Japan’s spiritual crisis

By Johan Galtung

From Kyoto, Japan: A grey, cold Sunday morning, fitting the sad theme.

The Japan Times, an excellent middle wing newspaper, came in the middle of the night, with four typical stories, for a starter.

We approach the 3/11 anniversary. The earthquake struck on 11 March 2011, followed by the tsunami and the near meltdown of Fukushima No. 1 nuke plant. On 11 March 2004, terrorism struck the Atocha train station in Madrid. A bad date; may inspire somebody.

We read: “Worker at No. 1 nuke plant died from ‘overwork’. He was dispatched by a subcontractor, a construction firm based in Shizuoka, and started working at Fukushima No. 1 on May 13. On his first day he engaged in piping and other work in a waste disposal facility at the complex, but complained of not feeling well the following morning. He was immediately taken to a hospital and died shortly afterwards–radiation still high around Fukushima No. 1–640 km off the coast of Fukushima.” A private construction firm.

We read: “All Investment Advisors Co. rerouted pension assets via Caymans and told the SESC (Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission) that about 90 percent of its clients’ assets have been lost”. A private firm, like Olympus, the camera+ giant covering up losses; with auditors and outside advisers.

We read a letter to the editor from Yang Xiu in Melbourne about the Nagoya mayor who denies the Nanjing massacre in 1937: “What matters is that Nagoya’s mayor denies a fact that has been investigated by Japan’s own historians. Denial of the fact will lead to only more hatred between nationalists and between governments.”

We read: “Media continues to despair over Japan’s fall”, by Michael Hoffman: Japan’s GDP is forecast to fall 16 percent by 2024, 42 percent by 2050. 40 million less Japanese in 50 years.

Aging is a factor: in 50 years 40 percent will be 65 or over.

A disaster complete with its denial; privatization with speculation and corruption; imperialism complete with its denial; deep demographic change. But Prime Minister Naoto Kan, when disaster struck, does not deny:, “nuke crisis was caused by Japan, not by quake” (JT 19 Feb 2012): – “the disaster laid bare a host of even bigger man-made vulnerabilities in the nuclear power industry and in Japanese regulations–we were totally unprepared. Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power.” And he declares having been “turned into a believer in renewable energy.”

Problem: Japan is No. 21 in new wind energy, far behind No. 1 China, No. 2 USA, No. 3 India, Brazil, Mexico: no public money. Cutting out the soda water vending machines all over Japan would help greatly.

He did not mention the use of nuclear energy to sustain a small elite through secrecy, nor its potential for nuclear arms, nor the role of US investment (General Electric, Westinghouse). “The plant was built on the assumption that there was no need to anticipate a major tsunami, and that’s the very beginning of the problem”. Yes, that was the work of “experts”, part of that elite deaf to all warnings from anyone outside their little circle.

The economy. Negative growth of 0.9 percent in 2011 and no recovery so far. The trade deficit is the highest in 31 years, since 1980, with exports decreasing, and “industrial revival claims ring hollow as makers flee Japan” (JT 10 Feb 2012). 29 percent of the nation’s households lack financial assets”, jumping up from 22 percent. And the government has to service a gross debt burden of more than 200 percent of annual GDP–more than half of fiscal spending–to Japan. The country is not in debt bondage to other countries.

Worse still: the finance economy is blossoming; the Nikkei index rose above the 9500 line, like Dow did above the 13000 line. A crash may close the gap to the sluggish real economies, in both.

Any bright signs? Yes. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda prefers increasing the sales tax to cuts in welfare services to an aging, vulnerable population. The government proposes raising the sales levy from currently 5 percent to 8 percent in April 2014 and to 10 percent in October 2015; others say a 15 percent raise is needed. Now. Problem: opposition in his own party.

A Japan very different from the buoyant super-dynamic Japan this author experienced for the first time 44 years ago: A deeply engaged youth as opposed to the apathetic, apolitical youth of today; super-creative technical achievements as opposed to today’s “Towering achievement: At 634 meters, Tokyo Sky Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, is to be inaugurated in May 2012.” In an earthquake zone?

What happened? Japan has been out-competed by its offspring, the countries it imperialized, brutalized, conquered while raising them economically: Taiwan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Singapore. Socio-economic rights and infrastructure first, then “opening up” to the civil-political. Ever higher degrees of processing of raw materials, no Ricardo “comparative advantages” (exchanging raw materials for finished goods).

But there is worse. This author published, with Ikuro Anzai, Nippon wa Kikikan, Is Japan in a Crisis?[i] And the answer was yes, a spiritual crisis. Japan sold its soul to Washington, and is left in a spiritual vacuum; neither US nor Japan. Today, walking through the marvelous bullet train, Shinkansen, only sad, grey, tired faces; no laughter, no enhancing conversation seen or heard.

The decline and fall of a civilization is, in the minds of many, the consequence of elites not up to the challenges, losing their charisma. Washington does not care, hanging on to Okinawa. And the people do what they still can do: turn to other sources of livelihood and meaning at the local level and through NGOs. With growth gone distribution matters; meaning, more power to women.

The Japanese will retrieve their roots in the local soil and find new meanings. But Japan will not be the same again.


[i]. Kyoto: Kamogawa, 1999.

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