A Japan That Can 'Just Relax'

In response to this article in the current issue -- short, but heartfelt; seriously, I hope you'll read it! -- a reader in Yokohama writes to say how the same phenomena look from a Japanese perspective. The reader's note is below, following a picture from the magazine of our old house in the Tokyo suburbs, which was brand new when we moved there in 1988:


Having read your recent story "Japan Surrenders", I thought I could provide a bit of input from another perspective.

To give some background, I am a member of your childrens' generation, and having basically split the bulk of my life between Tokyo and San Francisco, I probably epitomize what most Japanese would have once referred to as "shinjinrui", although that term is now long dead, as much a relic of the bubble age as eurobeat and shoulder pads.

Although you seem to miss the hyperkinetic energy of that era, most of the Japanese I know would say good riddance (especially to eurobeat). I don't see today's Japan as having "surrendered" -- I see it as having matured.

Our grandfathers' generation saw Tokyo reduced to ashes and were forced to work hard just to keep from starving. Our fathers' generation found that hard work could take them anywhere, even to challenge the US for tops in the world. They were motivated because they had something to prove -- that Japan could beat America at their own game.

Our generation followed a completely different narrative. We came of age during the bubble years, and saw it all collapse before we even entered the work force. Although the collapse of the asset bubble was a great shock to Japan, the shock was muted for our generation, since we never had a stake in it. For us, the last twenty years (the two "lost" decades) are simply the normal state of affairs, and it seems silly to expect an economy to keep charging at full-speed forever. We have known from the beginning that an overenthusiastic pursuit of wealth can have devastating consequences. Why not forget about being number one and just enjoy what you have?
As you noted, this is a rich country, in many ways much richer than it was when the Nikkei Dow peaked in 1989 (at four times its current value). People have less net worth but they are living richer, fuller lives. Not only that. After three decades in which even the average Japanese can afford overseas vacations, they have come to realize that Japan is in fact a prosperous nation that is admired by much of the world. Travel the world and you will hear nothing but praise for Japanese cars (well, okay, not so much praise for Toyotas these days) and electronics. You can see Japanese fashions on Parisian streets. You can see Japanese anime in Hollywood. And yes, the Japanese have beaten the Americans at their own game -- baseball (who would have predicted twenty years ago that one day in the not-too-distant future, a Japanese player would be the MVP of the World Series for the Yankees?).

The Japanese simply no longer have anything to prove. You mentioned that fewer Japanese students are choosing to study in America because they don't want to hurt their job prospects. This may partly be due to the recession, but it also means that an American education simply does not have the cachet it used to have. In the past, an American university on your resume signified you were a member of the "elite". These days, it just means you probably have pretty good English skills. Times have changed.

Have they changed for the better? That's debatable, but I think that in the past twenty years, Japan has undergone a profound change in its perception of its place in the world. Japan is now confident enough, and mature enough, to just relax. In my admittedly biased opinion, I think this laid-back version of Japan is much more to my taste than the go-go days of the 80's. Yes, the population is aging and actually decreasing. This is obviously a society in decline. But these days, who can say with conviction that life in an economic juggernaut is actually preferable to that in a confident and mature society, even one in slow decline?

For the record, the term "surrenders" appears in the headline, which I didn't write, but not in the article, which I did. As the reader notes, the changes in Japan over the past generation represent success in many forms. The most obvious is material -- the steady enrichment of daily-life conditions and continuing strengthening, even during the "lost" years, of Japan's major manufacturers. If the reader is right in saying that the changed mood in Japan reflects a healthy, relaxed confidence -- well, fine. I hope so.