The writer Neal Ascherson, who reported from Germany and the Soviet bloc during the cold war, once said that a foreign correspondent in a new posting learns everything important in their first two months. Mindful of that thought on a debut trip to Japan a decade ago — though not as a newly minted correspondent — I kept careful track of early impressions. It worked, up to a point, as a dozen notebooks filled with microscopic writing. Even now, the first three days’ key phrases — static prosperity, family is all, and eating studying shopping — unlock a cache.
But time can also mean unlearning. That same year, the esteemed journalist opened a London conference on the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions in east-central Europe. In a lunch-queue conversation, he said something I found impossible to forget: that after 1989 he’d had to junk everything he knew about Poland. Those words would resonate in 2011, when northeast Japan was hit by its biggest-ever earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. It was instantly apparent that this very different convulsion, frequently referred to as “3.11,” would change the country and require a system upgrade by everyone concerned.
My annual visits to Japan over the intervening years have extended these pedagogic tests, with the “great east Japan earthquake” (higashi nihon daishinsai) gradually being subsumed into the nation’s historical experience. Public memory of “3.11” was already becoming more ritualised when, in 2016–18, less intense if still deadly quakes hit Kumamoto, Osaka and Hokkaido, and epic floods Okayama and Hiroshima. The 2011 disaster, its epicentre the northern region of Tōhoku, is now also a warning.
Small, table-rattling tremors are a way of life. But there is a 70 to 80 per cent chance of a major quake in the Nankai trough, under the vast area between Tokyo Bay and southern Kyushu, by 2050. Design and planning for emergencies is apparent everywhere, from specified gathering points to crocodiles of helmeted tots on a local drill.
Living with seismological uncertainty might be good training for the geopolitical kind. In five weeks spent here from mid December, the international dimension of many top media stories is striking. Most dramatic is the arrest and trial of former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn over alleged financial misconduct, which has led debate about Japan’s corporate management, its declining appeal to top business talent, and its disciplinarian judicial approach. (Ghosn’s family has called his continued detention “hostage justice.”) The fate of “Ghosn-san” adds fuel to a concurrent spat between two rival power centres, the trade ministry and the new Japan Investment Corporation, about executive pay.
In foreign policy, Japan’s relations with its four neighbours — China, South Korea, Russia and North Korea — vary from cool to freezing. Jostling for space are Seoul’s spikiness over radar tracking and wartime legacies, Moscow’s contempt at Tokyo’s efforts to discuss the offshore northern islands seized in 1945, and Pyongyang’s obduracy over its abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s. The current Beijing–Tokyo thaw brings some relief, though the underlying tensions are profound. Trump’s waywardness, a source of barely concealed dismay, overhangs all.
The government of Shinzō Abe is pushing through labour and immigration reforms which, from April, will allow up to 345,000 migrant workers — many from Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal — to enter fourteen sectors, including construction, care and agriculture. Unlike contract labourers now tied to a single employer and vulnerable to exploitation, they will be able to switch jobs. Two new categories of workers are created: one with fixed five-year visas; another, high-skilled, with the expectation of long-term settlement and rights to bring family.
Underlying the policy shift is a forecast 20 per cent decline in the workforce by 2040. Foreign employees, African and Pakistani among them, are already an everyday sight in Tokyo’s far suburbs and beyond. Intensive language training, partly to ensure a future of “becoming Japanese” (the anthropologist Joy Hendry’s term), is central to the government’s strategy. That means seeking to avoid a clustering into immigrant neighbourhoods, if that is possible.
Warabi, just across Tokyo’s northern border in Saitama prefecture, has come to be cited as “Warabistan” in fevered minds, though my unsensational if unscientific impression was of a quiet place with more Chinese and Vietnamese than south Asians and Kurds (plus one shop selling halal food). A peace sculpture at the railway station attests to the town’s left-leaning image, offset by a large banner on a nearby house denouncing lack of consultation with residents over plans to renovate the area. In 1946, in an effort to give postwar hope to its young people, Warabi held Japan’s first coming-of-age ceremonies for twenty-year-olds, an observance now part of the national calendar. In Japan as elsewhere, innovation makes tradition.
Outside this year’s ceremony at Saitama City’s sports and music arena, north of Warabi, the air was briefly disturbed by the approach of around thirty bad boys in their twenties and upwards wearing hakama (formal male attire) and carrying flags. Ultra-nationalist in appearance and swagger, they had come to back those of their “antisocial” band who were turning twenty. One was detained, smiling as he was marched away, whereupon his fellow show-offs posed for a group photo and gave a defiant roar of farewell. Waiting mothers and friends of the new adults ignored them. The incident, if it deserves the name, didn’t make even the local news.
The arena will be basketball host of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games, which are already ubiquitous. Public broadcaster NHK’s marathon weekly drama Idaten, an episodic portrayal of Japan’s Olympic history 1912–64 written by the versatile Kudō Kankurō, leads the way. The media coverage of overseas tourists, already high, feeds into the build-up. A popular show on TV Tokyo, Why Did You Come to Japan? (Yū wa Nani Shi Nippon e?) waylays visitors at Narita airport then follows their entertaining adventures with the locals.
By contrast, a prime-time report on overtourism in the historic capital Kyōto features an affable Chinese landlord busily adding to his hotel-rental portfolio as local oldsters expire and shops shut down. China-owned land, resorts and homes are on the rise across the country. The hyperactive Abe, having overseen a rise in annual tourist numbers from twenty to thirty million, needs another ten to achieve his target of doubling visitors in four years. A law to allow casinos at integrated resorts, passed but not yet ratified, should help.
Delivering uplift with a trace of melancholy is the transition to a new head of state, with the retiring eighty-five-year-old emperor Akihito giving way to Naruhito, his son and heir, on 30 April. When the Shōwa (“enlightened harmony”) era ended unexpectedly in January 1989, parties and the cherry-blossom season were cancelled. This time, the thirty-year Heisei (“peace everywhere”) era is closing in nostalgia for its fashions, gadgets and even crises, before its as-yet-unnamed successor is given a formal welcome.
The visitor seeking respite from Tokyo’s sensual delirium may find that the city’s bookshops and libraries only amplify it, even if their heart-rattling combination of plenitude and stillness testifies to this society’s school and job pressures as much as its eagerness for knowledge. Chiko-chan’s motto — she a TV star in the anime-mascot form of a huge-eyed, one-toothed, razor-sharp five-year-old who goes puce with rage at celebrities’ bumbling answers to mundane questions — is surely also Japan’s: Bōtto ikitenja nēyo! (“Don’t sleep through life!”)
Everything under the Western sun is translated, including most recent blockbusters, while local texts abound on the travails of media, tech giants, capitalism and Japan itself. Some have a hint of conspiracism, as with Naoki Hyakuta’s bestseller Nihon Kokuki (A History of Japan), promoted as “the past they won’t tell you.”
The garish To Kill Japan is a potboiler about artificial intelligence, a high-profile oeuvre swamped by the prolific tech entrepreneur Yoichi Ochiai. Fuyuki Aizawa’s The NHK vs Abe Kantei, the title referring to the premier’s official residence, looks at the media fallout of a scandal involving a right-wing Kyōto school with links to Abe’s circle, while the blogger Kazue Fujihara’s linkage of sexual and power harassment is but one sign of #MeToo’s reverberations here. Akira Ikegami, a former foreign correspondent and TV host with gravitas, publishes regular overviews of Japan’s now troubled international relations. The publishing pace is relentless: six weeks after Ghosn’s detention, on the last day of the year, two hefty tomes on the case were in the shops.
Japan’s economy is a major theme in a range of books and journals. The eco-socialist Kohei Saito, well connected to the German left, was one of the impressive young voices in a recent two-hour discussion of Japan’s dilemmas in the NHK’s Jirenma (Frustration) slot. Punchy messages of individualist system-busting, as in the zestful Taichi Kogure’s multimedia project, have wide appeal. More realist critics include Noriko Hama of Doshisha University and David Atkinson, an ex–Goldman Sachs analyst, whose latest diagnoses respectively scythe four myths and invite seven paradigm shifts.
Hama was a fearless declutterer before Marie Kondo was ever heard of, early in spotting an emergent winner-loser society and in puncturing the claims of Abeonomics; here, she focuses on tax, growth, profit and productivity. Atkinson — England-born, resident in Japan for forty years — argues for a sharp fall in company numbers, improved management, rising wages and more in order to consolidate productive energies. Their proposals differ, but each makes clear that capitalism in Japan, too, needs an overhaul.
In an interview with TV Asahi’s Tōru Tamakawa (a sometime target of right-wing netizens), the engaging Atkinson saw the Ghosn case as evidence of Japan’s out-of-step corporate culture, raising the question of what international order it might now seek to join. The great Japanese political scientist Takashi Inoguchi, influenced by the modern discipline’s postwar founder Masao Maruyama, wrote during the Junichiro Koizumi era, 2001–06, of a journey towards “Japan as a normal country.” In an age of deranged leaders, polarised societies, discredited democracies and fevered media, with the redefinition of normal proceeding apace, what Japan needs to avoid is clearer than what it should emulate.
Tokyo is (not) Japan is another entry in those decade-old notebooks. In fact, my research focus on that 2009 trip was precisely Japan’s regional medley, with Tōhoku its centre. This visit didn’t allow an excursion to the north, but the bookshop chain Kinokuniya’s awesome foreign-language store in Shinjuku was an opportunity to catch up with the many specialists who have tracked the impact of 3.11 in its several dimensions: reconstruction, survival and trauma, nuclear risks, civil-society efforts, memory, and literary and art-therapy responses. Most works, in truth, already look dated. Richard Lloyd Parry’s genre-defying Ghosts of the Tsunami is justly prominent.
It is striking how few studies there are of Japan’s internal diversity as such, a theme long channelled into vital if often reductive study of minorities (Ainu, Burakumin, Okinawa people, the Korean minority, and immigrant groups). In the same vein, and guidebooks apart, here are books on Kyōto; Osaka; Tokyo, of course; and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course. But none on any other cities, and none on any region, not even Hokkaido. The sole exception is Tōhoku, but it is seen exclusively through the lens of the catastrophe.
One of the books is a pioneering study, appropriately on a different shelf from the 3.11 batch: Nathan Hopson’s Ennobling Japan’s Savage North East: Tōhoku as Postwar Thought 1945–2011, an intellectual history that reframes the entire field of Tōhokugaku (Tōhoku studies), rethinks its connections to wider Japan, and for the first time puts the 2011 disaster in these larger contexts. The penultimate chapter is a searching critique of Norio Akasaka, the iconoclast turned doyen of modern Tōhokugaku.
I interviewed Norio Akasaka in the folklore-drenched town of Tōno on the chill early morning of 11 March 2012, the earthquake’s anniversary, before being kindly invited by Kuroki-san, a student of the professor — and a collector of the region’s ghost stories — to a moving commemoration in his grandmother’s devastated town. That privilege of a lifetime brought the tragedy, its victims and survivors, very close.
A lasting impression of that and other journeys is how multifarious the country is, down to the smallest unit, and how far Tokyo seems from its corners. But all realities are in motion, and learning never stops. In the city’s Ikebukuro district, descending the Junku-do bookshop’s escalator, a Japanese relative broke a silence from a place well out of my own reach:
“I think Japan has become more confident in these years. Media now always show proud Japan, positive, not ashamed. After 3.11 people were very down so there was a mood to cheer up. But this got taken over by something more nationalistic. Now it’s established as an atmosphere. Even in the programs that show foreigners on TV, people who come and admire Japan are being used to support it. Before, in the bubble years, media generally liked criticism of Japan. Now there is more boosting than bashing from outside, and that is picked up and praised here while negative points are ignored. Inside Japan you feel or are encouraged to feel that Japan is the centre of everything, but when you go outside you realise how small it is. Maybe with anime or manga, young people in Japan have more in common with abroad, making soft power real, and that will change things more. But no one really knows Japan.” •