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Will the Rising Sun rise again?

September 25, 2006|Michael Zielenziger | MICHAEL ZIELENZIGER, a former Tokyo-based foreign correspondent, is the author of "Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation," published this month by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Books.

BENEATH THE SHEEN of high-tech tranquillity that characterizes modern, conformist Japan stirs an angry, alienated and deeply pessimistic populace teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

So the ascendance of a hawkish new leader, Shinzo Abe, as the handpicked successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday raises fears that the nation's long-repressed well of virulent nationalism, buried just beneath the surface, could again rise up, emboldened by a Bush administration seeking a surrogate partner to contain China's ambitions in Asia.

Japan is rapidly aging because its young women refuse to marry and bear children. They say raising kids in modern Japan is far too expensive and offers too little reward. Besides, compared to their mothers, the aspirations of educated women extend beyond child-rearing, even though most Japanese men still insist their wives stay home.

The nation's middle-class army of sarariman (white-collar) workers, uniformed in their blue suits and white shirts, is committing suicide in record numbers -- three times as many as die in car accidents -- because the system of lifetime employment in which they started their careers is crumbling.

More troubling still are the more than 1 million Japanese twentysomethings who cannot find work and are not involved in any educational or training programs. A high number of these adults, primarily men, are social isolates, or hikikomori. They hide in their rooms for months or years at a time rather than try to fit into a society that demands mass conformity and uses quietly powerful repression to forge it.

This Japan has yet to design the social architecture necessary to embrace the individualism and self-expression we in the West associate with the post-industrial era. Neither schizophrenic nor suffering from any other mental illness, the only refuge these hikikomori find from a society they cannot trust is the bedrooms in their parents' apartments. They are the nails that stick up and refuse to be hammered down.

Into this unhappy stew of unacknowledged social unrest enters Abe, 52, who replaces the maverick Koizumi after his more than 5 1/2 years at the helm of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has essentially run the nation since 1955. Recent headlines proclaiming Japan's robust return to economic vibrancy are premature; the economy grew only 0.2% in the last quarter (compared with nearly 3% in the U.S.); the national fiscal debt is 170% of gross domestic product, and the nation is rapidly depopulating. Last year, there were 15,000 more deaths than births in Japan, a nation that does not welcome immigrants. Demographers predict that by 2020, one in nine Japanese will be over the age of 80.

Hobbled by the mountains of debt they accumulated after the collapse of the infamous "bubble economy" in 1989, Japanese corporations restored profits by laying off thousands of older workers and by not hiring younger ones. Little wonder that youth unemployment is at record highs, that more than 20% of working people in their 20s now earn less than 1.5 million yen a year (just under $13,000) or that nearly 32% of young workers are "non-permanent" -- without job guarantees, annual raises or other benefits. Fifteen years ago, the comparable figure was 10%.

Abe, a well-known hawk, wants to rewrite the country's postwar constitution in order to empower Japan's military. He promises to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which venerates World War II criminals, a move that riles leaders in Beijing and Seoul because it remains the spiritual pillar of the nation's wartime past. Abe is the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who ratified the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that even today keeps American Marines on Okinawa. He wants to deepen the already-strong defense bonds that link Tokyo and Washington. He envisions Japan as a "country that can be proud of its history and culture," a nod to the virulent strains of nationalism still frighteningly potent within Japanese society.

THE BUSH administration naturally sees Japan and Abe as Washington's closest ally in the Pacific, even though Tokyo's relations with its most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have never been more on edge. A U.S. that once worried about containing Japanese militarism now insists that Japan's Self-Defense Forces participate in the rehabilitation of Iraq, "putting boots on the ground," as U.S. officials put it, even though these acts violate the constitution our occupation forces dictated to the Japanese. The White House and Pentagon would welcome a Japan that beefs up its defenses against a potential threat from North Korea and the surging power of China.

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