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Japan at the Crossroads: 150 years of playing at being Western could be coming to an end


Like the hand of God, the political "butterfly effect" can work in dark and mysterious ways. In 2008, the ripples from Barack Obama's victory in the US election started washing up on the shores of Japan like the harbinger of a political tsunami.


At first the Japanese seemed to be taking it all with a pinch of salt. A major advertising campaign by mobile-phone company, Emobile, poked fun at the absurdities of Obama mania by presenting a be-suited monkey in the role of a politician proclaiming "Change" before an adoring crowd.

After the inevitable accusations of racism and the routine overlooking of the revered status that monkeys have in Asian culture – Japan's Toshogu Shrine in Nikko is famous for its carving of the three wise monkeys – the ad was dropped, and the usual polite deference towards America was resumed, bar some muttering about the new President's stress on the importance of the US-China relationship. However, under the surface, the idea of electoral change had caught on in a country heading into its own general election campaign in 2009.


For all but 11 months since 1956, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had held power. Set up with US help, the party had used gerrymandered electoral boundaries and machine politics to maintain its grip on power. It was only in 1993, following the Japanese property bubble collapse, that the LDP lost power to a coalition of seven smaller parties, who made use of their brief taste of government to bring a degree of proportional representation to Japan's first-past-the-post electoral system. Instead of all 480 of Japan's Lower House members being elected by Westminster-style constituencies, it was agreed to select 180 of them from party lists according to vote percentage.

This new hybrid system allowed the smaller parties to survive, but the advantage still lay with the big party that could win most of the directly elected seats. This was the LDP, who soon returned to power.

Learning lessons from this, the small opposition parties gradually coalesced throughout the 1990s to create the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), a party big enough to mount a concerted challenge in the constituencies to the LDP, which was now propped up with support from the Buddhist New Komei Party (NKP).

The final two pieces in the jigsaw were the credit crunch and the kudos given to the idea of "change" by US voters. When the LDP government tried to stimulate the economy by pouring money into the usual pointless construction projects – a guaranteed way of turning taxpayers' money into party contributions from construction companies – it merely reinforced the image of the LDP as both corrupt and inefficient, an impression the DPJ deftly exploited with its messages of fighting sleaze and priming the pump by putting money into the pockets of ordinary consumers.

Preaching toll-free motorways, child allowances, and an end to "amakudari," the system of golden parachutes by which top civil servants on retirement are given important positions in companies that their departments formerly oversaw, the DPJ pulled off a landslide victory in August, winning 64% of the Lower House seats. It was already the biggest party in the Upper House. However, a large part of the DPJ victory depended on an electoral system that still over-rewards the most popular party. In terms of vote percentage, the DPJ wasn’t that far ahead – 42% of the vote, compared to 38% for the LDP and its NKP allies, hardly a yawning chasm at an economically difficult time.

With the economy certain to be shaky for the next few years and the DPJ's popularity liable to suffer as a consequence, it may seem that the LDP could easily reposition itself to swing back into power at the next general election. While possible, such a superficial analysis, stressing only political and economic factors, ignores so much else that is going on in Japanese society. The truth is that the world’s second biggest economy is tired with the ride and wants to get off to enjoy a quieter life.

Although the DPJ's promises of improving social conditions and introducing more welfare remain vague, the election of the party resonates with the underlying mood and trend of Japanese society in a way that the LDP message of a corporate Japan doesn't. For those willing to look, the signs of this deep-rooted change have long been evident.

Since the 1990s there have been intriguing changes in Japanese social and cultural patterns. These include the "otaku" and "hikikomori" phenomena. Usually translated as 'fanboys,' otaku are the large number of young men who have developed obsessive hobbies and interests, like anime (animation), manga (comics) and computer games as an escape from reality. Hikikomori share many of these traits, but the difference in that they have lost all confidence in social interaction and have given up on useful study and work, instead preferring to largely stay in their rooms. The female corollary of these groups are the "parasite singles," young women who work but choose to remain single and stay with their parents so as to save money and enjoy an easier life devoid of responsibility.

What about the rest of society? In 2006, the columnist Maki Fukasawa coined the term "soushoku danshi" (literally "herbivorous male") to describe a relatively common type of young man, who prefers a quieter, less competitive life, a more vegetarian diet, and who has a limited interest in the opposite sex and high income consumerism. The term caught on and is now widely used.

To understand why these changes are happening and what they portend, it is important to take a wider look at Japanese history. Before 1854, when an American fleet, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, forced Japan to open its doors to the outside world, the country had been a self-sufficient, feudal, agricultural society, where the vast majority of people lived on an overwhelmingly vegetarian diet and were much smaller than today. Faced with Perry's "Black Ships" and the enormous power of the West, Japan developed a reactive culture designed to overcompensate for the accumulated weaknesses of centuries. In short, from being a sleepy, backward "herbivorous" society, it tried to drastically reposition itself as a dynamic, expansionary "carnivorous" society, just like the dominant powers of the Victorian period that had disturbed its slumber.

Japan's rulers did everything they could to acquire Western technical know-how, while, at the same time, great efforts were taken to define, defend, and assert the indigenous culture and identity of the country, often by using methods and approaches from abroad.

Faced with the power of Western art, the art scholar Tenshin Okakura developed the idea of a consciously separate style of Japanese painting and aesthetics called Nihonga. In the same way, faced by strict Western codes of behaviour based on Christian morals and European chivalry, the Japanese author Inazo Nitobe created an ersatz code of Japanese ethics called Bushido. Even the extreme emperor worship that took over the formerly low-key religion of Shinto had the flavour of Christian absolutism about it.

In an attempt to make the average Japanese person physically equal to Europeans, the government even changed the eating habits of the common people, towards a more protein-rich diet, encouraging meat eating and milk drinking. This also led to the demotion of Buddhism in Japanese culture.

The result of all this effort was that Japan did indeed become a "carnivorous" nation, echoing the industrialism and imperialism of its European models but with little of the magnanimity and urbanity that characterized the British and French empires. When this led to war and defeat, the Japan that emerged afterwards – impoverished and hungry – still saw itself as a "carnivorous" nation.

It was this belief that allowed the country to embark on its post-war economic miracle, and which laid the groundwork for the dominance of the LDP, a party that encapsulated the spirit of post-war carnivorous Japan. The new society of samurai salaraymen serving feudal export-geared conglomerates, all fuelled by a work-hard-play-hard culture of Stakhanovite effort compensated by jobs-for-life, heavy drinking, and endemic prostitution, was, in its own way, just as much a distortion of the basic Japanese character as the madly overcompensating drive of the Meiji modernists and the Showa Imperialists.

Not surprisingly, when the wheels began to come off the machine in the 1990s, a smouldering rebellion set in. The foot soldiers, formerly obedient to the dictates of suit-wearing conformity, began to break ranks, and question the wisdom of the alien lifestyle that had been foisted on the country. The rise of otaku, hikikomori and herbivorous males can be understood in this context.

What seems to be happening is that Japan is finally snapping out of its 150-year attempt to be a "carnivorous" Western nation in the fast lane, and is instead seeking to return to the lineaments of its former shape as a gentle, sleepy, agrarian society. The true significance of the election of 2009 may be that this tendency finally started to express itself at the ballot box.

Quarterly Review
Winter, 2009
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