Last post: Japan's outdated model is dead; long live the emerging vision

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

As of today, Roger Pulvers takes leave of Counterpoint, for which he has written weekly since its inception on April 3, 2005. In his final three columns, he set out to consider in turn Japan in the past, present and future. This is the concluding part of that trilogy.

Third of three parts

The great author, poet, scientist and religious thinker Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) addressed three concerns in his lifetime.

He implored us to nurture Earth’s natural endowments, to not deplete them for temporary gain, and to be kind to animals and respect them. He advised us to quietly embrace evil in order to cancel it out rather than wallow in triumph over it, thereby avoiding the risk of becoming bastions of evil ourselves. And he urged us to dedicate our lives to others; to take on their burden of grief and hardship as our own.

But how could such messages have been understood in his lifetime, when Japan was intensely “on the move” and determined to become a colonial superpower? Then later, how could those messages have been taken seriously in the era of rapid growth after World War II, when Japanese people were utterly swayed by the bounty of affluence?

Our survival as a species depends upon social cooperation, just as it did for our ancestors who ventured out of Africa. However, that applies even more now than in Miyazawa’s time, because our circle of concern encompasses the entire planet — and because the very future of the Earth as a nurturing medium is itself as precarious as that of a tree hanging over a cliff.

Even as growing prosperity held postwar Japan in its sway, there was a cohesive societal sense of everyone having a stake in the nation. So long as you believed that you and your descendants would be sharing in the benefits of the system, it was worth it to work tirelessly, not only for yourself and your circle but for all Japanese.

Since arriving in Japan in 1967, I have witnessed the fruits of many of these shared benefits. There has been marked progress in establishing equality for women, rights for children, and consideration for the disabled and minorities previously shunned or severely discriminated against. As well, a heightened awareness of bullying, child abuse, domestic violence and similar social ills has led to the adoption of measures to prevent them.

Positive social developments such as these have particularly gained impetus since the bursting of the asset bubble in the early 1990s, when Japanese people came to see the true nature of the nation’s new affluence as being grossly unequal and socially divisive. And so, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck in 1995, many responded with active assistance and compassion — as was still more evident after the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

Japanese people today are gradually coming to see that the accumulation of wealth and luxury is not the acme of individual aspiration. The nationwide catastrophe of the nuclear accident triggered by those natural disasters two years ago has altered their consciousness.

What good, after all, is the pursuit of wealth to enhance national prestige if people’s basic needs cannot be taken care of? What’s the purpose of economic growth if the rich-poor gap widens such that the latter are condemned to deprivation and disadvantage, perhaps for generations to come?

Despite all this — and an increasing understanding of threats posed to the very land, water and air caused by nuclear power generation in a country plagued by natural disasters — there remains a strong momentum from the past to reinstate the old model of growth.

The alternative to constant economic growth is still mistakenly seen by many, particularly those benefitting most from the status quo ante, to be degeneration and decline. The landslide re-election of a Liberal Democratic Party government last December symbolizes that outlook. Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Cabinet’s reasserting of Japanese military aims in the region represents a strategy to infuse pride into the Japanese people through the exercise of power. That was the model Japan pursued in the Meiji Era (1868-1912): pride in nationhood through the exercise of military power; and the stimulation of growth by means of government support for the corporate culture.

But there is an alternative — and practicable — model for Japan in the 21st century. Here are its elements:

• A recognition, incorporated into policy, that the climate crisis can be arrested and that the environment can be protected only by revamping energy generation to meet the country’s needs entirely from renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.

• Innovations in tertiary education that encourage questioning and creative analysis in curricula covering every aspect of the arts and culture, as well as the sciences.

• A drawing down of the seniority system in the corporate and governmental cultures so as to reward those actually proffering constructive ideas. This would be accompanied by a solid commitment to a “venture society,” in which reasonable risk-taking is generously backed by government and nongovernment investment.

• Decentralization of the power of the Tokyo bureaucracy over the regions, something akin to the German model. Regions should be encouraged to forge multifaceted links with counterparts in nearby countries. They should also be free to give their young people a local take on history and to bolster pride in their region’s culture and dialect — a pride that was quashed during the Meiji Era and has largely remained so.

• On the diplomatic front, Japan should forego its claims to the islands whose administration is disputed with Russia, South Korea and China, as it doesn’t need them for settlement or their resources. Although some fossil-fuel reserves do exist around those islands, their exploitation would only exacerbate the climate crisis.

• Further to a realignment of its diplomatic and strategic stance in the region, Japan should — while remaining on friendly and cooperative terms with the United States — cease to be its ever-loyal retainer, so advancing the probability that Okinawans will become free of foreign occupation in the shape of U.S. military bases. Indeed, with its especially intimate understanding of both East and West, Japan has a major and possibly key role to play in the most portentous clash of civilizations of this century — that between the U.S. and China. Hence the Self-Defense Forces should be maintained to the highest level of readiness — but solely to protect the country from attack, as Article 9 of the Constitution permits.

Though some would dismiss these suggestions as admirable but unrealistic, I would counter that they may constitute the nation’s only realistic model for growth, prestige and environmental sustainability — so much so, that they could render Japan an exemplar for both developed and developing nations.

The pursuit of such a model will also energize the younger generations, who are simply not buying into the lifestyle choices of their elders; and it will allow Japan to create globally sought-after technologies for energy generation. In diplomacy, too, Japan would be able to forge new ties with Russia, China and South Korea.

Kenji Miyazawa’s notions of social and environmental harmony may have fallen on all too many deaf ears in the past, yet they resonate entirely with our times — an era in which carbon emissions are making the planet hotter and climates more unstable, with disastrous effects on food production, drinking-water resources and the viability of human life in many coastal regions, among others. The human-driven mass extinction of plant and animal species must also be arrested.

Despite such real threats, the Japanese people, with their diligence and unity of vision — once they locate it — are poised to set out on a viable and sustainable new path of development that could be a beacon for the world.

And so, dear readers, we have arrived at the end of Roger Pulvers’ eight-year Counterpoint era. As his editor from the start, I have never ceased to be astonished by the scope, depth and richness of the columns I’ve received weekly on more than 400 occasions. Some have been poetic, emotive, compassionate or have feigned the parochial; others polemical, acerbic, analytical or downright angry. Yet many have been more than the sum of even all those parts, as Roger has blended his remarkable learning and range of experiences and personal encounters together (with not a little wit) into this unparalleled body of work. For all that, and much more, I can now only express my unreserved thanks and say what a great pleasure it has been working together on this project. From next week, another outstanding writer takes up the Counterpoint challenge … just watch this space to find out who. — Andrew Kershaw, Timeout Editor