Bending Adversity, By David Pilling - Review


From the outside, Japan can seem like an enigmatic and mysterious country. Historically closed off to foreign influence until relatively recently, the island nation can seem to Western eyes to be almost incomprehensible in its outlook – culturally, politically and even economically.

This fascinating and well-researched book seeks to shed some light on that culture. Subtitled “Japan and the Art of Survival”, Bending Adversity takes as its starting point the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and looks in detail at how the Japanese coped, or otherwise, in the aftermath of that terrible natural disaster.

The author is the Asia editor of the Financial Times and has lived in Japan on and off for the past decade, so he’s as well placed as any non-native to look for insight, and Pilling’s experience as a journalist lends Bending Adversity a welcome veracity it might otherwise have lacked.

The author states in his lengthy foreword that he wishes to let the Japanese tell their own stories in their own words and, up to a point, he does that. He is certainly very even-handed when dealing with the political and economical backdrop and the history of Japanese society, he is never proscriptive about what Japan should or shouldn’t do.

The book is arranged into six sections. The opening and closing sections deal specifically with the tsunami and the subsequent nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and the way in which the Japanese people – both ordinary folk and those in power – handled those catastrophes. In between those bookends we get a lot of context and background depth, chapters that deal with Japanese history, international diplomacy, politics, the aftermath of the Second World War, and economics.

While these sections are written lucidly and contain a wealth of useful information, personally I felt they were a little dry compared to the bigger emotional impact of the opening and closing sections.

Pilling went to the area where the tsunami struck on several occasions and his reportage from those experiences is the best writing here – poignant, insightful, understated, heartbreaking but also often uplifting. He speaks to survivors raking through the rubble, slowly rebuilding their lives and their homes, and the immense dignity and stoicism of the Japanese people shines through.

Unsurprisingly perhaps for someone who works for the Financial Times, there is a lot of economics here. The extraordinary expansion of the Japanese economy in the 1970s and 1980s and the subsequent crash and stagnation are covered in depth. It is undeniably interesting how the Japanese have recovered a sense of hope after two decades of economic downturn, but for me there was a little too much number crunching and stock market analysis going on here.

The title Bending Adversity comes from a Japanese proverb about turning bad luck into good. While “good luck” might be stretching things, this book does an excellent job of demonstrating just how resilient the Japanese people have been in the face of recent environmental, social, and economic disaster.