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Is Japan in Decline?: A Conversation

by Sheila A. Smith
November 28, 2012

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009 Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009 (Gary Hershorn/Courtesy Reuters).


This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.

Japan is now in the throes of another election, with myriad politicians and parties competing for media air time. While this political drama is capturing the headlines inside Japan, outside the country a more dismissive tone has crept into the conversation about Japan’s future.

A number of public statements in the U.S. media, most notably the front page article in the Washington Post last month, have heralded Japan’s decline. When the Republican candidate for office this summer made an offhand reference to Japan’s decline, I responded by pointing out all that Japan is and does in global affairs and why Japan is so important to the United States. But beyond the policy benefits of our alliance with Japan, I encounter many Americans who ask me about the decreasing role played by Tokyo in global and regional affairs.

Journalists and commentators in Tokyo as well worry that Japan is less important globally. The Nikkei Shimbun on November 18 released results of its public opinion poll on Japan’s future, and a whopping 71 percent of respondents indicated they believed Japan has less influence globally.

For Americans, this “declinism” will sound rather familiar. After all, we have gone through periods in our recent history when many thought the United States was no longer vibrant and capable of reform at home, and thus was losing influence internationally. In fact, we are in the midst of another moment of reassessment of our own national promise today.

Is Japan on an inevitable path towards decline? Is our attachment to the “decline” thesis itself or to its application to Japan? Why do we need to label Japan at all? Perhaps we oversold its “rise” and so now feel compelled to explain its fall. Perhaps the answer is more related to the frame of reference we bring to analyzing Japan.

What we certainly need is some expert commentary. Current accounts of Japan’s “decline” offer little insight about the transformations ongoing within Japan that are shaping national choices, choices ultimately that could either strengthen or temper Japan’s ability to play a vibrant role abroad.

I asked my friends and colleagues, who work across the spectrum of disciplines, if they thought Japan was in decline or not, and where they focused their gaze when considering Japan’s future. I will tell you from the outset that just about everyone I reached out to are experts who have spent considerable time—if not their entire careers—analyzing Japan and its economy, politics, and society. In that sense, it is a deeply biased sample.

But as you will see, the bias does not run in the direction of unbridled support for all things Japan. I did not get uniform answers to my question of whether they thought Japan was in decline, nor did I get unalloyed pessimism or optimism. What I did get is a series of thoughtful commentary that suggests there are other, better lenses through which we should be viewing Japanese experience.

For the next week or so, as Japanese voters consider how to choose leaders who can transform their future, Asia Unbound will feature this conversation with guest posts by Gerald Curtis (Columbia University), Jennifer Lind (Dartmouth College), Kathryn Ibata-Arens (DePaul University), Matthew Marr (Florida International University), Robert Madsen (Center for International Studies, MIT), Yasuchika Hasegawa (Chairman of the Keizai Doyukai), David Janes (U.S.-Japan Foundation), Akio Takahara (University of Tokyo),and David Boling (Mansfield Foundation).

I urge you to comment and join in. However you feel about Japan’s presence (or absence) in international affairs, these essays will undoubtedly reveal that the “declinist” argument is far too unfocused a lens through which to view this complex nation.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Key Signals

    The big shift in Japanese policy was triggered by the collapse of its exports to the Eurozone.

  • Posted by Jen PeiWeng

    Japan might be declining and since 1995. It could be evidenced by:
    1. Piling up government debt.
    2. Long-lasted fiscal deficit.
    3. Long- stagnated economy
    4. Aging Japanese society.
    5. Deteriorating social security.
    6. Short life government.
    7. Unbridled political right wings.
    8. Increasing territorial disputes against neighbours.

  • Posted by Yoshimichi Moriyama

    There has been so much talk about Japan declining. Apart from whether Japan is on an inevitable path towards decline or not and apart from whether Japan’s decline is already a destiny or not, I do not deny that Japan is confronted with some, if not many, serious problems. (Every country has perhaps serious problems.)

    The bloggers’s accounts have been so far “too unfocused” and “offer little insights about the transformations” and Japanese serious problems.

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