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

International Studies

Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own