Prime Minister Naoto Kan recently said that Japan is facing its greatest crisis since World War II. Can a reinvigorated Japan emerge from this crisis, one with a renewed sense of national purpose?

In an intriguing survey in the April issue of Bungei Shunju magazine, one conducted before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the monthly queried 125 leading citizens on the causes of Japan’s recent political impasse and long-lasting stagnation.

Beyond criticism of the postwar educational system and the current electoral system, several respondents noted that the de facto 1955 political contract formed to catch up with the West and achieve a certain level of material prosperity for every Japanese citizen had, in fact, accomplished those goals by the 1980s and early 1990s, but that Japan’s leaders have not moved on to face the new problems of a postindustrial society in a changed world.

As Mr. Eiji Oguma of Keio University notes, Japan’s present patterns of politics, economy, employment, foreign policy, family and education are all designed for that time of high economic growth, but the period of industrialization and stable employment is over. The Cold War order is gone, and globalization and the Internet age have destroyed past certainties.

IT journalist Mr. Toshinao Sasaki argues that globalization means the end of the illusion that everyone can be in the middle class: Wealth is moving to emerging nations, and as the middle class grows in China and India it is collapsing in Japan and America. Divisions will increase between city and countryside, rich and poor, old and young.

Although many contributors agreed on the necessity of establishing new national goals, no one gave a clear vision of what those goals might be or how such a national consensus might be achieved. Several expressed the idea, often seen recently in the media, that Japan should be satisfied with being an also-ran and accept the turning cycles of fate with grace, while others urged increased participation on the international stage.

Now a disastrous earthquake and tsunami have been added to the equation. Will this be the catalyst for Japan to make hard choices to forge a new future, or will it simply reconstruct the old and continue its post-bubble drift?

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