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2011年1月 5日 (水)


--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 29
EDITORIAL: The year of decline

Kanagi, a district in the city of Goshogawara in Aomori Prefecture, is the birthplace of novelist Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). It can be reached in 90 minutes after switching from the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to local lines at the recently opened Shin-Aomori Station.

Dazai was born into a family of wealthy landowners. He grew up in a stately, semi-Western-style mansion surrounded by four-meter-high brick walls. The estate was sold off after World War II, but has been preserved as a museum-cum-monument to Dazai. It is called Shayo-kan after one of his most representative works, "Shayo" (The Setting Sun).

Japan was "reset" and had to start over from scratch after its defeat in World War II. That was 65 years ago, but people today are feeling a pervasive sense of decline. It is as if we were all standing, paralyzed, in front of the snow-covered Shayo-kan.

Dizzying rise and fall

Let's say Japan was a newborn baby in 1945. When it was 11 years old, "the immediate postwar era" was declared over. Finishing elementary education that year, the youngster grew strong and healthy, and was only 19 years old when it debuted in the international community with the successful 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And as a vigorous young adult of 25, it went on to host the Expo '70 in Osaka.

Japan's growth slowed somewhat during the oil shock years, but by the time it was in its 30s, the entire population of 100 million felt comfortable enough with their lives to consider themselves middle-class. At age 40, Japan topped the world in net overseas assets. This aroused criticism that Japan was making too much money, which led to the Plaza Accord of 1985 that drastically raised the yen's exchange value against the U.S. dollar and induced the asset-inflated bubble economy.

The Cold War ended when Japan was in its mid-40s, and the bubble burst soon after. At 50, Japan was hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake and terrorist attacks by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. From around that time, Japan began to experience health problems, and even the potent but potentially lethal drug of "reforms" prescribed by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi didn't help.
At 65 today, Japan is still too young to be wasting away. But it has certainly lived quite an eventful life in a relatively short time.

In terms of gross domestic product, Japan is believed to have fallen to third in the world after China this year. Japan Airlines Corp., whose corporate logo once symbolized hope for people dreaming of traveling abroad, went bankrupt. University students planning to join the work force upon graduation are stuck in a barren "ultra-ice age." This year also brought into light the existence of many "paper centenarians" who are either long dead or whose whereabouts are unknown.
And for the 13th consecutive year, Japan will very likely have more than 30,000 suicides during 2010.

The Democratic Party of Japan, which came into power in a historic regime change that enthralled many voters, has since muddled and stumbled along so badly that it has become, most ironically, a telling reminder of where the nation stands today.

Across the Pacific, U.S. President Barack Obama, who won the 2008 presidential election on his campaign message of "change," is now struggling under the crippling weight of Big Business and conservatism. And China is not curbing its ambitions for military capabilities commensurate with its growing economy, nor has it succeeded in controlling domestic discontent resulting from widening social disparities.

The dwindling population

The United States is losing its power of domination and China is gaining strength. Japan is unsure what sort of relations it should have with these two giants to the east and the west, both of which have their own problems. And with the emergence of countries such as India and South Korea, Japan's presence in Asia continues to diminish.

Globalized by the Internet and market standardization, the world today can no longer be controlled by any country--not even the United States, the nation responsible for globalization. WikiLeaks and similar organizations have made it quite clear that globalization is no longer just about economics, but about politics and society as well.

In our new Net-connected world where national borders don't exist, there is no "center" nor "remote land." We don't even really know who is making this world turn, and many people naturally feel the unease of being controlled by some unknown party or parties.

The greatest cause of our sense of decline lies in our awareness that Japan is "shrinking." In November, the Economist magazine ran a special report on Japan. The subject was Japan's declining population due to the aging of society combined with low birth rates. The fact that the British magazine discussed this subject meant that the world is interested in how Japan, the hapless front-runner in the field, will deal with its problem.

If the trend continues, Japan's working population, which was 87 million in 1995, will have shrunk to 52 million by 2050. Japan's population pyramid, or age structure diagram, will then resemble a wide-mouth urn. The nation's power will wane, and its pension and social security systems will go bankrupt, the report warned.

Of course, Japanese know all that without being told by a foreign publication. However, are we thinking about it seriously enough? It's not like we can hope for someone to come along and solve it for us.

To go back to the analogy of Japan as someone born in 1945, Japan should have thought about the next generation when it was in its 40s, still young and vigorous.

What needs to be done is clear: Create an environment that will make raising a family easy for everyone; build a system that is kind to working mothers; and welcome foreigners into our society. All these steps are absolutely necessary, and unless we proceed with dramatic swiftness, it will be too late.

Learning from human history

Professor Michael Sandel's "Justice" series of lectures at Harvard University attracted keen attention in Japan this year. People got reacquainted with classics by Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and other philosophers, probably in their search for some key that will help them out of their feeling of helplessness.

When the vernacular Asahi Shimbun asked scholars to pick the top 50 books this decade, the No. 1 spot went to "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" by Jared Diamond, an American scientist. The book examines the history of the human race since the end of the last ice age 13,000 years ago and discusses why some societies prosper more than others.

In "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," a sequel to "Guns, Germs and Steel," Diamond postulates that Japan successfully maintained its densely populated society--one of the densest in the advanced world--because of its favorable natural and geographical features and the efficient management and revival of forests during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

The 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Nagoya served to remind the international community that Japan's seas and forests are among the most biologically diverse in the world.

When the last ice age ended, the Jomon period was just dawning in Japan. The Japanese of that period enjoyed nature's abundant blessings, made sharp stone implements and produced some of the world's oldest pottery.

Even while sensing our nation's decline, we must remind ourselves that we are still blessed enough to be living in a rich natural environment. And we already have an ample store of knowledge and social capital. If we continue to draw upon this store to create something new, we should be able to keep contributing to the international community.
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