I am writing this in Japan, a country I know a little and like a lot. I was last here a few days after the earthquake in March. Like many people who have lived here, I felt a strong tug of affection when news of the disaster broke. Even though you know the country has endless reserves of stoicism and self-restraint, it was still moving to see these qualities deployed so vividly.
It is interesting to return eight months later. Tokyo still seems quieter and you definitely notice less non-Japanese people around as you travel around the city. For all its size and importance, Tokyo has always been one of the least cosmopolitan of the great world cities. In many ways, that is part of its charm: you never feel you are anywhere else but Tokyo. Over time, other mega-cities gradually start to have more in common with each other and less with their national hinterland. Not Tokyo. This is most definitely a Japanese, not an international, city.
Nevertheless, it is a great city to live in – it is stylish, fun, very safe and everything works. And if you want to take on the challenge of understanding Japan, then you can spend a lifetime here peeling back the layers of history and culture in an elusive search for the Japanese soul. Elusive, not – as is sometimes claimed – because no foreigner can ever penetrate Japan’s soul, but because with all its ambiguity and contradictions I can’t imagine it will ever reveal itself through formal study. I guess if you stay long enough, you wake up one day and realise that in some hard to articulate way, you now get it.
But there are now plenty of anecdotal stories of foreigners who left after the earthquake and rather than return have decided to relocate elsewhere in Asia. For many, nuclear safety is the excuse not the reason. It is more that, after two decades, stagnation no longer seems to be a temporary condition but a permanent state. And the stagnation is not purely economic, it is political. In fact, it is in my view almost entirely a political problem.
Japan’s genius has not gone away. Its creativity, sense of endeavour and capacity for productivity remain undiminished but it is hard to detect any real determination to tackle the economy’s structural challenges. Similarly, Japan appears at times paralysed by the perceived threat from a newly assertive China on the country’s doorstep.
Japan has been rightly proud of the calibre of its public officials who crafted the phenomenal post-war economic miracle. But it now seems to struggle to find the collective will to initiate the changes needed to adapt to altered political and economic realities. In part, this is because despite the years of low growth, most people still live comfortably and the cosiness of Japan – in some ways such a beguiling feature of life here – smothers the willingness to contemplate more radical change.
A few months ago, it seemed that the shock of Fukushima might be sufficient to galvanise political and public opinion behind a programme of more far-reaching reform. That now seems less likely. Maybe I’m wrong, perhaps Japan is about to find the sense of national momentum to redefine its role in the world. And just when you think you understand something of how this place works, it has a habit of surprising you. I hope so.