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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-05-2019 08:36

The incredible shrinking empire

Japan’s new emperor, Naruhito, has slightly more subjects than his father Akihito had back in 1989, but it was during the latter’s reign that demography turned ugly.

In January 1989, when the now “emperor emeritus” Akihito ascended the chrysanthemum throne he has just left to his son, Naruhito, Japan was still very much the coming power. Books like Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One, which a decade earlier had suggested that before too long she could even outstrip the United States and lead the world into a glistening high-tech future that would be managed by bureaucrats from MITI, the much-praised Ministry of International Trade and Industry, still sold briskly. Japanese companies like Sony were flooding markets with brilliantly designed products and were buying up so many big US corporations that some North Americans feared they would end up owning just about everything. There was gloomy talk about “the Japanning of America.”

But then, just one year into the Heisei (achieving peace) era, as Akihito’s reign will be remembered, the “bubble economy” burst and Japan soon became the world leader in a very different category by ageing faster and losing people faster than any other significant country.

The universally admired Japanese economy, which had until then had seemed unstoppable, slowed down abruptly, deflation took hold and annual growth rates rarely went over a miserly one percent. For the Japanese, all this was certainly dispiriting, but at least they were spared the kind of catastrophic implosion Argentina has experienced. By most accounts, theirs remains one of the best countries to live in.

The new emperor, Naruhito, has slightly more subjects than his father Akihito had back in 1989, but it was during the latter’s reign that demography turned ugly. This was a far more significant setback than any suffered by the economy because it puts at risk the future existence of the country.

Last year, fewer babies were born in Japan than at any time since reliable records began to be taken in 1899, and the population declined by 440,000 to 124 million, a number that is expected to fall to 88 million, of whom more than 40 percent will be over 65, long before the newcomers have reached that age. The European solution, which consists of shipping in large numbers of for the most part low-skilled immigrants, is rejected by the many who are attached to their own way of life and who, in any case, are well aware of what is happening in France, Sweden, Germany, the UK and other countries. They much prefer to let robots care for the oldsters, especially if they can be made to look “cute” or “kawaii,” to employ a word that is much used by students of Japanese cultural trends.

If it lasts for long, the Reiwa era, which began on May 1, will be marked by Japan’s definitive retirement from the world stage many once thought she was about to dominate. The official translation of Reiwa is “beautiful harmony,” which no doubt reflects the hope of the people who chose it that Naruhito and the politicians who run things will manage Japan’s inevitable decline gracefully.

Just why Japan took it upon herself to lead the civilised world into “that good night” is hard to say. Nobody predicted it when Akihito’s era, Heisei, was getting underway. Older folk, of whom there are now a great many, blame it on the younger generation’s lack of interest in raising families, or think it has to do with the pressure of work, excessive individualism, cultural dumbing down, women’s desire to live as they please or whatever else they find distressing.

Though demographic collapse is more notable in Japan than in other countries, dozens of them are slowly – in some cases, not that slowly – committing collective suicide in a broadly similar but far less “harmonious” manner. It would seem that there is dark side to modernity, the civilisation built on values that have their roots in the Enlightenment that began in 18th century Europe and which in one way or other penetrated to every corner of the planet except for Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of India.

Japan’s sudden downturn came when her neighbour China, had already begun to pick up steam. With a population 10 times as large, the challenge presented by the Middle Kingdom to the rest of the world is far more formidable than the one many expected to be posed by the Land of the Rising Sun, though there are those who suspect, or hope, that in the not too distant future China could suffer a similar fate, with a rapidly ageing, and increasingly demanding, population proving unable or unwilling to overcome the obstacles in its path.

China, Japan and South Korea may not like one another that much, but they all share the same Confucian social and work ethic which is why, unlike other countries that once seemed hopelessly backward, after getting over their initial reluctance to have anything to do with foreign barbarians they acquired from the West which they needed to start beating it at its own game. This highly successful approach was summed up in slogans coined by early reformers who, as soon as it became clear that European interlopers could easily crush their antiquated armies, urged the people of the three countries to combine Eastern values with Western technology.

Japan was by far the first to put the reformer’s recommendations into practice. She transformed herself into a world power under the emperor Meiji, who between 1868 and 1912 presided over a period of breakneck “modernisation” that politicians such as Mauricio Macri would dearly like to emulate and in which, strange as it may seem, the furious debates between defenders of the traditional order and enthusiasts for change were much like those that for years have raged in Argentina.

Encouraged by her initial successes, among them her victory in the war against Czarist Russia, Japan set about trying to colonise her neighbours, an enterprise that put her on the road that led to Hiroshima. For a while, it seemed that Japan, with the help of her former enemy, the US, had fully recovered from defeat in the Second World War, but that may have been an illusion. Like the Germans, the Japanese seem to have lost interest in the future: unless they start reproducing themselves at a far faster rate, there will soon be none of them left.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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