Essay: Much has been made of China moving past Japan as Asia’s leader. But a Beijing-based Japanese writer says Japan’s relative economic decline in the past 20 years hides the fact that it has built a model society for its citizens.
BEIJING - SMAP, a popular but aging Japanese boy band, recently preformed in Beijing, immersing their Chinese fans in days of ecstasy. SMAP is one of the most popular bands in Japan, and has been the guest group, for 18 straight years, on NHK Japan's New Year Eve broadcast. The band has sold more than 20 million albums, and their best-selling single "The One and Only Flower in the World" has long been on the lips of young people all over Asia.
Early this year, Uichiro Niwa, Japan's Ambassador to China, said that SMAP's Beijing concert should be regarded as "the most important activity representing Japan". Over the past six months, the Japanese Embassy fully mobilized its staff to prepare for the concert.
Today, recalling that passionate concert, I'm thinking "What remains of my motherland Japan?"
Since the beginning of 2011, talk of the "Japanese Decline" is everywhere. China's GDP has bypassed Japan's to become the world's second largest. Not only has Japan lost its second position behind the US, but the gap between China and Japan is as much as $721.9 billion.
March's devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, left more than 20,000 dead and missing. Japan's northeastern coastal region collapsed economically.
Coupled with the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, the country, which used to be proud to be "the safest nation in the world" suddenly became the most dangerous.
In 2010, China's foreign investment also surpassed Japan's for the first time.
More and more, researchers in Beijing are interested in recent Japanese history. When asked what they study, many respond "Japan's lost 20 years." In other words, they are researching Japan's decline in order to see how China can avoid a similar fate.
The Japanese Department in China's Foreign Ministry used to be considered a launchpad for successful diplomatic careers. That was the path taken by Tang Jiaxuan, China's former foreign minister. But today, China's foreign minister is more likely to have studied in Europe or the US: Jiaxuan's successors, Li Zhaoxing and Yang Jiechi, are experts in Europe and the US, respectively.
I have personally experienced Japan's decline in reputation.
I have interviewed about 150 Chinese people for positions in my company's Beijing office over the past two years -- and have had trouble finding top candidates. When I complain to the head-hunting agency, they reply that the kind of talented people we are looking for usually go to work for American, European or Chinese firms.
What is left of Japan?
When I ask candidates why they studied Japanese, the responses I get are often along the lines of "because I didn't pass English" or "because Japanese is easier." These answers stun me. When I was young, in the 1980s, the most outstanding students studied in Japan.
One can't help but feel melancholy.
Just before SMAP's Beiijng concert, I happened to have an in-depth discussion about "What remains of Japan in 2011?" with Miyauchi Yuji, the director of the University of Tokyo's Beijing Office.
The University has compiled data across a range of indicators about how life is lived in Japan – and the trend is in fact positive nearly across the board. Over the past several decades, the murder rate and traffic deaths in Japan have steadily decreased; there have been no food poisoning or other major public health scandals since 1979, and the country's university enrollment has risen to 50 % for college-age young adults. Inflation is stable, life expectancy up, the country's near universal state-of-the-art sanitary conditions the envy of the world.
"Chinese people's idea that Japan has lost two decades since 1990, declining from the rapid economic growth to economic bubbles is simply wrong", Miyauchi's said. "Not only has Japan not declined, it has also built a safe, secure society. In terms of standard of living increases, Japan has achieved even greater development during this period."
In other words, says Miyauchi: "there is still a great deal that the Chinese can learn from Japan."
After listening to Miyauchi, I feel relieved, like a stone has been lifted from my heart. Japan has become an ageing society sooner than China. One out of four of Japanese today is over 65 years old. Even one of "boy band" SMAP's singers will turn 40 next year.
SMAP's most active period was exactly the moment when Japan was supposed to have begun to lose its luster. However even this group, is not really in decline: their latest concert in Beijing proves it. The members of SMAP have grown from the innocent sentimental boys of 23 years ago into adult role models. And their artistic talent has not faded, it has just evolved and become more sophisticated.
Isn't it the same for Japan?
*Kondo is the former deputy editor of "Magazine Modern" and currently the Vice General Manager of Kodansha (Beijing) Culture Co.