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Too Rich, Too Comfortable: Why Japan Is so Resistant to Change Even as Disaster Looms

Taking a hard look at the country’s social and economic issues.


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Everything seems awesome. Photo from Reuters/Issei Kato.

Under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, it can feel as if Japan is enjoying a revolution of sorts. Sweeping economic reforms are finally shaking up its long-stagnant economy, while more foreign workers are entering the country than ever before. Soaring tourist numbers and major sporting events, like 2019’s Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Olympics, are also keeping “Cool Japan,” well, cool.


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And all the while, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy and one of its wealthiest countries; most people there want for nothing, and some of the major societal schisms fracturing Western societies seem to be absent in Japan.

But none of these advantages will help the country tackle its serious economic and demographic problems. That’s according to Brad Glosserman, a 12-year resident of Japan and author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019). Glosserman, now deputy director of the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo, decided to write the book after the earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan in 2011. He wondered whether those calamities would be enough to shake Japan out of its comfortable, familiar stupor. His conclusion? Not so much.

Glosserman spoke with Quartz ahead of his book’s publication. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your book says that we’re now at Peak Japan, which is peculiar as many people may associate that with the years of its economic boom in the 1980s. Could you explain that? 

In some ways you could say the peak years were in the 90s, but for a more complete picture, the Japanese are a more well-rounded, globally present country now. They’ve recovered in some ways and risen again, having restored political stability after a period of time when they didn’t have that. The economy, too, in some respects has recovered. You have to credit Abe in changing the trajectory of the country and giving it new impetus, and assuming a new leadership role on the international stage, including resurrecting the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). He didn’t solve Japan’s problems, but he’s put the floor on some of these issues that other people couldn’t have done.

Why isn’t Abe’s leadership enough to solve Japan’s problems? 

The nature of the challenges facing Japan, and the need to reverse those trends that everybody acknowledges are bad, requires structural shifts. And the Japanese are not prepared to do that. “We like what we have, we’re a small ‘c’ conservative country, we are not prepared to adopt a system that somebody else thinks we need when we’re not sure of it ourselves,” they say. Japan is not like a society trapped in the amber—of course it’s changing and evolving, but these are evolutionary, not revolutionary changes. What the Japanese are is very Japanese. This is a country that believes in law, resilience, stoicism, sucking it up and getting through it. That, as one politician put it to me, is an absolute brake on change in this country.

The fact is that Abe isn’t representative of Japan. I do not see the forces for sustained change in Japan.

What about Abe’s stated commitment to issues such as female labor participation? That’s enjoyed some success in lifting the number of working women in Japan. 

For those on the right who seek reforms to realize their dream of a more powerful and influential Japan, they must balance their impact on social norms and idealized social structures. With women, the tension here is between what the government knows it has to do to unleash their economic potential in society, but there’s also the notion of a woman’s place in the household—I think Abe really does believe in that. There’s been all sorts of policy nudges that the government could have done, but they haven’t, like making childcare widely available. That tension has resulted in begrudging changes that are too late.

Japanese women in response don’t have fervent protests like the suffragettes, but they do choose to act within their rights, like choosing not to get married or have children, and taking jobs that allows them to afford the lifestyle that they choose. One woman, an associate professor at a university, told me: “The LDP (Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party) really likes the traditional family system. They don’t like working women… I don’t like my choices. I haven’t gotten married because I feel that I would have to give up my career.” Now not only is Japan’s population shrinking, but preferences may have permanently shifted, making it impossible for fertility rates to reach or surpass replacement no matter what incentives are offered.

So where does that leave Japan in terms of tackling its demographic crisis? 

To me, it’s extraordinarily revealing that the Japanese government has made a conscious decision to give up one-fifth of its population, and say, “We’re going to hold the line at 100 million people.”

Even in terms of immigration, you have to look at what types of jobs the government is looking to fill. What they really want is people like me—advanced, educated folks who will contribute high value-add to society. Then there’s the second group of people—younger, low-skilled workers doing jobs that most of Japanese don’t want to do. But they don’t want these people to come and stay. They want them to contribute and then go home. The discussion over allowing “integrated resorts” (casino) (paywall) is similar. It’s classic Japanese, and based on the Singapore model. They want foreigners to come in to this small area and spend all their money, but charge locals a lot of money to get in. That way, you don’t worry about contamination and having to integrate them into the larger society.

What about at the corporate level?

This isn’t a country that forgives mistakes terribly well. So what does that encourage you to do? Put your head down. That discourages entrepreneurialism. So does the shrinking population. Steady jobs at many companies are basically readily available for you, so you just don’t screw up and keep your head down and go along with it. There isn’t the same hunger and chip on your shoulder that people have in South Korea to prove themselves, and you don’t have the fearsome competitiveness of China.

Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese are incredibly smart and can be very innovative, but they’re very good at process innovation. When they can see something in front of them and they’ve got a goal to work towards. But they historically have had a problem with coming up with the idea of what to do next themselves. Now, they’re looking back to “Cool Japan” and traditional Japanese values and marketing that aesthetic, for example.

As Japan approaches a new era with the abdication of emperor Akihito, how do you think people will look back on his reign? 

People will look back at the emperor and think that he was an extraordinary man in so many ways. He was a voice of reason, a voice of calm and serenity. He encapsulated the very best of Japan. There’s even speculation that he actually decided to abdicate as one way of stopping the prime minister from getting his constitutional revision to Article 9.

Going back to the starting point for your book—the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011—where do things stand with that area today? 

It’s lagging. Nobody is happy with what’s going on, and there were extraordinary tensions in how Japan was dealing with Fukushima. In some ways, people say that the disaster broke Japan apart. The idea that all Japanese were connected to each other—a powerful trope in modern Japan—was revealed as fiction. Young people felt little connection to the people in Tohoku (northeast), even as politicians kept talking about the idea of kizuna (bonds). Meanwhile, people in Tohoku feel as if they’ve been forgotten. Many are still living in temporary homes, there are still no-go zones, and the reactors are still radioactive. They’ll never go back to their old lives. But in Japan, people are supposed to suffer in silence.

Why is it important for people to pay attention to Japan’s decline?

Anyone with an interest in Asian regional dynamics should be concerned about a gap between expectations of Japan and what the country can and will deliver. Unfulfilled expectations could lead to a rupture in a crisis. My concern is that we, meaning Americans who have a deep commitment to an important partnership, don’t have our expectations out of line.

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published April 2, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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