A Sober Look at “Amazing” Japan

Economy Society Lifestyle

TV programs featuring foreign guests who are dazzled by Japanese culture and technology are earning high viewer ratings, perhaps reflecting the country’s growing self-confidence after decades of stagnation. Media veteran Abe Hiroyuki underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced view of the world and Japan’s place in it, though, instead of allowing praise to turn Japan into a nation of self-satisfied narcissists.

Commuters are guaranteed a comfortable journey on Japan’s subways thanks to millimeter-level maintenance performed daily. And the tight schedule on which trains run just a few minutes apart is the fruit of rigorous training to develop to-the-second precision driving techniques. Such displays of Japanese know-how have astonished foreign visitors, whose exclamations of “Amazing!” have become a common sight on television these days.

TV and other media programs that rediscover Japan’s outstanding qualities have become all the rage. Among the deluge of such programs are Tokoro-san no Nippon no deban (Rediscover Japan) on TBS, Sekai ga odoroita Nippon! Sugōi desu ne!! Shisatsudan (Amazing Japan Inspection Team) on TV Asahi, and You wa nani shi ni Nippon e? (Why Did You Come to Japan?) on TV Tokyo.

The publishing world is also enjoying strong sales of books extolling the virtues of Japan. For example, Takeda Tsuneyasu’s 2010 Nihon wa naze sekai de ichiban ninki ga aru no ka (Why is Japan the World’s Most Popular Country?) had sold more than 500,000 copies as of the end of 2014.

Two Decades of Pessimism

What is to be made of this sudden profusion of self-praise? What does the phenomenon reveal about the contemporary Japanese mentality? I will begin by examining the social and economic factors that have spawned the present trend.

Japan’s economic boom in the late 1980s came to an end with the bursting of asset bubbles at the start of the 1990s. And the 1997 consumption tax hike from 3% to 5% nudged the economy into a period of moderate deflation. Positive signs have now finally begun to appear, but the economy cannot yet be said to have fully emerged from the long deflation tunnel. The 21 years I spent as a broadcast journalist at Fuji Television roughly coincide with Japan’s “two lost decades,” during which an inescapable sense of pessimism pervaded the newsroom.

For many years, there was very little in the way of good news that could inspire the Japanese people to regain their confidence. The Fukushima meltdown in March 2011 was particularly damaging, as the “safety myth” of Japan’s nuclear power industry was shaken to the core, along with people’s faith and pride in the country’s high level of technology.

Revived Self-Confidence

Four years have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and the economic outlook is finally looking a little brighter as a result of the Abenomics policy of economic growth. The benefits may not yet be felt by all citizens, but major shareholders and institutional investors have reported reaping huge capital gains, and large corporations are enjoying increased profits. The nascent signs of an upturn have given hope even to the small businesses and ordinary workers that better days lie just around the corner.

In 2013, Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, and in 2014, a record 13 million tourists visited Japan—a 30% increase on the previous year—thanks to eased visa restrictions and a weaker yen. Large numbers of foreign visitors can be seen in locations all over the country, and they are spending an average of more than ¥100,000 each during their stay—the biggest per-trip consumers being travelers from China. The amount spent by international tourists has reached  ¥2 trillion per year. This represents a very large and attractive market for many businesses—not just television producers.

The self-praise boom may thus be a natural manifestation of the confidence people are slowly regaining as signs of an economic recovery slowly appear.

External factors, such as the 2013 inscription of Japan’s traditional washoku dietary culture in the UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, have also played a significant role. A further example is the “Cool Japan” campaign, which has enjoyed considerable success. I cover the Japan Expo in Paris every year, and in 2014 it was packed with more than 250,000 attendees. People come from not only Paris but all over Europe to experience Japanese culture at the expo, and the level of enthusiasm is such that there is an event in which people parade around the streets of Paris dressed in Gothic Lolita fashion.

Such stories have led the Japanese people to believe that their country, far from being looked down upon by others, in fact has many avid fans. And as such news became more common, people have increasingly been feeling better about themselves, making them receptive to the programs that sing Japan’s praises.

When a television network that caught on to this trend actually produced a program about rediscovering Japan’s appeal, it became an unexpectedly big hit, prompting other stations to quickly follow suit.

Unperceived Problems

There is nothing wrong with reexamining Japan’s best qualities. But at the same time, we should not turn a blind eye to the country’s many problems.

Japan has outstanding technologies, to be sure. But not every product needs to be state of the art. Japan’s punctual train service may indeed be “amazing” in the eyes of foreign visitors, but maintaining such standards is not cheap, especially in the light of Japan’s high labor costs. This has forced many companies to move offshore, taking jobs with them.

Instead of pursuing the highest specs for every product, then, companies can aim for greater efficiency and lower costs. Streamlining operations can free up workers, who may be put to use to develop new products or services.

Contributing to the Global Community

Praise for Japan has important implications that must not be overlooked. It is an invitation for us to both take a closer look at the world and to reorient the way we think about ourselves. We should not forget that Japan is a part of—not the center of—the global community. In addition to learning more about our own country, we should also seek to gain a deeper knowledge and a correct understanding of other countries. In the era of globalization, Japan has a responsibility to reaffirm its position in the world and actively engage with people from other countries. This can also contribute to stability in East Asia.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzō pledged humanitarian support to the Middle East during a visit to the region in January 2015. Efforts to foster political stability will play a critical part in the eradication of extremist groups like Daesh (Islamic State). Now is an opportune time, while Japan has the world’s attention, to consider what it can contribute to the world and to put those ideas into action.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on February 27, 2015. Banner photo © Nakanishi Keisuke/Aflo.)

Cool Japan Islamic State Abe Hiroyuki Fuji Television Takeda Tsuneyasu