Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

A Japanese Self-Portrait of the Future
KITAMURA Fumio / Professor at Shukutoku University

August 29, 2002
I would like to use this column to discuss with my foreign friends a book that has captured the spotlight in Japan. The thought came to me as I recalled words of advice that were given to me several tens of years ago.

I spent over 30 years of my life as a journalist at a Japanese national newspaper. I was posted in foreign countries for nearly 12 years of that time. During in the mid-1960s, an older journalist whom I admired gave me the following advice: "when in a foreign country, carefully follow the book review columns in newspapers and magazines." These words from a veteran journalist were the advice I received long ago.

Needless to say, the basic mission of a journalist is to report the news. However, it is difficult to define what constitutes ‘news.’ In his classic book "Public Opinion," author Walter Lippmann said that in principle, a news subject must be a phenomenon that has materialized in visible form. Lippmann's definition more or less serves as the criteria for news judgement in today's mass media.

Nevertheless, the task of analyzing the news material and deciding what social meaning should be given it is an extremely daunting task. A phenomenon that appears on the surface is but a tip of the iceberg. Various circumstances that have been accumulated at invisible levels become news only when they take shape and break the surface. And it is within activities that go on in the undercurrent that one finds material for gaining a deeper understanding of a country or society. "Carefully follow the book review columns" – these words from that veteran journalist gave me a lead for exploring the invisible levels. By knowing the kinds of books that become best sellers and the debate that arises from them, one is able to seek out the moods of a society.

Today, I shall switch positions to report to my foreign friends about a book that is currently stirring much discussion in Japan. The book in question is "Heisei 30," by Sakaiya Taichi. The author is a former bureaucrat at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and a renowned economist who served as the chief of the Economic Planning Agency. He has also written countless books, including many best sellers.

The title – "Heisei 30" – signifies the 30th year of the reign of the current Emperor, whose ascendance to the throne was marked with the start of a new era named ‘Heisei’ after Japanese tradition. This year being Heisei 14, the novel describes Japanese society 16 years in the future, in 2018. By adopting the style of near-future fiction, the author attempted to predict the shape of Japan to come.

I found myself strongly interested in this book on two points. The first was its pessimistic image of Japan 16 years on. There are no vestiges of the Japan that had once boasted being the "world's second largest economy." The Japanese economy has deteriorated and the daily lives of its citizens trapped in a labyrinth of decline. Consumption tax rates have jumped from the current 5% to 20%, the trade deficit is at $50 billion, a dollar costs \300, the unemployment rate is at 6.7% and the average cost of living has tripled. No brakes have been applied to halt the falling birth rate and rapid aging of the population, and in contrast to advances made by China and Southeast Asia, the competitive strength of the Japanese economy is headed downhill. Various reforms have been implemented, but never quick enough to keep up with the pace of decline. What is worse, the basic structure of bureaucratic administration and financing has remained mostly intact.

"Heisei 30" is a book that gives us a foretaste of gloom in Japan's near future. In the post-World War II era, Japan raced through the path from reconstruction to economic expansion. And the enormous energy that it required had its source in the optimistic expectation of a brighter future that awaited. In the novel, this optimism - which had been retained by the Japanese people over the years - is nowhere to be found. Yet there is another point that interested me even more than its content – the fact that the book is steadily increasing its readership. Since its publication in July, 150,000 copies have been sold by mid-August.

Why are people so consumed by reading about a portrait of their country in decline? I can offer two conflicting interpretations as a possible reason. According to the author, the motive for writing the book was to ring the alarms on the consequences of a "Japan that didn't take action." The strong shock of being confronted with such a gloomy image of the future may be behind the rising sales of the book. If readers take to heart the necessity of reform, the author's message would have effectively hit home.

Conversely, it is certain that citizens are losing hope and faith in the structural reforms that have been vociferously promised by their political and economic leaders, based on the bitter experience of the ‘lost decade’ that followed the collapse of the Bubble Economy. The sense of cynicism with which citizens view their leadership may be rendering reality to the image of Japan in decline, as described in the novel. According to this interpretation, a feeling of resignation towards a country and society characterized by an inability to achieve its desired self-transformation may be giving the book its popularity. I don't know which of these interpretations is right. But one thing is clear – that more than anything, the oppressive air that shrouds this country is what made the book into a best seller.

The writer is a Professor at Shukutoku University and former London Bureau Chief and Senior Editor of the Yomiuri Newspaper.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

北村 文夫  / 淑徳大学教授

2002年 8月 29日










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