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Adrian Hamilton: Japan may be showing the way to the world

International Studies

Do not give up Japan, says the slogan in the hotels on the buses, offices and even some of the rubbish trucks in Tokyo. According to a Japanese friend, a more accurate translation would be, "Hang on in".

Either way it's a bit late for the foreigners who've simply deserted Tokyo and most of the rest of the country. "Flyjin", instead of the usual "gaijin", is the word coined for them. Not that fleeing is a phenomenon limited to outsiders. There are plenty of rich and not-so-rich Japanese who have deserted Tokyo for safer climes.

Nobody seems to be blaming them too much. Most Tokyoites understand perfectly well the reasons for escape, given the continuing threats of aftershocks and nuclear meltdown. It won't be until November that the Fukushima plant will be brought fully under control, and not for a year that there will be any relief from further quakes.

Two months after the cataclysm, with the country enjoying the so-called Golden Week of holidays, there are distinct signs of returning confidence, although not, one notices, of optimism. People learn to live with uncertainty, as we know from years of IRA and then Jihadist terrorism.

Tokyo is a wonderful city to visit at the moment. The crowds are down, the people calm and your presence is welcome. What remains unresolved is the long-term effect on the country of what everyone sees as the greatest challenge to befall it since the Second World War. For a crisis which started off as a natural disaster is turning into a crisis of energy supply and economic outlook.

The economists – the people who failed to warn us of the banking implosion – are happily "factoring in" an economic surge later in the year as spending resumes and the ravaged north-east is invested in. It will be Japan, they say, which will make up for the current signs of a slowing of growth in China and the rest of Asia.

But it doesn't feel like that in Tokyo. With the exception of the day of the British royal wedding, every newscast has top of its list the latest announcement from Fukushima, which is not only still leaking radioactive material but also severely cut electricity capacity in Tokyo and the north of the country. All over the city there are notices showing the latest estimate of how close to capacity electricity usage is. The lights are turned down or off, trains are being cancelled and the citizens nervously await the start of the hot summer when air-conditioning use rises.

"For years," says my friend, "we've been told that we had to lessen dependence on oil by building western-designed nuclear stations, that we had to liberalise our economy, that we had to encourage immigration and let the free market rule.

"Now we find that nuclear technology is dangerous. There will be no new plants in Japan. Concentrating suppliers on the cheapest has left companies such as Toyota severely hurt when plants have been damaged by the earthquake. Foreigners who have come here have been leaving the country. The free-market philosophy has not worked well."

It is always a temptation to exaggerate the cultural difference of the Japanese. They are far more open to the world and ideas than we tend to credit them. Their calm under fire arises less from a culture of obedience than a lack of an alternative. They have endured a decade of little, if any, growth because they have been wealthy enough not to abandon restraint in the interest of growth and because their export industries have kept on adapting.

Now they are up against it. Confidence in politics, and in the efficiency of corporations, has been shattered (it was only last year that they changed government after 40 years of virtual one-party rule). Its export industries are having to reconsider their drive to ever lower costs. Government debt is near its limit at the highest in the world (200 per cent of GDP) even before the sums being allocated for reconstruction. The ordinary citizen has no choice but to live with electricity constraint and consumer caution.

The Second World War forced the country into a national drive to modernise its industry, to downplay nationalism and to compete in the world. Maybe the latest crisis will force a similar revolution, encouraging immigration, cutting back state expenditure and tearing up government regulations, in an effort to resume growth. It's what the Goldman Sachs of the world and nearly every outside economist is asking of them.

But then maybe it will turn Japan in the opposite direction, with energy shortages forcing changes in consumption and the need for social cohesion making an endless pursuit of growth seem the wrong way to go. If so – and I think it is the more likely result – then the Japanese could be not so much the exceptions as the leaders on a road which most of us in the West are going to have to follow.

Less about yourself, Mr Obama

Little could illustrate the difference in the way America views the "war on terror" and the way the rest of us do than the killing of Osama bin Laden. The hunt took on an almost mythical status in the US, a symbolic trial of its continuing martial virility. Most other countries lost interest in him long ago.

So of course President Obama is right to glory in his killing by US forces. One can only hope, as many do, that it helps re-establish his political credentials at home and speeds the exit of his troops from Afghanistan. But to announce the action in a statement in which he constantly repeated his own responsibility for it and then to issue pictures of himself watching the death scene was deeply depressing – at least to those who'd hoped we had a statesman in the young president. Politics is a brutal business – and a reductive one.