Letter from Japan: Look eastward, China, for paradigm of success

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: September 14, 2007
TOKYO: With the exception of weeks like this one, when what appears to be the almost congenital ineptitude of its political class puts it back in the headlines, this country has spent the last two decades as something of an empty suit – but with deep pockets.
Somehow, Japan, the incipient world beater of the 1980s, had come to be regarded as the major country that casts the smallest shadow. If prizes were given out for such things, it would have been in the running if there were a title for the world’s leading cipher nation.
Yes, the Koizumi years were a quasi-exception, but for all the wrong reasons. The man was not half the reformer a press eager for a different Japanese story line for once made him out to be. And to the end, he compiled a record of gratuitous insults and futility in relations with China, once, now and forever Japan’s most important neighbor.
But the economy grew again and relations with the United States – security relations in particular – deepened, and so a country that had seemed like it was burrowing itself into a hole made a Groundhog Day-like reappearance, prompting lots of headlines proclaiming things like, “Japan is back.”
The backdrop against which this dubious profile is inevitably compared has been the impressive rise of China. For years now, that country has been treated by the press, and indeed is increasingly regarded by many of its own citizens, as an irresistible juggernaut, a new world power whose rise recognizes no obstacles and suffers few limits.
There is nothing like a return to this vibrant city after a long absence to realize that a pretty big corrective is in order. The impressions of Japanese wealth and success resonate all the deeper coming from Shanghai, as I did. Shanghai unabashedly wears its ambitions on its sleeve, with its spiky Oriental Pearl television tower, and a magnetic levitation train, and a new World Financial Center building that is racing toward completion.
A recent billboard advertisement for a new, high-end luxury development on Nanjing Road, the city’s premier boulevard, captured the boom-era zeitgeist perfectly. Triumphantly immodest, it proclaimed Shanghai the center of the world.
As a former longtime resident of Tokyo, I was unprepared for this city’s stunning riposte as I rode the express train in from the airport and headed directly to dinner with friends in the center of town. The rendezvous was on the 35th floor of the Maru Building, one of countless recent towering complexes in the city that marry luxury with a patented smug understatement.
The city sparkled and glowed in every direction through floor-to-ceiling windows, while far down below our table, Tokyo Station, its tracks bathed in soft white light, pulsed with the arrival and departure of bullet trains.
What’s the big deal, one might ask? The point, which really came together for me as I set out from my hotel in the new Shiodome district the next morning, is that Japan is not “back” at all. It never really went away.
A 15-minute walk from where I once worked, Shiodome was unrecognizable to me, so densely has it been built up, and built up well. Once a rank afterthought tucked behind Shimbashi, a slightly seedy salaryman’s watering hole and transit point, Shiodome today is a shiny and pothole-free world of seamless underground connections between one magnificent development after another, and with what strikes me as the world’s greatest and best run mass transit system.
The overwhelming impression here, and in one district after another, where Tokyo just keeps getting better, is of an immensely rich country that has appeared to disappear since its own raging boom years mostly because it has quietly gone about its business, applying the same kind of meticulous approach long ago made famous by its industries, of relentless small improvements to quality of life.
One doesn’t wish to be naïve about Japan. This is not, as most Japanese would be the first to admit, a society without faults. Inequality, for one, appears to be making steady inroads. An aging crisis looms. Insularity is, as ever, a problem. And tinkering almost by definition is the opposite of grand purpose, and it sometimes lends something of a rudderless feeling to life here.
The lesson for China in the Japanese experience, meanwhile, is not merely the oft-cited rule of gravity, which pulled Japan, as it has pulled every other country, back to earth after years of off-the-charts growth. Yes, this will happen to China too, although no one knows when or how brutal the re-entry will be.
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