Reimagining Japan

Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works, edited by McKinsey & Company, Clay Chandler, Heang Chhor and Brian Salsberg, VIZ Media, RRP$38.99, 464 pages

Japan is particularly prone to clichés. All too often we read about its “unique culture”, its “lost decades”, its “change-resistant” structures and its “ageing, greying and dying” society. The single best thing that the editors of this essay collection did was to ask the 80 contributors to reimagine the country. Many of them took the instruction to heart, reimagining – or reinterpreting – Japan’s past, present and future in ways that cast genuinely fresh light on the subject.

Certainly, we are treated to the regular litany of complaints. For many authors, Japan is broke, inward-looking and in desperate need of new thinking on immigration, diplomacy, technological innovation, agriculture, fiscal policy and political organisation. Many cite the decline in the number of Japanese students abroad as evidence that the country is turning in on itself. Others urge a more Schumpeterian approach to corporate organisation, allowing some businesses to fail so that other, more innovative ones can take their place.

Some of these arguments are well made. But the strength of the book is the diversity of opinion. Others argue, for example, that graceful decline is exactly what Japan should embrace, or even that it will do better with fewer people. Natsumi Iwasaki, who wrote a fictional account of management theorist Peter Drucker’s influence on Japanese baseball, says Japan has become “aware of the fallacy of unlimited growth”. That makes it a leader, he argues, in seeking to optimise quality of life even amid economic stagnation, deflation and a falling population.

Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, argues that policy mistakes in the 1990s after the bubble burst explain Japan’s lacklustre performance. When those policies were fixed, for example with the clean-up of the banking system in 2002, he says Japan outperformed all other advanced economies in terms of real per capita growth. “The persistent false perception of exceptionalism”, he writes, means too much commentary “overlooks or dismisses how well its economy performed in the 2000s until the global crisis hit”. In Posen’s view, the future of the Japanese economy is British – no longer a dominant player, and unable to reclaim exaggerated and unsustainable past glories. It may not be exciting. But it is far from hopeless. Unless, of course, Britain is also lost.

One thing no one could have anticipated was the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that struck Japan shortly before the book went to press. The result in many of the essays is a hastily added section explaining how the triple crisis both amplifies Japan’s challenges and makes the need for a reimagined future more pressing. But the book gets away with – even benefits from – the difficult timing.

For example, Yoichi Funabashi, the former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun, says the March 11 crisis has produced such a “cataclysmic realignment” that the country must be jolted from its “delusions of graceful decline”. Japan’s choice, he writes rather dramatically, is “rebirth or ruin”. Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, agrees. Japan, he argues, must reinvent itself by becoming a catalyst for regional integration and a service centre for Asia, a transformation that would require wholesale liberalisation. If not, he predicts, its future will be one of fading irrelevance.

There is plenty of diverse opinion on Japan’s demographics. Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, paints a bleak picture of an ageing society in which “economic vitality” is drained, inter-generational resentment stirs and the best young talent leaves the country. There are many conflicting opinions in these essays, but Glosserman seems one of the few simultaneously concerned that Japanese youth has no interest in the outside world, and is about to depart the country en masse.

Still, by 2055, 41 per cent of Japanese people could be over 65. Some authors propose mass immigration – a solution one dissenter calls “fool’s gold” – while others foresee whole communities of elderly Japanese living a more comfortable existence in south-east Asia. Ezra Vogel, whose 1979 classic, Japan As Number One, stoked exaggerated expectations about Japan’s economic strength, doubts whether ageing is such a big problem. As the Harvard professor emeritus of sociology says: “I’m 80 and I’m still doing a few things.”

One of the best essays is by Masahiro Yamada, who coined the term “parasite single” to describe young people living at home to preserve their high living standards. Yamada writes convincingly of the need drastically to change the way Japanese companies hire, in order to break a system that divides workers into permanent staff with lifetime benefits and impermanent “liquid labourers”.

There is room for quirkiness, too. Hannah Beech writes about Japan’s potential to open up and remain Japanese simultaneously in a study of sumo, an ancient sport now dominated by Mongolians and east Europeans. The creator of a successful manga about an internationally minded businessman discusses how his creation’s slogan “Think Global” could be applied to the non-cartoon world. And the FT’s own Tyler Brûlé writes how Japan has become a world fashion leader once again by rejecting the western luxury market and turning, instead, to traditional Japanese designs. Japanese women without the requisite Louis Vuitton bag. Now that really is reimagining Japan.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor

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