Japan’s decline has become such conventional wisdom that you pick up a book like this and immediately expect an explanation of Japan’s “lost decade” (now turning into two decades), a period that coincides nicely with my own career; I first lived in Japan during the Bubble heyday, leaving for good in the mid-90s, after the Kobe Earthquake and the Sarin Gas Attacks that marked such a pivot in Japan’s history. Like many Japanophiles at the time, I too gave up on the country and found myself studying less and less about the place, switching instead to China, which seemed far more exciting and new. With David Pilling’s new Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival (which I found from a Sinica Podcast recommendation) I feel much more caught up.
The title “Bending Adversity” is a rough translation of 災い転じて服となす, which is a great, untranslatable Japanese phrase that you use when suffering hardships. The author, a Financial Times journalist who lived there through much of the 2000s, uses the 3/11 Tsunami as the context for the book, showing the uniquely Japanese way that people there endured the aftermath of one of their worst disasters.
“Japan is a country of good soldiers but poor commanders,” says Shijiro Ogata, one of many first-hand interviews from the book. The cleanup after the tsunami, like so much of what appears to be rudderless Japanese politics, seems to indicate a lack of direction — leadership— that is only made up for by the orderly, well-behaved reaction of individual Japanese, who one-by-one work together to cooperate in ways unthinkable in other countries. Looting and hoarding — seemingly inevitable consequences of disaster anywhere else — just don’t happen in Japan.
But what is the source of unique Japanese, orderly response to adversity? and will it continue? The author provides a nice overview of ideas like nihonjinron, so big back in the Bubble Days when the best-selling book was Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One. Then there’s a nice refresh of Japan’s historical rise, including the early victories over China and Russia back in the 1890s, continuing to the triumphs and ultimate tragedy of the War, followed by its unlikely recovery. By the time you get to the Bubble Days, you come away with an understandable awe at how such a success was possible, made even more incredible by the seeming inability to grow again after the early 90s crash.
Reviewing the various responses by Japanese governments since then — from the early, temporary defeat of the LDP in the 90s, to the unlikely rise of Koizumi in the 2000s, you are left with a sense of one dashed hope after another, and a real disappointment that the seemingly invincible country that rose after the Meiji Restoration has disappeared and may never come back again.
Still, behind the raw GDP numbers that show little or no progress in twenty years, and the overtaking by China in the number two spot worldwide, the author reminds us of all that is still great about Japan. If the impeccable design, cleanliness, great food, well-educated and orderly society with the world’s highest life expectance — if that’s a failure, then is it really so bad? Many parts of Japanese society have been restructured, with a greater awareness of the simple things in life, beyond the dreary economic numbers. As the author points out, Nelson Rockefeller, who died in 1979 one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, had no iPhone or internet or any of the wonderful day-to-day luxuries that any Japanese person, living in a peaceful and generally cooperative society can take for granted.
What I realized while reading this book is that maybe, instead of being “lost”, the last few decades are really how Japan has found itself.