The 2009 election of the DPJ, China’s passing of Japan in GDP in 2010, and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster could be a cultural turning point towards degrowth in Japan
The following is the second section of the first chapter of my 2012 undergraduate thesis “Embracing Decline.” Table of Contents here.
If Japan does in fact lead the way into the degrowth future, the period from 2009 to 2011 may be looked back upon as the time when the national discourse started to shift decisively away from a fixation on restoring economic growth. In particular, two events have provided cause for genuine debate about the future of the country, and offer hope that Japan may turn the page on the long era of political confusion and social listlessness commonly referred to as the lost decades (ushinawareta 20 nen).
In 2010, Japan surrendered it 42-year-old title as the world’s second largest economy to its neighbor and rival China, touching off a round of soul-searching and discussion of the country’s future. Some commentators pointed fingers towards feckless politicians, incompetent corporate leaders, uninspired youth, and devious international rivals (including Chinese theft of intellectual property) in an attempt to explain away Japan’s troubles in a way that would suggest some easy to define, if challenging to implement, solution that might restore growth—clean up government, adopt better management practices, send students abroad, take a hard line with other nations.
At the same time, many accepted the news with a sense of resignation, even relief. “Finally we know where Japan stands—on level ground,” wrote literary scholar Norihiro Kato in an op-ed for the New York Times. “Japan now seems to stand at the vanguard of a new downsizing movement, leading the way for countries bound sooner or later to follow in its wake. Japan […] may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth.”
This optimistic perspective elicited disdain from The Economist, where a writer penned an opinion story titled “Pity Japan” and declared Kato’s piece “one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time.” But the idea that Japan’s status as a “mature economy” (seijuku keizai) should be embraced is growing increasingly widespread among Japanese politicians, scholars, and ordinary citizens. Renhō, a well-known Japanese MP and at the time the cabinet minister in charge of government revitalization, sparked discussion in 2010 when she published a book titled Why Do We Have to Be No. 1?” One must only take a fleeting glance at the statements of U.S. presidential candidates to recognize that Japan is in a different political universe when it comes to the question of growth and national power.
Little remains of the enthusiasm for economic liberalization of the early 2000s, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi advocated privatizing government and fostering a society of jiko sekinin, or self responsibility. While there is broad awareness of the need to reform some suffocating aspects of the Japanese labor market and economic regulation, there is a sense that Japan must pursue a different path forward than the Anglo-American model of unbridled economic liberalization and globalization. This sentiment contributed to the resounding victory of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the 2009 general election, which ended the nearly continuous rule of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955. Days after the landslide, newly elected Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama penned an New York Times op-ed laying out a political agenda that appears almost lifted from the pages of degrowth literature:
In the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization. In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.
How can we put an end to unrestrained market fundamentalism and financial capitalism, that are void of morals or moderation, in order to protect the finances and livelihoods of our citizens? That is the issue we are now facing.
In these times, we must return to the idea of fraternity — as in the French slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” — as a force for moderating the danger inherent within freedom.
During three years in power, the DPJ enormously disappointed expectations, and was eventually ousted by the LDP in a landslide of their own in December 2012. However, opinion polls suggest that voters did not restore the LDP because of faith in their platform, but rather because of the DPJ’s mismanagement and inability to fulfill its promises. The newfound vulnerability of the LDP, a party inextricably tied to the postwar development state that was all but invincible during the period of economic growth, could be read as just the beginning of a period of political realignment and change. The fact that voters responded so positively to a political party whose platform was rooted in degrowth ideas, and subsequently lost faith in that party when it compromised on its promises, is a sign that Japan is ready to embrace alternatives to neoliberal globalization.
The second profound event to transform the contemporary political and cultural landscape of Japan was the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown of March 11, 2011. The 9.0 earthquake and tsunami along a 500-kilometer long stretch of the Tohoku coast caused damage in excess of $235 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster in history according to the World Bank. Simultaneously, while the long-term effects of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station are not yet known, the cost of cleanup and compensation is expected to reach as high as $257 billion. The disaster is significant not only for the enormous human and physical damage or the additional strain that recovery efforts will place on national finances, but for the way it has reverberated in a society long confident in its technological prowess. Not only were humans helpless at the hands of nature, but our best efforts to harness nature’s power for the sake of economic growth backfired with horrendous and terrifying consequences. The trauma of the Fukushima disaster is already pushing the Japanese in the direction of degrowth.
In the aftermath of the disaster, famed novelist Haruki Murakami reflected on the potential for the event to be a turning point for Japanese society:
After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again…
I don’t think people think of America as a model anymore. We don’t have any model at this moment. We have to establish the new model.
What Murakami suggests, and the stagnation of Japanese society makes clear, is that Japan is in need of a new narrative. From Fukuzawa Yukichi’s late nineteenth century call for “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika), through the Imperial government’s rallying cry of “rich country, strong military” (fukoku kyōhei), to Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda’s “income doubling plan” of the 1960s and the oft-evoked slogan “oubei oitsuke, oikose!” (Catch the west, pass the west!), the Japanese have many times successfully organized themselves around common national goals. With the burst of the bubble, the organizing narrative of the period of economic catch-up evaporated, leaving a void of purpose that went unfilled during Japan’s lost decades. Today, the project of economic degrowth beckons as Japan’s next calling.
Of course, degrowth for the sake of degrowth is every bit as pointless as growth for the sake of growth. Therefore, it must be a project of degrowth for the purpose of environmental sustainability, individual happiness, and social cohesion and equality. Achieving a convivial degrowth society on a national scale could establish Japan as a truly transformational model to a world hungry for answers to today’s intractable challenges, akin to the way the American and French revolutions established the Enlightenment ideas of liberty, justice and equality as the basis for legitimate democratic government over the last two centuries. With this goal in mind, I will turn below to ways that degrowth has already begun to inform how ordinary citizens have responded to decades of economic stagnation.