Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Letter from Tokyo


ramona bajema, a historian specializing in modern Japan, managed the Americares disaster recovery effort in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear emergency at Fukushima.

Published January 21, 2019


“Something is wrong with Japan,” a prominent lawyer confessed to me as he gazed down at Tokyo’s sprawling imperial palace, home to emperors for a century and a half, from his glass and chrome high-rise. “I don't know what it is though.” After a pause, he corrected himself: “Maybe it's the aging population … I just don't feel hope.”

I have been hearing expressions of angst about the graying of Japan’s baby boomers and the declining birthrate since I first moved here in 1999. And for good reason: one Japanese resident in five is now over age 70, and the local versions of Depends sell better than baby diapers. But is this really what's “wrong” with Japan?

For gaijin (non-natives) on holiday from red-blue politics, Brexit or the wave of right-wing populism engulfing countries as diverse as Hungary, Italy and Brazil, it’s not hard to see the bright side. In a world in which every stabilizing political institution is being challenged, Japan is a rock. The grip of the centrist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on domestic politics is firm. Indeed, in the September 2018 election, Prime Minister Shinzô Abe’s party won easily, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Japanese history.

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Voter turnout for single-seat constituencies in the Diet’s House of Representatives election in 2017 was just over 50 percent, the second-lowest since World War II. The most cited explanation for this apathy is the lack of a viable opposition party. Since the Democratic Party of Japan was voted out in 2012 and dissolved, no credible challenger has emerged.

Abe is now in control, but the honeymoon is long over. He has been dogged by scandal allegations, including assertions that his administration (and wife) were involved in the below-market sale of government-owned land to a private school identified with a virulent brand of nationalism. And he’s taken his share of missteps, among others dispatching his male foreign minister to an international conference for female ministers.

Abe’s endurance in office is surely in part due to the aforementioned lack of an alternative to the LDP. But it’s also a consequence of the capacity of the Japanese government to run on autopilot, thanks to a competent bureaucracy. And, of course, Abe’s been helped by the economy, which has been perking along nicely (if unspectacularly) since the 2008 financial crisis. The shadow over every administration is the reality that North Korean Hwasong-10 ballistic missiles are a scant 10-minute flight away. But, for the moment anyway, the Japanese seem to be able to shrug this off with invocations of the 54-year-old U.S.-Japan security alliance.

What, then, explains the cloud hanging over the Land of the Rising Sun? Pessimists have plenty to work with here. Yes, the economy is growing and GDP per capita is a third higher than New Zealand’s — but not because economic leadership has blazed new trails. The Three Arrows of Abenomics (cheap credit, stimulative fiscal policy and, in particular, productivity-enhancing deregulation) that were once celebrated as a fresh start for an economy that had lost its way, are looking more and more like a repackaging of business as usual.

Though long celebrated as an egalitarian society, Japan’s gap between rich and poor has been widening at more or less the pace of other affluent industrialized economies.
Harumi Ozawa/AFP/Getty Images

Indeed, skeptics fear that growth will fizzle after the government stops pumping trillions of yen into preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And sooner rather than later, the spigot must run dry: Japan already has the largest public debt (as a percentage of GDP) among OECD countries and, more ominous from the perspective of economists, big government deficits are no longer offset by private savings.

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In any event, most Japanese aren’t laughing all the way to the bank. One opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of them felt that they did not receive any benefits from today’s stronger economy. And they may be right. Though long celebrated as an egalitarian society, Japan’s gap between rich and poor has been widening at more or less the pace of other affluent industrialized economies.

Corporate profits have risen, while workers’ earnings have declined sharply as a share of national income. Unemployment is low, but most new jobs come without the generous benefits or employment security that once made Japanese workers the envy of the world. Yet, even as more economic risk is being borne by households, the government has slashed safety net programs.

Japanese women have their own reasons for discontent. Abe’s “womenomics” program, which aims to get more women into high-end jobs, is facing serious headwinds. Women hold just 2 percent of positions on corporate boards (compared to 20 percent in the U.S. and Canada). Perhaps the most pointed case documenting systemic gender bias emerged when Tokyo Medical University administrators confessed to deliberately lowering women’s entrance exam scores to maintain a higher percentage of male students. Women, the university rationalized, are more likely to leave their medical positions when they become mothers.

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Corruption, gender bias and income inequality are at least familiar problems to Westerners. Other issues dogging Japanese society are, well, Japanese.

Start with the fact that a surprising amount of land in Japan lacks clear title because registration is not required for ownership. The muddle has stymied reconstruction in northeastern Japan after the tsunami because residents are unable to finance new homes on land they may not own, while government functionaries can’t rebuild highways because they don’t know whom to ask for permission.

One businessman of my acquaintance is convinced that the Chinese are taking over large swaths of abandoned land as a means of economic sabotage. Far-fetched, of course, but the difficulty of getting anything out of the ordinary done rings true. Such are the frustrations that the yakuza, Japan’s Cosa Nostra, have allegedly been hired on occasion to sort out land claims in their own special way.

Then there is the matter of the “sharing economy,” which is transforming markets for services almost everywhere but Japan. For example, although 29 million tourists visited Japan in 2017 and Tokyo’s goal is to increase that number to 40 million by 2020, Airbnb has been largely blocked from doing business. In June 2018, 80 percent of Airbnb listings disappeared overnight when the government insisted that all rentals must be certified. Maybe that’s just as well, since the additional tourists would have faced obstacles in getting around: stymied by unbending opposition from taxi lobbies, ride-sharing companies like Uber that have transformed urban transportation in much of the world have almost given up on Japan.

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Nature, alas, isn’t making things any easier. Seven years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, scientists are still struggling with cleanup efforts at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Some Fukushima neighborhoods have been declared safe for return, but younger residents refuse to move back. As a result, scattered ghettos of elderly who stayed put don’t yet have basic services.

L to R: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images, Ma Ping Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux, The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Pretty much every plague short of frogs falling from the sky struck Japan last summer.

It gets worse. In 2018, western Japan was twice flooded by biblical-dimension rains, closing an international airport along with hundreds of factories, highways and train lines. While residents languished in evacuation centers, a 6.7 Richter earthquake struck Hokkaido in the north, further squeezing emergency resources. Actually, pretty much every plague short of frogs falling from the sky struck Japan last summer. Temperatures soared to historic three-digit levels in a country that rarely needs air conditioning, killing 120 people and hospitalizing tens of thousands.

Though Tokyo was spared floods and earthquakes this time around, the extreme heat, widely viewed as a consequence of climate change, raised the potential for embarrassment at the 2020 Olympic Summer Games. Should, for example, the organizers schedule the long-distance running events to begin at dawn?

Whatever the weather in 2020, the long-term predictions for flooding in Japan’s giant coastal cities are grim. A 3.6-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100 — the default scenario for business as usual in (lack of) global emissions containment – would leave seven million homes in greater Osaka under water after a big storm. Locals are already warning newcomers not to rent apartments on the first floor.

Back to earthquakes. Seismologists expect that a mega-quake in the Nankai Trough, which cuts through Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama, would cause unprecedented levels of damage and leave five million refugees in its wake. Due roughly once per century, the last mega-quake struck in 1923, leaving some 140,000 dead.

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As noted earlier, though, not all the threats facing Japan are natural or manufactured. Some say the Japanese have become heiwaboke, meaning they take peace for granted. Abe, however, has other ideas, apparently hoping to scratch Article 9 of the 1946 Constitution that renounces the use of force. This would raise hackles in China and Korea, where memories of Japan’s very bad behavior in World War II linger. But one could argue that, amendment or not, the proverbial cat is already out of the bag.

Though lacking nuclear weapons, Japan’s “limited” self-defense force is exceptionally well armed. The current military budget is the eighth largest in the world, with twice the outlays of Israel, Australia or Canada.

The unclear and present danger, of course, is North Korea. Abe opposed Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un before an agenda had been hammered out. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was hardly reassuring when he said that the Singapore mini-summit was about the threat to the U.S. — and not about the threat to Japan. Abe had warned the U.S. about North Korea’s “smile diplomacy” and begged Trump to ask Kim about the 17 Japanese who, bizarrely, were kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Trump apparently passed the message to Kim, but joined in the postdiscussion smile-fest.

Relations between Japan and China have been warming, a sign that both parties understand the interdependence of their economies; much of what Japan sells to the world is manufactured in, or bought by, China. However, Japanese companies have been hedging their bets by slowly diversifying their offshoring. Vietnam and Thailand are not only cheaper sources of materials and labor, but also less prickly about the Japanese presence and less likely to leave Japan vulnerable to the crossfire from U.S.-China trade wars.

By the same token, economics and politics are also driving Japan away from the U.S. and toward the European Union. Even as Trump was exchanging verbal bouquets with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the Japanese were inking a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU. Diplomats claim that the U.S. doesn’t fully understand the full import of the EU deal, but they expect this will change when Japan starts importing European beef at the expense of American producers. (Japan currently buys $1.5 billion worth from the latter).

Japan’s other chronic source of friction with the U.S. is the American military presence. For some years now, Abe has been pressing Washington to move its Marine airbase on Okinawa to a less densely populated location. But Abe’s alternate site, overlooking a beautiful bay inhabited by endangered wildlife, doesn’t sit well with Okinawans. The island’s new governor, Denny Tamaki, wants the U.S. military gone entirely and is promising to frustrate Abe’s initiative.

On occasion, Trump has fulsomely praised Japan’s “samurai spirit.” But he has refused to give Japan a get-out-of-jail-free card on his steel tariff, which is being imposed on friends as well as foes. And he has threatened to take another whack at Japan with a new tariff on cars. While Abe can brush aside the steel levy (a $2 billion export), a tariff on vehicles would be a major economic and political blow. Though most Japanese cars purchased by Americans are now manufactured in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, the SUVs are made in Japan.

The Trump administration’s decision to walk away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiated over many years to pacify every U.S. interest, sent Japanese stocks into a tailspin. Trump’s preferred alternative, a bilateral deal aimed at reducing the U.S. trade deficit with Japan rather than reducing trade barriers, would ordinarily be a nonstarter for Japan. But Trump’s unique approach to geopolitics has left Japanese diplomats too cautious to reject the proposal flat out. Abe’s favored response for the moment is to stall until some day, some way U.S. foreign policy returns to more familiar territory.

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The Japanese inclination to gloomy self-assessment does at least keep ordinary citizens alert to global shifts when they might otherwise be dozing in a comfortable bed of cultural homogeneity and high consumption. And there are some signs there’s a payoff.

More top university graduates are going to startups and venture capital firms rather than down the traditional road of careers in government, corporations and establishment service businesses. One senior partner at a law firm laughed as he told me that he was receiving resumes from applicants saying that they wanted to enter the legal field because they saw it as “stable.” If being a lawyer was what youth thought was “stable,” he said, then welcome to the jungle.

Demographic reality is even beginning to erode Japan’s ethnic isolation. There are already one million foreign workers in Japan, almost a 50 percent increase in the last six years, but the government wants 500,000 more by 2025. Those foreigners can only hold designated jobs for limited amounts of time and cannot bring their families. But they may constitute the tip of the spear that clears a path for an ethnically diverse society that offers the best hope for smoothing the transition for this rapidly aging society.

Few analysts see immigration as a cure-all, though. Indeed, one can plausibly argue that Japan, unlike Europe, Brazil and the United States, has only avoided a populist upheaval because there are no immigrants to scapegoat.

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Over iced lattes, I discussed Japan and its place in the world with a Chinese exchange student living in Tokyo. Do Japan’s neighbors hate the country? Did she think ascendant China was eclipsing Japan?

Her response surprised me. “Young Chinese love Japan,” she insisted. “We love anime and manga. We love the fashion. We love the culture.”

Most people assume the Chinese despise Japan, I countered. She rolled her eyes. “Older people might, but they’ll be gone soon. We all want to come here to visit and hang out. That other stuff is over.”

For some years, Japan’s regional strength has been in part dependent on its “soft” power — its Gross National Cool — which has created transnational bonds between New York’s club kids, Shanghai’s rebels and Akihabara’s otaku nerds. I asked the exchange student how she would feel if Japan erased Article 9. “Yeah, that might be different, but we already know Japan has a military.”

She got me to wondering. Perhaps America’s political turn is not an anomaly. Going forward, Japan’s more unstable relationship might prove to be with the U.S., not China. If the special relationship with the U.S. is so vulnerable to the results of one American election, how much more should Japan invest in maintaining the façade? The world is changing — and, more likely with a whimper than a bang — Japan must take note.