In the late 1980s, at the end of a long stint in Asia, my family lived for a year in a far suburb of Tokyo called Utsukushigaoka. Literally that means “beautiful hills,” but I thought of it as “Pleasantville”—a recently built bedroom community that, like its Levittown or San Fernando Valley predecessors, represented the comfortable life a newly prospering nation could at last afford. Its layout was centered on a commuter-railroad station for the privately run Tokyu line, which also owned the neighborhood’s main department store, an amusement park, and much of the subdivision’s land. Just a 40-minute ride from the big city, salaryman families could live in their own stand-alone houses, rather than the infamous urban “rabbit hutch” apartments that symbolized Japan’s postwar privations. The houses were so closely spaced that their eaves nearly touched, but each had room for a patch of grass, a carefully shaped bush, a small stand of bamboo. The brand-new house that we rented had a small lawn, which our two sons would trim, with scissors.
Everything about that suburban life percolated with Japan’s great theme of the day: not just its economic success but the resulting potential for change. The concept may sound banal in retrospect, but it ran as an exciting note through every sort of public and private concern. The reign of one unusually assertive prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, a kind of Reagan counterpart, was coming to an end—but after a few nonentities, he was followed in the early 1990s by a kind of Japanese Bill Clinton, the reform-spirited and emotive Morihiro Hosokawa. Nakasone’s government had produced a major “future of the nation” white paper, known as the Maekawa Report, which proclaimed that Japan was ready for another of its great turn-on-a-dime historic transformations. After the Meiji-era shift to rapid industrialization in the late 1800s, and the post-Occupation embrace of pacifist democracy—“embracing defeat,” the historian John Dower called it in an influential book about the Occupation—the next reinvented Japan would be easier-living, nonhierarchical, less export-driven, open to the world in all ways. Having shown the world how to get rich, Japan could illustrate how to be rich.
Women were demanding and getting new roles. Japan’s youth were seen as not merely rebels but shin jin rui, an entirely “new breed of people.” The local Utsukushigaoka elementary school enrolled our two sons, the first foreigners it had ever accepted; this was just one sign of the coming internationalization of Japan, known as kokusaika. The big debates about Japan’s role and future involved the pace and probability of all these changes—in politics, in business structure, in social relations, in Japan’s sense of its place among nations.
I have been back to Japan many times since then, but not to Pleasantville. This summer my wife and I returned to the old neighborhood we had not seen in 20 years. We found ourselves again thinking about “change,” but mainly because of its absence. There’s no place we’ve lived that was easier to recognize after 20 years away. Of course, I’m talking about more than this one town.
The most striking changes were of the burnishing variety, consistent with Japan’s steady rise in personal wealth and also manufacturing strength, even through these years of financial-market paralysis. If you know China mainly through stories of its economic successes, you’re surprised on a visit that it’s still so poor. If you know Japan mainly through stories of its failures, which are real, you’re surprised that it’s become so rich. The houses looked the same, but with bigger, nicer cars in the driveways. We saw Land Rovers, BMWs, even a Cadillac on the narrow streets that once were full of bikes and little Nissan Sunnys. The drab, reinforced-concrete train station has been rebuilt in stainless steel and glass; its plaza is now lined with luxury fashion shops, all jammed with shoppers on a warm Sunday. In the 1980s, the Tokyu store had run an “American Food Festival,” featuring Big Red soda and bins full of Butterfinger candy bars. Now there are latte shops everywhere, bistros, tapas bars.