Betting on Japan's ability to rebound

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Your initial impression of a country is often hard to shake.

Late on my first night in Japan in the 1990s, I stared out the window of my room on a high floor of a downtown Tokyo hotel. What I saw was a vast, sprawling, modern city of twinkling lights that brimmed with human and technological energy.

And then I imagined the same scene in 1945. In his magnificent book "Embracing Defeat," about Japan in the wake of World War II, John W. Dower quotes the first foreign journalist to enter Tokyo after the armistice.

"Everything had been flattened," Russell Brines wrote. "Only thumbs stood up from the flatlands - the chimneys of bathhouses, heavy house safes and an occasional stout building with heavy iron shutters."

Dower picks it up from there: "The first photographs and newsreel footage from the conquered land captured these endless vistas of urban rubble for American audiences thousands of miles away who had never really grasped what it meant to incinerate great cities." Dower notes that nationwide, close to 9 million people were homeless.

What has stayed with me since that night is a sense of the extraordinary achievement of the Japanese people in the years since the war's end. Yes, Japan has been in the doldrums for quite a while. But if the country has hit stasis, it is stasis at a remarkably high level. Every time I read about Japanese decline, my reaction is, "Maybe, but . . ."

The next morning, I met up with a Japanese friend, an ardent advocate of reform in the country's politics and habits. I could not resist telling him that looking out that window, I had been struck by what the Japanese postwar system had made possible and that if I were a Japanese citizen, I'd probably be skeptical of the reformers. How could you not question whether the promises of reform would live up to the accomplishments of the previous half-century? In ribbing my reformer friend, I had stumbled upon one of Japan's core problems: It has, simultaneously, been clamoring for change and worried it would backfire.

It's thus not surprising that ever since Japan was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, I have identified completely with all the commentary about Japan's "resiliency." If ever there was a comeback-kid sort of country, this is surely it.

But there has been an undercurrent of doubt. Would this catastrophe really unleash the transformation Japan has sought for so long? Or would it instead symbolize the inevitable waning of a once powerful nation that finds itself the victim of a declining population and a political and economic system allergic to reform and transparency?

My bet is on a rebound, partly because I have always had trouble buying into a view popular among Japan's critics of a society made up of a mass of regimented conformists defined by an unease with outsiders and a smoldering nationalism.

This overlooks strong dissenting strains that have long animated Japanese life. They have produced cultural experimentation alongside political paralysis and a remarkable capacity for openness and adaptation in a society so often described as closed. A Foreign Policy magazine writer could speak in 2002 of Japan's "Gross National Cool" because of the country's gift for absorbing the influences of a globalized culture and influencing it in turn.

Without this capacity, Japan could not have reinvented itself so brilliantly after total defeat in war. It would not have been so hospitable to foreign influences, starting with baseball, jazz, rock and liberal democracy.

Of course this paradoxical society has always confounded outsiders. Seen in the early 1980s as potentially dominating the world, Japan, not long after, was widely thought of as broken. With Japan, it seems, there is always a whiplash in perceptions. It poses a special problem for prognosticators, optimistic and pessimistic alike.

And so far, Japan's political and corporate leaders have not risen to this crisis - witness the impatience of its own people and the rest of the world over the flaws in the official information about conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

But political and social change come from below and not just from above. The spontaneous forms of solidarity and inventiveness that Japan's triple tragedy has called forth suggest a society that has lost neither its resourcefulness nor its organizational gifts. Looking out that window more than a decade ago, I found it hard to bet against Japan. I still do.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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