Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a global fellow at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century, and a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He is a coauthor of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.”
Clyde Prestowitz’s new book is one of the more thought-provoking forays into Asian-Pacific geopolitics to have been published in recent years — at least as noteworthy for its messenger as for its message. Nearly three decades ago, after stepping down as a counselor to Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldridge, Prestowitz wrote “Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It” as a warning to U.S. policymakers. Scrutinizing Japan’s postwar industrial strategies that had made the country into an (apparent) economic juggernaut, he found that the United States assumed — or, worse, had persuaded itself to believe — that Japan was simply emulating America’s market-driven, consumer-oriented growth path. But, Prestowitz discovered, Japan had decided to make the government the driver of its economic recovery through the subsidization of its core industries. The “real challenge to American power is not the sinister one” from the Soviet Union, he declared, “but the friendly one from the Far East.”
Today the United States indeed faces a challenge from the Far East — not from an amicable Japan but from an increasingly capable and incrementally revisionist China. It is no longer attempting to outcompete Japan in manufacturing; if anything, it fears that protracted economic stagnation there will gradually limit Japan’s ability to buttress a stable Asian-Pacific balance of power. A recent New York Times analysis captured the depth of Japan’s long slump: “Japan’s economy has contracted so many times in the last few years that the meaning of recession has started to blur.”
In “Trading Places,” Prestowitz explored postwar history to understand how Japan had come to achieve such dramatic economic gains. In “Japan Restored,” he works backward from an imagined future to deduce how Japan can reestablish and bolster its position as a central player in the world’s strategic balance. That future would require a series of transformations that would reverse long-standing — and in some cases seemingly immutable — trends.
The first set of transformations is internal. Prestowitz envisions a revitalized Japan in 2050 where women will have an average of 2.3 children in their lifetimes, and the population will be on track to surpass 150 million. The economy will be growing by 4.5 percent annually instead of contracting, as it currently is. Defense spending will have increased from 1 percent of gross domestic product to 3 percent. By 2050, Japan will have achieved “low-cost energy independence” and “indisputably become the most innovation-friendly nation on earth.” It also will have “made enormous steps toward becoming a . . . completely bilingual country,” and women will “account for just under half of the directors of corporate boards, about 75 percent of all doctors, and 35 percent of CEOs.”
But domestic renewal alone will not be enough to achieve the rejuvenated Japan Prestowitz imagines. The country’s external environment will have to undergo a comparably sweeping set of changes. In 2050, under Prestowitz’s scenario, Japan will jointly administer the Senkaku Islands with its longtime antagonist China. And India, Prestowitz writes, will have “become far more important than China.” A U.S.-underpinned world order, meanwhile, will have yielded to one that centers on the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps most arresting, “What some hoped would be the Second American Century — and what many predicted would be the Chinese Century — [will have] become the Japanese Century.”
There are at least two ways to assess a book that asks the reader to take such leaps of faith. The first is to evaluate the plausibility of its projections. “Japan Restored” is unlikely to convince a majority of readers on that score. The ambition of its effort virtually ensures that major elements of its extrapolation strain credulity, if not defy possibility (it is telling that Prestowitz devotes well over 90 percent of the book to detailing the elements of his thought experiment and establishing their feasibility).
The second way to judge “Japan Restored” is to read it not as a conjectural exercise but rather as a call for national restoration. Seen in this light, the book offers a valuable look at the profound hurdles ahead for the country. Japan will have to undergo fundamental, systemic shifts to achieve Prestowitz’s vision of 2050 and perhaps even to avoid terminal decline. As Prestowitz notes, Japan is literally “dying” in demographic terms. “In just a few years it will be too late” for the country to reverse its population decline.
The good news is there are two precedents for the requisite disruption: the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which led Japan to change course after some 2
Given the gap between Japan’s present malaise and the crucial place it occupies in the world order, it is hard to object too strenuously to Prestowitz’s articulation of aspirational, even fantastical, objectives. The concluding chapter of “Japan Restored” provides several reasons policymakers and citizens alike have a stake in the nation’s resuscitation. Some are familiar: Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, a major source of direct investment overseas and the second-largest holder of U.S. treasury debt. Less known, Japan has also been central to the development and refinement of the global supply chain. And its cuisine, art, culture and manners have influenced the world. Well known, if not often appreciated, Prestowitz writes, “Japan has been a successful non-Western democracy and thus a powerful model for developing countries in the rest of Asia and around the world.”
Should the Japanese leadership decide to establish something along the lines of Prestowitz’s hypothetical “revitalization commission,” it will find a number of creative and forward-thinking prescriptions in his book — some of which would surely prove impractical but all of which merit consideration.
By Clyde Prestowitz
Tuttle. 287 pp. $22.95