The Sunday Review: Japan

by Anthony Painter

Japan has a big society and blue Labourish solidarity. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s it was seen as a competitor global economy to the US. Its ability to eschew individualism and embrace collectivism in pursuit of the long-term common good exemplified everything the Anglo-Saxon west wasn’t. This all went pop when its asset bubble burst and we haven’t heard much from it since – other than as a warning of what can go wrong.

Then, earlier this year, its east coast was decimated by a tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear reactor melted down as a consequence. Seemingly in a wave of sympathy, it was awarded the Guardian‘s long-haul tourist destination poll first place, with Tokyo taking top city spot. Germany, having weathered the financial storm better than most other major economies, now gets the most attention as an alternative social and economic model.

Japan has endured two decades of low growth as a consequence of a financial crisis which continued to have after-shocks throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But it has largely managed to adjust somehow – despite a rapidly ageing society, which in part contributes to ongoing low growth.

If the shorthand for conservative Labourism is “flag, faith and family”, then Japan’s motto can be summed up as “flag, firm, and family”. Its history can be summarised as a quest to maintain national independence.

That’s why it closed its borders for two and half centuries up until Commodore Perry’s gunboats sailed into Shimoda bay. That’s why it industrialised and militarised rapidly along Prussian lines once its feudal system had failed. With a brief interlude in the 1920s, it’s why it continued on an imperialist course until catastrophic and total defeat in WWII. It’s why the kaisha – the company – took the place of the military in preserving Japanese pride. And now it purposefully uses its hoard of long-term savings to fund its enormous national debts.

Japan has had at least three revolutions in the last century and a half – though they would never call them that (they tend to call them things like “restoration” instead. Yet it still retains enduring core values. The Japanese maintain a deep connection to their past and pasture; they have built one of the world’s most impressive megaopolises – Tokyo. They cautiously save for the future; they have one of the most materialistic consumerist cultures on the planet. Their education system promotes mind-numbing homogeneity; they have a mind-blowing artistic, architectural, and design-focused creativity.

So can we not learn from the big society elements of modern Japan? For sure. But the contrasts of this nation don’t necessarily clearly reveal their historical origins. We have become consumerists like the Japanese have, but our collectivism has waned to a degree theirs has has not. They have built freedom on top of traditionalism through economic success. We have chosen freedom over traditionalism. While its easy to see how a more traditional society can become more liberal as it ceases to go to war and becomes more prosperous, it’s more difficult to see the reverse happening. Liberty and traditional solidarity are in tension and contradiction. It’s easier to unpick a rigid social order than it is to construct one on a bed of liberty.

The downsides of Japanese traditionalism are clear: gender inequality and little concern for racial discrimination pervade; the subsuming of individual independence into that of the group can suppress indivuality; and a rigid system of rule-imposition that is constantly reinforced within the home, the classroom, in the street, in the meeting room, through popular culture create burdens of their own. The other side of the high trust society is corruption, as the recently fired British chief executive of Olympus, Michael Woodford, discovereed when he alerted the board to multi-million dollar gaps in the firm’s accounts. While sat in a bar in Tokyo I was treated to the entire bar dancing in line and unison to funk music. The barman just shrugged and said: “This is the way we Japanese do things”.

But there is one thing about Japanese culture and society that we could urgently learn from. That is its long-term orientation. This warrants serious attention and consideration. We simply will not be able to build a new economy unless we can, as a nation, save more in vehicles that will build our economic future. The consumerism will have to take second place. Whether that can be achieved without traditionalist and self-denying cultural baggage is a moot point. Japanese manfacturers have been able to generate productivity excellence in British factories. So some of what the Japanese do well can be imported.

However, much of what makes Japan tick is non-translatable and, even if it were, we’d find it difficult to accept – individualists that we are. Whatever clinched the Guardian travel award success, it is richly deserved. Japan is still simultaneously one of the most exciting and exasperating nations on the planet.

It is ageing gracefully as the boisterous young neighbours across the East China Sea make their presence felt. One thing is for sure though: these periodic transformations to preserve national independence will continue to occur. We traded independence for connectedness long ago – for better or worse. Japan has never been willing to do the same and so a relatively high degree of its traditional culture remains; and that cuts both ways, big society though it clearly is.

Anthony Painter is a writer and critic.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Review: Japan”

  1. Nick says:

    It all went pop because people borrowed and didn’t pay it back.

    It’s going to go really Pete Tong, because the idiots in westminster have borrowed 7,000 bn, on and off the books thanks to a bit of Bernie Maddoff accounting.

    That’s the real world.

    Just which cloud are you on? There is no money. There is just debts, debts and more debts.

    So the solution, spend more cash.

    You’re call for collectivism is just, hey can I have your money.

  2. derek says:

    Surely productivity can only increase where there is demand?

    Surely our motives for work are to pay our way, not to have a job before all other things?

    Anthony, I guess you want us all to be Chinese, Japanese or any other state rather than our own, me thinks your running away from the difficulties?

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