Could Japan’s current era—known as the Heisei—see a ‘restoration’ under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a scale of the Meiji Restoration 250 years ago?
At the beginning of the twenty-first century’s second decade Japan was at a crossroads. After 250 years of self-imposed isolation (1603–1867) the Meiji Restoration ushered in a cultural milieu and national discourse which tethered national identity to questions of cultural continuity and change.
The debate concerned the relationship between demand placed upon organisations and their employees by new technologies absorbed from outside and the desire to maintain the high level of sociocultural cohesion that was seen to be necessary to implement state policies to keep citizens committed to building a strong nation state. Sometimes the conversation was framed around an imagined choice between individualism and collectivism. The bottom line was drawn in terms of a basic set of questions about how Japan would, could or should interface with the rest of the world.
Discussion of Japan’s ‘modernisation’ invites speculation about how gradual the transition from the past to the present has been: whether it has been accompanied by a continuous opening to the outside world or is better understood as several distinct eras each articulated by a several significant opening.
Several key events have been seen as springboarding Japan onto qualitatively different trajectories: the Meiji Restoration, the lurch into militarism in the 1930s, and Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies in August 1945 and subsequent occupation. Each signified a significant effort under considerable duress to catch up to, or align with, what was happening in the outside world. Each represented an abrupt coming of age as Japanese responded to what could only be perceived as threats to its national sovereignty, and led to a step up in policies aimed at keeping the Japanese state in control of Japan’s interface with the outside world.
Following the announcement of Japan’s surrender by Emperor Showa on 15 August 1945, and the ‘reforms’ imposed by the occupation forces, Japanese authorities moved quickly on two fronts: first to assert control domestically through the 1955 system and the Japanese-style management of the labour force, and second to align Japan economically with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the OECD, and strategically with the United States.
By the late 1980s Japan had become the factory of the world and was projected as a model for twenty-first century economies. However, the 1990s saw the Japanese economy suddenly decelerate, and Japan’s presence on the international stage suddenly diminished. After two ‘lost decades’ the confidence of the late 1980s had by 2010 given way to a sense of national decline.
In the December 2012 general election the Liberal Democratic Party rode back into government on slogans promising that it would return Japan to a past eminence ambiguously defined (perhaps a dominance in Asia as in the 1930s or a period of high economic growth as in the 1960–80s).
Entering the second decade of the twenty-first century, conservatives had begun to talk of the need for a ‘third restoration’. A leading intellectual force behind moves to establish the Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai) in September 2012, Sakaiya Tai-ichi ichi, a former high-ranking official in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, wrote about ‘the first stirrings of a national transformation beginning to make themselves felt in Japan today’ which, he said, could eventually ‘have an effect comparable to the Meiji Restoration of the 1860s’.
He noted that officials ‘go on about the dangers of foreign produce’ and know that if Japan opens itself up to more foreign trade, their own vested interests will come under threat—an outlook no different from that of the privileged samurai class under the Tokugawa shogunate.
He concluded: ‘The Meiji Restoration did not come about because of reform of the Tokugawa shogunate. The starting point was [the seizure of] de facto political power. In the twentieth century, the transformation of Japan’s political system was similarly swift after the Second World War.’
A third opening?
Essays in a recently published book, Globalizing Japan: Striving to Engage the World, consider the likelihood that Japanese will experience a third opening of such proportions that Japan’s interface with the outside world will be altered in ways that will fundamentally reconstitute Japanese society. Two essays argue that the 1990s and 2000s were not ‘lost’, noting that the Japanese economy continued to grow, albeit at rates below those achieved by Japan in the 1950s–80s, and certainly below those occurring nearby, most notably in China and South Korea. Considerable sociocultural change occurred, including a growing number of international marriages, the aging of the population and the casualisation of the labour force.
As an outcome, the policy concerns in Japan are now more into line with those abroad, and the discourse of Japanese uniqueness has much less currency. At the same time, by 2010–12 various policies were in place to improve Japan’s interface with international networks involved in science and technology, to lift standards and promote change in tertiary education, to reform employment practices, to raise proficiency levels in English, and to market ‘cool Japan’ as a culture with universal appeal.
Why, then, were the Japan Restoration Party and other ultra conservatives able to attract widespread public support for their agenda calling for a radical restoration?
On the one hand, although many Japanese government and corporate policymakers accepted that globalisation is inevitable, and many recognised a need to fundamentally restructure Japanese society, they confronted various forms of political inertia and were unsure how to proceed. They were dogged by a fundamental disjuncture that exists between the forces for further multiculturalising Japanese society and those for maintaining structural barriers that retard moves in that direction. Moves toward a more globalised society were also slowed by ideologies projecting the role of the state in the belief that Japan could and should reinforce its cultural and economic pre-eminence as a relatively closed ethic enclave.
On the other hand there was the bungling in government by the progressive Democratic Party of Japan. As well as going through three prime ministers in three years, it appeared to respond inadequately to the needs of those most affected by the March 2011 tsunami and was indecisive about Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy. It also fumbled the relocation of US military in Okinawa, and was clumsy in purchasing three of the eight Senkaku islands from a private owner.
The leading conservative force, the Liberal Democratic Party, capitalised on those inadequacies and gained traction in the December 2012 elections for the lower house with slogans calling for voters to ‘restore’ or ‘win back’ Japan from a perceived decline.
Another undercurrent deserving mention is an uneasy or ambiguous relation with Asia. Authors in Globalizing Japan consider Japan’s engagement with Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and China, which positively acknowledge Japan’s technological advancement, the high quality of its consumer goods and its capacity to provide foreign direct investment—positives that are countered by perceptions that Japanese are ‘stand-offish’ and even arrogant in their dealings in Asia.
Shinzo Abe began his second stint as prime minister with bold pronouncements on the international stage that he would restore Japan by introducing monetary and fiscal policies along with plans for significant structural change that would invigorate the Japanese economy.
Collectively known as Abenomics, those reforms were accompanied by another set of policies wrapped in neo-nationalist rhetoric and designed to solidify a popular commitment to Japan as a nation state. Together the initiatives were reminiscent of the wakon yosai approach, combining the ‘Japanese spirit’ with Western technology, which assumed that the two elements could coexist separately but in ways that reinforced each other.
However, the globalised world in 1868, and even in the 1960s, and that of today are quite different. In terms of achieving greater involvement in networks shaping global society, Abe’s policies, designed to open Japan in a controlled fashion, are clearly offset by a rhetoric which antagonises many Asians elsewhere in the world.
Several conclusions might be drawn. Much of Japan’s globalising during the 1990s and 2000s resulted not from government policy but from initiatives taken in civil society and elsewhere in the private sphere.
Although Abe himself has repeatedly called for a progressive orientation in a number of areas of social policy, little concrete progress has been made in these regards
Second, although Abe himself has repeatedly called for a progressive orientation in a number of areas of social policy, such as enhancing the role of women in society and curbing the undue influence of key interest groups, little concrete progress has been made in these regards.
Third, the Abe government has continued with the emphasis on improving levels of English-language proficiency as a firm foundation for greater Japanese participation in global networking. Although this emphasis relates directly to Japan’s opening further to the outside world, schools and universities remain tied to outdated epistemologies.
There is a tendency among conservatives to believe that the inability to master English grammar and vocabulary is the main stumbling block frustrating Japan’s efforts to dialogue with its neighbours in Asia, not the content of the message per se. They seem to believe that with better English everyone would understand the logic of what the Japanese [state] need[s] or want[s]—if only they could communicate better the comfort women problem would go away and Japan’s claim to the Senkaku islands would be fully recognised.
While grammar and vocabulary are not unimportant aspects of the communication package, they are not in and of themselves sufficient. Some years ago J V Neustupny wrote about the importance of sociocultural knowledge that goes with the use of a language, but left that domain rather undefined.
The findings in Globalizing Japan point to empathy as one element in the package. Efforts to control the media and textbooks and present a carefully sanitised view of history, and a popular media which denigrates the attempts of other Asians to achieve Japan’s high standard of living severely limit the ability of ordinary Japanese to develop an empathy with other Asians. The penultimate chapter details how Abe has involved himself in censoring Japan’s media while the final chapter considers the greatly enhanced role Japan’s civil society might play in promoting the kinds of empathy needed to engage with Asia and the rest of the world. As the experience of dispossessed people anywhere indicates, the past is not easily forgotten, or forgiven,
The evidence suggests the same will be true among many of those who suffered Japan’s colonial presence in Asia. Bowdoin’s Henry Laurence argues that the appeal to ‘moral equivalence tests’ and ‘cultural essentialist tests’ do not register much in Asia. However, some measure of empathy might be interposed to address gaps in sociocultural knowledge.
Divining the future
Is it likely that Japanese will come to have a much greater presence in Asia’s forums?
First, it is now three years since the Abe government took power, and it appears unlikely that it will be able to bring about a Heisei Restoration or third opening on a scale comparable with that which occurred during the Meiji Restoration or following the Grand Showa Surrender.
Second, civil society retains a good deal of its energy and it is unlikely that the Abe government has taken Japan far enough down the neo-nationalist path that it cannot return to the more open choice of crossroads which Japanese faced in 2010–12.
A key to divining Japan’s future will be the dynamic between a globally oriented (and maybe freewheeling) civil society and the efforts of Abe’s government to guide the processes opening Japan further. Third, borrowing the phraseology of American sociologist C. Wright Mills, in these regards attention needs to shift from analyses of the nation in isolation to the nexus where national ‘biographies’, or trajectories, intersect with history, a crossroads for Japan at which the options are increasingly being delineated by the processes of globalisation.
This article is based on a seminar on the notion of a Heisei Restoration, given by Professor Mouer at Monash University’s Japanese Studies Centre on 23 March 2016. The talk drew on his recently edited volume, Globalizing Japan: Striving to Engage the World (TransPacific Press).