This Is About Japan

I’ve wavered back and forth on whether I wanted to post this or not, but it’s something that matters to me, so I’m going to go ahead with it. I have a feeling it won’t be popular because there’s a misguided and outdated idea of what Japan is, and deviation is rarely well-received. But I love this country, for a lot of reasons I might be able to articulate someday, and I think it’s important to look at the whole picture, not just the beautiful parts of it.

This is Tokyo.

Japan is a developed country that has held onto a developing country mentality. What I mean is that Japan has, for lack of a better term, made it, but living here you’d never know it. The post-war reconstruction was amazingly fast and thorough – they have all the infrastructure and resources and manpower to be on par with, or even surpass, the western world. In fact, back in the days of the economic bubble, before the late ’80s and into the ’90s when it didn’t burst so much as slowly deflate (and props to the bureaucracy that basically just willed the economy not to crash), everyone abroad thought Japan was going to take over the world. All that stuff people say about China now, how it’s becoming a superpower and set to overtake the west, etc.? That was Japan in the ’70s. In the wake of the Occupation, this country managed to not only stabilize, but set itself up to become the most powerful country in the world.

And it never happened.

So the question is, why? Why did they come so far and then just stop?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, and read some fascinating and insightful books and articles by other people who are cleverer than me (Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan is particularly spectacular), and there is a simple answer: Japan settled into a way of thinking about itself, that it’s struggling and behind, and it never moved on. So rather than take the strong base they set down in the wake of the war and go off into greatness, they’ve just kept on trying to develop way past the need to do so. What that means in practice is that they do things here that are not only completely unnecessary, but expensive and destructive. And very few people seem to recognise this.

This is my neighborhood.

Nature conservation groups abroad have noted Japan’s reforestation efforts. What they overlook is that a substantial portion of deforestation was executed purely for the purpose of reforesting with Japanese ceder, the idea being that uniformity and order are more appealing and modern than natural forests. Japan is hailed as being one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet they refuse to bury telephone and electric wires, despite having the ability to do so. Japan’s beauty is widely praised, but they line their rivers in concrete, kill wetlands, and pave stretches of beach. The biggest industry here is construction, but rather than devote some of that work force to problems like the asbestos in major buildings, or constructing sewage lines, they build massive community centers, stadiums in towns that don’t need them, and hideously ugly towers and monuments. And, despite their long and fascinating history, most old buildings have been torn down and replaced with concrete, cheap metal, and plastic. Very few historic sites are actually maintained. Most of the history and beauty people come to Japan to see doesn’t really exist anymore.

It’s heartbreaking. And the end result is that, rather than looking ultramodern, everything just ends up seeming shabby and poorly planned. The cities are ugly, living conditions can be uncomfortable, conveniences found both in the west and in other Asian countries are absent, and everyone puts up with it because they’ve been living under the idea of “poor people, strong state” for so long, being fed the line that Japan is engaged in a perpetual struggle against the outside world for success, that it seems normal to be this way.

我慢 (gaman): endurance; tolerance; self-denial. Also what might as well be Japan’s primary virtue. There’s no need for Japan to be the way it is. They could have taken a different path and been fantastic, but they didn’t. And it’s getting to the point where it’s going to be too late to turn back. How much damage can be done before it’s irreparable? There isn’t a whole lot of past left to preserve, the bureaucracy is so powerful and set in its ways that no one seems to remember where the brake pedal even is, and environmental ruination in the name of progress is still applauded. Morale is low, other Asian countries have become more appealing destinations, and Japan is falling farther and farther behind all the time. But Japan enthusiasts continue to gush about what has largely become a fiction and people abroad still hold onto this image of Japan as a futuristic country (which it is, if the future you have in mind is dystopian) that has it all worked out. The reality, however, is that Japan is set on a course towards self-destruction and has been for quite some time.

And I guess that’s the point of this. Don’t stop loving Japan, because God knows I do, but actually look at it. Because if no one ever looks, how can anything be done? If everyone keeps perpetuating the idea that Japan is perfect, there will never be any motivation to work towards fixing what’s broken. And that motivation is exactly what Japan needs.

Do I seriously think it will happen? No, not really. But you have no idea how badly I wish it would. There are so many worthwhile things here, so much potential to be amazing, and I would love to see even a little bit of that realised. It would absolutely glorious.

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6 thoughts on “This Is About Japan

  1. Sounds like a number of countries, though. I mean, the US even took some time to catch up to it all and shift its mentality.

    Definitely food for thought, here. Interesting to try and shift from the past view and reconcile it with the current reality.

    Revealing the not so good stuff actually shows your commitment and love of the country, since you care enough to try and see all of it and understand all of it.

    • Actually, it’s not really like any other country, which is part of why it’s so infuriating. In a way, Japan is quite correct when they insist on their singularity. It’s just very peculiar because Japan is a country that claims to want to be modern while simultaneously being absolutely terrified of anything new. But you can’t modernise without change, so they’re stuck. And they have no excuse for being so out of date because other Asian countries (Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea…) are surpassing them. Or already have.

      I think a lot of things would be better here if they had an education system worth a damn. If nothing else, they really need to fix the way they teach their kids.

    • Yeah, I kind of… died for a while. September killed me. But I’ve had a half-written entry for, like, a week and a half. I think I’m finally going to sit down and finish it because this is ridiculous.

      Also, I’m definitely going to start reading the new blog. It’s pretty awesome, I have to say.

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