On the Rebound

From the September-October 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

Japan is changing. The old certainties of lifetime employment and continually growing prosperity disappeared with the onset of recession in the middle of the decade. A new underclass of homeless and unemployed now populate rail stations and parks.

Over 100 Japanese commit suicide daily. For the average Japanese worker, unemployment is traumatic. Japanese corporate culture often prefers to harass an unwanted employee into resignation rather than sack him or her. Employees made redundant by corporate restructuring in the wake of the worst Japanese recession since World War II are often deprived of title, desk and dignity with no real recourse left but to go quietly of their own volition.

All this pain is being suffered in the wake of the giant Japanese economy’s overdue and ever-so-slow social and economic transformation.

The recently announced merger of three leading Japanese banks is a sure sign of change. Fuji Bank, Dai-Ichi Kangyo and the Industrial Bank of Japan are seeking full integration by the spring of 2002.

Politically, those in power are starting to motivate corporate Japan to turn its malaise of the past half decade into a “third revolution,” akin to the Meiji period of the mid-to-late 1800s and the post-World War II boom. “It is essential that we radically transform this nation’s system and character in order to promote further prosperity,” declared Prime Minister Reizo Obuchi in August.

The stock market is gaining, the yen is on the way up, and shoppers are again out in force. But the Japanese have suffered a heavy blow, and it has substantially been at the hands of the U.S. The U.S.-initiated trade war with Japan has hurt its economy by forcing the Japanese to accept unwanted American imports, to the detriment of their own home industries.

The Japanese are a proud people, with long memories. Their national loss of face is substantial. Historically, Japan has not taken kindly to such embarrassment.

It may be no coincidence then that Japan is currently breaking out of its reticence about its military past. It sees Germany riding to new heights of power under its “third way” leaders. In a bid to revive some of its past heritage, the Japanese government overwhelmingly confirmed adoption of Japan’s rising sun flag and national hymn to the emperor as the country’s official national symbols. This move is as hugely symbolic to Japan as the German parliament’s move back to the old Reichstag building in Berlin.

Too few have taken note. Japanese pride, dealt a body blow through massive recession, is ripe for the morale boost of resurgent nationalism. The next step is remilitarization.

The government has declared that it will soon seek changes to the country’s “peace constitution” to permit Japan to develop its own “collective self-defense.” This move is being aided and abetted by the current U.S. administration, which seeks Japanese cooperation and involvement in the creation of a defensive missile system. Under pressure from North Korea’s saber rattling and the prospect of a resurgent China demonstrating aggression in the China Sea, these moves are likely to accelerate. A retooling of idle or little-used industrial plant for increased military manufacturing would be a welcome boost to the restructuring Japanese economy.

Watch Japan, as it climbs out of its economic slough, rebound with a renewed sense of nationalism driving a return to a new militarism in the guise of “self defense,” with the full support and backing of the U.S.