Saturday 24 February 2018

Book review: Search for Japan's third turning point

A girl visits the spot where her house was washed away by the tsunami.
A girl visits the spot where her house was washed away by the tsunami.

Adrian Michaels

WHEN it comes to inertia and tea, the Japanese are the undisputed shoguns. David Pilling's book points to a mere two major turning points in the past several hundred years in Japan.

The country, aided by its archipelago nature in the middle of the Pacific, became ferociously closed and imperial and xenophobic from the mid-19th Century in response to aggressive American attempts at colonisation. It then became a de facto American colony after the dropping of two atom bombs in 1945.

But by having its military outlawed, and the US running its defence and foreign policy, Japan was able to concentrate on incredible industrial and technological growth instead. It became the poster child for the way in which emerging markets are supposed to emerge.

But over two decades after this growth stalled, Japan has yet to find the will and the means to make a third badly needed transition -- a transition that will turn it into a mature economy, comfortable in itself, with satisfactory growth and a senior and respected seat in the global parliament.

This book suggests that the external stimulus for the third change may have arrived in March 2011 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and consequent terrifying meltdown at the nuclear complex at Fukushima.

Pilling asks whether Japan was literally shaken out of its two-decade lethargy to press for sweeping change.

Pilling, the Asia editor of 'The Financial Times', is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world's third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage.

The damage from the tsunami (pictured below), he says, left landscapes littered with "secrets expelled from the intestines of modern living". But in Tokyo the urgent demands to save energy did not cause the heated lavatory seats in office blocks to be turned off until days later.

In Iitate, a town evacuated for its proximity to Fukushima, the young fled but the old were not brought out since they would die of natural causes before suffering the effects of radiation poisoning. Then, in this society where the life expectancy for women is now a world-leading 86, so scarce were the places for retirement homes that there was a waiting list of outsiders wanting to move into Iitate, people "willing to spend their remaining years in the eerie calmness of the dead zone".

Most of the well-connected people in the book are introduced as Pilling's old friends. He does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: "When we were rich, I hated this country."

The book falls down in a couple of areas. After an exhilarating start in which Pilling goes to inspect the tsunami's damage, it backtracks into a history of Japan that takes up most of the rest. When we finally get to the present again, we are left with a good base knowledge but not much gazing towards the future.

The other problem is Pilling's devotion to balance. This is laudable journalism but we want to hear his opinion, too.

Japan is experiencing all our future problems. There are projected to be over two billion people over 100 in the world by 2050 and they will live in societies beset by slow growth and in urgent need of a rebalancing of healthcare, pensions and social security.

Japan is in danger, Pilling says, of going from being an explosive emerging market to being an also-ran among mature economies. But, he asks, does decline mean death? What's wrong with a high-quality and comfortable existence and low growth?

Irish Independent

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