This blog you’re reading used to be called Tokyo Notes. That might have been my choice, a fairly bland name for a blog we’ve always found a little difficult to position. Tokyo Notes was blessed with some fine writers, but covering Japan policy has always been somewhat dispiriting.
For two decades, Japan has been mired in the quicksand of torpor. The reasons have been well covered. During the 1990s, the nation struggled with a debt hangover, the morning after the party that was the late 1980s. In the 2000s, the problem was more pernicious: a population decline that has nearly every business in a state of constant overcapacity, stifling investment and growth.
In essence, the same policies that turbocharged Japan’s postwar industrialization—women as the welfare state, neo-mercantilism, coddled industries, close government-industry ties—have shot it to the very forefront of the post-industrial world, a country dominated by an inefficient services sector, with no organic population growth and minimal immigration, and powerful vested interests strongly resistant to change.
The landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 was a false hope. Rather than splitting national politics into conservative and progressive camps, which might have encouraged real debate about Japan’s future, the DPJ is still really an ideologically schizophrenic grouping formed by disaffected politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party, the party that held power in Japan for most of the postwar era and whose only real skill in opposition has been to uncover mini-scandals that distract DPJ powerbrokers.
And so, our writers were left to cover a revolving-door of feckless political leaders, some of whom shouldn’t have been allowed to paint the Kantei, let alone inhabit it. Rarely has the government of the day been able to muster a response to Japan’s challenges other than massive fiscal spending, a necessary but not complete response and now anyway unsustainable. Increasingly, it seemed that Japan needed a crisis to shake itself awake.
But even the most frustrated observer would surely never have wished for the crisis that did come. At 2:46 pm on Friday, March 11, a time destined to become a JFK moment for a generation of Japanese, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck the northeast of the country. Japan now confronts a national tragedy of almost unbearable proportions: thousands dead, many more still missing, families torn apart, whole towns gone, industries destroyed, and an ongoing nuclear crisis that threatens the future of a huge swathe of its most populous region.
This tragedy is still very much a humanitarian issue, and the situation at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant isn’t yet under control. But already the Japanese people have displayed a calm stoicism in the face of disaster that reminds those of us who live here of what we admire about this land and its people.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who actually does understand the need for reform, has called for a ‘new Japan’ to emerge from the tragedy. The people calmly trying to reassemble shattered lives in Tohoku deserve nothing less.
It is in that spirit that The Diplomat, a Tokyo-based publication, has decided to revamp its Japan blog. In empathy with Kan’s call, we’re calling it ‘A New Japan.’ Cheesy? You bet. But at least now we no longer have trouble positioning this blog. It’s very early days and we’ll be watching developments at Fukushima closely, and commenting on the unfolding of the tragedy. We know that part of the story is yet to be told. But we hope that ultimately this blog will be about the recovery and rebirth of a nation.
James Pach is the publisher of The Diplomat and the founder of Trans-Asia Inc., a Tokyo-based translation and investor relations company.
Are you a Japanese or Japan-based writer who shares this sentiment? If so, drop us a line. We’re putting together a small team of dedicated bloggers who can do justice to Japan's story.