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Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

Japan's future: prolonged malaise or muddling through?


CONTEMPORARY JAPAN: History, Politics, and Social Change Since the 1980s, by Jeff Kingston. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 313 pp., $34.95 (paper)

"Japan's best days are behind it," or so the common wisdom goes, and by reading Tokyo-based academic Jeff Kingston's latest work, it is easy to see why.

Burdened by its debt, deflation and demographics, the sun appears to be setting on a country that just 20 years ago was on the cusp of global economic supremacy. With the "lost decade" of the 1990s apparently continuing, Japan looks to be fading away while regional rivals such as China shine.

According to Kingston, professor of history and director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, the current Heisei Era, which began in 1989, is a name for a reign "that has become synonymous with prolonged malaise."

The American academic's third major work on his adopted home for more than 20 years, "Contemporary Japan: History, Politics, and Social Change Since the 1980s" provides a detailed and sweeping tour of the country's modern ills.

One of the foremost foreign writers on modern Japan, Kingston provides another wide-ranging analysis of interest to all of those with a stake in the nation's future.

From a looming demographic time bomb, rising divorce rate, increasing joblessness and widening income gaps along with various environmental, political and social problems, the litany of woes is lengthy and varied. A child poverty level the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a suicide rate surpassed only by former communist states in Eastern Europe are embarrassing statistics for policymakers, and unfortunately there are plenty more.

The dire statistics provided include the 10 million strong "working poor" earning less than ¥2 million a year, the 30 percent of young Japanese condemned to poverty as "irregular" employees and the average female wage being only 60 percent of the male amount.

With experts such as "Mr. Yen," Eisuke Sakakibara, giving the nation only five to 10 years before it faces a fiscal crunch, and as squabbling politicians play pass the parcel on leadership, time appears to be running out for reform.

"There is no escaping the massive challenges facing the nation and the probability that some of these will remain impervious to reforms and policy initiatives. Most Japanese are pessimistic about the future for very good reasons . . . Muddling through is probably the best case scenario," Kingston asserts.

His latest work contrasts with his more optimistic 2004 book "Japan's Quiet Transformation," which spoke of a third great transformation following the Meiji Restoration and postwar Occupation, centered on the growth of civil society.

Yet amid the doom and gloom — and Japanese have a cultural tendency of deprecating their successes — there are signs that a risk-averse society may be starting to embark on a more ambitious course.

In effectively adapting to adverse circumstances, Kingston points to one of the nation's oldest — albeit dishonorable — institutions, the yakuza gangsters. Noting how the yakuza have successfully restructured in the face of international competitors, an unfavorable regulatory market, aging workforce and stagnant economy, he says, "Harvard Business School is not likely to make them a case study, but it ought to."

At the other end of the social scale, the author praises the Emperor as a visionary for his moves toward reconciliation with Asian neighbors, asserting that "the imperial institution has achieved a stature and legitimacy under Emperor Akihito that could never have been possible under his father." For as Kingston correctly notes, "Even if social cohesion is frayed and disparities are widening, many countries would love to have Japan's set of problems."

Despite its post-bubble slump, the nation's economy is still ranked second- or third-biggest in the world (depending on the figures used), with $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves and healthy trade surpluses. Household financial assets exceed ¥1.4 trillion, more than enough to offset the nation's public debt which is held primarily by Japanese.

And Japan's "soft power" is extensive, with its "gross national cool" of pop-culture anime, manga, fashion and design continuing to attract admirers, along with its sleek, high-tech gadgets and environmentally friendly products such as hybrid cars. Such tremendous assets, including the potential for increased tourism, international education and health care services and the export of green technologies, support the argument that Japan could do much better than "muddle through."

Japanese deserve more than this after two decades of painful restructuring, which has already cost at least one generation its prospects of a brighter future.

Many of the social issues highlighted by Kingston are related to the economy, with the birthrate, for example, contracting in recessions and rising during prosperity. While perhaps necessary, higher social welfare payments should not come at the expense of infrastructure spending as the author argues, given the economic spinoffs.

Yet should Japan bite the bullet on immigration, boost child care and undertake other necessary economic, labor, political and deregulatory reform, the recent downturn could become a distant memory. Bad times, like the good ones, are not meant to last forever.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan. He will discuss his book on Sept. 16 from 7 p.m. at Temple University, Japan Campus, Azabu Hall 213, 2-8-12 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo (www.tuj.ac.jp/maps), and on Oct. 24 from 6:30 p.m. at Good Day Books in Ebisu 1-chome (www.gooddaybooks.com). Phone (03) 5421-0957 or e-mail goodday@gol.com to reserve a seat.


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