How can Japan extricate itself from the morass it sank into two decades ago when its asset-inflated bubble burst? This is the question on nearly everyone’s mind in this country today. One thing is for sure: You can’t get out of quicksand by pulling on your own hair.

Where will the boosts come from? Who will rid us of the scourge of inaction and frantic ineptitude?

The conventional wisdom, as spouted by the established media outlets, heaps blame on the young. They are depicted as passive, lethargic, inward looking and disengaged.

All the young people of the previous generation wanted to do was get into a first-rate university in order to slip into a first-rate company. Now the universities aren’t first rate anymore, and the companies are struggling to keep up not with the Joneses but with the Wangs and the Kims.

Today’s young Japanese people watched their parents sacrifice quality of lifestyle to pursue the salaryman dream of lifetime employment. No longer, thank goodness, is the Japanese ideal a career at the expense of a life. The problem is that because no other dream has appeared in its place, young people are bereft of aspiration. They are not so much lethargic as aimless; and their parents, their teachers, their cultural icons and the leaders of their country have offered no road map to help them chart a new course.

However, to find some landmarks it is instructive to turn to the Meiji Era (1868-1912), a period in some ways similar to ours.

Then, as now, the “tried-and-true” values that underpinned the social contract had become ineffectual and counterproductive to development and dynamic growth. New paradigms governing relationships between individuals and groups of all sorts were called for; and a young generation of leaders was required to create and act upon them.

How did the Japanese people living in the middle of the 19th century manage to replace a feudal social and political structure with something modern — and then fashion and reform it into a successful model?

The people of Meiji Japan managed to accomplish, in the span of 40 years, what it took Europeans two centuries and Americans the better part of one to realize.

First, the Meiji reformation that would lead to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled with an iron fist since 1603 began much earlier than 1868, with its impetus coming not from the centers of power in Edo (present-day Tokyo) and culture (Kyoto), but from the geographical periphery.

Reforms in administration were experimented with and put into place in the province of Tosa in present-day Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku. The smelting of iron ore, which marked the beginnings of an industrial revolution, had begun before the Meiji Era in Saga and Kagoshima in Kyushu and in the coastal town of Kamaishi in today’s Iwate Prefecture.

Significantly, these places mostly belonged to fiefs of the so-called tozama daimyō — the “outsider territorial lords” who had never regarded themselves as being subservient to the ruling Tokugawa family.

This is the crux. The political, social and economic independence of these regions gave them the freedom to undertake a reformation years before any similar venture in the centers of power was attempted. There is a lesson here for our day: The decentralization of power is the sine qua non of change.

Importantly, too, the leaders of the revolutionary reforms of Meiji were young, highly motivated and broadly educated individuals who realized that it would not do to work within the system.

If there is a single adjective to describe the educator Shoin Yoshida (1830-59), statesman Takayoshi Kido (1833-77), political thinker and author Yukichi Fukuzawa (1834-1901), egalitarian agitator Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-67), Yoshida’s pupil and a future prime minister, Hirobumi Ito (1841-1909), diplomat Arinori Mori (1847-89) and many more like them, it is “unconventional.”

To this, however, might equally be added “incorrigible, defiant and rebellious, with a voracious appetite for knowledge and expertise.”

Those individuals in the vanguard of the Meiji reforms were also young when they made their marks, generally still in their 20s and 30s. This is another guide to how the current stagnant pond of Japanese politics might be revivified: Empower the young or present no hindrance to them empowering themselves.

Yet another key factor in those turbulent times was that, once the Tokugawa Shogunate had been overthrown and the Emperor (Meiji) had been restored to power in 1868, those leaders realized that administrative reforms had to be at the top of their agenda.

Consequently, a Cabinet consisting of 11 departments was established where there had been an unwieldy and archaic system of court administration; Western codes of civil and penal law were adopted; and, most importantly, local governments were totally revamped and reconstituted along modern lines.

New political parties representing various ideologies and interests were also formed, such as Jiyuto (the Liberal Party) in 1881 and Kaishinto (the Reform Party) in 1882. An Imperial decree in 1889 proclaimed constitutional government to be the law of the land.

Please note the dates — 1868 and 1889: It took more than two decades for Japan to establish and entrench its modern nation state in the form of democratic institutions. Between the beginning of Meiji and that time, the country was nearly wracked by armed rebellions, violent polemics and numerous clashes of vested interests.

Again, a lesson for today: A couple of decades of confusion is par for the course of reformation. It is not only Japan that is living out this seemingly dull nightmare. The United States, Russia and some countries in Europe are going through their own “lost years.” But nothing is truly lost if it leads to something better.

Citizens worldwide are today empowered by their access to social media in various forms. Hence, in Japan, ordinary people can now spur on the leaders of their choice to some kind of action … if they have a mind to.

Look at the so-called Arab Spring and how the actions of isolated individuals led to sweeping changes once the masses became involved. Even in Russia, where the regime is far more repressive than in Japan, ordinary citizens are demanding change, and new leaders are emerging to effect it. This is bound to happen in China, Iran and, who knows, even, perhaps on a much smaller scale in North Korea.

When, then, can we expect a Japanese Spring? Pessimists point to the apathy of the youth, the repressive rules governing entrepreneurship and the reactionary tenor of politics in this country. But wait: The roots are stirring below the surface of the soil and, I believe, Japan is in for big change.

Radical reform is beginning, as in Meiji, from outside Tokyo. The election in November 2011 of 42-year-old Toru Hashimoto as mayor of Osaka — at the head of a new party of his own making — was a watershed event.

The lawyer turned politician has gone to Tokyo and skillfully done his nemawashi (rounds of consultation) with established party leaders and, being young, clever and popular, is now surely poised to some day be a major force on the national level as well. He has rightly made administrative reform his prime concern.

At the end of last year, SoftBank’s innovative President Masayoshi Son was, for the second year running, named “Company President of the Year” by the prestigious Tokyo-based Sanno Institute of Management. Among other things, Son is known for proposing the scrapping of nuclear power and a complete overhaul of Japan’s energy generation.

There is a powerful undercurrent of discontent in Japan. Evident in social media, as well as in the theater and recent fiction and nonfiction, it is a phenomenon triggered and enhanced by the disaster of March 11, 2011, and its aftermath.

But discontent, whether in the middle of the 19th century or early in the 21st, does not a reformation make. It begs for focus — a focus that might now come in the wake of another natural or manmade disaster, since Japanese people seem to be awakened only by major crises.

The ground is ready for a radical Spring in this country, too, where a generation has been mired in quicksand.

It has happened here before.

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