Japan’s urban blur

I’m back in the saddle again after a couple days of riding around on trains.

Yesterday I went up to Kanagawa Prefecture to inspect apartments. The Shinkansen I was scheduled to take was delayed two hours because of this incident. Be sure to check out the picture — unbelievable. Shinkansen service was affected the entire day. There were still delays when I returned in the evening.

Meanwhile, I have a decision to make about an apartment, having to choose between two places based on cost and location, with an additional dilemma being that my boss arranged for me to see the cheaper (but less well located) of the two I saw. I’m not entirely sure of what my obligations are in this situation.

Today I went to Nagoya, about an hour by local train in the other direction, just for kicks. It was a beautiful, warm day — who knows when it will actually get cold here.

There’s nothing like riding on trains in central Honshu to focus one’s mind on how the Japanese live: namely, in densely packed cities. Seen from the window of the Shinkansen, Japan is an urban blur — a random assortment of stumpy apartment blocks, single-family homes, the occasional apartment tower, neon adverts, convenience stores, fast food chains (varying somewhat by region), and industrial developments, with small agriculture plots as one city gives way to the next.

But looking at Japan is like looking at what the rest of the world will look like in the not-too-distant future. We live in an increasingly urbanized world, in part because the development of China and India has meant the urbanization of two countries that have long been primarily rural and agrarian. As this century progress, the number of city dwellers will constitute a majority of humanity, and that majority will no doubt continue to grow.

What will this mean for humanity?

For starters, an intensification of anomie across the developed world, following Japan’s wake. Expect to see an explosion of 引き篭もり — hikikomori, a Japanese term used to describe adolescents and young adults who reject society and refuse to leave their rooms. Hikikomori is an extreme example of the general alienation felt by urban dwellers, a kind of soulless existence lacking the social framework found in smaller villages.

How long before the millions of Chinese flowing into China’s growing megacities from the countryside experience the kind of alienation seen among the Japanese? Will the booming cities of the twenty-first century be the breeding ground for radical ideologies just as European cities were during the first wave of the industrial revolution? (For a consideration of urbanization in India and China, check out this article from the FT’s weekend section in August 2006.)

The urbanization of developing countries may be the greatest opportunity in history to raise the living standards of billions of people who have never before known prosperity — but it must be handled right. This means that Architecture — necessarily informed by the social sciences — must become the ultimate social science, because the urban spaces within which the majority of humanity lives will play an extraordinary role in shaping societies and therefore shaping the future.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

Today I read a pair of short articles from the American Enterprise Institute, my onetime stomping ground. In a short article that was originally an essay in the Weekly Standard, AEI scholars Daniel Blumenthal and Gary Schmitt argue that Abe Shinzo’s nationalism is a liberal nationalism that will be a positive force in the region, as it will spur Japan onwards to contribute to the creation of a stable order in East Asia that favors the advance of democracy. I too am inclined to be phlegmatic about mainstream Japanese nationalism — although the fringe is unsettling, to say the least (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). In fact, the liberal nationalism described by Blumenthal and Schmitt is not the unique preserve of the LDP; DPJ foreign policy hawks like former party leader Maehara Seiji and Shadow “Defense Minister” Nagashima Akihisa are equally inclined to see Japan play a role as an active promoter of regional security and democratic ideals (see the speeches they gave at a conference organized by AEI in Tokyo last October). Thus it should hardly be seen as controversial that Japan is on the brink of playing a more active role both within and outside of the US-Japan alliance.

At the same time, however, Japan still has to figure out exactly how it contribute to advance of democracy in Asia. As Michael Green observed in the Washington Post in June, Japan still hasn’t committed to this agenda wholeheartedly. Japan still has yet to have a debate to this end — such a debate on how and how much Japan will contribute to shape the East Asian regional environment is long overdue. If Japan’s armed forces are to play a part in this grand strategy, then it is time that Japan clearly enumerate what that part is to be.

Accordingly, Chris Griffin, a friend at AEI, suggests in the Weekly Standard that Japan is undergoing a “silent revolution” in the aftermath of the nuclear test that will enumerate precisely how Japan will contribute to regional security by rolling back the prohibition on the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. Arguably that “silent revolution” has been building up since the first Gulf War, with tiny steps leading to bigger steps that will logically result in Japan’s being able to cooperate — and with steps in recent years to strengthen missile defense cooperation with the US being the strongest push in that direction (because by its very nature US-Japan missile defense is collective self-defense).

At the same time, however, as Griffin suggests at some point the silent revolution must become an overt revolution, because a silent revolution is really no revolution at all. The US government and the Japanese people have to know in advance exactly what Japan can and can’t do in a crisis, or else the Pentagon cannot include Japan into its contingency plans, as any Japanese contribution could potentially be undermined by public wariness resulting in dithering in Tokyo. So Japan should ultimately revise its Constitution to resolve the ambiguities surrounding its security policy, and meanwhile continue to transform the JSDF into a force that excels at logistical support for US offensive capabilities and “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) include disaster relief and post-conflict stabilization operations. This will likely require Japan to do more than it did in its relief mission in Iraq, but, at the same time, Japan will not have to develop a force characterized by high-tech strike capabilities that would likely unnerve its neighbors and contribute to an East Asian arms race.

I’d like to conclude on a lighter note by directing you to a review in the New Republic by Stanley Kauffmann (free registration required) of Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Departed. A remake of the superb Hong Kong Thriller Infernal Affairs, I found Scorsese’s “Infernal Affairs: Boston” too long and lacking the dramatic power of the original, in part because of its length but also because, as Kauffmann noted, Jack Nicholson’s gang leader dominates the film, detrimentally so. The story isn’t about the gang boss; it’s about the two moles. But Jack Nicholson being who he is, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio just can’t compete. As Kauffmann wrote: “What a masterly performance that was: an outsize balletic rendition of a mythic figure, far past the imaginative reach of any other current American film actor. And how wrong that style is in this realistic picture. The crime boss whom Nicholson plays simply cannot stop acting. He cannot leave any gesture, any phrase, unadorned.” There were other problems, but that was definitely the biggest.

It’s back to work for me tomorrow after two days off, which means that posting will be back to a more regular schedule.

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