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A country on the front line

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JAPAN’S NEW The Imperial Era began in the spring of 2019, when an ordinary man in a dark suit revealed his name: Reiwa. The first character, rei, means “auspicious” or “ordered”; wa means “harmony” or “peace” (officials chose “beautiful harmony” as the English translation). For the first time, the name does not come from classical Chinese literature, but from the Japanese anthology of poetry Manyoshu, compiled over a millennium ago: “In this auspicious month (rei) in early spring, the the weather is fine and the wind is gentle (wa). “

The first months of Reiwa were hardly favorable, nor the gentle winds. In early 2020, covid-19 erupted. The Japanese donned masks and stayed at home, ranting against politicians who continued to dine at the restaurant. China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, flexed its muscles and shut down Hong Kong that summer. In the fall, the President of the United States, Japan’s main ally, refused to accept his defeat at the polls. The pandemic postponed the 2020 Olympics, which Abe Shinzo had hoped would be the crowning achievement of his record-breaking tenure as prime minister. Fewer and fewer babies are being born. Mr. Abe’s bowel disease led him to resign. The indescribable man in the dark suit, Suga Yoshihide, took over, but after a year, he too was gone.

Yet in the midst of all the turmoil, Japan is doing quite well. The Olympics took place in the summer of 2021, with few spectators and little fanfare, but without the epidemiological disaster that detractors had predicted. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose a new leader, Kishida Fumio, another harmless figure. On October 31, voters gave the party a healthy majority in the powerful lower house of the Diet. No populist agitator has hijacked the debate and no pseudo-authoritarian has disputed the result. The average life expectancy in Japan has reached new highs of 88 years for women and 82 years for men. The excess mortality has actually decreased; only 18,000 died from covid-19, in a country of 126 million people. The masks remained in place and the double vaccination rates rose to around 80%.

The rest of Reiwa will demand more resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges. In the Showa era, 1926-1989, Japan lost and recovered from World War II, became the world’s second-largest economy, and led Harvard historian Ezra Vogel to write on “Japan as Number One” and to urge America to learn from its old enemy. Mr Abe had this in mind when he said “Japan is back” – its Olympics were reminiscent of those of 1964, which symbolized post-war revival. Such nostalgic bravado exaggerates the successes of modern Japan. But the pessimism of Japan’s “lost decades”, a hangover from the Heisei era that followed Showa, when the bubble burst and the economy stagnated, also exaggerates its failures.

Reiwa’s dawn has already provoked a lot of soul-searching. “The question for the Reiwa era is what kind of Japan do we want to find? Muses Funabashi Yoichi, a writer. Japan is in a “post-growth or post-development era”, and its values ​​must evolve from Showa’s “faster, higher, stronger” to “diversity, resilience and sustainability”, argues Yoshimi Shunya from the University of Tokyo. Others hope to recapture the glories of the past. “We have to remake Japan number one,” says Amari Akira, a LDP large vegetable.

At least one safe bet is that Reiwa will be a time of population decline. According to current trends, the population will decline from one fifth to 100 million by 2050. It will also probably be a period defined by competition between America and China, by natural disasters, by aging and by stagnation. secular. This special report will explore how Japan is tackling these issues. Once seen as the illnesses of an idiosyncratic patient, they have become endemic for many – they simply afflicted Japan earlier or more intensely. A more appropriate identity for Reiwa-era Japan may be what Komiyama Hiroshi, former president of the University of Tokyo, calls kadasenshinkoku, or an “advanced country facing challenges”.

In other words, Reiwa will find Japan at the forefront of the world. It is the result of closeness, not foreknowledge. But it will nonetheless be up to Japan to show foresight to find a way to survive it. Its successes can serve as models and its failures as edifying stories. It is a “precursor state,” argues Phillip Lipscy of the University of Toronto. “We treat Japan as unique at our peril. “

An outdated image

Too often what happens in Japan is seen as sui generis, reflecting an almost mystical social cohesion possible only on a closed island with a relatively homogeneous population. This cultural essentialism is for the Japanese both a source of pride and a cover to ignore outside examples, while giving foreigners (especially Westerners) a source of fascination and a license to dismiss unsexy politicians. , from disaster drills to zoning laws. Cultivation is obviously important, but it also changes, often through cross-pollination. The behavior that had the most impact on the evolution of covid-19 in Japan – the wearing of the mask – first came from the West, taking root during the Spanish Flu of 1918. In Japanese, ” face mask “is always written in katakana, the alphabet reserved for foreign words.

The idea that Japan never changes is an old chestnut that needs to be broken. Nowadays, change is only gradual. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it can’t speed up, as it sometimes has in the past. One of the reasons the economy avoided the collapse that some predicted decades ago is that policies have changed. The transformation is even more pronounced in foreign affairs. Once ridiculed for its “karaoke diplomacy” singing American tunes, Japan is now more concerned with its own songwriting. Diplomats speak of Asia in terms of the “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a currency of Mr. Abe. Trade negotiators discuss ‘Data Free Flow with Trust’, another Japanese idea. Central bankers are considering “quantitative easing”, also pioneering in Japan. Years before Joe Biden promised America would “build back better,” Japan pushed to insert the phrase into the UN disaster risk reduction framework.

Japanese society is changing as well, but mainly from the bottom up. “It seems that change is not happening, but the seeds of future change are there,” says Mr. Komiyama. Old ideals, sarariman (employee) to shimaguni (island nation), are eroding. In Japan’s stubbornly seniority system, the Showa generation still rule the country. But those who follow have a different vision and different values, says Hiroi Yoshinori, philosopher at Kyoto University. “Young people do not know the period of strong growth, there is a huge generational gap.

For too many people, it’s a time of anxiety. This is reflected in conservative voting patterns: Japanese youth are more likely to support the LDP than the old one. Some retreat to the dark realms of netto-uyoku (extreme right-line extremism) or isolation as hikikomor I (closing) —behavior hardly uniquely Japanese. Others, however, seize the opportunity to reinvent themselves, choosing startups or working freelance rather than large companies and a job for life. Their energies are often channeled not into products and services, but into the culture of social capital that makes a society resilient, into volunteerism, social entrepreneurship and socially engaged art. Their scale is local, not national or global, their arenas are the private sector or civil society, not politics.

This is in part because politics has become rigid in the absence of real competition. Such stasis is a big reason why being on the front lines doesn’t mean being at the forefront. Japan’s treatment of women is backward, its protection of minority rights weak, its government services archaic, and its climate policy dirty. Many institutional frameworks are frozen in the past. Labor laws are designed for monogamous industrial-age employment, tax codes and family law for the Meiji-era patriarchy, immigration practices for a growing population. “The central government is behind its time,” laments Yanai Tadashi, founder and director of Fast Retailing, and the second richest person in Japan.

These weaknesses will hamper Japan in the Reiwa era. Nonetheless, its ability to cope should not be underestimated. And the world should be careful. Showa Japan once offered lessons on how to win the future, while Heisei Japan showed how to lose it. Reiwa Japan will offer lessons on how to survive. The starting point is on the front line of Japan with China. â– 

This article appeared in the Special Feature section of the print edition under the title “The New Era”