Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, by David Pilling, Allen Lane £20 / $29.95, 432 pages

Knightsbridge and Bond Street are not Britain, and clearly Nihonbashi and Ginza are not Japan. But a shopping trip to the Mitsukoshi or Matsuya department stores in Tokyo, or a sight of the stylishly dressed kids in the Shibuya district of the city, are nonetheless hard to reconcile with the picture that over the past 20 years has often been painted of Japan – a country said to be down on its uppers with a population reduced to hunting squirrels for the pot. David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: “If this is a recession, I want one.”

Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements. Pilling was this paper’s bureau chief in Tokyo for more than half of the first decade of this century, before moving to Hong Kong (one of Japan’s slip-streamers) as Asia editor. The idea for Bending Adversity came after he returned to Japan to cover the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011. Mindful of the way in which dramatic events have in the past triggered galvanising change in the country – the threat of colonisation unleashing the Meiji restoration in the 1860s, calamitous defeat in the second world war producing the dynamic economic growth of the following 30 years – Pilling wonders whether the tsunami and the growing nervousness about the rise of China will catapult Japan on to a new economic and political course.

Just as Japan’s economic global pre-eminence was exaggerated in the 1970s and 1980s, after a period in which annual average growth figures had topped 10 per cent for almost a quarter of a century, its woes since the bursting of its speculative asset price bubble in the 1990s have been overblown. High public debt, crony capitalism, zombie companies, a loss of some technological edge, low productivity in the service sector and an ageing population all curtail economic performance. Japan’s share of global gross domestic product has halved in 20 years. But so have the global shares of the other developed economies as the emerging markets of the Brics have joined the world economy and followed Japan’s example of export-led growth.

Pilling notes that while the Japanese figures for the 1990s were lousy, the 2000s look a lot better. Japan’s real per capita income has risen 0.9 per cent a year since 2002, faster than the US and Britain; unemployment even in the worst years of recession never rose above 5.5 per cent and was 4.1 per cent at the end of 2012; social cohesion remains strong; its companies are more global than ever with huge overseas investments. Japan is still by a comfortable margin the third-largest economy in the world, with citizens on average eight times wealthier than the Chinese.

Japan’s nervousness about the rise of China is freighted with much grisly recent history. European peace and prosperity for the past half-century have been made possible by the historic reconciliation between France and Germany. There has been nothing comparable in Asia between China and Japan; hence the US still has to hold the ring in and around the Pacific. Ian Buruma wrote that for Germany the symbol of a lost war was the Holocaust; for Japan it was Hiroshima. This has inhibited Japan’s ability to square up to its history of Asian conquest and pillage in the 1930s and 1940s. Pilling notes fairly: “Governments in China and South Korea have become adept at switching on old hatreds when it suits them. But Japan’s patchy record in facing up to its past has given them plenty of ammunition.”

Add this to China’s resource-driven maritime ambitions and there are all the makings of instability in east Asia. The concept of “the Thucydides trap”, drawn from the struggle in the classical world between Athens and Sparta, reminds us that the record of accommodating rising powers has been pretty bad; Graham Allison, an American academic, reckons that, since 1500, in 11 out of 15 cases when a rising power challenged the top dog, the outcome was war. Japan and China need to remember this, as does the US, whose pivot towards Asia could be given more solidity if Japan were to do itself a favour and go all out for the successful conclusion of the trade enhancing Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The second arrival in the prime ministership of Shinzo Abe with his three arrows of fiscal and monetary expansion and regulatory reform, and his more assertive nationalism, may be a partial consequence of the challenges presented by nature and geo-strategy. But perhaps the main lessons to be drawn from Japan are not going to come from its politicians, widely distrusted by a public that thinks, probably correctly, that solutions to their country’s problems are most likely to be found outside the political sphere. This is another example of Japan not being as dissimilar from the rest of the world as it and others regularly assert.

But where Japan does seem different today is that it is showing how a rich country can combine low growth and low energy use with low crime and social harmony. It could do even better if it were to accept Pilling’s contention that its “most neglected resource” is its women – a point many Japanese, including the governor of the Bank of Japan and impresario of Abenomics, Haruhiko Kuroda, would readily accept.


Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust and chancellor of the University of Oxford, was the last governor of Hong Kong

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