Japan’s “Toynbee Moment”

As Japan emerged from the misery of the immediate postwar period, Arnold Toynbee’s view that civilizations advance only by responding to challenge was widely popular in Japan. Taniguchi Tomohiko, former Foreign Ministry deputy press secretary, argues that today’s Japan faces a “Toynbee moment” that requires nothing short of national transformation.

As Japan emerged from the misery of the immediate postwar period, Arnold Toynbee’s view that civilizations advance only by responding to challenge was widely popular in Japan. Taniguchi Tomohiko, former Foreign Ministry deputy press secretary, argues that today’s Japan faces a “Toynbee moment” that requires nothing short of national transformation.

A change is underway in the Japanese psyche. Everywhere, there is a palpable sense that people are ready to stand up and be counted, ready to step forward unflinchingly to meet the many challenges confronting Japan.

Clear evidence of this new attitude can be seen in the words and attitudes of young people in their teens and early twenties when interviewed by TV reporters. They are no longer shy about expressing their own opinions, no longer content to let others take decisions on their behalf. They don’t trail off shyly and indecisively at the end of their sentences the way they used to. Instead, we see junior-high and high school students speaking from the gut, determined to do their duty by making a contribution to the reconstruction effort.  

A Bold Response to Challenge

Utility companies and other entities involved in maintaining vital infrastructure—electricity, gas, and water supplies, railways, and the distribution of goods—were up and running again less than two months after the disaster. It is becoming clear that this remarkably rapid recovery was the result not of top-down orders but of spontaneous bottom-up responses to the situation on the ground.

All over the country, groups mobilized spontaneously to help out—not because someone had told them to, but out of a sense of solidarity with their colleagues in the same industry—whether they were electricians, railway staff, or gas technicians.

Countless local people worked to restore fallen utility poles or clear away rubble. Many of them had lost their own homes and members of their own families. But instead of turning in upon themselves, they dedicated themselves to the wider community. These examples are truly inspiring.

What we are witnessing can be described as a “Toynbee moment” for Japan—the first for many years.

Back in the 1960s, many Japanese people were fond of the simple yet powerful concepts put forward by the British historian Arnold Toynbee. Japanese translations of his books appeared on an almost annual basis at the time. In them, Toynbee presented a view of history whose central idea was that a civilization advances by responding boldly to challenge. For the people of post-war Japan, this must have sounded like a powerful message of encouragement.

The recent disaster has awoken many people in Japan to a new awareness of what their parents’ generation found so resonant in Toynbee’s “challenge and response” perspective.

Political Leaders Must Define Japan’s Role

If it is true that Japan is facing a moment of decisive change, its political leaders need to step forward and make the case for the kind of country they think we should become. Even people who normally pay no heed to politics are prepared to listen to what they have to say now. And if people find the politicians’ ideas compelling, this might spark the same kind of spontaneous grassroots efforts that we have seen in emergency relief. Now is the time for politicians to clarify how Japan should define itself.

Japan needs to remain open to the rest of the world. It should define itself as a country that safeguards the global commons. It will move forward together with other countries that uphold the values of liberty and democracy, while making sure to maintain harmony with its own social traditions. To do this, Japan will need to forge closer ties than ever before with the democratic countries responsible for maintaining the safety of the seas—countries like United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and India.

Defining Japan’s role and its mission for the future in this way is impossible in an atmosphere of tedium and stultification—in a society where people naturally assume that today is just like yesterday, and that tomorrow will be just like today. But we are currently living through a moment of upheaval and change, a “Toynbee moment” that is bringing great discontinuities to Japanese society and history. There could hardly be a better time for such a discussion.

A Message Suited for the Times

The same thing is true internationally. At the moment, people around the world are acutely aware of the difficulties facing Japan. Is Japan about to become an inward-looking country absorbed with its own problems, or will it demonstrate the determination and force of will to rebuild? Rarely has there been as much international interest as there is now in the message that Japanese politicians have to convey.

Our politicians need to give a clear signal of intent. “This is what makes the Trans-Pacific Partnership so vital,” they might say. It is this precisely the kind of statement we need, if we are to overcome the introverted, insular tendencies of the past and convey to the world our determination to face up to new challenges.

Our politicians also need to make clear how deeply Japan appreciates the sweat and tears shed by members of the US armed forces in response to our national crisis.* They should also call for the removal of the restrictions that stand in the way of Japan’s making a full contribution to regional and global peace and stability. Japan needs to take this opportunity to correct the view that collective self-defense is a natural right to be retained but never used. This view continues to hold sway domestically, even though it is quite out of step with mainstream international opinion.

This is the message that Japan’s political leaders need to convey to people living in the evacuation centers and to those working to rebuild areas devastated by the disaster. These people are more keenly aware than anyone else of Japan’s “Toynbee moment,” and they are the constituency that politicians should be mobilizing first.

There is no time to lose. Eventually, the sense of urgency will slacken—and when that happens, it will be too late. (Written on May 27, 2011.)

* The expression “sweat and tears” is taken from a full-page message of thanks, signed by myself and others, that recently appeared in the Washington Times. We felt compelled to take this step because we felt that the Japanese government, for whatever reason, had been far too half-hearted in expressing Japanese gratitude to the US military. The full message as printed was as follows: “Thank you, America, for the prayers you are praying, for the songs you are singing, all the paper cranes you are folding, and above all else, the sweat and tears your service men and women are shedding to help Japan survive the disaster . . . you are our true friend.”

In This Series
International Relations and the Earthquake Disaster
“Teflon Kan” Survives, but Will Japan? (June 29)
Japan’s “Toynbee Moment” (May 27)
Words of Encouragement from the Youth of Bamiyan (April 22)
The JET “Martyrs” and the Japanese Government (April 15)

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Taniguchi Tomohiko

Graduated from University of Tokyo. After working as editor of Nikkei Business, served as deputy press secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has been a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at Princeton and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. Now teaches at Keiō University. Publications include Tsūka moyu: en, gen, doru, yūro no dōjidaishi (Currency Drama: A Contemporary History of the Yen, Yuan, Dollar, and Euro).