Better impressions of Japan


Bit by bit, step by step, month by month, the worlds opinion of Japan is changing. Such opinions always change even more slowly than the country does itself, and they very often change rather later than does the truth itself. But that opinion really is changing. And, for the time being, it is changing in a positive way.

Three big things have made this change begin to occur, one of them long-lasting and the others very recent. The long-lasting influence is really the economic stagnation of the 1990s: in the worlds eyes, it changed Japan from a country of super-humans, who had found some sort of secret of business and economics that others had not, into a normal sort of country. It was, in other words, suddenly a country with flaws and dramas and difficulties like those that took place elsewhere. Of course, the truth was that it was always was, but foreigners did not see it that way. Gradually, as the decade went on and as the 20th century became the 21st, other elements of normality began to penetrate foreigners consciousness of Japan: that it had corrupt or incompetent politicians, for instance; or that it had disruptive and sometimes violent schoolchildren; or that some of its companies were world-class successes and others spectacular failures.

That long-lasting, slow change was one of understanding Japans normality through its weakness. The two very recent changes are both signs that Japan may now be reviving, and be becoming a normal country but a strong one. These changes really are very new, and thus can only be tentatively judged. But they do, for the time being, seem genuine.

The first of these recent changes is the fact that the economy has begun to recover. Not just that, it is now recovering quite strongly. Economists tend to mark time in quarter-years, and the remarkable fact is that Japan has now had eight successive quarter-years of economic growth—in other words two whole years. The growth was modest to begin with, and the continued price deflation (ie, falling prices) meant that it was worth rather less than it looked on the surface. But in the past quarter that has changed: at last, growth in economic output is now outpacing the fall in prices. The reasons for this are that corporate investment is rising, that exports to China are booming and that the Bank of Japan is creating money very rapidly and determinedly.

For the first time in about ten years, when someone who knows about my 1989 book, \”The Sun Also Sets\” (Hiwa Mata Shizumu), asks me whether the sun is yet rising again, I feel that I can answer: Yes!!

Many people outside Japan, and of course many Japanese themselves, are understandably sceptical about this. They suspect it will disappear suddenly, like other apparent sunrises of the past decade, and darkness will return. It might: one can never be entirely sure. But this time, I think there is good reason to think that recovery could last, for it is not an artificial creation of government spending on dams and bridges and so on: it is a creation of private investment, of companies that have improved their operations and boosted their profitability, of strong foreign demand for exports, of banks that are beginning to see their bad-loan totals decline. That more sustainable character of the economic recovery is slowly being spotted by some westerners—still fairly few of them, but more and more each week and month. The long-held idea that Japans economy is a dead loss is going. It is being replaced by a question: how strong might Japan now become, if the recovery continues and reform really gets going?

The second recent change is even newer. It has been prompted by the arrival in Iraq of Japanese Self-Defence Force soldiers. Even if they are there for reconstruction purposes, and even if their numbers are quite small, they are proving an important symbol of the new willingness of Japanese governments to play a normal part in world affairs. Almost all other countries help with difficult international situations by sending soldiers to take up peacekeeping duties, including the willingness to fight if necessary. Japan has seemed very abnormal, since 1945, because of its constitutional and political blockage to doing so.

That blockage may have been viewed positively sometimes, as a symbol of peacefulness, but mostly it has been viewed negatively, as a symbol of Japans unwillingness to take its share in difficult international tasks, its share of the work necessary to make the world more stable and more peaceful. The initiative by Junichiro Koizumi, to offer political support for the United States and Britain in the Iraq war last year and now to send troops to a combat area for the first time, is seen as one that is small in size but large in significance. It is thought of as an indicator that in future Japan will play a fuller role internationally, that it will truly be part of an international community.

Most westerners have taken little notice of the arrival of Japanese troops in Iraq. But among the elites and commentators that have noticed this, the presence of these troops is virtually always seen in a positive way. Whereas the Iraq war continues to be controversial, the need to rebuild and help Iraq is not controversial at all, and thus it is perceived to be a good thing that Japan has decided to take part in it. Moreover, many think it is the first step towards bigger efforts in the future.

Altogether, these changes should be helpful for Japan but also helpful for the world. A Japan that is perceived as a normal country, with normal strengths and normal weaknesses is one that is on the way to achieving more balanced and healthy relationships with other countries. A Japan whose sun is rising again, in economic terms, is a country that can start to feel confident about itself again, and (I hope) be confident enough to pursue some of the difficult but necessary reforms long proposed by economists and commentators. It is also a country that will be taken more seriously by foreign investors. That new economic strength looks now to be being joined by an emerging willingness to act normally in

helping to build and preserve peace all around the world.

The tasks ahead, both in domestic reform and in dealing with military challenges in Iraq, will be difficult and sometimes painful. But they will be made easier by this new-found strength, and by the more positive, normal view the world is starting to hold about Japan. As I have long been an admirer of Japan, and a sympathiser for it during its troubles since 1990, such a revival and such a positive view abroad will bring me great pleasure. I certainly hope that the Sun continues to Rise.