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Japan Is Reinventing Itself As China Surges And American Power Declines


Japan is one of the oldest nations on earth, in cultural terms. And it is also the oldest nation demographically on the planet, with a median age of 47.7 years. Unsurprisingly, Japan has developed a reputation recently for economic and cultural stagnation, a place where nothing of consequence is happening. But it’s wrong to ignore what’s going on in a country that is at the very edge of the liberal world, in a time where the world order led by the United States is waning. Japan has tough choices to make, and slowly, it is making them.


On May 1st, the Japanese Emperor Akihito will abdicate and cede the Chrysanthemum crown to his first son, Naruhito, the crown prince. What I just did, namely referring to the royal family by their birth names, would be a scandal in Japan, though not illegal, as it would be in, say, Thailand. In Japan, the proper way to refer to the royal family would be to say that His Majesty Emperor 天皇陛下 (tennō hēka) will soon abdicate and cede his place to His Highness the Crown Prince 皇太子殿下 (kōtaishi denka).


This fact itself is, in theory, of little significance. The Emperor in Japan today is not a controversial figure. Not that people think of him as a god. In fact, the Emperor is barely thought of at all. He is just an old man who does his rituals and gives a rather boring speech now and then. Everybody knows he has no personality of his own, nor is he supposed to; all his behavior and speech are tightly controlled by the Imperial Household Agency. But everybody more or less still has positive feelings toward him.

从理论上讲,这一事实本身意义不大。如今,天皇在日本已不是一个话题人物。人们也不再认为他是神。事实上,人们很少有人想到天皇。他只是一个老头儿,进行他的仪式,时不时地发表一篇无聊的演讲。每个人都知道他没有自己的个性,也不应该有; 他的一切言行都受到宫内厅的严格控制。但每个人或多或少还是对他有正面的感情。

This speech came as a huge blow for Japan’s right wing, and especially for the current government. Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister and most powerful politician in Japan for the last half a century, is known to be a strong supporter of a constitutional change to do away with the most liberal parts of the 1948 Constitution, widely considered to be an “American imposition.” A draft (here’s a summary in English) has been circulating for years calling for several changes, including the abolition of Japan’s famous Article 9, which solemnly proclaims “the Japanese people forever renounce war…and the right of belligerency of the state.” With that out, the change would also decree the transformation of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces into a proper Japanese Military Force legally capable of sending troops overseas, and in terms of breaking with the post-war culture, proclaiming the Emperor as the Head of State, not just a symbolic figure.


The constitutional reform never happened. It doesn’t seem like it ever will. Part of the reason is a complete lack of interest by the majority of the Japanese population. The changes are all rather cosmetic. People’s lives are hard enough in a time of prolonged economic stagnation and higher taxes to pay for the crushing burden of retirees. And part of it is because of the Emperor’s speech stressing that he was a symbol, a good symbol. Reading between the lines, he must have sensed that the government was trying to use his personal charisma to push for a right-wing constitutional reform, and he wouldn’t have it. A Japanese emperor is abdicating for the first time in 200 years, in what could very well be read as a left-wing political statement.



The cultural hangups of Japan regarding its vast Chinese cultural heritage is indeed a fascinating topic. Japan has had a love–hate relationship with China from the very beginning, not unlike that of England towards France after the Norman conquest. Politically, Japan always kept his distance from the vast Chinese empire, but the island nation adopted the famously cumbersome Chinese writing system in the 6th century and to date more than half of the Japanese vocabulary is of Chinese origin. Not to mention Japanese dress, architecture, and religion, all of which can directly be traced to China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907). But the love soon became embarrassment after China was defeated by Britain in the 1840 Opium War. Japan embarked on a program of wholesale Westernization in 1868 to avoid sharing the same fate as all the other Asian nations, which were falling under the boot of European empires; the failure of China to modernize and stand up against Western encroachment made a powerful impression on Japan. The embarrassment eventually became utter, sometimes even sadistic, contempt after Japan beat China in the 1894 Sino-Japanese War, after which it annexed the island of Taiwan and very nearly got a foothold in the northern Chinese coast. That contempt didn’t disappear after the defeat in World War II, for which the Japanese credit the U.S. military, not Chinese resilience.


That contempt is only starting to very slowly dissolve after China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s in 2010, to make China the second largest economy in the world. Now, in 2019, China’s GDP is three times as big as Japan’s, and regardless of all the decades of dismissal of Chinese governance and lack of industrial culture, China now dominates many industries Japan used to be very proud of, such as mobile phones. Unthinkable a mere 10 years before, it is now common to see reports in the Japanese press about how China is more innovative than Japan, how it is taking over industry after industry, and that technology jobs in Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen now pay much better than equivalent jobs in Tokyo. Japan is one of the few countries that has managed to have a (small) trade surplus with China, but that may not last long. Add to economic takeover the political tensions between the countries, the conflict around the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in Chinese), China crowding out Japanese infrastructure exports in the Third World, and Chinese state promotion of World War II “remembrance,” including widely exaggerated history textbooks and historical TV shows portraying the Japanese as evil incarnate, and it’s not hard to imagine just how utterly terrified Japanese statesmen are about the rise of China. Not to mention the 2012 anti-Japanese riots, which saw more than one factory physically burned.


How has Japan reacted so far to China’s rise? Culturally, a right-wing shift into isolationism and self-congratulation, of which the new “native” regnal name is a good example. Japan is not in decline, they say. We are just doing our own thing. This thing, of course, just happens to include population shrinkage, economic stagnation, a precipitous decline in film and literature quality, and a decline in foreign travel or college students studying abroad. Interestingly, as the Japanese just lose interest in the world outside its islands, foreigners are for the first time ever coming in big numbers. Immigration is slowly but steadily increasing, with the number of foreigners in Japan reaching 2.5 million in 2018. In a rare case of a recent success story, Japan has also rapidly developed its tourism industry. Tens of millions of foreigners (mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian) now flood the country every year (over 30 million in 2018) to enjoy authentic sushi and wear rental kimonos under the spring cherry blossoms. Japan has somewhat overcome its traditional insularity and now relishes its success at attracting tourists. Japanese TV programs show foreigners coming to Japan and enjoying the obviously superior culture, while a panel of Japanese commentators congratulate themselves on how nice it is to see foreigners enjoy the riches of a superior country. Interestingly, the foreigners shown on TV are almost universally white. Whites don’t even make up a quarter of visitors to Japan.

到目前为止,日本对中国的崛起有何反应? 在文化上,右翼转向孤立主义,并沾沾自喜,其中新的“本土”年号就是一个很好的例子。他们说,日本并没有衰落,我们只是在做我们自己的事情。当然,这些事情恰好包括人口萎缩、经济停滞、电影和文学质量急剧下降,以及出国旅游或大学生留学人数的下降。有趣的是,当日本人对岛屿之外的世界失去兴趣时,外国人第一次大量涌入。移民正在缓慢但稳步增长,2018年日本外国人达到250万。日本近年来也迅速发展了旅游业,这是一个罕见的成功案例。每年都有数千万外国人(主要是中国人和东南亚人)涌入日本(2018年超过3000万),在春天的樱花盛开之际享用正宗的寿司,穿着租来的和服。日本已经在一定程度上克服了传统上的闭关自守,现在正享受着吸引游客的成功。在日本的电视节目中,外国人来到日本,享受着明显优越的文化,而一群日本评论员则为看到外国人享受着一个优越国家的财富而暗自庆幸。有趣的是,电视上的外国人几乎都是白人。而在日本的游客中,白人甚至还不到四分之一。

Will that be enough? For all the seeming thoughtlessness, Trump had a point when he asked how America benefits from the U.S.-Japan alliance. American economic interests in China are now far larger than those in Japan. While the American military establishment seems firmly set in forming an anti-China front—what I have previously called Cold War II—the Trump administration seems to be getting pushback lately. A recent example is Germany’s and Britain’s decision to not ban Huawei. And most importantly, the American left seems quite amenable to finding an accommodation with China in order to focus on their domestic initiatives. It is not inconceivable that future U.S. governments would throw Japan under the bus in order to reach a deal with China. And Japan must know that.

这就够了吗? 尽管特朗普看起来有些轻率,但当他问美国如何从美日联盟中获益时,这是有道理的。美国如今在中国的经济利益远远大于在日本的。虽然美国的军事机构似乎坚定地准备形成一个反华阵线,我以前称之为冷战2.0,但特朗普政府最近似乎受到了抵制。最近的一个例子是德国和英国决定不禁止华为。最重要的是,美国左派似乎很乐意与中国达成和解,以便专注于他们的国内举措。为了与中国达成协议,未来的美国政府会将日本抛弃,这并非不可想象。日本必须明白这一点。

South Korea certainly knows that, and so for years has embarked on a strategy of calculated ambiguity between the U.S. and China. The Korean economy is now much more invested in China than in the U.S. Korea has sent hundreds of thousands of students to both China and the U.S over the years, and its policy on North Korea has been much softer than the U.S. government would have liked. Korea was a Chinese vassal for 1,300 years, with no foreign policy of its own, and used Chinese regnal names (the era names mentioned at the beginning of the article) in official documents. While it’s not throwing itself into China’s hands just yet, it is obviously preparing for an eventuality where it has no choice.


Japan, on the other hand, seems to be choosing a path of continued independence, burning the bridges, staying put, and asserting its ironclad will not to accept Chinese hegemony. China is also not giving them much of a choice, preferring to use the tried-and-tested boogeyman of World War II Japan as China’s historical enemy for internal propaganda purposes. As so often happens in history, neighboring countries often find it useful to pump up hostility towards each other as a way of pacifying their own domestic populations. Japan has ever-so-subtly hinted that it would militarily support Taiwan in a hypothetical conflict with China. That choice could slightly tip the military balance either way. But, at some point, rhetorical hostility encounters a real crisis. When that happens, countries feel forced to physically react into armed conflict. The results would shape the continent for decades to come.