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