In Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling offers a panoramic portrait of contemporary Japan.
What motivated you to write this book?
The catalyst was the 2011 tsunami. Although I was no longer living in Japan, I flew back almost immediately. In the days of shortages, power cuts, and massive aftershocks, Tokyo-ites lined up for hours outside convenience stores but limited themselves to a few items each. In the tsunami zone, I met survivors whose homes and livelihoods had been washed away, but who immediately started rebuilding. There were less admirable aspects too, notably the lies and secrecy surrounding the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The causes and handling of the nuclear accident encapsulated [what had] gone wrong in Japan, particularly among the political and bureaucratic elites.
What makes the Japanese so resilient?
Japan is the [nation] most prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. It has very few natural resources, so what success it has achieved has been due to the determination and ingenuity of its people. Historically, it was isolated, on the edge of a great landmass and on the periphery of the dominant Chinese civilization. When it came in contact with the West, it modernized as a survival mechanism. After its devastating defeat in war, Japan reinvented itself as an economic powerhouse. Some of this resilience stems from myth. The Japanese have a strong sense of themselves as an island “race,” facing natural, geopolitical, and existential adversities together.
Is Japan learning to adapt to an economy that doesn’t depend on endless growth and consumption?
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Japan embraced the “cult of GDP.” Now that Japan is wealthy, albeit with some looming economic problems, I think Japan is beginning to ask “how much is enough.” Is 2% annual growth enough? How about 5%, or 10%? On the other hand, [can] a modern society survive without growing, especially if it is aging fast like Japan?
How is Japanese society changing?
Tokyo’s skyline has been transformed and the city has internationalized beyond recognition. Japan is a more open society, with more liberal attitudes towards disability, freedom of information, and even immigration. Many women still find it hard to build a career in Japan, but the breakdown of the fast-growth model has opened a space for many women to pursue different ambitions and lifestyles. Overall, there is a constant tension between opening up to international influence and drawing deeper on Japan’s own cultural roots. Out of this tension has emerged something quite extraordinary and dynamic.