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March 20, 2011




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Home > 2011 Issues > March 20, 2011

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Japan in the throes of multiple crisis

By Dr R Balashankar

Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change since the 1980s, Jeff Kingston, Wiley-Blackwell, Pp 313 (PB), £ 27.45

Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change since the 1980s, Jeff Kingston, Wiley-Blackwell, Pp 313 (PB), £ 27.45

JAPAN rose from the ashes, phoenix like, from its World War II trauma. The only nation in the world to have suffered two atomic bombs, which killed millions of its people and left unspeakable horror in trail for generations, it re-emerged in the world map as a formidable force to contend with. It is the second largest economy, next to America.

But today, Japan is in cross-roads. Its population is aging, its economy is not geared for risk management, the system is plagued by corruption, it has to address the question of immigration in the face of rising labour shortage and the family needs to be strengthened with increasing and equal role for women. In fact the last two problems are related to the first, of falling birth rate and growing old population.

Jeff Kingston, professor of History in Temple University, Japan in a recent book Contemporary Japan: History, Politics and Social Change since the 1980s has discussed threadbare the Asian country, looking at its challenges and affirming his faith in its dynamics to meet up to them.

The Lost Decade (1990-2000) took a huge toll on Japan. Says the book: "Unpopular taxpayer-funded bailouts of the banks restored stability to a wobbly financial system, but at the expense of public confidence in the credibility of government leaders and bankers. The human toll has been enormous... Too many fathers committed suicide so that their families can collect on life insurance policies." The number of homeless men and the number of women shifting to sex industry have been on the rise, to unacceptable levels. The Kobe earthquake and the train gassing tragedies happening within two months in 1995, exposed the ill-preparedness of the government to meet civil challenges.

According to statistics, Japan is one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world. As of 2009, 23 per cent of the population is over 65 years old. Children constitute only 13 per cent. There are so many centenarians (40,000 as on 2009), that the government reduced the congratulatory payment and shrank the silver in the commemorative cups. Japanese women are postponing or forgoing marriage, delaying child bearing and as a result the fertility rate of the nation dropped to a record low of 1.29 in 2003 (needed 2.07). Working mothers do not have adequate facilities of paid leave and child care facilities. Hence they opt not to have children.

As a result of the increased life expectancy, the pharmaceutical sector is striking gold. In fact, Japan is the second largest market in the world in this sector. "Child abuse is an urgent matter as there are no signs that the epidemic is abating", says Kingston. According to the book, there were 40,000 cases reported in 2007-08 (financial year) of violence on children. A majority of them are committed by mothers. Same is the story with domestic violence.

Chinese, not surprisingly, are the fastest growing ethnic community in Japan. More than 6.5 lakh China born people lived and worked in Japan in 2008. More than 80,000 Chinese students study in Japanese universities. However, the average Japanese nurture distrust of foreigners, especially Chinese. According to a survey quoted in the book, two-thirds admitted having negative feeling towards China, the highest anti-Chinese prejudice in Asia.

Yakuza is the name of the Japanese mafia. The tradition of Yakuza runs into seventeenth century, though there is little to compare except the initiation rituals and penchant for violence. There are estimated to be 43,000 core members of the group.

According to the book, public opinion polls show that "most Japanese think their nation’s best days are behind it and they are pessimistic about future prospects." But Kingston believes that the situation is not as bleak as being felt. Despite all these malaise, Japan is among the top three world economies, its companies are global leaders in many sectors, it is a leader in technological innovations and the Japanese companies have made several tie ups abroad, which are yielding high returns and the government has huge foreign exchange reserves. "Looking ahead 20 years, it is hard to imagine any really bright scenarios for Japan, but one suspects the apprehension that envelops Japan today may overstate downside risk and overlook the opportunities to reshape priorities... After all, who looking around them in 1950 would have expected the subsequent economic miracle, and who at the time of oil shock in 1973 would have expected the economic boom at the end of the 1980s?" the book concludes.

In a highly dispassionate and balanced analysis of contemporary Japan, Kingston has brought out both the negative and positive sides of the nation, its economy, its society and governance. There are issues that Japan needs to squarely address. And this book points the way to it. An excellent source book on today’s Japan.

(Wiley-Blackwell, 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148-5020, USA)




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