This book review was written For the Japan Society on 26th May 2020
Peak Japan – The End of Great Ambition
By Brad Glosserman
Georgetown University Press (2019) ISBN: 978 162 616 6684
Review by Duncan Bartlett
Crises are often catalysts for change. The recession which will inevitably follow the Covid 19 pandemic, as well as the postponement, or even the cancellation of the Olympics Games, presents a moment of truth for Japan. Surely now is the perfect opportunity to embrace reform and challenge the complacency which has stymied progress for the past thirty years? What better time to make a great national effort to fire up the economy and strive toward Japan’s great ambition to be, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe put it recently, a top-tier country?
No matter how passionately such ambition is stated, the words are usually empty, according to Brad Glosserman. His book Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions went into print in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. I am certain that he would cite a strong historical precedent that the reaction to this crisis will be much the same as responses to previous disasters, such as the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. No matter how serious Japan’s problems, they do not provide the impetus for social transformation. Shocks trigger a temporary sense of alarm but “this is not sufficient to move Japanese people out of their comfort zone and to change the direction from business as usual.”
Initially, I wondered if this was going to be one of those finger-pointing books written by a foreigner which scolds Japan and belittles its current status. I have read many such editorials in the international press. Outsiders often suggest that the Japanese are wilfully blind to the need for reform. The subtext that seems to be “why can’t they be a bit more self-aware, like us?”
Professor Glosserman is an American and retains a high regard for free market capitalism, strong alliances between liberal democracies and a business environment which fosters innovation and entrepreneurship. He also understands Japan deeply, having been a resident and regular visitor since 1991. He has worked as a journalist for the Japan Times and as an analyst for a think tank called the Pacific Forum. His book is thoroughly researched and engaging.
Rather than finger pointing, he makes a special effort to explain how the Japanese interpret their national dilemma and how they proffer solutions. Occasionally, there are charming suggestions, such as a novelist’s wish to see the government establish a network of neighbourhood cafes, where people could go to get to know one another “even if they don’t necessarily chat or become close friends, although it would obviously be great if they did.”
Unfortunately, the prevailing mood is gloomy. For much of the time since the bubble economy burst in the 1990s, Japanese people have been dissatisfied with their country’s political and economic performance. The frustration is acknowledged by both the left and right. This book contains many interviews with people who long for reform but who are dismayed that so many bold plans for action end up going nowhere.
The author provides a striking example from the turn of the millennium, when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi established a commission on Japan’s Goals for the 21st Century. Committees made up of academics, journalists and policy specialists from across the political spectrum shared ideas. Their report stated that in the year 2000, Japan stood at a turning point in its history, as significant as the Meiji Restoration and its defeat in World War II. The experts concluded that there was an urgent need to redefine the social contract between individuals and society. They even offered many specific and practical suggestions on how to do this, few of which were followed.
Despite the good intentions, Professor Glosserman claims that by the early 2000s, there was “a rapid exacerbation of private suffering directly related to economic hardship” in Japan, including record rates of unemployment, homelessness, child abuse and suicide. Further traumas have followed since then.
We are left with a puzzle. As the author notes, Japan is a country which has repeatedly proven able to rise to challenges and overcome them. So why does it struggle to deal with what seem to be relatively minor problems, such as ending deflation or stemming the decline in the birth rate?
Part of the difficulty is that changes advocated from the top take ages to implement, or never catch on at all. The so-called third arrow of Abenomics is a classic example of this: a shot at reform which appears to have missed its target. Professor Glosserman notes that under Japan’s political system, prime ministers have limited ability to set the legislative agenda, so their plans often fail to make it through fractious parliamentary committees, or are deliberately obstructed by a self-serving bureaucracy. The author warns that Shinzo Abe’s current term in office is “a last gasp” which will be “frustrated by a combination of structural restraints and attitudinal barriers.”
The attitude of youth often irks social commentators and for all I know this may have been the case since prehistoric times. Nowadays, Japan’s young people are smeared as passive, complacent and lazy – especially compared to the dynamic and ambitious Chinese. One unnamed Kyoto University student confided to the author: “We are happy and comfortable. We can sleep on trains and no one will steal our money. We don’t feel a sense of urgency or pain and so we are not desperate to try something new.”
This book also includes reminders of the admirable qualities of the Japanese, including, I would suggest, their candour in expressing their anxieties to foreign writers. During the Covid-19 crisis, I have noticed that most Japanese people have remained calm but have been sharing their fears through social media. A supportive community spirit has been fostered and many people – young and old – are working diligently to solve their country’s complex problems.
Admittedly, few of them seem to have a burning passion for social revolution. Yet the continued debate about reform, rebirth and rejuvenation suggests that most of the citizens of Japan do not feel that they have yet created a country which matches their great ambitions.
Duncan Bartlett is a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo and the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine. He also writes the weekly blog Japan Story.