In the past few months, I was consuming fast-food news, about the ignoramus in the White House and his team of grovels, about the shitstorm engulfing Qatar and the rest of the Gulf countries, about James Comey’s blockbuster, and then about Jeremy Corbyn’s win without an actual win and the ‘dead woman walking’ (apparently, George Osborne is determined to enjoy every minute of his chance to destroy the Maybot and I don’t think I have ever seen him that happy). News media is emitting barely edited mess. Every news is a breaking news. The 24 hour news cycle is toxic – you consume news of your choice without leaving your echo chamber. We are narcissistically unaware of conditions outside our self-defined, self-referential groups.
Meanwhile, in Japan, one document was published on the website of the Ministry of Economic, Trade and Industry (METI). It did not get an extensive coverage by the Japanese mainstream media, but it has attracted public attention and been trending on social media. The Japanese mainstream media has some catchup to do. So do I.
Here’s the link to the document (in Japanese).
The title of the document can be roughly translated as ‘the disquieted citizen, the staled country’. Conservatism, the status quo, nostalgia for Japanese economic miracle in 1960s, the permanent trap of ‘the post-war’ period – these are the familiar tropes of Japanese socio-political narratives. So, the title itself is already provocative. Furthermore, that the document was prepared by a voluntarily formed committee of official bureaucrats in their 20s and 30s, appears very unusual. And yet, its contents really resonate the increasing discontent and sense of uncertainty shared among younger generations in the country.
The document first frames the immanent issue as one that is characterised by oppositionality: between ever-changing and pluralising modality of living, and seemingly static welfare system based on the socio-economic-political model developed after the Second World War. This enframing, as a form of problematisation, already embeds within itself a possible and appropriate solution. The document finds the fundamental problem in the socio-economic-political structure developed after the war and social values inextricably tied to that very structure.
Our world is changing rapidly – economically, demographically, technologically, ecologically, and in so many other ways. So are how we live and how we can live. There is no longer one specific model of life course (education, career, marriage, having kids, retirement etc.) that every one of Japanese people subscribe to, or aspire to. Social vulnerability is no longer an exclusive bracket for the elder. And yet, insofar as the current welfare system still focuses largely on the care for the elder, a growing number of people, in particular single mothers and economically less privileged children, is slipping through the safety net and pushed to the margin of the society. While 11% of GDP is spent for the pension scheme for the retired (many of them still capable of working (and willing to do so) ), less than 2% is allocated for those under 60 years old. Benefits of social security for younger generations are bare minimum and only complementary, but they still have a variety of needs. The government is failing the young.
The country needs, as the argument goes, a new socio-economic-political structure and welfare system, which truly reflects diversified needs of the population, and which advocates and enhances individual’s rights to make her own decision and make her life more fulfilling. In a nutshell, we need to ditch the old model. In order to do that, we need to ditch the outdated social values.
The argument itself is nothing new. What is new, and what I think makes this document rather interesting, is twofold. First, it is a genuine attempt to understand a myriad of complex issues, ranging from welfare system to consumption of news, from civic engagement to aging society, from child care to urban / rural divide, in a global context. And second, it denies the conventions of Japanese political life, that is, maintaining the status quo and making small adjustments when need be. It does not necessarily provide us with specific policies, but it does offer a kind of vision. And that is a beacon of hope, I think, given especially the fact that Japanese politics has been engineered by sectarianism, historical legacy stretching back even to the pre-war period, personal gain, and shameless greed for prestige. Of course, it is a little too early to make any judgement on its implication, but this – a kind of new vision, which challenges the established conventions and, more broadly, nostalgia for the past – is where its efficacy, if any, lies.
Let me explain further.
Historical experiences, a sequence of events, are what bring us here today. Understanding historicity of the current political, social and economic conditions, through a reading of histories – yes, history in multiple forms – is essential to cultivate our visions and develop alternatives.
But, nostalgia is a crime against the future. Nostalgia, particularly in the realm of politics, is often tailored to those with something to protect and those with a past worth glorifying. As it stands, nostalgia of politics and politics of nostalgia seem to be a global trend. Think the Brexit referendum and slogans of the Leave campaign: ‘taking back control’ and ‘sovereignty’. Or, think the slogan of Trump’s election campaign: ‘make America great again’. Apparently, both political rhetorics worked. But the referendum’s result and the presidential election’s result have created an identity crisis and revealed distinct social divisions. In the U.K., English nationalism of the far-right is challenging multiculturalism, Scotland is seeking secession from the U.K., (although with the result of the recent general election, the agenda seems to be on hold for awhile), the unionists in Northern Ireland is finding new impetus. Across the pond, a ‘great’ America that Trump promised is certainly not great for women, or Americans of colour, or sexual minorities, or religious minorities, or environmentalists and scientists. What the Leave campaign and Trump promoted was a nostalgic, xenophobic, noxious brand of nationalism. And now, both countries seem to be fixated on their past.
Perhaps, Japan avoids a Brexit moment of identity crisis, or a Trump-ish jolt of exclusivist rhetoric. Perhaps, the term ‘nationalism’ is still blatantly rejected, as it has long been identified with fascism, militarism, and expansionism of the Japanese Empire. And yet, the country is tripping over nationalism in unappreciated ways, which proof is not necessarily angry protests, or social-media backlashes. The proof is what is going on behind the curtain: behind the disproportionate emphasis on Abenomics and its seeming success.
Think of it – When Abe returned in 2012, he promised a big economic boost Japan had not seen for decades. But, we have not yet seen any of the bold structural changes that he advertised, other then a few modest tweaks of the existing system and massive monetary easing. Why? That’s because Abenomics is a mere distraction. Just like Trump uses Tweeter to distract voters and media, the Japanese prime minister uses Nikkei rallies to direct attention away from, for instance, his preference for patriotic education, a draconian secrets law, debates on the pacifist clause of Constitution, and a lucrative land deal to a school that supports explicitly revisionist view of history. In this context, obviously, nostalgia for 1960s and the economic miracle works in his favour. Look, Abenomics will provide us with the experience of ‘Golden sixties’ again! Look, Nikkei is rising! Look, we’ve got 2020 Olympics and it will brings another big economic boost, like 1964 Tokyo Olympics did! Such sentiments pined for a time before the ‘Lost Decade’, such reinforcement of the socio-political context and the pattern of economic development in 1960s, not only serves rhetorical end for the prim minister, but also justifies little structural change. Japan is, then, also fixated on the past.
But, younger generations do not really know the euphoric sense permeated deep into the socio-economic nexus in 1960s. They do not have benefits of permanent jobs, like their parents did and still do. Their aspiration in life is only comprehensible in its multitude. They are sceptical of the entrenchment of political rhetorics based on this nostalgia for 1960s. They are suspicious about the government’s manoeuvre, political tweaks, that ultimately serves to reinforce the outdated modality of political imagination. They are discontent with the disenfranchisement of ‘representative’ democracy, which no longer, or more precisely put, does not really represent their needs.
The document, in a nutshell, thrusts a critical question back at the Japanese political establishment and its conventions: you cannot bring us back to 1960s, however great you think it was. You can no longer devise yourself with a kind of policies which reflects your populist political temptation that possibly leads us to the pitfall of fundamentalism, nationalism, and protectionism. You need a radical structural change to develop an integrative system that truly reflects diverse needs of the population. What is your vision?