History of Japan – part 6 力
Last time we examined Japan’s progress in the final decades of the twentieth century and it would probably be true to say that in many ways the country passed its peak after the turn of the millennium and is in decline. As in many countries a lot of the decay and corruption had been kept out of public view, and with a thriving economy most were content to leave the lid on the can of worms. But after the economic collapse of 2008 and the catastrophic tsunami of 2011 the true state of affairs was forced inexorably and horrifically into the open.
Granted, with an ageing population problems are predictably around the corner and even though Japan still has one of the lowest unemployment figures in the world, jobs are getting harder to come by especially for school-leavers and graduates. Industry has become in many ways too competitive for its own good as companies vie to increase the range and quality of their products at each other’s expense. Just look around at the bewildering number of models of cameras, mobile phones, computers produced by each company. It is no surprise that profit margins are thinning and many manufacturers are going to the wall.
The virtual collapse of the world’s financial system in 2008 was precipitated by the egregious practices of many banks and in particular the sub-prime swindle and selling of toxic debts as AAA guaranteed by a number of U.S banks. Buyers of these financial time bombs included many unsuspecting foreign investors, corporations and pension funds. Several big names went under in Japan as a result and the economy suffered seriously.
As the country was struggling to overcome this blow, disaster struck in the form of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in March of 2011. The toll was horrific. The earthquake was unavoidable, the tsunami was unavoidable. The melt down and release of tons of radioactive material into the environment was avoidable. The nuclear industry and the government had for years colluded in profiteering at the cost of safety in the poorly run and poorly-maintained nuclear power plants up and down the country. Fukushima was one of the most vulnerable, and TEPCO (The Tokyo Electric Power Company) had even at the last minute refused to consider bolstering the inadequate safety procedures at the plant. And the disaster was covered up at the expense of the majority of local residents many of whom were subjected to high doses of radiation, whilst TEPCO was assuring the outside world and the nuclear industry that the situation was in hand. Even now there is inadequate monitoring and treatment given to the victims, and the full scale of devastation is being obfuscated, just as it was in Chernobyl, three decades previously. And, just two years on, the nuclear industry is back in full swing as if nothing had happened, with the complete backing of the government. The human toll has been unimaginable as uncountable numbers of people have had their lives devastated by this tragedy and will continue to suffer for generations. This is also quietly being forgotten as the frenzied excitement of the media in March 2011, with their epoch-making images on television day and night, gives way to routine sentimentality on successive anniversaries.
By dint of hard work, personal sacrifice and collective efforts the Japanese economy amazingly recovered, only to have another disaster to contend with, and again it was brought about by the enemy within. Mr. Ishihara, aka Mr. Tepco, the mayor of Tokyo announced that he would order the purchase of the ‘Senkaku’ islands (also know as the Diaoyu islands) in the full knowledge that this unprecedented move would cause considerable problems in relations with China, Japan’s major trading partner. The two countries had forged extensive trade links over several decades and a mutual dependence that enhanced both countries’ prosperity. Now trade is declining, the economy is declining and the leaders of the two countries are adopting more bellicose stances against each other. The ordinary people again take the toll of their leaders’ egos.
The Japanese education system appears to have remained largely conservative with the work ethic at its centre. Rigidity and linearity of thinking seem to be the cornerstones aimed at producing students who will make compliant and unquestioning employees. Many parents have bought into the ‘cram school’ ethos sending their children to further long hours of tuition in addition to their daily school curriculum and club activities. No wonder so many high school students fall asleep at their desks. Another can of worms whose lid is now forcing itself off is bullying at school. The education system here is dominated by bullying at all levels from the ministry of education down. The end and tragic result is that kids end up bullying other kids in desperation as their cries for help go unheeded and ignored by the adults in charge. Some serious re-think is urgently required.
As you may have noticed, I’m not painting a very positive picture as to the present state of affairs and prospects for the future. However, as with any nation, change can come from within and there is a growing section of the population, whose disenchantment with the system is very articulate. Many have the skills, intentionality and vision to challenge the old order to bring about a more humane society in which genuine co-operation can take its rightful place alongside a balanced lifestyle.