Why the world is wrong to count Japan out

’It might be subtle, but there’s a deep concern the country as a whole has lost its vigour’
Nicholas Köhler and Nancy Macdonald with Jason Kirby
Rising from the rubble
Photograph by Jensen Walker/Getty Images

It’s the Sunday nine days after a 9-magnitude earthquake that triggered a once-in-a-millennium tsunami: 240 km north of here a nuclear power plant is still spewing smoke, 22,000 people are either dead or missing on the northeast coast, and Ace’s, one of the 280 tiny Lilliputian bars that constitute Tokyo’s Golden Gai district, is packed to capacity with eight people.

Crisscrossed by spidery, shoulder-width alleys, Golden Gai was for years a seamy red-light district, then an artists’ and literary hangout. A ramshackle collection of two-storey wooden shacks tossed like dice into the Kabukicho drinking district east of Shinjuku Station, it is today a powerful reminder of Japan’s supersonic rise as an economic power in the latter half of the 20th century, post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki. Surrounded on all sides by the modern glitz of neon Tokyo, it has been preserved as a curio of post-Second World War construction—of the days when Japan had nothing but an appetite for more.

Only Golden Gai’s rickety second-storey bars felt the effects of the massive temblor on March 11, as hundreds of liquor bottles fell from shelves and shattered. The laconic Japanese here make the quake seem like it’s already as old as the neighourhood itself. One young woman at the bar, an office worker, describes spending that night sleeping communally in a school gymnasium after the train lines shuddered to a halt; she shrugs her shoulders like it’s a not especially unpleasant childhood memory and continues sipping her beer.

So it is throughout Tokyo, where despite the alleged threat of radioactive storm clouds rolling in from the overheated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, life goes on much as it always has: the streets are a bit thinner of people, the lights somewhat dimmed—the neon signs of Shibuya so reminiscent of Blade Runner futurism are extinguished—but the restaurants are packed, the bars full, the service still excellent.

The question now is, do the Japanese have appetite enough to do it all over again—after 20 years of economic malaise and with the world’s most expensive natural disaster now on their hands, with damages estimated at US$250 billion?

Many observers see the Great Tohoku Earthquake, as it’s called here—tohoku meaning northeast—as a chance for the country to reset after a period in which the Japanese fighting spirit waned somewhat and retreated. “People are concerned that Japan is losing its vitality—that there’s less optimism, opportunity,” Nobuhiro Hiwatari, a professor of political economy at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Sciences, told Maclean’s during an interview just a day before the earthquake struck. Hiwatari noted in particular the psychological impact of China overtaking Japan as the world’s second-largest economy last year. “It might be subtle, but there’s a deep concern the country as a whole has lost its vigour.”

The following day, the quake and resulting crisis may well have rekindled “that Japanese national characteristic of stoicism, of calm, of what you might call the communitarian spirit,” as Sadaaki Numata, a former Japanese ambassador to Canada, puts it. “People talk about this Japanese word gaman, which can be translated as ‘perseverance’ or, since I was educated in England, ‘stiff upper lip.’ Or in Canada,” he adds, with reference to Margaret Atwood—”as Survival.”

When the troubled Daiichi plant flared up and threatened to blow in the hours following the tsunami, dozens of emergency Tokyo Electric Power Company employees exhibited gaman when they began rotating through the danger zone, toiling to keep the complex under control—the so-called Fukushima 50. Precisely because so little is known of these mysterious technicians, they have caught Japan’s collective imagination, the Unknown Soldiers battling for a country badly hurt and looking for heroes.

“My dad is up for retirement in a half year, so when he told me he had volunteered to go, it nearly made me cry,” read a tantalizing clue about one of the 50, posted on Twitter. “He is a helpless man at home. I’ve never been so proud of him as I am today.” Experts said these workers would likely be exposed to dangerous radiation levels and a heightened risk of cancer. “I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” said Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor of radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

Rising from the rubble
Jana Press/ZUMAPRESS.COM/Keystone Press

As disaster brewed 240 km to the north, Tokyo remained stalwart—even as many foreign governments moved swiftly to extract their nationals. Radiation levels became almost ho-hum, literally part of the nightly weather on the national news with readings per prefecture (the same segment that tracks the coming of cherry blossoms each spring).Rolling blackouts have yet to touch the 23 wards that make up the city’s inner core, and the radioactive spinach, milk and water that inspectors have uncovered from farms near the Daiichi plant inspire little consternation. “My friend says if you eat a banana a day for a year your levels of radiation will rise,” says a blithe woman in her thirties, slurping up sakura udon in Roppongi. (“Of course,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said when asked if he’d consume Japanese spinach and milk. Would he give it to his family? “Of course,” he repeated.)

Meanwhile, the people who fled Tokyo for Osaka in the midst of the nuclear panic are trickling home. Most never left. “I stayed, went to work every day, walked my dog in the park, went out with friends Saturday night: there was a private wedding party in the back and a birthday party out front,” says Saskatchewan native Scott Morris, a production manager for a Tokyo-based new media company who has lived in Japan for 18 years. When last week Tokyo Electric Power warned cold weather might lead to a spike in energy consumption and an unscheduled shortage, Morris says office workers across the city shut their heaters and wore jackets as they laboured at their desks.

Despite their outward bonhomie and the gritted teeth, Morris continues, “It’s sad here right now—the talk isn’t quite as loud, there’s maybe not quite as many beers being drunk. The topic of conversation is still mainly what’s going on up north.”

That tragedy—the missing, the dead, the half a million homeless still holed up in sports arenas sharing not much more than rice balls between them—continues to consume the Japanese news cycle. The ongoing difficulties in Fukushima feature as well (often as ticker-tape rolling over television variety shows announcing more grey or white plumes over this or that reactor), but the primacy of the tsunami victims in the Japanese imagination is obvious. So is the fact that, in the years ahead, March 11 will act as a dividing line: Japan before—and Japan after.

The country faces monumental challenges. Some Japanese travellers who last week emerged from airplanes landing in Taipei and Seoul from Tokyo set the instruments used to detect radiation thrumming. Television news in the U.S. helpfully featured garish maps showing a giant plume of fallout the colour of fire riding the jetstream all the way to California. “This nuclear accident, seemingly, is seeping into every nook and cranny of Japanese life,” says the University of Toronto’s Michael Donnelly, a political scientist who has studied Japan for 35 years. “It’s going to have deep and long-lasting impacts—would you ever eat an apple that was grown in Fukushima? Or milk? Or fish? To say nothing about how it’s casting doubt on Japan’s whole postwar nuclear quest.”

In short, the country is in danger of permitting even its brand to become radioactive. Says Donnelly: “Will it be something like—‘you can’t trust the Japanese government because they’re incompetent?’ ”

Then there are the economic challenges. Twenty years back, Japan accounted for 14 per cent of the global economy; it’s worth half that now. In 1988, eight of the world’s top 10 companies and eight of its top 10 banks were Japanese; today no Japanese outfit makes either list. “We’ve now had not one but two lost decades,” says Donnelly, who wonders of the earthquake and its aftermath: “Is it going to do irreparable damage to the fibre of Japanese society? Is it going to make the Japanese more skeptical, more distrustful, more insecure—more doubtful about their institutions?” Then again, perhaps a little skepticism and doubt is just what they need.

The country has a long way to go. Like the great tectonic plates that caused the quake, the collision between Japan’s past and its oncoming future has turned its world upside down. Known as a robot mecca, it has been reduced to ordering robots able to haul fire hoses around high-radiation Fukushima from a U.S. military contractor. Meanwhile, Nissan, which like other Japanese firms has seen production stoppages at its battered northeastern plants, is reportedly toying with the idea of importing engines it manufactures at a facility in far off Tennessee to complete its made-in-Japan cars.

Always a country of contradictions—like the immaculate geisha on a subway platform talking into a 3G mobile phone—Japan’s paradoxes have now come to haunt it. For decades a high-tech giant, its feats of ingenuity this month included aiming glorified water pistols at a burning nuclear reactor and dumping buckets of water over melting spent fuel rods.

There’s also Japan’s Janus-headed position as both the industrial world’s biggest debtor and its biggest lender. In 2010, for the 19th consecutive year, Japan’s record-high US$2.9 trillion in foreign assets made it the world’s top creditor nation (China is the U.S.’s biggest lender). Yet its public debt is twice the country’s $5-trillion GDP, a ratio second in the world only to Zimbabwe. Even though 95 per cent of that debt is domestically owned, giving foreign speculators little influence, the IMF last month cautioned that Japan’s outstanding debt and fiscal deficit was “unsustainable.” Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan thinks the combination of Japanese deflation and debt puts it next in line for a Greek-style crisis. Funny that, because credit agencies have long expressed skepticism that the political will does not exist in Japan to correct the problem.

Nor to address the country’s deep-rooted political ills. Japan’s reputation as a country that respects its own traditions now seems at odds with its revolving-door politics over the past few years. Charisma-challenged prime ministers came and went for a time until Junichiro Koizumi, a Trudeau-esque figure with a mane of silver hair, implented a raft of reforms in the first half of the last decade. Today, Kan has the job—the fifth Japanese PM in as many years (prior to March 11, Kan’s popularity hovered below 20 per cent). Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva once joked that you say good morning to one Japanese PM and good afternoon to another. “Japan in recent years has had the shortest tenure for leaders in the advanced world,” says the University of Tokyo’s Hiwatari. “I think people are fed up with that.”

And with much more: the Japanese are profoundly dissatisfied with the direction of their country, more so than any other citizenry. Indeed, a recent survey showed that just 14 per cent are confident their country is heading in the right direction, the lowest level of any nation asked. In one perhaps revealing development to emerge since the quake, the hashtag “Kan—okiro” began last week to fly on Twitter—”Prime Minister, wake up!”

Rising from the rubble
Damir Sagolj/Reuters

That frustration with the current political leadership is no doubt due in part to officialdom’s less than transparent reactions to the post-tsumani nuclear crisis. The government has demonstrated itself to be opaque, the utilities shady. This week, one revelation after another cast doubts on the watchdogging chops of Japanese regulators and the country’s media: in one example it was reported that Tokyo Electric Power admitted only 10 days before the earthquake to doctoring repair records submitted to regulators, thereby allowing one reactor component to remain untested for over a decade.

But while Japanese may have been dismayed with bafflegab and denial, they were also quick to take offence at the country’s foreign critics. When Guenther Oettinger, the European Union’s energy commissioner, described Japan’s nuclear crisis as an “apocalypse” that rested in the “hands of God,” and expressed amazement at the “incredible makeshift” methods being used to combat the Fukushima troubles, former diplomat Masamichi Hanabusa did the Japanese equivalent of challenging Oettinger to fisticuffs. “It is not my concern whether the EU considers this gentleman as fit for the post,” he wrote. “It is up to the European people to judge. But I hereby wish to register my strong anger at Mr. Oettinger’s remarks.”

Fury over outside criticism and what were seen as purple reports on the dangers posed by Fukushima in Western media and among some officials—at one point Thierry Charles of France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety described the potential leak as “in the same range as Chernobyl”—isn’t surprising. But while such nationalist outbursts in the face of disaster are understandable, they should also cause pause: Japan is a country with a history of extremism—of rising suns and militarism. “I think this might mark a period in which some basic cultural underpinnings of Japanese society might be impacted in ways I’m not entirely certain of,” says Donnelly. “If the world starts treating the Japanese as not trustworthy, after they’ve suffered so terribly, then that could surely spark some kind of nationalist response, right? If the world starts saying, ‘You guys brought it on yourselves, designing nuclear power plants that in the end could not withstand the shocks of an unprecedented earthquake and a tsunami—then in responding to it, your government cooked the books and hid the facts,’ and foreigners start clucking that way . . . who knows what response you’re going to get?”

If there is indeed a rise in nationalism and an accompanying increase in xenophobia, that doesn’t bode well for one essential reform that most experts agree Japan must undertake to help fix its faltering economy: immigration. A low birth rate means that by 2050 Japan’s population will fall from 127 to 95 million, creating unparalleled pressures: by 2025 there will only be just over two people of working age to support each Japanese retiree; that ratio is expected to fall to three workers for every two retirees by 2060. And yet the country remains deeply suspicious of outsiders, tightly controlling the ability of foreigners to live and work here. So potent a taboo is the issue that, earlier this month, Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara was forced to resign after accepting campaign donations totalling a few hundred dollars from a Japanese-born woman of Korean descent.

In the same vein, Japan must endeavour to close a gender gap that remains yawning wide. Many Japanese companies sidestep weak labour laws by relegating women to “administration tracks,” which offer substandard pay and less prospects for promotion. Women earn 44 per cent of what men do, the widest income gap in the developed world. Just 10 per cent of senior corporate and political positions are held by women in Japan, compared with 42 per cent for the U.S. Women, no surprise, are tuning out.

There are, of course, other problems to address. Among them is the consumption tax: Japan’s remains one of the lowest in the developed world and needs to be hiked as part of a correction to the deficit. Yet in spite of all that, Japan still gets a lot right. It has five per cent unemployment and its life expectancy, literacy and numeracy rates rank among the highest in the world. Even during the Lost Decade that began in the early ’90s, unemployment was three per cent, roughly half the rate in Canada during that period. Both crime and incarceration rates are impressively low; savings rates are high, and the country is known for its creative flair.

Meanwhile, reconstruction in the northeast is doable, even desirable, with “Keynesian effects,” as Numata, the former ambassador, puts it. According to Takahiro Miyao, an economist at the University of Tsukuba, the quake’s total economic cost may reach a staggering US$360 billion. Yet even that is less than six per cent of Japan’s GDP and below three per cent of the total value of the financial assets held by Japanese households. The great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, by contrast, cost a third of that and led to a healthy recovery. Since March 11, “Foreign investors have been buying rather than selling Japanese currency and securities,” Miyao points out in a paper. “Strikingly, it actually took co-operative interventions of the G7 nations in the foreign exchange market to fend off speculative buying of the yen.”

Such considerations are not intended to diminish the fearsome loss of life in Japan’s northeast—and the thousands who remain missing. Ken, who is bartending tonight back at Ace’s in Kabukicho’s Golden Gai district, says that is the thing that makes the Japanese truly heartsick. The missing. They are who Ken, an older man who wears a grizzled grey Abraham Lincoln beard and a paper boy’s cap—using English made all the more expressive for its being foreign to him—calls the “invisible people.” Those men and women taken by the tsunami—invisible but abiding.