Japan affords a preview of what the future of the United States, Australia, and Western Europe will become unless meaningful steps are taken to ensure that a nation’s relevance is measured by how it creates lives of dignity for its citizenry. But seeing this relevance has become difficult as much of the luster has gone from Japan studies. Wistful comments about heady days during the 1980s, when scholars of Japan were in demand, are still heard. But China now sits as the undeniable object of attention in exchanges that spill out of academic departments and into popular conversation. Japan, it would appear, has been usurped and its scholars are a skittish and shrinking bunch.
While this is an overly general characterization of how the conventional wisdom is organized, in the ways that it is true it betrays a startling failure of thought. It reveals the simplistic manner in which loosely defined concepts like “importance” and “relevance” are framed. Japan’s purported heyday, the economic bubble era of the 1980s and early 1990s, was an object of global obsession rooted in financial ascendency and challenges to American economic hegemony. In a simplistic cut and paste manner, China has replaced Japan as the preeminent target of Western popular and academic focus largely because of the attention its economic power generates, and the potential challenges it again creates for an ongoing but more aggressively questioned global dominance by the United States. All of this is indicative of a failure to think substantively about either nation. Instead, it demonstrates that far too often academics, pundits, and commentators struggle to conceive of worth and relevance as anything other than the output from large-scale economic indicators.
Contrary to this logic, my position is that Japan is more relevant today than it has ever been because of what it reveals about life in the industrialized world. Japan faces a raft of societal issues that are or will soon become the areas of growing concern in numerous other nations. Much ink has been spilled on Japan’s aging and declining population, and there is no denying the gravity of this issue. While Japan has wrestled with this issue for longer and more acutely, populations in Italy and Greece are aging and declining, too. Even the 2020 census of the U.S. population shows stagnation and the potential for decline in the near future.
Attention must also focus on what happens to a population that on a daily basis absorbs messages heralding their nation’s decline and extolling them as individuals to do something about it. This is a particularly vexing issue when those messages are asking people to do things that are difficult if not impossible given the current realities, such as get married earlier and have more children, while also continuing to work in the same manner as previous generations. Paradoxically, alongside these emerging demographic trends are language, policy, and behavior that denigrates and dehumanizes those seeking to immigrate, another area where Japan’s policies – in this case, its regressive immigration stance – are a potentially ominous vision of the future that awaits nations looking to restrict the inward flow of migrants and refugees.
Japan’s inability to rectify its shrinking population coincides with widespread political apathy, concern if not disillusionment with the contemporary that is projected into the future, and skepticism at the typically technical solutions put forward by Japan’s government to confront these issues. In the early 2000s the Prime Minister’s Cabinet offered “Innovation 25,” a policy initiative that said it would make Japan an “innovation” society by 2025. As that year approaches and with little to show for its efforts, Innovation 25 has recently given way to “Society 5.0,” another Cabinet Office initiative that defines a new societal iteration as: “A human-centered society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space.” The stated goal is for Japan to “become the first country in the world to achieve a human-centered society (Society 5.0) in which anyone can enjoy a high quality of life full of vigor.” It adds that this will be accomplished by “incorporating advanced technologies in diverse industries and social activities and fostering innovation to create new value.”
The consistent element in all of these proposals is technological solutions, be it automated vehicles, AI, big data, robotics, or other endeavors. It is clear that Japan’s government sees technology, in a vague and general sense, as the only viable course to lead Japan into an uncertain future. But rarely is consideration given to why these issues exist now, or why immigration is impossible. Japan needs self-driving tractors, cars, and buses because soon it will not have enough people to fill those jobs. Home care robots are increasingly needed because of a scarcity of young and able-bodied people to care for those in need.
And herein lies the source of Japan’s relevance, the lesson of such importance it has for the larger world. Japan’s failure to address these issues on a comprehensive scale means it has created a situation never before encountered in human history: a nation determined to keep out as many as possible while its population shrinks and many question how or if they should participate in social life in the same manner as previous generations.
Japan over the last 30 years demonstrates that economic power is a poor indicator of the health and importance of a society. It remains the world’s third largest economy and one of the largest concentrations of wealth on the planet. Yet one political party wields power with little opposition in what is purportedly a democracy. Immigration is severely restricted and accounts of individuals being detained without trial or representation for offenses as minor as overstaying their visa are now well known. And the solution all are told to embrace is technical. Robots, AI, big data, and other vague notions are put forward as the solution while ignoring how the need for a technological savior arose or the sad and invasive future it represents.
The author would like to thank Timothy Grose for his comments on an early draft of this piece.