Let me first admit that as the author of this article I will not be impartial, because I love and have known Japan for almost fifty years. I owe this passion to moviemaker Kurosawa Akira. I had the honor to meet him, long after Rashomon, his masterpiece, allowed me to discover the essence of cinema. Rashomon had encouraged me, as a young Parisian student, to learn Japanese – albeit not proficiently – but also to venture, with somewhat more success, into the study of Japanese civilization.
My passion was later legitimated by my maître à penser (intellectual model), the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He believed that the Japanese were perhaps the only people who had managed to blend its traditions and what is commonly referred to as modernity, namely technology and science as they are understood in Europe, into a coherent whole. Thirty or forty years after Lévi-Strauss made this assessment, I am ever more convinced of its truth: especially in Asia, although this is not easily acknowledged or admitted, Japan remains what emerging nations, such as South Korea or China, aspire to become: genuine and modern.
Nonetheless, this positive vision of Japan, which is neither blind admiration nor a search for the exotic, is nowadays disputed or plainly overlooked. Japan, from a Western perspective, is out of fashion, overshadowed by a boundless and at times irrational curiosity about China. In Europe and in the United States, it seems as though journalists, diplomats, and business executives have lost all common sense, starting with simple arithmetic: per capita income is ten times higher in Japan than in China, which means that 1% growth in Japan, for instance, brings to every Japanese added wealth equivalent to the added wealth 10% growth would represent for a Chinese. Our purpose is not to compare nor to rank extremely diverse nations that, as far as we know, are not competing against each other; but Japan remains, judging by its economy, cultural production, innovation capabilities (which can be measured for instance by the number of patents filed every year), or even its defense capabilities, the Asian superpower, or rather the superpower in Asia, because Japan belongs to both the Eastern and Western worlds.
It has become commonplace to approach Japan news exclusively through the prism of economic or demographic decline or of the pathological instability of its governments. 1990-2000 was called the lost decade, as was the case for the following decade and there is talk the decade we are entering could be the third successive lost one before an inevitable exit from History. In this respect, 3/11, 2011 tragedy, a succession of natural disasters – the tsunami-, followed by scientific catastrophes – Fukushima, and economic woes – as the Japanese recession follows the steps of the worldwide recession, was perceived in the Western world as an additional sign that Japan, in a way, is no longer enjoying the Mandate of Heaven. Not so fast! 3/11 could also be viewed as the dawn of a new era.
It would not be unprecedented in Japan’s history that a disaster triggers a national renaissance: modern Japan was born from the 1853 Black Ships events, Hiroshima gave way to a democratic Japan, and the 1973 oil shock gave rise to Japan’s leadership as an industrial innovator. It is not yet known if 3/11 will create a new Japan but we already witness the emergence of a different Japan we will now try to analyze: an essay inspired by my three stays in Japan and dozens of interviews in January 2011, before the disaster, then in April 2011, when the ashes were still burning, and later in August 2011 when, arguably, the future landscape was being shaped. These stays are valuable only inasmuch as they were preceded by countless others, every single year since 1967: All these different Japans and Japanese I had the privilege to know, illuminate my journey.
Since 3/11, what astonished the most the exterior world as well as the Japanese themselves, was the extent to which the Japanese remained profoundly Japanese, beneath the veneer of Western modernity. The remarkable restraint demonstrated by the whole nation in the face of death, as well as the discipline and solidarity, was unanimously praised. This national fortitude disproved all the commentators who were nostalgic of a lost civilization. Thus Fujiwara Masahiko, best-selling author, sold prior to 3/11 millions of books where he lamented that the westernization of Japan had destroyed all community spirit and sense of solidarity, as well as what he terms the Bushido. However, wasn’t the national behavior in the wake of 3/11 a display of a composure and solidarity that were supposedly long gone? The retired workers of the Fukushima plants readily volunteered to contain the damage, defying the risks of irradiation. Students from all over Japan rushed to the disaster area to provide emergency assistance to victims and refugees. This Japanese youth we thought was infatuated with its individualism, exemplified by the autistic withdrawal of the Otaku, spontaneously displayed a community spirit.
One is left to wonder how this culture of solidarity managed to survive amid teenagers behaviors that seemed to negate it. The school system and textbooks do not provide an explanation. Referring, like Fujiwara and other nationalists, to a so-called “Nippon DNA” is not satisfactory either: DNA does not convey culture. Personally, I found an explanation where in the least thought of place, in the Taniguchi Jiro mangas, in particular The Almanac of My Father : in it, Taniguchi narrates how, many years after becoming a Tokyo hipster, he returns to his home village and explores his past, on the unfortunate occasion of his father’s funeral: in so many words, the family ties, the family transmission, perpetuate what is commonly and concisely referred to as the Japanese values. These values have been quantified by a survey conducted in May 2011 by the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI), Research Center of the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which reveals how the young Japanese rank different values: Family came first, followed by the community. These priorities showcased the perpetuation of a national sentiment, bolstered by 3/11. In the same survey, 58% of the 20 to 39 year old group stated that after 3/11, their view of life had changed.
3/11 acted as an involuntary revealer of positive if not heroic behaviors that emanated from rather unexpected sources. The Emperor and Empress showed extraordinary dignity and compassion, to which, I am told, all Japanese were sensitive, whether the latter favor or not the imperial institution. Said institution is far from enjoying unanimous support in ordinary times; however it has to some degree reassumed its historic mission, which is to embody the nation through the gloomiest periods of its history. Japanese people expected no less from the imperial couple! Certainly, they met expectations, or even exceeded them. And we can only imagine the fierce criticism they would have faced had they even minimally failed to fulfill their immemorial mission.
Another positive stakeholder emerged from the disaster: Japan’s armed forces. The Japanese military did not enjoy great prestige nor did it have a very favorable image among the population as a whole prior to 3/11. Far worse, the military pundits blamed the apathy of the armed forces that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, remained bent on concentrating their presence in Hokkaido with a view to countering a Soviet attack, even though it was obvious that the theoretical threat of Chinese aggression had moved to the south of the Archipelago. These supposedly fossilized armed forces nonetheless managed, within 24 hours of the tsunami, to muster one hundred thousand men on the ground. In addition to this unexpected logistical prowess, and to general wonderment, they provided effective emergency aid and their soldiers displayed outstanding discipline, great humility in their behavior, and shared the hard conditions of the refugees. On this occasion, the Japanese troops on the ground were perfectly coordinated with the U.S. Navy and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, stationed off the Eastern coast.
Professor Agawa Naoyuki from Keio University assures me that mainland China strategists took careful note of this military deployment, which will prompt them to reassess their hasty judgment about Japan’s military might. We may also wonder if the mission of some of the Chinese volunteers sent to the Tohoku region by their government included observing the situation in addition to showing solidarity. It well may be that 3/11 profoundly changed the assessment of the balance of power in Asia and assuaged some ambitions and territorial claims in the years to come.
Beyond the military, those Japanese wearing a uniform, police officers and firefighters, proved to be the best prepared and most effective. So much so that ministers and engineers donned occasional uniforms to bask in the aura attached to those outfits. And while the central government was floundering in indecision, it was remarkable that local authorities, mayors and governors did not wait for instructions from the center to take the necessary decisions on their own. Let us note that these local political leaders are directly elected by popular vote: this election mode undoubtedly favors independent and accountable politicians who are great champions of their communities. This stands in contrast with national politics: every Japanese citizen noted the significant differences in behavior and effectiveness between the wheeling and dealing of cliques and political parties at the top, and the grassroots leaders who are effective and often not affiliated to political parties. This may herald, if not a constitutional revision, a change in the balance of powers and highlights the need to further decentralize political decisions.
Business leaders do not wear a uniform, are not elected officials, and are not always popular in Japan, nevertheless they by and large managed to satisfactorily address the economic crisis brought by 3/11. After the tsunami devastated the Tohoku region and Fukushima nuclear plants were stopped, it seemed for a few weeks that the entire Japanese industrial system was going to breakdown. It is well known that this system consists of an intricate network of main companies and subcontractors akin to a worldwide spider web. The world was shocked to find out that, after 3/11, a stoppage at a small plant in the Tohoku region suddenly deprived a Detroit auto manufacturer or a Taiwanese computer maker, of a tiny but key component only the Japanese knew how to manufacture. The whole world discovered the strength and extreme specialization of the Japanese industrial system and its stronghold in a wide range of components, but also its weakness in the face of a breakdown.
However, contrary to the grim predictions made until June, by no later than July 2011, the Japanese industrial output had recovered its pre-disaster level. Japanese entrepreneurs quickly and deftly managed to redeploy the production network, although this required moving some manufactures to other sites in Japan and abroad. They had to adopt flexibility all the more remarkable than the sudden and unexpected stoppage of three quarters of nuclear reactors cut available power by 15%.
Everyone adapted to the situation, from large industries to ordinary individuals: in August, power consumption in Japan was 15% lower year over year. This dramatic drop owed to organized volunteering, not to any authoritarian decision issued by the central government. The most visible sign of this community adaptation was people taking off their vests and shunning air conditioning. One should not infer from the foregoing that Japan would be able to maintain its output if it kept consuming 15% less energy. Granted, it has been possible to contain wasting, but the bulk of consumption cuts derived from special working arrangements, such as night work, which cannot be perpetuated. Long term, if Japan was unable to regain its pre-disaster levels of power generation, industrial production would fall sharply and migrate to other countries; the lower power consumption also impacted the health of senior citizens and, in the 2011 summer season, the mortality rate soared. Air conditioning is not always just a convenience; it also extends the lives of the weakest people. It is then possible to praise these collective voluntary cuts in waste, without rushing to bucolic conclusions of a Japan entirely returned to Nature.
Until 3/11, the Japanese gladly defined themselves as a nation of engineers and they viewed science as the ultimate solution to any society problem. Since 3/11, though, this faith in progress is less prevalent and many lost it forever. The Tokyo Electric Power Company, Inc. (TEPCO) is responsible for this dramatic opinion reversal, but the network of complicities, lies, and corruption revealed by the Fukushima nuclear plants accident played a part as well. This accident revealed that the country was under the thumb of a sort of mafia of engineers, all graduated from the same Tokyo University, who for fifty years had distributed all key roles among themselves when it came to building nuclear plants. In this “nuclear village,” as Keio Professor Sone Yasunori calls it, certain individuals were in charge of operating the plants, whereas others feigned to supervise their safety, and others explained to the Japanese public, wary since Hiroshima, that nuclear energy was risk-free, advantageous, and ensured independence; others yet, all members of the same “village,” used to bestow favors on local elected officials from the receiving regions, which were often lacking any other financial resource, or otherwise persuaded politicians, in more or less honest ways, about the need for these plants. We note that even after 3/11, the local media remains very cautious to criticize nuclear energy if their region has a nuclear plant. In fact, in Japan and elsewhere, it is difficult to assess the profitability of nuclear plants since the upstream state-sponsored investments, the lack of reprocessing of waste stored for centuries and the incalculable risks of accident are seldom factored in. Nuclear energy is always and everywhere a political choice, presented to public opinion as the best solution from an economic standpoint. In the specific case of Japan and given its history, the “nuclear village” needed to be particularly convincing, to the point it persuaded itself. After the Fukushima accident, it was remarkable that not a single member of the “nuclear village” or any member of government has even considered the possibility that the design itself of certain plants may have been flawed. The welfare of the “village” required that the accident was necessarily unforeseeable: Ohmae Kenichi blew the whistle, at a very early stage, about this collective lie, and now, six months after the accident, the truth finally emerged. Fukushima Daiichiichi plant was not designed to withstand an exceptional tsunami, and the anti-tsunami levee was originally ill-designed as well, of a height that was lower than that of a potential tsunami. The argument according to which this type of tsunami is exceedingly uncommon, and that such an accident is quite unlikely is obviously without merit because, by definition, the safety of the nuclear plants should have factored in the worst identified and known risks. The “nuclear village,” in particular TEPCO and the Institute for the Monitoring of Nuclear Plants are consequently at fault, they are guilty of deliberately turning a blind eye to a risk that they necessarily were aware of.
This behavior from the “nuclear village” cast a dark cloud over the entire profession and eroded the trust that the scientific community and the notion itself of scientific progress supposedly deserved. So far, this wariness is not clearly shared by the population as a whole, but is limited to the public expression of a few intellectuals: Assuredly, however, the ideology of progress is showing a few cracks and it is no longer unanimously approved by the Japanese. Some people dare to dream of a Japan fully free of nuclear energy (notably, former Prime Minister Kan Naoto): but this dream would only be realistic if other forms of energy, safer and less expensive, took up the slack, which is impossible in the short term. Beyond this dream of a nuclear-free Japan, not an unthinkable prospect but certainly not a simple one either, some people also imagine a Japan less dependent on science and more in “harmony with the cycles of Nature,” as Kobayashi Yasuo, philosophy professor at Tokyo University, terms it. Surely, this subject can inspire sublime poetry and can strike a sensitive chord, but are those who worship natural Harmony ready to give up the convenience and the increase in life expectancy that only science brought to them? Certainly not: Nevertheless, it is impossible to conclude that after Fukushima, everything will be again the same as it was before.
In any country other than Japan, and certainly in France, an accident of the magnitude of the Fukushima nuclear plant would have triggered extreme popular outrage. Throngs of demonstrators would have massed, TEPCO offices and the like would have been ransacked, and the “nuclear village” executives would have been manhandled by the mob and surely prosecuted. None of that in Japan, at least on the surface: anger, if any, is muted. Those who do not deeply know Japan’s modern history would assume that demonstrating is not Japanese. This is obviously untrue as there were violent public demonstrations against mercury contamination in Minamata during the sixties, against the extension of Narita airport during the eighties, not to mention union, pacifist, and anti-American marches during the Cold War, and later marches to express hostility towards the alliance with the United States. It is worth bearing in mind that, for fifty years now, a public anti-nuclear movement has been active, although it is more prevalent in the Western media than on the Japanese street.
One might have expected the Japanese to massively join these anti-nuclear pioneers, even more so because internet facilitates these movements: none of this happened, most likely because the Japanese anti-nuclear folks have always been much politicized, flirting with an extreme left-wing ideology rather than being genuinely concerned about the safety of nuclear plants. All those who, after Fukushima, turned hostile to nuclear energy, or at least to its preponderance, carefully avoided joining historical militants so as not to mix their authentic concern and a specific ideology. Traditional and politicized anti-nuclear citizens remained, post-Fukushima, as marginal and isolated as they were before: the new post-Fukushima anti-nuclear proponents express and write (in particular on the web) about their wish that the “nuclear village” be held accountable and their desire for the adoption of a fresh energy policy.
They certainly do not lack passion but they are not a yelling crowd; compassion towards the victims of the tsunami and possibly of the irradiation dictates a dignity and restraint we could qualify as “Japanese.” No matter how intense the rage against the “nuclear village,” the desire for a new energy, the wish to punish the culprits and the collective desire not to disturb the Harmony of a grieving nation prevents any excess of public demonstration.
Prior to 3/11, the Japanese hardly expected anything from their government. Some were initially hopeful about the changes linked to the 2009 switch from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), but it quickly became obvious that both the political class and the institutions were condemning themselves to perpetual paralysis, instability, and lack of leadership. The political change, in fact, had been fictitious as each of the two parties represents a mosaic of ideologies: therefore any government has no choice but to orchestrate a coalition of very different factions.
3/11 could have provided the opportunity, in these special circumstances, to found a great coalition of the LDP and DPJ, in order to better deal with the crisis but also to put forth a post-crisis plan. We know this did not happen: the political class autism prevailed, and the usual power games continued. This further sharpened the contrast with the exemplary behavior of the Emperor, the military and local authorities.
Worse yet, the then Prime Minister, Kan Naoto, kept sending mixed signals to the public about the future of the nuclear industry and the reconstruction of the Tohoku region. It is particularly striking that this Prime Minister declared he “dreamt of a Japan free of nuclear energy,” failing to distinguish between the different types of nuclear plants and to ponder the industrial consequences of his “dream” (an exodus of a host of industries to neighboring countries), and also failing to put forward any adequate plan to replace nuclear energy in the long term. It was regrettable that such an important political leader rallied the most irresponsible causes and failed to assess the strategic standing of Japan, a country surrounded by emerging powers, China and South Korea, who are determined to pursue the expansion of nuclear energy and to surpass Japan’s industry effectiveness and safety. Perhaps Prime Minister Kan ought to have “dreamt” of more modern, safer and better operated nuclear plants.
It was to be expected that the any government, bearing the brunt of collective emotion, would announce a commitment to rebuilding the ravaged Tohoku region exactly as before. Was it even conceivable to say anything else? However, based on economic studies published by RIETI, it is clear that the Tohoku region (5% of Japan GDP) is the least productive region in the country: innovative activities are rare and the profitability of investments is lower there than in any other Japanese region. This owes to the fact that industries are scattered, whereas industrial profitability requires a “cluster” type of concentration. The industrial trend in Japan, as is the case everywhere else, is the concentration in clusters, as witnessed in Kyoto or Fukuoka.
According to RIETI, the low productivity of the Tohoku region also stems from an education level which does not meet the requirements of Japan’s cutting-edge industry. Finally, traditional Tohoku activities, such as farming and fishing, are favorably perceived by the public but they only employ a limited number of mostly elderly people who are recipients of State welfare. Instead of rebuilding the Tohoku identically, it would be wiser to explore less costly alternatives that would pave the way for a better future: RIETI in particular believes it would be suitable to indemnify the oldest fishers and peasants, rather than perpetuating their traditional activities at great expense. But this sort of proposal would require a political leadership which, as of today, is nowhere to be found.
There is no shortage of intellectuals, philosophers, artists, and commentators in Japan who claim that post-3/11, “nothing will ever be the same again.” Among them, Kato Hideki, at the helm of the Tokyo Foundation, or Kobayashi Yasuo, consider that 3/11 puts a symbolic end to the postwar era: between Hiroshima and Fukushima, nuclear energy embodied an era marked by a science without a conscience, equally effective in destruction and in rebuilding. Japan has to transition from a growth era to times of happiness, Kato says. These two thinkers envision an upcoming era that needs to be invented, in which Japan, without relinquishing modernity, would be more frugal and in harmony with Nature. This metaphoric vision of the end of the scientist era, and of a harmonious new era to be invented, often surfaces as nostalgia for the Edo era.
As Inose Naoki, Tokyo Vice-Governor and writer, would have it, Japanese people under Edo, before the opening to the West, were perfectly happy, creative and learned. Fujiwara’s depicts Edo as the Lost Paradise. We could debate whether the Edo era, an epoch where life was short and certainly not equalitarian, happiness was real or imaginary. For now let us note this haunting nostalgia evoked in so many conversations. Inose believes, however, that nostalgia does not make for a political project: his nostalgia for Edo notwithstanding, he readily admits that modern Japan is surrounded by foreign powers who are not necessarily friendly, and that present times bear a resemblance to those of the Black Ships, the current ‘ships’ flying now the Chinese flag instead of the American flag the Commodore Perry used to fly. Inose therefore concludes that post-3/11 Japan ought to devise a new model, which could draw inspiration from Edo’s supposed quality of life without ignoring the external threats. A different Japan yet to be invented, modestly acknowledges the philosopher Kobayashi Yasuo.
Professor Kaji Sahoko of Keio University, contrary to the aforementioned intellectuals, believes that 3/11 has essentially revealed Japan’s unsolved issues: dreaming of a new Japan, she asserts, only postpones the need to address the actual problems, namely economic stagnation, the ageing of the population, and the archaism of the education system.
According to both Professor Kaji, and Seike Atsushi, president of Keio University, it is quite remarkable to observe the degree to which all economists agree about the roots of Japan’s stagnation, while not a single decision is taken to halt it. The 3/11 tsunami, adds Professor Kaji, was an unstoppable natural catastrophe but, for twenty years now, Japan is also undergoing the “silent tsunami” of its economic deterioration, a phenomenon overlooked by all. Obviously, the main cause of this silent tsunami is the public debt, which deprives companies of much-needed funding: banks make risk-free loans to the State, thereby hobbling innovative entrepreneurs who struggle to secure the funding necessary for business creation. This explains why there are no Japanese Bill Gates or Steve Jobs: no bank would support them. It is practically impossible for a company to enter this market and, adds Morikawa Masayuki, RIETI Vice-President, it is equally impossible to exit it: layoffs are practically forbidden and struggling companies are “zombies” supported by state-sponsored banks. Morikawa laments that large companies stick to the management approach that made them soar during the eighties: advancement based on seniority, lifetime employment, and moderate wage inequality between ordinary employees and senior executives. The latter are among the worst compensated worldwide.
This quasi-military organization proved effective when Japan was in a catch-up phase, behind the United States and Europe; it became inoperative in the current phase where the fate and wealth of nations hinges on innovation. And so the economic landscape remains completely immutable, unemployment remains stable and the underlying crisis stays under the radar: not a single company shuts down; everyone is able to find a job and incomes are stable. In the meantime, however, the returns on invested capital have been halved in twenty years and Japan is progressively losing its competitive advantages to other countries.
Were the same model to be perpetuated, the future would be somber: there is a consensus among economists that, within three or five years, the return on capital invested in companies will be negative and that the banks, entirely focused on funding the State, will be unable to come to Japan’s economic rescue. The time-bomb of public debt is an even more dire threat for Japan: it is twice the size of annual GDP, the highest level in the world, Japanese government bonds are 95% subscribed by households and Japanese banks, at low yields. To date, the repayment of this debt has been painless because it is passed on to the next generation. It is, however, far from clear how new generations will repay the debt, since the current model forecasts a declining Japanese income. More likely, an economic mishap may throw Japan into a Greece-like ordeal before the next generation is able to start afresh. Fukushima triggered a patriotic reawakening that prompted the Japanese to purchase Japanese government bonds. However, how long will this reawakening last? Some other events could instead cause investors to panic. Alternatively, savers could lose patience in the face of poor investment yields, dump Japanese government bonds in favor of, for instance, Chinese securities! A bankrupt State would no longer be able to pay its civil servants, or continue providing retirement benefits, or sustain zombie companies. Greece, faced with this situation, enjoys the solidarity of European countries, whereas a bankrupt Japan would have no comparable safety net to turn to: The Japanese would be doomed to mass unemployment and to a dramatic decline in their income, especially retirees.
Why then do governments remain passive? Do they secretly wish the financial Armageddon will befall their successors rather than themselves? The briefness of the prime minister mandates may explain this passiveness. Otherwise, the performance of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, whose pro-market reforms (privatizations and deregulation) made him unpopular, deters his successors from taking courageous initiatives. Indeed, the necessary reforms will be unpopular: they will focus on making layoffs easier in order to spur hiring, reducing social welfare to the wealthiest, cutting state subsidies to struggling companies and regions: not exactly a recipe for winning elections. Hence it is tempting for the political establishment to commit to the reconstruction of the Tohoku region, even if the State lacks the financial means to do so, rather than trimming social spending. The financial crisis, says Professor Kaji, is not yet severe enough to be felt. When will the invisible tsunami become perceptible? “Probably in 2014.” That future 3/11, if it occurs in the announced timeline, will not be “natural,” but rather entirely caused by human error.
No matter how great Japanese society organization capabilities may be, it remains evident that, given the public debt, the invisible debt tsunami and the actual March 11 tsunami, political leadership is sorely needed and seems to have vanished twenty years ago. How could a leader emerge when each and every political party has the same proportion of defenders of the status quo, providers of acquired advantages and genuine reformers? This system is unable, says Shiraishi Takashi, political scientist, President of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), to produce any legitimate and durable leader and any clear mandate based on a democratic choice. Shouldn’t the political system, as well as Japanese institutions, be transformed to emulate the Korean model where one strong President is directly elected by popular vote for a five year term? Japan is no stranger to the principle of direct elections, since such elections are held at the mayoral and governor levels. However, according to Shiraishi, the imperial institution de facto forbids the direct election of a prime minister lest the latter be seen as a head of state, a rival to the Emperor. Shiraishi deems this obstacle symbolically inescapable.
The silver lining may come from someplace other than the central power. Between the paralysis of institutions and the symbolic impossibility to modify them, it seems to me that Japanese society is organizing itself to circumvent the obstacle: as we previously noted, local authorities hardly expect anything more from the central power and they are launching many initiatives themselves. Political scientists such as Shiraishi envision that in the absence of the reform of central institutions, a progressive decentralization may take place, which would entrust governors and mayors with direct fiscal responsibilities.
Already, regarding the crucial future of nuclear plants, the resumption of operations of those that are being “overhauled” is decided locally by governors: this was the case in Hokkaido. In the industrial sphere, local authorities drive the creation of new clusters: Kyoto and Fukuoka clusters were indeed launched by mayors and governors, not from Tokyo. Likewise, the paralysis of the central power incites private entrepreneurs not to expect anything from the State and pushes them to adopt bypass strategies. It is unfortunate for the Japanese that, as a result of a lack of vision on the part of the central government, large companies leave the country due to high taxes (the most punishing corporate taxes), the inflexibility of labor laws, and the risk of energy shortages (further, Japanese electricity is the most expensive in the industrialized world). Post-3/11, Japan seems eager to adapt to a new era in a spontaneous, not planned fashion, as opposed to the collective lethargy prevailing before 3/11.
All history in Japan was written, according to Inose Naoki, as a reaction to the challenges: those imposed by Nature and later those brought by History. Meiji Westernized Japan and rescued it from colonization as a reaction to the Black Ships. Japan’s 1945 defeat allowed it to become a great democracy in Asia. As a reaction to the 1973 oil shock, Japanese industry became a global leader in the component business and pioneered an energy-efficient and labor-saving management approach. If this theory holds true, there is no shortage of Black Ships surrounding Japan. Well before 3/11, Inose had shared with me his concern about the financial time-bomb represented by his country’s sovereign debt. Funabashi Yoichi, a journalist and essayist, shared with me his concern about the Chinese threat, an economic threat for sure, but one that might also have a strategic dimension.
Subsequent to 3/11, Professor Kaji alluded to the silent tsunami represented by the demographic and economic decline. Also after 3/11, Kojima Akira, senior fellow and former President of the Japan Center for Economic Research (JCER), adheres to this theory of challenge; he evokes, as everyone else, the need to renew energy sources according to technologies yet to be invented and that Japan is well positioned to invent. On a more original line of thought, Akira Kojima sees the ageing population not necessarily as a harbinger of decline but as a fresh economic opportunity: he envisions Japanese entrepreneurs devising new services and new lifestyles catering to the elderly and solvent populations, which will become a universal phenomenon, not restricted to Japan.
Thus, post-3/11, it largely seems that Japan is not a prostrated country withdrawing into itself. Sorrow gave rise to a collective revitalization of sorts, a reawakening of young Japanese, civil society and the economy. But contrary to 1853 or 1945 Black Ships, 2011 Japan does not aim to copy a form of society found elsewhere, but to invent a new one: perhaps an Edo driven by new energies?
The 3/11 generation is willing to achieve this goal: there is little doubt it will deliver.
Translated by permission of the author from “Tokyo: ‘La génération du 11 mars’, posted on October 1st 2011” in Dr. Guy Sorman’s official website (‘Le futur, c’est tout de suite’ [http://gsorman.typepad.com/guy_sorman/]). This article was also published in Chuo Koron, January 2012, pages 148-155 as “Seiyo chishiki-jin no mita ‘3.11 go no nihon’.”