A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change.
In his first book, Financial Times Asia editor Pilling draws on scores of interviews to investigate Japan’s culture, politics, economics and social life as it tries to recover from a severe economic downturn that began in 1990. The author celebrates Japan’s “social cohesion, a sense of tradition and politeness, a dedication to excellence and relative equality,” but he acknowledges a counter view—that Japan is “an unredeemably xenophobic, misogynist society, hierarchical, shut off from new ideas, and unable to square up to its own history.” Unlike China and Korea, Japan remained isolated for much of its early history, resisting connection to other cultures with advances such as written language and metallurgy. Its feudal society persisted well into the 19th century, when leaders intent on modernization deliberately created “emperor-centered myths” to foster nationhood, as well as elevating Shinto, “an animist set of folkloric beliefs,” to become the unifying religion. Much of Japan’s conviction of its uniqueness, cultural superiority and racial homogeneity, Pilling argues, “is propaganda” initiated at that time. Yet that propaganda fueled a desire to prove military prowess and catapulted Japan into its disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor. The author focuses on recent catastrophes—the devastating 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster—to question Japan’s capacity for resilience. He concludes that those “twin shocks…do seem to have shaken Japan psychologically,” but he notes that other factors—businesses’ globalization; changing dynamics of relationships between men and women; young people’s often strident questioning of tradition; and a stronger two-party political system—have been evolving for the last two decades. Japan has proven itself resilient, at the same time remaining justly proud of being the third-largest economy in the world and richest economy in Asia.
The author’s articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan’s cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.