’t realize that the scale of their incomes is usually commensurate with the contraction. There is still a colossal amount of money in private hands here, but the Japanese people are sitting on both their money and their hands. Money that does not circulate curses the body politic.

Fourth, Japanese society has lost its oomph. Three Japanese words from English that were used here to characterize the society of the late Showa Era (1926-89) are now obsolete: faito (fight, pugnacious energy); hassuru (hustle, energy); and hanguri (hungry for success). The English words that now come to mind to describe the flaccid confidence of the Japanese are “timidity” . . . and “diffidence” . . . and “languor.” Take your pick.

Combine these with yet another ingredient of today’s Japanese nation — a lack of clear goals, both national and personal — and you have a recipe for prolonged misfortune.

Yet I remain an optimist, though these days I often feel like that weird guy in a cinema with a big grin on his face watching a horror movie — while everyone else is scared out of their wits.

Where do I get this optimism from? The answer lies in two qualities of Japanese life that, I believe, will see the country through the present morass.

One is austerity. Japanese are not averse to austerity, and indeed it is considered a virtue — practically a goal in itself. Despite the gross excesses of Japanese consumerism seen in the 1980s — on balance, a very short span of time for an outburst of national greed — Japanese people remain as they have traditionally been, quite at home with less. Paucity itself and the stark absence of adornment have always been at the heart of this culture, from the less-is-more nature of the tea ceremony and the ceramic arts to the sleek minimalism of much contemporary architecture and design. Being satisfied with little is a core feature of the Japanese lifestyle.

There has been, for instance, a marked and well-documented decline in interest in cars, particularly among the young. They are just not buying them like they used to, and for them this is a deprivation of choice. Japanese people don’t mind giving up things. Maybe at some date in the future they will feel able to afford these things, maybe not. The deprivation doesn’t faze or frighten them. There is no inalienable right of consumption.

Another feature of Japanese life that remains intact despite the emergence into the public consciousness of a kakusa shakai (class-structured or economically inequitable society) is people’s basic civility.

Lenin once said that there would never be a revolution in Germany because Germans wouldn’t run over their lawns. Few Japanese people have lawns, but, in any case, a broad-scale revolution would be extremely unlikely here — where decorum and propriety still count for everything. It’s not what you do, it’s the civility and seemliness with which you do it that counts — and revolutions aren’t renowned for either.

I often feel that Japanese people are seemly to a fault, that a bit of anger directed at feckless leaders, without the bow and the apology, is what this country could well do with. When ordinary people are interviewed on the street, they invariably couch their discontent in polite language: “I really would like the government to stop doing . . . “; or, “Wouldn’t it be better if they started doing . . ..”

A person using impolite, indecorous and uncivil language to vent anger, however justified, tends to come across as arrogant and scary.

Self-assertiveness is, for better and worse, not a virtue to the Japanese; and this is certainly one of the things that helps them maintain order and stability even as it hampers them from developing the skills of self-expression and reinvention necessary to kickstart an idling nation.

While fight, hustle and hunger for success seem to have abandoned the young generation of Japanese, there is some hope.

A Japanese friend who is a veteran magazine editor recently said to me, “I get the impression that young people today are, for the first time in more than a decade, aware that there are great gaps in their knowledge of the world and of things that matter.”

If this is true, then the next step might find them doing something about it. They are experts, like young people everywhere, at using the new technologies to pick and choose, across an enormous range, whatever they wish to observe, examine, absorb or consume. Yet very many among them still need to recognize and learn the skills necessary to distinguish between valuable knowledge and informational dross.

Every generation in every country faces the very same challenge. But the die has been cast for the older generations. They have made their choices and are, by and large, obliged to stick with them.

As Japanese in their teens and early 20s go out into the world of the second decade of the century, I see no impediment to optimism if they energize, as entrepreneurship, their native ethos of austerity in the direction of resource conservation, and if they apply their shared civility to foster universal welfare and tolerance for the rights of others.

In the coming years, both China and the United States may face implosive socio-economic problems on a grand scale, and both countries may turn inward to concentrate on putting their own houses in order. Both countries, too, could profit greatly from adopting Japanese social civility and economic austerity — not as obligations imposed by force of law from above, but as virtues firmly grounded in the soil from which all else grows.

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