Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Japan, of the Future
Eight days on the other side of the world
I’m struggling against a vision, a memory. I want to relate it to you, make you understand—I’m on platform 13, Kyoto Station, and I’ve caught, in full, the gleaming white snout of the Shinkansen. This time, with my smartphone thrust out, I can capture it, and now it is stilled, just for me. I’ve tried and failed several times to do this. What I notice now is the black glass of the front window, on a swift downward plane like a gale wind has bent it just so, and the girders overhead striping, with shadow, the bright white body of the train. Like a starship dragged to Earth—a starship, perhaps, for a better purpose. What is it like to ride one? You know your speed only in relation. From your seat, you watch a cityscape’s hushed and meteoric transformation into a countryside, miles rocketing away from you. Your body hardly moves at all. A six-hour journey is now a two-hour journey. Technology has always existed to collapse distance, a response to the human yearning to draw ever closer. The Shinkansen, for an American, returns time. Since there is nothing like it back home, it is that kind of miracle, blasting among the metropolises with unfathomable ease. If you miss your train, there’s always another.
Japan has always occupied a peculiar place in the American imagination. It is everywhere and nowhere, kitsch and menace, inextricably bound up with our greatest sin. The American, to this day, fails to understand what it is their ancestors did to Japan, just as the average Japanese person would rather not contemplate the mass mania that led their grandparents and great-grandparents down the path of total war. Each nation operates in its own fugue, its own state of perpetual forgetting. Each nation, at one time, held a near-monopoly on the future—the twentieth century, then, is always a refuge for better times. Out of the ashes of war, America became a global hegemon in a world that had, at best, two poles, one of them controlled by a sclerotic, autocratic, and ultimately doomed empire. Japan, bereft a genuine military—its postwar constitution forbade it—instead remade itself as an economic superpower, and spent 30 years convincing Americans it would enact its ultimate revenge through a relentless export regime. Japanese global dominance was inevitable. The serious young men who talk politics today and obsess over China have, as their antecedents, the serious young men in shoulder pad suits who scrutinized kanji and anxiously waited for Japan to reach the highest gross domestic product on the planet. We were all going to work for the Japanese. In Back to the Future II, Marty McFly and his girlfriend are vaulted into the far-off world of 2015, where she must watch as Marty’s future, middle-aged self is fired via videoconference. “Fujto-san, konnichi wa,” McFly tells his boss, Ito Fujitsu. The 1989 audience laughs nervously. The situation is absurd—Marty has been baited into a shady financial scheme by an old high school friend and is, mere seconds later, facing his comeuppance—but the nationality of Marty’s boss carries with it the whiff of very real prophesy. Many educated observers of the international scene believed it was only a matter of time before the United States became subservient to Japan.
Most Americans have the experience of consuming products they don’t consciously think of as Japanese. Super Mario Brothers has transcended its Japanese roots. Pokémon exists on its own plain of influence. Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Sony, Canon, and Suzuki are world companies, their Japanese foundations amounting to trivia for many in America. Sushi is ubiquitous enough that it is Japanese cuisine in the way a hot dog or hamburger might be regarded as German grub. The cultural products most closely linked with Japan in the United States, anime and manga, continue to grow in popularity, and may one day shed most of their obvious foreign associations. I am something of a product of this Japanese cultural eruption in the second half of the twentieth century, one that doesn’t register all that much with the Japanese people themselves—the popularity of their comics and cartoons, abroad, was never of great concern. I was, like many millenials, part of the original American wave of Pokémon obsessives. As a child, I was less drawn to the Game Boy (export of Nintendo, a Japanese corporation of the first order) game than the actual trading cards, which I collected manically and then arranged for the game itself, a pastime that took me to my local comic bookstore to play in tournaments. Naturally, I regularly watched the Pokémon anime, one of millions of American boys imagining himself as Ash Ketchum, the spunky 10-year-old who leaves behind his sleepy burgh to become the greatest catcher, collector, and trainer of Pokémon (“Pocket Monsters” in Japanese) there ever was.
My interest in Japanese media ran deeper than Pokémon. In the third grade, I chose a guide to the Godzilla movies at a bookstore and my parents bought it for me. No book, perhaps, was ever read with such care and dedication. I recall taking it to school repeatedly and showing it to friends as I amassed facts about the King of All Monsters and his many friends and foes who would, in various midcentury films, lay waste to Japan and the rest of the world. The book, a “compendium” written for a teenage or adult audience, was something of a blow-by-blow guide to the films I would eventually see. I would watch either the awkwardly dubbed versions or those with English subtitles. I understood, dimly, Godzilla (“Gojira”) was a manifestation of Japan’s atomic anxiety, an ancient creature who drew succor from nuclear radiation, beginning in the 1950s. Watching enough of the original Japanese films that ran from midcentury to the 1980s, I grew enthralled with the various incarnations of the kaiju. Godzilla could be, in any given film, a heinous foe, a tireless defender of Earth’s sovereignty, an unreliable anti-hero, or an oddball goof. The allies and villains of this chaotic universe—the three-headed King Ghidorah, the behemoth moth goddess appropriately named Mothra, the space-age Mechagodzilla, winged Rodan—were sources of perpetual fascination, and I collected their action figures, filling my room with plastic monsters. My own country, America, could never give birth to Godzilla. To Japan, I had to turn.
In my early teen years, I bought bootleg Japanese VHS tapes at a local video game store, watching episodes of Dragon Ball Z before they arrived in the United States. The episodes were subtitled, which allowed me, very occasionally, to pick up on Japanese words and conventions. San, sama, kun, and chan were all honorifics, I learned. A character, “Pan Chan,” did not have the last name of Chan—rather, she was a female child, so this was the term of endearment attached to her name. “Kaio-Sama” was revered, afforded the highest honorific. “Nani,” uttered often in another favorite anime, Bleach, translated to “what?” and was usually used in the context of a character being shocked by some turn of events. Looking back now at my teenage interest in anime, which predated my plunge into literature, there’s a natural progression from the former to the latter. It would be simplistic to deem anime “Japanese animation” or “cartoons” and leave it there. Anime tends to be very narrative-driven, like so-called prestige television, with tangled story arcs and adult themes. Characters curse, bleed, and talk about sex. They are rarely static—even in the Dragon Ball franchise, originally designed for children and teens, villains can slowly transform into heroes and celebrated protagonists can grapple with darkness and doubt. Storylines can exist on planetary and dimension-defying scales. Several anime, like Eureka 7 or Paranoia Agent, still haunt me in a certain way, their themes of environmental rebellion and societal psychosis shading the later work I would do. A novelist will find much fertile ground to till with anime.
Eventually, when I had the means and the time, I vowed I’d go to Japan. In April, with my girlfriend, I finally did.
To write about Japan is to inevitably confront myth—both of its own making and that imposed by the foreigner. Some of the myth is rooted in truth. Some of it springs, inevitably, from when you apprehend Japan the physical marvel. The American simultaneously thinks very much and very little of Japan. The Lost Generation did not blow open the twentieth century in Osaka. My quondam idol, Henry Miller, did not haunt the streets of Tokyo. There is no such thing as Kyoto syndrome. There is, really, very little quality writing from non-Japanese about Japan. And I began, in early April, to dimly understand the plight of the Japanese tourist abroad in Paris, a city that is supposed to be something like the Atlantis that never crashed into the sea.
Paris, a wonderful city I visited for the first time in January, had some surprising echoes of New York. There was more grime than I imagined, and the Eiffel Tower up close appeared oddly rusticated, like the great hull of an Edwardian battleship tipped up into the sky. If you are coming from Tokyo or Osaka and you gaze upon Paris for the first time, you may feel, for a moment at least, your natural ballast leaving you. This is a city? This is the height of urbanism, the height of legend, where all civilization points? Osaka’s Dotonbori outshines Times Square or Montparnasse. No city offers an escape like Kyoto’s soaring bamboo forest. Nowhere will mesmerize like Shibuya Crossing.
I was not prepared for the cities of Japan. I was not prepared, exactly, to feel how far behind the United States had fallen. Consider I have spent my entire life in New York City, America’s great megapolis, a city far and away larger than any other in the country. I have produced countless amounts of reportage on this city; it is my profession, in part, to be aware of its glories and ills. I know this is a relatively safe city that still functions—we have come far from the 1970s—but one that could use reform. I know the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a deeply flawed and inefficient bureaucracy. I know there is much we do well, and plenty we don’t. If New York has a failing, it can usually be found in another American city. It is not as if Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago boast superior public transportation, parks, or schools.
In Tokyo, however, I found the city of tomorrow. Or rather, the city of the alternative present, one that had not fallen into the slipstream of whatever reality has subsumed the American project and never let go. You do not understand the failure of American public transportation and infrastructure until you come to Tokyo, a city inordinately larger than New York—14 million in the city proper, nearly 40 million in the metropolitan area—that manages, somehow, to have excise the chaos out of urban life. That is the strangest feeling of walking through Tokyo Station, where it is always rush hour, men in dark suits and women in business blouses hurrying across titanic concourses throughout the day and night, one commuter wave after another, their eyes fixed straight ahead. The metro stations are labyrinthine and immaculate, litter nonexistent, noise mostly absent, a sheen across every surface. It is a pleasure to spend days inside the Japanese metro stations. The very best are like exquisite shopping malls, restaurants, clothing stores, supermarkets, and chocolate shops always within reach. If you are parched, there are vending machines around almost any corner. If you have the very human urge to urinate or defecate, you need not worry—every single metro station has a public restroom with clean toilets, each typically equipped with a bidet. If you have a physical disability, there are handicap facilities, and if you have any trouble walking, a Japanese metro station will always have an elevator or an escalator. The American barbarism of struggling up a flight of crumbling steps with a baby stroller or a large package is not to be found in Japan.
In Tokyo, there are no homeless people. “No” is not a figure of speech—I did not see a single person on my visit. In Osaka, there were perhaps two or three. The Japanese have a punitive criminal justice system that will make American liberals uneasy—there would be no tolerance for a homeless person sleeping in a Tokyo subway car—but it is not the police who are needed to keep people from sleeping on the streets. If a person wants housing in Japan, they can have it, even if they fall out of the middle-class. The reason is startling simple: Tokyo, like other Japanese cities, has a very affordable housing market. In Japan, housing is not treated like a commodity to be hoarded for wealth accumulation. Rather, it is something like owning a car—useful, but with no great return a decade down the line. There is no daunting financial barrier to home ownership in Japan. But since owners do not enjoy any great privileges over renters, there is no particular downside to renting cheaply in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, or anywhere else. And if an individual struggles to rent, a capsule hotel can be found for the equivalent of $20 or $30 a night.
But why are apartments cheap? Unlike the United States, Japan never lost its appetite for housing construction. Loose to nonexistent zoning laws mean supply is always being created, on a scale that Americans can’t quite comprehend. More importantly, though, it’s the extensive metro and rail system that takes the premium out of any particular neighborhood of the city. A friend in Japan explained it to me—would New York be so expensive if a high-speed train could shuttle commuters between the five boroughs and Philadelphia in under 30 minutes? What if Albany, Syracuse, or Rochester were linked in the same way? The Shinkansen, or bullet train, took me from Tokyo to Osaka in just over two hours. If I had driven from Tokyo to Osaka, it would have been a six-hour trip. In Tokyo, the metro system does not favor the urban core over areas on the outer rim of the city. Rather, the train map is like an interconnected, radial web, and movement laterally is as easy as traveling north or south. A Tokyo-style subway system in New York would mean little difference in train trips from Brooklyn into Manhattan and those undertaken in the outer boroughs. Hopping between Astoria and Ridgewood or the South Bronx and Bayside would be routine. Tokyo has buses, but slower surface transportation has little utility when so few gaps exist in the actual metro system. I can’t remember seeing many buses in either Osaka or Tokyo.
The most jarring difference between American and Japanese public transportation, though, is the arrival of trains. Trains forever arrive. There is no such thing, in the metro system, as waiting for a train—waiting in the sense of what is done in New York City at any time of the day. You reach your platform and a train is there. Or it’s about to come, playful music announcing its arrival from speakers unseen. The metro operators will actually apologize to you if a train is slightly behind schedule. This never happened to me. The train was never not there. And despite the intimidating crowding on trains, order reigns because passengers form lines in designated spots to board. On the ground, arrows tell you where to stand. The train will stop in the same place each time, so the arrows will line up. Many metro stations in Tokyo have sliding gates across the platform that keep passengers from falling onto the tracks. Such technology would be unthinkable in New York. Rather than spend the money—and spend it efficiently—the MTA is content to let a certain number of people die in the subway tunnels of New York every year. This is one achievement of Japan: needless death is not a feature of life. Gun crime cannot happen because it is so difficult to acquire a gun. Homeless will not die on the street because there will always be an inordinately cheap capsule hotel to take them in. Japanese, indeed, live longer than Americans.
There are benefits, too, to Japan’s state-managed capitalism. It is proof that the flourishes of a consumerist society—the office building-sized shopping malls, the gaudy neon signage, the polychromatic supermarkets and restaurants—are possible without rampant income inequality. In Japan, the consumerism is not so taunting because the salaries of white shoe attorneys and convenience story workers don’t vary all that much, when compared to what’s found in America. Conspicuous wealth consumption is not a social norm and taxes on the rich are quite high.
I thought of technology—and how Japan, in my foreign view, had struck the perfect balance between past and future. Public infrastructure is decades ahead of the United States, if not a century. Maglev trains and perpetual metros will never be a way of life here. Nor will abundant public restrooms, heated toilet seats, or sushi summoned from a touch screen and flowing off a conveyor belt. Ramen, in Japan, can be ordered at a restaurant from a simple push-button screen, coins plopped in, the soup appearing at a table a few minutes later. Technology doesn’t hinder. Japan might love the QR code as much as the United States, but menus themselves are physical. They often show images of the food to aid those who can’t read Japanese. The smartphone is ascendant there, too, but it doesn’t serve to lock you out of everyday life in the same manner. Perhaps this is because the Japanese are still happy consumers of the analog tech Americans have cast aside. DVDs and CDs are on display in large book and electronics stores. And there are many physical stores—anyone who misses Manhattan’s J&R will find wonders in Japan. Online shopping hasn’t yet decimated their mall culture. Our hotel in Osaka, which had its lobby on the 9th floor (the Tokyo hotel, also built into a much larger building, welcomed us on the 27th floor) was built into a sprawling, 10-floor department store, much of it owned by Yodobashi Camera. What a consumer paradise, all of it in meatspace, people everywhere.
At the baseball games, every pitch is life and death. There is no American languor, no concessions for early April. We arrived, under a light rain, at the famed Koshien Stadium, which hosts the annual high school baseball tournament, Japan’s equivalent of March Madness. Koshien opened 99 years ago, and it plays like a more raucous Wrigley. Throughout the game, played between the Hanshin Tigers and visiting Toyko Yakult Swallows, organized mass chants broke out, with trumpet players and flagbearers accompanying them. Tokyo brought their own cheering section. The rain fell harder and we were delayed, the fans giddily converging in the cramped concourses, unwilling to go home. When play resumed, the crowd had not diminished. Koshien does not have tiers and decks and terraces, only one enormous, sloping outfield expanse of bleachers, and the fans were clothed in hometown yellow, bright against a long sky of dark blue.
No country in the world loves baseball more. And that kind of country, in some sense, must be my kind of country.
For the very first time, I felt sadness heading back to my homeland.
There is Japan through the foreign gaze, and Japan through those who live and work there, who form the culture, the Weltanschauung. As my friend James Taichi Collins, who grew up in Japan, once put it, there is a “despair behind the polite smiles of the Japanese people.” For most Americans, particularly those who’ve developed a healthy fascination with Japan—or those, like me, who’ve traveled there and fallen for its splendor—this will come as a great surprise. The Japanese live longer, enjoy wondrous infrastructure, and encounter very little violence. There are no school shootings in Japan. There is no opioid epidemic. Unlike China, Japan is a democracy, with free elections and protected speech. Novelists, screenwriters, and animators can thrive in Japan. These is no Chinese equivalent of anime, no Chinese Murakamis or Kawakamis coming forth.
All of it, all of these marvels, and they are unhappy. There is, for all that is right with Japan, something amiss. These is plenty wrong with the United States. Yet Japan, a nation marked by historical atrocities—those committed against it, and those it inflicted upon others—has a strange and singular place on the world stage. To understand Japan, it helps to understand the impact of Sakoku, the foreign policy pursued under the Tokugawa shogunate, which dissolved in 1868. For more than 200 years, beginning in the early 1600s, Japan existed under a military dictatorship and a strict class system; it was the time of the samurai and the daimyo, or feudal lords. It was era of rapid urbanization and remarkable stability, marked by its deep suspicion of foreigners. Sakoku—which translates to “chained” or “locked” country—was the policy of seclusion or isolation, especially from Europe. The shoguns prized order and feared, more than anything else, imperial conquest from a hostile outsider. There would be no revolutions, from within or abroad. Wary of China and Korea, Japanese elites nevertheless feared, more than anything else, becoming a vassal state of the Western powers. They looked on, in the nineteenth century, as the British rapidly subdued China, Asia’s goliath for thousands of years. The Japanese warlords also viewed Christian missionaries with great skepticism. Christians had been arriving, on and off, for hundreds of years, and the Tokugawa shogunate was committed to restricting their influence. Shintoism and Buddhism reigned.
Sakoku officially melted away when the United States forced the opening of Japan in the 1850s. President Millard Fillmore wanted Japanese ports opened for American trade; Japanese military leaders and political thinkers understood, rather quickly, they would no longer be able to exist wholly removed from the West. In fact, they would have to industrialize swiftly to match the military might of the foreigners and undertake their own imperial adventures. An imperial nation was a modern nation. And it was one, apparently, that respected the temporal powers of the emperor. For centuries, the Japanese emperor had been akin to a modern pope, imbued with religious significance but lacking tangible political authority. That changed in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration and the fall of Edo, or Tokyo. The shogun’s temporal powers were handed off to the emperor. At the same time, the new Meiji leaders were committed to erecting Western institutions—parliaments, courts, banks, and even elections—that could make Japan appear fully modern to outsiders. The British system, in some sense, was a model, with a reigning monarch and quasi-democratic machinery functioning underneath. The samurai were transmogrified into bureaucrats. Large industrial organizations were born, like Mitsubishi.
To truly lay claim to modernity, Japan would have to go to war and win. The Sino-Japanese war of 1895 proved the new Japanese military could lash the Chinese. China sued for peace, bringing about a collapse of the Chinese imperial system that had flourished for more than two millennia. Among the colonies Japan secured was Taiwan. Next came the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Czarist Russia was no match for a surging Japan. For the first time since the fall of Constantinople, a non-Christian, non-Western power crushed the military of a Christian nation. The Japanese navy, suddenly, was one of the greatest in the world. Back home, industrial capitalism had brought both great spoils and misery. The Tokugawa shogunate had exploited the peasantry, of course, but all they really cared about was stability and tax collection. It was something of a decentralized dictatorship, with towns and villages left to manage their own political affairs. The Meiji government, however, was committed to rummaging the vast Japanese countryside for factory labor, the flesh fast undergirding the new military-industrial behemoth. War had mostly vanished under the Tokugawa shogunate, its militarism largely performative. In the Meiji period, the new nationalism and the militarism that came with it were deadly serious things; the young boys, now off to public school in the uniforms derived from Prussian cadets, were inculcated for battle. The seeds of twentieth century fascism were planted firmly in the ground.
Even as Japan absorbed Western customs, launched invasions abroad, and eventually joined the Axis powers in the Second World War, making the disastrous decision to wage war against a much larger industrial power, Sakoku never vanished. It became, both in the fascist years and the postwar boom, both a policy and a mindset. Japanese, even to this day, will only embrace foreigners so much. Immigration to the country is difficult and even small influxes of outsiders can provoke the sort of handwringing that transcends even the nativism found in the United States. Japan does not have a racist society so much as it has a xenophobic one; survival, in some sense, is believed to be predicated on keeping foreigners at a healthy distance. In other major industrial powers, the children of immigrants, or even immigrants themselves, can achieve influence and renown. Rishi Sunak, the children of Indian parents who came of age in British colonies abroad, is now the prime minister of the United Kingdom. One of the founders of perhaps the most dominant American corporation in the world, Google, was born in Moscow, and men and women of Asian descent have long climbed the ranks of Silicon Valley. America, for all its flaws, still allows for assimilation, for the melting pot ethos—in a generation or two, anyone from anywhere can claim, plausibly, they are Americans in the public square. There is, quite simply, no equivalent process in Japan. Immigrants—or simply someone of non-Japanese descent—cannot climb a Japanese corporate ladder. A child or grandchild of immigrants will not get elected prime minister of Japan or come anywhere particularly close. (A Japanese version of Kamala Harris, even now, is unthinkable, as would be a Ro Khanna, Grace Meng, Nikki Haley, or Pramila Jayapal.) Japanese, also, travel abroad in much smaller numbers, relative to Chinese or South Koreans. It is not an accident that most major American cities lack a Japanese enclave, whereas Chinatowns and Koreatowns have flourished. Twenty-first century globalization, for all the Japanese exports still soaring across the globe, has become distinctly non-Japanese. Japanese youth even seem to fear traveling elsewhere, believing their lives would be at risk.
In the glory years of Japan, after the war, all of this mattered less. Japan is not a country that relishes gazing backwards any more than America is, but it is unique among former fascist nations in not reckoning with the darkness that came to the fore in the 1930s and 1940s. Germany remains the model; remembering and not repeating the horrors of the Holocaust is central to the foundation of the modern German state. Germany has instituted strict laws against anti-Semitic hate speech and Nazi iconography. This has not halted the rise of the far right in a Germany now grappling with its own economic and cultural challenges, but it has kept neofascism, for the most part, marginalized. No child leaves a German school not understanding the madness of Hitler and the cataclysms he wrought. Japan is another matter. Noble defeat consumes the mythos of a nation that came to valorize the 47 Ronin, the masterless samurai who avenged the death of their lord and eventually disemboweled themselves after they went to the police, and the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt of Meiji era samurai who wanted to restore the feudal caste system—a revolt that came to be the basis for Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai, a hit in Japan. Saigo Takamori, the samurai who led the rebellion, failed miserably but is revered nonetheless. World War II, similarly, can take on such a dimension—a valorized defeat, a noble cause that went awry. There is an unsettling parallel between how the South came to view the Civil War in the century afterwards and how official Japan still regards the travesty of World War II. In conservative Japanese circles, war criminals are celebrated, past sin is downplayed or submerged altogether, and chants of the fascist era retain political popularity.
An aside, of course, is needed for the United States—and the hell it wrought in Japan. Who carries more sin into the next life? The Japanese undertook brutal invasions of China and Korea. The Nanjing Massacre is mostly ignored by the Japanese today, as is the Korean women forced into sexual slavery. The Americans, too far away, never came in for such treatment, but the Japanese did fly across the sea to bomb Pearl Harbor. Japanese American citizens, in turn, were thrown into internment camps, their livelihoods ruined by the great liberal hero of modern America, Franklin Roosevelt. It is a testament, ultimately, to the Japanese’s lack of standing in America that FDR’s reputation could suffer so little from such fascistic policymaking. Had Roosevelt locked Black or Hispanic American citizens behind prison bars in the desert, he would have seen his statues and namesake institutions long denigrated, historians forced to apologize for ever canonizing such a racist in the first place. But the internment of the Japanese—internment itself such an anodyne word, why not imprisonment?—is a footnote to Roosevelt’s legacy, a breathy aside in the glories of the New Deal and the battle against fascism over there. And over there, was there bloodshed. Americans understand, well enough, they belong to the only nation to ever detonate atomic weapons, but they know little about the conventional warfare their ancestors undertook. Japan gleams, in part, because so much of it was annihilated during the war. So much of it had to be rebuilt. If you see a Buddhist temple, it is probably a reconstruction. If you see nineteenth century architecture, it is probably a facsimile erected after 1945. The firebombing of Tokyo slaughtered 100,000 civilians and left more than a million homeless. Towns and cities with millennia of history were left in flames.
Fat Man and Little Boy, detonated in blinding flashes over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed hundreds of thousands and sickened generations with radiation poisoning. For the Americans, it avoided a land war with Japan, but some historians argue the Soviet Union’s invasion of Manchuria contributed as much to the surrender to the U.S. as the detonation of the atomic bombs. Regardless, there is no honest justification of the obliteration of two cities, of erasing the equivalents of Baltimore and Cleveland. The irony of fascist Japan is that the ultimate outcome of such a dark descent was what military leaders had feared most: Japan becoming subservient to a foreign power. It was the United States that would come to determine Japan’s postwar destiny, first occupying and forcing a new constitution on its old adversary, and then making it a very junior partner in all foreign policy deliberations. The imposed pacifism, Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, prevented the nation from engaging in non-defensive military campaigns. Among members of the Japanese left, it is still cherished. Keeping Article 9 has broad public support, though it was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, a man Hillary Clinton called a “champion of democracy,” who sought to dilute or nullify the pacifist language altogether.
Is Japan a functioning democracy? It’s a question, not long ago, I would’ve answered with a hearty yes. I imagine most politically aware Americans would say the same. There are no Donald Trumps or Viktor Orbans of Japan. There is no Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. There is a national Diet, an elected prime minister, and multiple political parties. There is even a Japanese Communist Party, a testament, perhaps, to the durability of profound ideological diversity in the country. But much of it, like the Western institutions grafted onto a feudal society in the wake of the Tokugawa shogunate’s downfall, amounts to a demonstration of democracy—an acting out, a performance—rather than the genuine article. It’s not as if American democracy can be said to be healthy. Yet we do possess what Japan may forever lack: competition.
Japan has been, since the 1950s, effectively a one-party state. That party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has determined almost every single prime minister, including Shinzo Abe, who embodied the party’s dominance more than any single leader. The LDP is neither liberal nor particularly democratic; made up of various interest groups, it is fundamentally conservative in orientation, a center-right bulwark against any sort of liberal or progressive movement that threatens to emerge. In the wake of Japan’s defeat, there was great fear among American and Japanese business elites that liberals or even socialists could end up governing the country. Japanese socialists and communists managed, rather early on, to distance themselves from the Soviet Union, and gained popularity in the postwar period. Japan’s savvy ruling class understood how to use the American fear of a communist takeover to their advantage. When the Korean War ended, they enlisted covert help from the CIA to merge Japan’s various conservative factions into a single political party. The LDP was born, forever ready to aid the United States in its various destructive military ventures—Japanese industry helped supply the war in Vietnam—and tolerate the occupation of Okinawa, where American military bases remain to this day. A left-wing government may have demanded, at some point, an alteration of the status quo. No LDP government would ever challenge American hegemony.
Is the LDP popular? In Japan, it really doesn’t matter all that much. If the Republican Party can take the White House with 46 percent of the popular vote, a travesty in the American liberal’s view, imagine how she might view Japan: a country where, in 2012, Abe won just 27 percent of the national popular vote and became prime minister anyway, thanks to the outright majority the LDP won in the Diet. How did 27 percent for Abe, the LDP’s candidate, translate to a governing majority in the parliament? Japan’s election districts are heavily gerrymandered in favor of the LDP, skewed far more than any Republican House map. The LDP derives much of its support from shrinking rural districts that nevertheless wield enormous power, guaranteeing the party’s stranglehold on the government. LDP prime ministers know to pay great attention to the countryside, generously funding patronage projects and various white elephant initiatives that have little practical utility. The LDP has no serious competition, its rivals atrophied, old powers like the Japan Socialist Party long gone. (The Communists remain, one segment of a loyal but neutered opposition.) If there is competition, it is among caucuses of the LDP itself. One of the more powerful caucuses is the ultra-nationalist, far-right Nippon Kaigi, which once counted Abe as a special advisor. Nippon Kaigi advocates for the repeal of Article 9 and strongly objects to any mention of wrongdoing in Japan’s imperialist past, the equivalent of a German political organization denying the Holocaust. The organization officially opposes feminism and LGBTQ rights. It will defend, like the LDP writ large, a policy known as Daiyo kangoku, which allows law enforcement to detain and torture suspects without trial. It strives to revive the fascist enthusiasms that were supposed to have been expunged from the body politic, and never entirely were.
In the miracle years, when Japan’s economy boomed and it was the world’s export king, all of this could be ignored. The LPD, and the permanent bureaucracy that runs the country, could be celebrated as the steward of the world’s great comeback story. For decades, Japan seemed impervious to economic headwinds. It powered through the American malaise of the 1970s, and emerged as a potential superpower in the 1980s, its government-managed capitalism a startling exemplar for lagging nations everywhere. The standard of living for the average Japanese citizen continued to rise. When the Japanese real estate and asset price bubble burst in the early 1990s, there was hope that it was merely a blip, a rare roadblock for a resilient juggernaut. Instead, stagnation set in; the new era of globalization would not be guided by the prerogatives of a single export champion. South Korea and China emerged as formidable competitors. Japan dominated the analog era, but fell behind during the personal computer and smartphone revolutions. Samsung is a South Korean company. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple are all American, and their factories, if they require them, are in China. The ease with which Chinese, South Koreans, and Americans move on the modern global stage has eluded Japan. South Korea, a hated rival, has offered its more vibrant version of East Asian democracy, with left and right-wing parties vying for power. China, fully authoritarian, has far more land and people than Japan, and has fully established itself as America’s chief economic rival. Anxious, moneyed parents now rush their coddled children to Mandarin lessons.
Japan is graying and depopulating. Memories of past economic might still taunt the citizens who recall the miracle years. The salaryman culture that once drove corporate employees to work and drink until midnight, becoming virtual strangers to their families, is no longer so extreme, but the Japanese still labor more intensely—and drink more heavily—than citizens of most other industrialized democracies. In Osaka, I saw a man, clothed in a full business suit, stumbling drunk through the streets. For younger employees, there is still little hope of being heard, of advancing before the time is considered right. A rigid seniority culture ensures the elderly can, effectively, never be wrong. Meanwhile, political change of the type experienced in other democracies is simply not possible. Last year, a man shot and killed Abe, who was no longer prime minister but was out stumping for a local LDP candidate ahead of an election. The news did not resonate much with the average American, a sign, perhaps, of how Japan no longer looms as a threat in the Western imagination. But it was, truly, a great shock, as if Barack Obama or George W. Bush were assassinated while campaigning for a congressional candidate. The man used a home-made gun because securing an actual, working firearm is virtually impossible in Japan. A bullet killing a man there is as rare as an earthquake erupting beneath New York City. The assassination had both a personal and political dimension: the man, Tetsuya Yamagami, targeted Abe in relation to a grudge he held against the Unification Church, which he blamed for his mother’s bankruptcy. Abe and his family had political ties to the church, and his assassination brought renewed scrutiny to their practice of pressuring believers into making very large donations. The LDP was forced to sever ties to the UC. Yamagami, in a horrific manner, had forced change.
Abe was the grandson of a prime minister and his father was a leading official in the LDP. He left behind a complicated legacy. Despite his ties to Nippon Kaigi, he forced corporate policy changes that allowed more women to enter the workforce. His government created the first legal same-sex partnerships in Japan. He operated, at times, more as a Japanese Angela Markel than a revanchist. Yet his death, and his push to definitively undo Japan’s pacificism, raises unsettling questions for a country that has stifled so much opposition and debate. Absent elections, how is that average Japanese citizen supposed to force a government to listen? What are men like Yamagami supposed to do? In Northern Ireland, the beleaguered Catholic Republicans took up arms. If Japan is not going to change—if a 2012 election, later ruled partially unconstitutional, is not going to provoke meaningful reform—what does the future look like? How much can a populace seethe?
If Japan has long stagnated, it’s still possessed of a public dynamism that vanished from the United States many decades ago. New high-speed rail lines are always ready to slash across the countryside. In the 2030s, Japan will complete the Chuo Shinkansen, which will link Tokyo and Nagoya with a 40 minute commute, and eventually make it possible to travel between Tokyo and Osaka in just over one hour. These numbers may be mean little to you until you learn it would take, by car, more than four hours to drive from central Tokyo to Nagoya. New York, meanwhile, has not followed through on planned subway expansions from the 1920s. For the Japanese who don’t leave Japan, the Chuo can only offer so much succor. Infrastructure success, like clean streets and on-time trains, are what they are used to, just as Americans can only revel so much in having better roads than Albania or more basketball teams than France. We can only confront the present on the terms we know best. As I boarded the airplane in Osaka to head home, I longed for the future that may never be—a melding of the best of both nations, an America with Japanese ingenuity, a Japan that crackles with political possibility. I am certain I will return there. Japan is a country that stays in you long after you’ve flown away.