A few weeks ago at an all-you-can-drink office party a new colleague got up to make his obligatory speech and said that when he was a foreign correspondent he saw that outside of Japan nobody speaks Japanese and nobody knows much about Japanese news.
It got me thinking. Japan has a distinctive reputation, so distinctive it veers into caricature at times, but apart from the clichés – kimonos and sushi, packed trains and tiny apartments, Harajuku girls and overworked salarymen – most of us don’t actually know much about life here in Japan. You could say this for most people about most other countries in the world, but I make a point about it because Japan is a hugely populated and widely respected country about which you might expect a fuller, more complex picture.
The most obvious reason must be the barriers of language and culture. It’s only natural that Australians like myself know more about the UK and North America, given the ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties between many in those populations. Knowledge about Japan doesn’t filter through to us naturally. Even as someone who knew a fair bit about Japan before I arrived, during my first few months here I had this realisation that seems painfully obvious but didn’t feature large in my prior thinking: Japan is part of Asia.
You see, the Western influences were a big part of my impressions; the incredible post-World War II transformation into a country with a world-class electronics industry and a thriving corporate culture and a swathe of English teachers. I also knew Japan had a way of putting a distinctly Japanese spin on the foreign. I mean, they created a whole third alphabet to Japan-ify foreign words. Pretty soon they were creating global exports that were nothing if not Japanese, even if they had their roots in the West. The unique style of anime. The best quality stereos and affordable, reliable cars. Designers like Issey Miyake applying Japanese principles to modern fashion.
But Japan is Asian, and while we tend to give the most consideration to its relationships with major Western countries, here, their Asian neighbours feature large.
Recent months have see tensions in the East Asia region rising. China, Japan’s oldest frenemy, has been asserting itself by building military bases and creating islands in the South and East China Seas, making everyone nervous. Japan is politely furious about this, but in fairness they’re not the only ones. More than half of the world’s commercial shipping and one-third of the world’s natural gas pass through those waters, so nobody wants a giant power like China extending its influence.
Not to be outdone, North Korea went on a weapons testing spree, conducting a nuclear test in January, and three more missile tests at the end of April (all of which failed, one on the birthday of revered dead leader Kim Il-sung, to my bitter mirth), and in between all that announcing that it has developed nuclear warheads small enough to fit on a medium-range ballistic missile. I tend to take most of the DPRK’s announcements with a large spoon of salt, but then intelligence experts started cautiously saying this one could be true. These things tend to make people jittery.
Last week it was Japan’s turn for the international spotlight – but in a good way – when it hosted the G7 summit in the beautiful Ise-Shima area. It reminded me that Japan, for all its self-reliance and insularity, is a major player. The world’s third largest economy. In this group of the seven biggest industrialised nations, Japan is the only Asian country. It ain’t nothing.
But even that was eclipsed by Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. It was a truly significant moment as he’s the first sitting U.S. president to do so. And there was a lot of “this is not an apology” from the U.S. side, but actually I don’t think anyone in Japan expected one. The very fact of an American president going to Hiroshima while in office was a kind of full-circle moment; closure, if you will.
Obama’s words were carefully, eloquently given. He spoke about the human family, about working together for a future without nuclear weapons, even without war. Hopeful, ambitious but gentle words appropriate for the moment of healing it represented. In the newspaper office, everybody stopped work and watched the TVs in silence while he spoke. Only the sounds of furious tapping on keyboards as a colleague and I transcribed, and the scratch of pen on paper as the editors took notes for the first evening edition were heard.
The feeling here in the days since has been something like a collective breathing out. There is a definite sense of appreciation from Japanese people, most particularly the hibakusha (atomic bombing victims). Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Obama’s visit to Hiroshima has been received so warmly that I can’t imagine the result being much different if he had apologised.
It is ultimately more important that Japan positions itself as vehemently anti-nuclear, and advocates for the abolishment of all nuclear weapons. How could it not, given the unimaginable suffering experienced?
But actually, it seems to me that one of the most remarkable transformations Japan has made in the course of the second half of the twentieth century is attitudinal rather than industrial. They are now allies and friends with the very country that bombed them and open to the rest of the world in a way they weren’t before. Here they are, 70 years after the war that decimated them, an economic miracle and a major world power.
Yet still. The opinions of the Japanese prime minister on issues such as China’s militarisation of the seas or North Koreas bombs don’t get anywhere near the kind of attention those of the U.S. president or the U.N. secretary general do. How many people could even tell you the name of said prime minister with certainty?
So Japan, as one of the big Seven, is in this unusual middle zone. At once negotiating with its oldest friends (and sometime enemies) on its eastern and southern flanks, and working alongside newer friends (and former enemies) to the west. A lot Asian, a little bit Western, but mostly just Japan. Still beating everyone hands down at convenience, still exporting iconic cars and electronics, still bowing the heck out of every situation.
In my opinion, one of the biggest questions Japan will have to face in the coming decades is that of its relationship with the rest of the world. With an aging population and a sluggish economy, they are at the mercy of global changes just like every other country. How will Japan change, and how much will the rest of the world hear?