Discussing “Anxious Individuals, Nation at a Standstill: Succeeding in a Model-less Era”
Asian Communication Juku, JCMS
In May 2017, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry issued a report entitled “Anxious individuals, nation at a standstill” as a project involving young bureaucrats directed by a former METI vice minister. Here I examine the report’s significance, as well as points of caution, in the hope that the project will contribute to the emergence of compelling solutions to Japan’s ongoing malaise.
The above report was released in May this year out of a project driven by young bureaucrats under the guidance of a former METI vice minister. The project was designed to identify changes to the social structure in Japan and abroad and consider approaches to underpin medium to long-term policy, posing questions to society at large. In addition to literature surveys and exchanges of views with eminent figures in Japan and abroad, it provides an arena for regular discussion among project members. I look forward to meaningful discussion among project members contributing to compelling solutions to Japan’s ongoing malaise.
Looking at five areas—international politics; domestic and international economy; ethnicity, culture and religion; technology; and society—the report identifies three issues:
1. An increasingly liquid society and anxious individuals
2. Is the government able to support individuals’ life choices?
3. What should we do?
Let me expand a little on the content of for the purposes of discussion.
1. If the current vague unease and dissatisfaction (overly rapid change, unchanging mechanisms, opaque future, too much information) are not addressed, they could destabilize society. There is order even within freedom, and efforts need to be made to create a new social system in which individuals feel comfortable taking on challenges.
2. (1) A social system that distorts individual choice: No social role post-retirement; not the way people had hoped to spend their final years; poverty in single-parent households; link between irregular employment and educational disparities; young people with nowhere to use their abilities
(2) Much more difficult for the government to present common goals that are relevant to all lives and that everyone can empathize with
(3) Apparently individual choices turn out to have been manipulated by someone else (spread of the Internet carries the risk that individual judgement can be manipulated; time to consider what we can do about this)
3. Vested interests and stereotypes shaped by old values and mechanisms stand in the way of reform. Believing that ambitious reform is impossible in a silver democracy, we are all running away from the real issues.
Current state of Japanese society
Amidst a growing need to observe our current position from an overarching and history-grounded perspective, that young bureaucrats are foregrounding this discussion is a very welcome development.
Looking back over history, immediately after abolishing the clan system, the Meiji Restoration government sent the Iwakura Mission off for 18 months to 12 Western countries to find out how to build a modern state. The major results achieved by the Meiji Restoration included abolishing the feudal system, encouraging new industry, building modern infrastructure, and spreading education, and young Asians aspiring to modernize their countries and free them from Western control rushed to study in Japan. Ry?tar? Shiba’s Clouds above the Hill paints a picture of Japan during that era. However, after winning the Russo-Japan War, Japan’s experiments with Taisho democracy and post-WWI international collaboration came to nothing, and the country instead took the road that led to the Manchurian Incident, the Sino-Japan War, and WWII.
After WWII, thanks to the formulation of a peace-oriented constitution and an international climate that was in some senses blessed (the Cold War and the Bretton Woods regime), Japan saw postwar reform and economic development that even led it to be praised as “Japan as No. 1.” Sabur? Shiroyama’s The Summer of the Bureaucrats presented a society in which the whole country worked together to build industry and achieve economic development, but the formation and collapse of the bubble economy led Japan into 10, 20 “lost” years from which we have yet to emerge.
While there is much to admire in the younger generation tackling analysis of the current state of Japan and casting forward into the future, the current reform process—the so-called “Third Opening”—is situated in a far more complex context than the first two (the formation of the Meiji modern state and postwar development), and neither Japan’s present nor future can be examined without reference to the entire scope of society and the relation to global megatrends.
I would like to make a few points that I hope will contribute to productive results from the current debate.
Issues in relation to the Third Opening of Japan
1. Market failure and corporate social responsibility (CSR)
The conceptual premise behind the modern market economy was that the pursuit of individual profit would bring about social profit.
As the global economy has advanced, the emphasis of American-style market economy on profit, efficiency, and stockholder interests has created very evident economic disparities at home and abroad, bringing into question what Thomas Piketty described in Capital in the 21st Century as the “permanence of the 21st century market economy.” This has fostered a new call for corporate social responsibility (CSR), as well as trends such as “new capitalism” geared not to demand backed by purchasing power but rather to needs (Bill Gates) and “conscious capitalism” that rejects market theory on the grounds that it has become too materialistic and advocates instead for all humanity and for world peace (Philip Kotler).
2. Government failure
(1) In Japan, systems designed around average lifespans of 60+ plus years have basically continued unchanged even with many people living well into their 80s. Japan’s fiscal deficit is well over double its GDP, which is unusual even by global standards, and a balance urgently needs to be found between burden and benefit (in other words, the government is not Santa Claus, and later generations may struggle). State policy too clearly needs to be properly evaluated and improved in line with the PDCA principle.
(2) Undertaking the public interest in civil society depends on not only government but also civilian engagement. In Japan, the state has been the main agent in promoting the public interest since the Meiji era (public policy monopoly or state control). The same way of thinking remained basically unchanged even in the postwar Civil Code, with the first steps toward amendment taken when the NPO Act (Act on Promotion of Specified Non-profit Activities) was formulated in 1998. Forming a healthy civil society will be a key issue.
3. Coexistence and interdependence beyond the nation state
The advance of the global community has shown the expansion of market economy to be accompanied by growing disparities even as domestic and cross-border conflicts spark refugee and migrant issues. Even more recent developments include BREXIT and President Trump’s America-first advocacy. At the same time, seen from a broad perspective, the world is also making progress toward coexistence and interdependence, including conclusion of the Paris Agreement, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (addressing poverty, disparities, welfare and the environment, etc.). Japan must recognize the major opportunities and responsibilities it has been granted in its proximity to Asia as the world’s growth center.
Yukichi Fukuzawa called for the independence and self-respect of the Japanese people as citizens and civilians (An Encouragement of Learning), while Sh?ichi Kat? noted that the two defects which could be observed in Japanese thought and the behavior of the Japanese people were (1) the absence of systematized values and (2) a strong sense of group identification (A History of Japanese Literature). Hajime Nakamura pointed to (1) acceptance of the given reality and (2) an absence of logical consistency (Ways of Thinking of the Japanese), while Masao Maruyama summed Japan up as an “octopus pot” society (Japanese Thought).
In its recommendations to the Prime Minister, the Reconstruction Design Council in Response to the Great East Japan Earthquake noted that “… from whichever way we look at it, behind the specific prescription for the disaster-affected regions, we can clearly see a number of issues that have remained unresolved throughout Japan’s post-war period. We are also reminded of the fact that in the face of the threat from nature and the hubris of human arrogance, this disaster revealed in one fell swoop the inherent vulnerability of modern civilization. Does this not question the very character of our civilization?” The quake was a poignant reminder that the human race is not omnipotent and that it can exist in harmony with nature.
The experience of modernization and Japan’s role in the world
Japan’s role in world history could arguably be said to be sharing our successes, failures and innovations over the last century—the time since the Meiji Restoration, including postwar development—with the Asian and African nations as they address modernization and economy-building. It could well help us to move beyond “anxious individuals and the nation at a standstill.”
About the Author
Director, Asian Communication Juku, JCMS
Entered the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI; now METI) in 1967. Served as First Secretary and Councilor in the Delegation of Japan to the OECD, and Director General of the Small Business Department in MITI’s SME Agency. He also served at the Economic Planning Agency (EPA; now the Cabinet Office) as the EPA representative on the Bank of Japan Policy Board, Director General of the Social Policy Bureau, and Vice-Minister for International Economic Affairs. He subsequently switched to academia, becoming a professor at Keio University and professor and dean at Nihon University Business School (NBS). In the international relations arena, he was a member of the INSEAD Japan National Council, and Honorary Secretary of the ISBC (International Small Business Congress) Steering Committee.