Warnings of a rising sun cast more heat than light
Is Japanese nationalism cause for dire concern?
Sacrifice everything in the service of the organization to which you belong and you will be rewarded. Such unwritten rules of Japanese society no longer hold true after a decade of economic stagnation. "Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation's Quest for Pride and Purpose" traces some of the fallout from a growing sense of bewilderment felt by ordinary Japanese: low self-esteem, a soaring suicide rate, and unruly students who see no future in their conveyor-belt education.
John Nathan, a professor of Japanese studies at the University of California, contends that the wrenching changes since the asset bubble burst in the early 1990s are tearing apart traditional social units. As the rigid social model collapses, an increasing number of Japanese feel betrayed.
The author pushes a slightly alarmist line that these unfulfilled promises have created fertile ground for resurgent nationalism. He paints a picture of sinister jingoism simmering beneath the surface of Japanese society by using selective examples from pop culture and politics.
The best-known is Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo's vocal and often tactless governor. Nathan starts by providing a fascinating personal insight into Ishihara's motivations but dwells too long on his nationalist leanings in an attempt to frighten us.
In a related chapter, he ignores the bulk of mundane local issues that concern Tokyo residents (exhaust emissions, street performers, casinos) and concentrates instead on an area where regional governors have no bearing: foreign policy.
Still, the book illustrates that a new generation of local politicians has been inspired to seek office out of frustration with the inept national government. Aside from Ishihara, Nathan interviews Nagano governor Yasuo Tanaka, a grass-roots politician who has successfully fought against local cronyism. But he omits other deserving examples among recently elected liberal politicians, such as the young mayor of Japan's second-largest city Yokohama, and a growing number of women governors elected since 2000.
Perhaps the strongest chapter describes how the rigid education system is failing Japan's students, while wrongheaded attempts at Western leniency have produced aggressive children who tyrannize classmates and teachers. Nathan presents a terrifying glimpse of the modern Japanese classroom and some of its casualties, but then undermines his case by glibly suggesting that teenagers sending smiley-faces to each other on their cellphones is further evidence of a crisis among the youth.
The book's anecdotal tone sometimes allows a valuable peek into the closed world of local politics, but mostly it leaves the reader craving solid evidence. The contention that the family unit in Japan is crumbling isn't borne out by snapshots of a few Tokyo families.
Another premise of the book - that the cultural influence of the US is waning in Japan - seems based on the amount of Chinese the author heard spoken on the streets of Tokyo. Though it's true that America has to compete with Asia and Europe for Japan's attention in some cultural spheres such as cuisine and interior decor, Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan remain unchallenged as the two top sightseeing spots for Japanese. More important, Western business practices have increasingly replaced local methods that failed to halt the destruction of wealth in the 1990s - a point Nathan himself.
Warnings of a new nationalism just don't wash: Japan's recent bolder military profile and moves to review its war-renouncing constitution are less home-grown trends than initiatives supported by Washington. Polls show the country split on the recent decision to send troops to Iraq, with a large majority calling the government's reasoning "unsatisfactory." The draft budget for next fiscal year shows Japan will reduce defense spending by 1 percent, the largest amount ever.
"Japan Unbound" provides insight into the human costs of the nation's economic nosedive as well as into some key personalities, but what it gains from being "sexed up" by sensationalist warnings of ultranationalism it loses as a fair and balanced analysis.
• Bennett Richardson is freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan.