Kiyomi Ran is a first-year International Relations student at King’s College London. She is Chinese-Japanese-American by nationality.
We live in a society that is dominated by western values, which means that we pay disproportionally more attention to current affairs of the Western world. The western media is obsessed with following the US Presidential Election or ‘Brexit’ which they have the right to do, but this leaves little space for what is happening elsewhere in the world – especially in Asia, arguably one of the biggest regions in the world – in whatever way you perceive it.
Asia has gone through significant changes in the recent years. From China overtaking Japan as the country with the second highest GDP in the world to the territorial issues that have both emerged and been resolved. Its massive size makes it prone to cultural conflicts and natural catastrophes, and not a single day goes by without seeing some headline of grievance or suffering. The rise of developing countries is also striking, and we should prepare for a world where countries such as China and India hold the same power as the West. However, we often tend to look past a country that had been the center of Asia, a prominent member of the globalized world, and a miracle story of the past.
In the decades after World War II, Japan experienced an unprecedented period of growth. Less than twenty years after the Japanese defeat, it was hosting the Summer Olympics. Within a few decades, Japanese products were exported all over the world, contributing to this astonishing and extraordinary achievement. The average life-expectancy went from war-time devastation to the highest in the world. Soon enough, it climbed to the top of the GDP rankings, surpassing every country except the US, becoming one of the global great powers and a regional hegemon.
But it doesn’t seem so anymore.
Japan’s growth has stagnated over the years. In many ways we should look at Japan as an athlete. One which consistently failed to make its mark on the international arena, failing over and over again. But one day, Japan discovered steroids called “US aid.” Well, they worked for Japan perfectly. They worked so well that Japan kept using them, until one day, Japan got caught, stripped away of all its past glories, forgotten forever. And it seems like it is trying to come back to redeem itself, but in all the wrong ways.
Don’t get me wrong – Japan is still a strong athlete like it once was, but it has lost its credibility, partly due the political leadership that cannot keep up with the new rules of the game and partly due to the rise of other competitors shining brighter than Japan ever did. Until recently, Japan had an average of one Prime Minister per year. Even the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who broke the streak of one-year-souri, was a member of this clan who left his first term due to a stomach illness. He came back a few years later determined to bring change to Japan and to revive the economy from this period of stagnation. But like all athletes eventually realize, it’s not easy to come back from doping.
Shinzo Abe’s “fixes” have brought nothing but more resentment towards the Japanese government both domestically and internationally. His so-called “Abenomics” have had ambiguous effects. But more importantly, his social legislations will quite literally bring him close to the end. The government is old and backward-thinking, and cannot fit into the group of young and strong competitors. Rooted in the mindset of isolation or sakoku that Japan practiced for more than two hundred years between 17th and 19th centuries, Japan cannot seem to globalize socially. Economically, no one questions that it has opened up to the world, but just as when Matthew Perry first landed on the offshores of the present-day Tokyo, the government are again asking foreigners to leave.
Why shouldn’t Japan be able to practice Japanese policies? The answer is because it is slowly eating itself away by doing so. Japan’s population has been rapidly decreasing in the past few decades, with 40% of it now considered “aged dependents.” That means 60% of the population (including children) need to provide for the non-working rest of the population. The graying workforce has many implications for all the obvious reasons – low productivity, low consumption, and also high stress for the workers. Nonetheless, the Japanese have been reluctant to accept migrants or allow women to work – something engrained in the Japanese culture for centuries. It’s not an openly racist or sexist country; it’s just something that has been practiced for years. In fact, Japan has one of the lowest gender-gap index for a developed country, ranking in the bottom two-thirds, lower than Brunei that just passed law that made gay relationships punishable via death. Japan has been able to deal with everything until now, but as its precious performance-enhancing-drugs become older and ineffective, it is still trying to cheat the system, and not playing by the rules. The reluctance to accept foreigners or women in the workforce will have a detrimental effect on both the society and the economy. It won’t be long until Japan becomes the country fourth on the list of GDP – or fifth or sixth or even lower as other actors catch up to the goal line.
That leads to my second point – Japan cannot keep competing with rising athletes in a way it deems fit. Undoubtedly, China has caught up to Japan and maybe even beat it. The rise of other actors in Asia, including South Korea, India, and the ASEAN community will further jeopardize Japan’s tactics. In the recent years, the relationships between Japan and neighboring countries have become worse. Territorial disputes with both South Korea and China have created a larger xenophobic sentiment that again will not help with Japan’s future growth. While it was once seen as the helper of developing countries in Asia, Japan cannot afford to keep aiding the neighboring countries. It is also turning its eyes away from the possible positive-sum solution of bringing migrants to work in Japan to help both sides. Japan is going to fade away from the international arena and is only able to just keep up with the competition thanks to the US – the holder of the normative power in the federation.
The Japanese culture is one of those things that you really need to know to understand the country. But it’s not working and it is Japan that might really need to now know the culture of the globalized world. Even if Japan doesn’t have as much presence in the international arena anymore, its demise will still affect the whole world, especially economically. But as long as it pushes others away, from migrants to women, nobody is going to care if it falls.