Japan's future

An Ant in Tokyo: Nine big questions about Japan’s future

With three-plus years ahead of me in Japan, I’m starting to think about the big questions that are likely to be asked (and perhaps answered) in my time there. Here are a few that come to mind.

  1. Will Japan allow itself to establish a military? Japan’s post-war constitution puts a military off-limits, but ahead of last week’s election Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was proposing a change to the constitution to legitimise a Self-Defence Force. I gather there’s still a fair bit of resistance to the idea within Japan, but it’s hard to see the question going away any time soon. Nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since the horrors of World War II, and Japan’s reliance on the United States for security is not as certain as it once was. Perhaps recognition of the Self-Defence Force will emerge as the least-worst option.
  2. Will North Korea launch an attack on Japan? Lil’ Kim has already sent a missile flying over Japan, but if tensions escalate he may go a step further. The North Koreans have historical enmity towards Japan (as does most of Asia that was once under its colonial rule) and the close links between the Japanese and the Americans have made Japan a target for Pyongyang’s ire. It’s hard to see the strategic logic of North Korea actually launching an attack given it would galvanise world opinion against it, but stranger things have happened. The Rising Sun vs the Rising Son, perhaps?
  3. How will Japan cope with its shrinking population? A low birth rate (1.43) coupled with a barely existent migration program (less than 2 per cent of the population was born overseas) means that Japan’s population peaked at 127 million in 2010 and is now declining. Those in the know forecast the shrinkage to hit 30 per cent by 2060. Japan might need to make some tough choices, like bringing more women into the work force or upping the intake of migration, despite cultural resistance to both. Easier said than done.
  4. Will Japan finally have to accept low economic growth as the new normal? A while ago it was fashionable to talk about Japan’s lost decade, from 1991, and now we are mid-way through a third “lost” decade. But despite sluggish growth, Japan’s quality of life has remained high, so perhaps low growth is not so bad after all. During his first term Shinzo Abe tried to spark things with his William Tell-inspired Abenomics, but the results were only modest – growth has barely eclipsed 1 per cent over the previous seven quarters. So perhaps this is just the way things will stay.
  5. How far are the Japanese willing to go in accepting robots in their lives? We know Japan has long been at the forefront of robotics, and I suspect the reason is cultural as well as technological – the Japanese have the mechanical knowhow and seem far more at ease with close contact with robots than are others. Robots in caring roles are becoming more common, and robots as sexual partners are a possibility too. With an acceptance of both physical and emotional proximity to robots, many possibilities emerge.
  6. How will Japan use major events to position itself in the world? The spotlight will be on Japan over the next few years (Rugby World Cup in 2019, G20 in 2019 and Olympic Games in 2020), and the country may use it to define its identity. After a decade of being eclipsed by China as an economic and geostrategic player, this will be a chance for Japan to reassert its influence. With anti-Japan hostilities still simmering in countries that have long memories, the nation won’t want to be too strident in asserting its greatness.
  7. Will Japan become a Singapore-style one party state? For most of its post-war history Japan has been led by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Last week’s election demonstrates that the opposition forces are more ineffectual than ever, winning just a third of the seats in the Diet between them. The Party of Hope, only weeks into its existence, is now a major opposition party and progressive parties have just about vacated the field. Such an unrivalled grip on power could be troubling for dynamism, accountability and the contest of ideas.
  8. What role will the incoming emperor play in public life? After nearly three decades on the throne Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate his role in March 2019, making way for his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne. It will be interesting to see how Naruhito grows into the role, and whether he moves beyond the largely ceremonial place of the Emperor in public life.
  9. Will Japan ever again embrace nuclear energy? The Fukushima disaster of 2011 may be receding into the historical distance for people around the world, but the legacy remains potent for many in Japan. The country shut down its nuclear power industry in the wake of the disaster, and has taken only tentative steps to reopen suspended nuclear plants. With reduced energy demand due to a shrinking population and the emergence of alternative energy sources, Japan may find its nuclear industry remains on the margins.

Just how will these things play out? Let’s wait and see.

What are the big questions about Japan’s future you want to explore?

Pic credit: Flickr/np&djjewell

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