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.

But this was the kind of “change” the ambitious Japanese of the 1980s had assumed, rather than aspired to. What about the more-sweeping changes in Japanese life, for which such prosperity was meant to be the prelude? They were not apparent, at least not in politics. Anyone familiar with the Japanese rule-by-bureaucrats of the 1980s—or the 1960s, or the 1910s—would feel depressingly at home seeing today’s political logjam. A year ago, Japanese voters seemed to have worked a major political miracle, throwing out the near-permanently ruling postwar party and putting the new Democratic Party of Japan in control. This was comparable to a third-party win of the White House in America. By this summer, the prime minister who led that drive, Yukio Hatoyama, had grown unpopular and had resigned, because of minor financial improprieties and a large impression of fecklessness. For now, the reform movement seems to have sputtered, like its predecessors in the ’80s and ’90s. A generation ago, Japan’s unique military relationship with America—Japan theoretically forswearing military action on its own, relying on America—was ripe for basic reconsideration. It is overripe now.

In manners and mores? Yesterday’s shin jin rui are today’s commuter-train salarymen. I found Japanese body language distinctive in the 1980s, and instantly recognizable now. Men still bow reflexively as they speak on cell phones; pedestrians make themselves compact as they pass on the crowded sidewalk, rather than sprawling and willfully occupying space like Chinese—or Americans. Like America’s and Europe’s, Japan’s population is rapidly aging. Unlike other rich countries’, Japan’s is also shrinking—by some estimates it could fall by as much as half in the next 50 years—because the idea of absorbing immigrants, even ethnic Japanese from Brazil or elsewhere, is too traumatic to seriously contemplate. (Watch Japanese Brazilians at a subway stop in Tokyo; in dress, body language, and bearing they are Latin Americans who happen to have Japanese faces—a point I have heard often from Japanese friends.) The faces of passersby on streets in London, Paris, or Rome are very different from the ones I saw in the 1980s; in Tokyo streets, they are very much the same.

The Japanese youths, scientists, and businesspeople of the 1980s, like their Chinese and Korean counterparts today, were bursting to use their country’s success as a platform to engage the rest of the world, by traveling, investing, studying. As The Washington Post recently pointed out, only half as many Japanese students are now enrolled at U.S. colleges as 10 years ago—the opposite of the trend in almost every other nation. The tight job market has discouraged students from doing anything as “risky” as spending time outside the Japanese school system. The elbows-out cockiness of the Japan I remember caused its frictions. But I miss its eagerness for a new version of itself.

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