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|BENDING ADVERSITY: Japan and the Art of Survival. By David Pilling. Allen Lane|
Literary Review - December
Working in Japan as a foreign correspondent, as your reviewer did three decades ago for The Economist and as David Pilling did brilliantly for the Financial Times from 2002-08, can be a frustrating business. You quickly realize that the big news about Japan is that there’s no news there. Or, more strictly, that Japan is a culture of processes, of evolutions, not of big events or flashy announcements or dramas. Which actually makes it more fascinating, but produces another phenomenon, born also out of frustration: a yearning, especially among foreign observers but also many Japanese, for a big exception to this rule, for a crisis that might suddenly accelerate these processes and produce a transformation.
Ever since 1990 when Japan turned from economic champion into apparent dunce, from boom into bust and stagnation, this crisis-hunt has been ubiquitous. A theory, for which there are in fact only two data-points, has been heard time and again: that Japan transformed itself inside out in 1850-70 when the shock of American “black ships” arriving in Tokyo Bay and demanding trade triggered a rebellion and political revolution now known as the Meiji Restoration (named after the then emperor), and that it transformed itself again after 1945, turning postwar rubble into economic and social miracles. So surely, the theory goes, it will do so again, surprising the world in response to a new crisis.
The latest candidate for this theory came in March 2011 when the huge earthquake and tsunami destroyed vast swathes of the north-east, killing nearly 20,000 people and setting off the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, at the Fukushima-Daichi power plant. Nearly three years later, however, we are still waiting for the transformation, just as the people of north-east Japan are largely still waiting for their communities to be rebuilt.
Now, in fact, the crisis-theory is mutating, showing the constant lure of wishful thinking, into one in which the Tokyo Olympic Games of 2020 provides a new organizational focus for the mooted transformation, channelling a nation’s energies as did, in myth at least, the last Tokyo games of 1964. Japan even has a name and a neologism with which to identify and to force along this change, in the form of “Abenomics”, led by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who returned to power a year ago for a second go at the job, six years after his first effort ended in failure and humiliation.
The mission of this book by Pilling, now Asia Editor of the Financial Times in Hong Kong, is, in effect, to rescue Japan from this notion and, indeed, from all such superficial theories. His title indicates that he wants to replace it with a subtler and more realistic idea: that change-through-adversity, whether wartime defeat or natural disasters or indeed financial crashes, is indeed a Japanese characteristic, especially because such adversity has been such a feature of life in that archipelago. But it doesn’t occur in the rapid, wham-bam-thank-you-mam manner of the crisis theories but rather in more gradual ways, ones less easy to discern. It really is a place of processes more than of news.
Most of all, Pilling, like many writers who come to love Japan and to enjoy its many eccentricities, wants to rescue the country from the standard one-dimensional images of the country as some sort of model (pre-1990) or cautionary tale (post-1990), and even more so from the even older idea of an inscrutable, mysterious east. It is a place populated by real people, with real complexities and real struggles, especially struggles about how to turn simple recipes about what should be done into actual practice.
Clearly, none of his encounters during his years covering Japan moved him more than those with the survivors of the devastating tsunami of 2011, encounters which he uses to frame his book. The people he meets on the north-east coast show great stoicism and resilience, even a sense of humour in the face of such terrible events, and a clear pragmatism and resourcefulness. Most of all, though, what their stories convey is a sense of humility.
At first, it seems surprising that “Bending Adversity” is not a work about how the tsunami has altered, or will alter, Japan. The narrative and analysis jumps suddenly from flattened communities to the country’s history as an island nation, to its detached and mutually suspicious relationship with its Asian neighbours, to the cherished but sometimes batty theories of Nihonjinron or Japaneseness which domestic scholars have used to define what is different and of course special about their country.
Yet the purpose soon becomes evident. It is to show that the tsunami, far from being some extraordinary game-changer, needs to be seen as something normal, despite all its genuine extraordinariness. It is part of Japan’s continuity. And his purpose is to show that the vital thing to understand about Japanese people is their very normality and their humility.
At the heart of Japan’s traditional religion, Shinto, is exactly that humility: it is not like the monotheistic religions that postulate an all-powerful deity or an ordering principle for life and the universe. It is an animist religion that emphasizes ignorance in the face of the world’s mysteries and natural forces. It is an admission of what we don’t know, not a call to faith.
Such a culture is not one prone to messianic visions or sudden bursts of leadership or inspiration. The one period when Japan did turn a tad messianic, seeking to emulate European colonialism, the result was calamity. Evolution, altering things step-by-step, is much the safer option—and Japan is above all a country of caution, of trying to reduce uncertainty. So we need to drop fantasies of dramatic change, and most immediately of “Abenomics” or the Olympics as a source of renaissance. And to read this book, to find that Japan is a much more interesting and engaging place, for all its flaws and frustrations, than the drama theorists would have us believe.