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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

Tokyo

An Ant in Tokyo

One week from now I’ll be wandering amid the dappled sunlight of cherry blossoms, resting elegantly on a tatami as I sip green tea, watching a bead of sweat trickle down the thigh of a sumo and admiring the floral outfits of a geisha as she wanders past.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be more likely dodging Typhoon Lan, getting my ribs crushed on a peak-hour subway train and poking my chopsticks suspiciously at a glutinous grey mass in a cardboard box.

Or perhaps it will be a bit of both.

Anyhow, the point is that next Sunday I am moving to Japan with my wife, a diplomat henceforth known as The Diplomat, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, henceforth known as Kawaii. Japan has always held plenty of mystique for me, thanks to the swirling mix of exotic Orientalism coupled with the familiar comforts of the developed world. And also Astro Boy.

My primary mission in Japan is to be a Hands-On Dad to Kawaii while The Diplomat makes her mark professionally in a country she has admired since she lived there as a high school exchange student more than two decades ago.

Along the way I am hoping to discover the delights of Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, with my family. Fathers taking a major role in parenting are often described as Stay-at-Home Dads, however I plan to be anything but. Kawaii and I are going to be out and about so much checking out all that the city has to offer that home will be just one of many places we will visit. I’ll be a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – a tall white guy hanging around Tokyo with a female a generation younger than himself.

Not so long ago we bought Kawaii a book to introduce her to Japanese. My First Book of Japanese Words uses each letter of the alphabet to teach kids a new word.

What’s up first? A. Ari means ant, it says. So now I know that every time a Japanese person hears my name, their mental image will be of the smallest and most insignificant creature in the animal kingdom. The one that lives its life in the shadows of everything else. The one whose fate is to be either trodden on or ignored. Perhaps there’s a message in that.

Anyhow, while I have plenty of enthusiasm for life in Tokyo, I know I am beginning at something of a disadvantage.

For starters, my Japanese language skills are minimal. For decades my Japanese has been limited to tamago, teppanyaki and agedashi tofu, and even then I think I was screwing up the pronunciation. Knowing that our departure was looming, a few months back I started online learning via Rosetta Stone, a fine website and app that seeks to marinate your brain in language and hoping some of it sticks like terriyaki.

Rosetta Stone is a great tool, and I do intend to persist, but it does present some rather odd phrases (“the man is under the car”) ahead of the essentials (“where is the toilet?”). Many Japanese words, I have discovered, sound like the English version uttered by someone who got distracted part way through (“terebi” for “television”). Rosetta Stone has also left me with an exceedingly enthusiastic pronunciation, such is the excitement with which each word is presented. My pronunciations of the words for “dining room” and the number 26 have been known turn heads.

So it might be a while before I’m saying much useful in Japanese. Instead I’ll be making the most of my (rather brilliant) charade skills to make myself understood and seeking to read the body language of those around me to understand what the hell is going on. Along the way, though, I hope to learn a lot more of the language, and the sponge-like brain of Kawaii should pick up plenty as well. She might even learn more than I do, in which case she can be my pocket translator.

Then there’s my diet: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 21 years, so it’s probably not just a phase. But the Japanese diet is very heavy with seafood, and my barely-there language skills (see above) might make it tricky for me to eat well, unless I stick to the safe options of Western-style chains and enormous mounds of rice. It may be that I’ll need to relax my vegetarianism, perhaps by getting some fish in my bowl, if only to ward off starvation. As for the culinary tastes of Kawaii, I am fortunate she’s the adventurous type willing to trying anything once. Though probably not this.

And finally there’s my health situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkin lymphoma that required four months of chemotherapy that left me tired and weak. I’ve been in remission for more than a year, and am feeling fantastic, but just as the onset of my initial disease was out of the blue (read all about it here), a recurrence might happen that way as well. Still, the medical care in Japan is excellent, and I gather you can get yourself some free radiotherapy just by sunbaking in certain parts of Fukushima.

But those problems are minor quibbles compared to the amazing opportunity that has come our way. There is so much to see, so much to do and so many social taboos to accidentally transgress. I can’t wait.

So please, join me on this adventure through Tokyo via this blog. Along the way you’ll hear stories about life as a Hands-On Dad in the bustling city that is home to about 38 million, including the good, the bad and the thoroughly confusing. I’ll also be writing about non-parenty stuff that catches my attention along the way, like politics, economics and why the hell Japanese people seem keen on getting frisky with robots.

No promises about what lies ahead, but it’s probably going to be a lot of fun.

Any last-minute advice on being a Hands-On Dad, life in Japan or dodging typhoons? Send it my way.

Pic credit: Time Out