Cooperative Asia, Cool Japan

As if on cue from my last post, the BBC reports that the US has voiced its approval of Chinese initiatives to strengthen military-to-military cooperation with ASEAN countries. Exactly right. The US has nothing to lose from China’s cooperating with its Southeast Asian neighbors. After all, ASEAN nations aren’t exactly natural allies of China, given the ongoing feud between China and a number of ASEAN member states over islands in the South China Sea. So if military-to-military ties stabilizes their relations and hems the People’s Liberation Army into cooperative arrangements, so much the better.

Meanwhile, AEI fellow Desmond Lachman has a letter in the Australian Financial Review noting that it is imperative for the IMF to give a greater share of representation to Asian countries. Indeed. How far do East Asian countries have to go in creating a de facto Asian Monetary Fund through initiatives in the ASEAN + 3 forum (ASEAN, plus China, Japan, and South Korea) before the IMF decides to give them a greater say in how the IMF is run? The future of the world’s economy will depend on Asia. The world that made Bretton Woods is gone, and it is that voting power at the IMF was distributed away from stagnant European economies to dynamic Asian economies.

In Japan, debate continues on the revision of the Fundamental Law on Education. On the National Bureau of Asian Research’s US-Japan discussion forum, Tomoaki Nomi points out what could potentially be even more problematic than the patriotic portions of the bill. Abe wants to intensify the centralization of the Japanese education system, giving the Ministry of Education greater control over local boards of education. It is unclear why this would solve the problems that plague the Japanese education system, considering that the system is already heavily centralized. Perhaps decentralization would be the better course, given that, like in any large, populous country, problems differ from prefecture to prefecture. In developed countries subsidiarity is increasingly the answer to complex policy problems, as it allows problems to be addressed at the level closest to those affected. Japan should be no exception.

Meanwhile, in Prague Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki received the Franz Kafka Prize. I was especially happy to see this, because Murakami is actually the reason I initially began studying Japanese — I was so impressed with his books in translation that I wanted to be able to read them in the original Japanese. Murakami is probably one of the most prominent examples of “Cool Japan,” the Japan depicted in Douglas McGray’s Foreign Policy essay “Japan’s Gross National Cool.” While Murakami writes Japanese literature by virtue of his being Japanese and writing in Japanese, there is little in his novels that is distinctly or uniquely Japanese.

His novels exist in a kind of global space, in which Japanese settings are filled with Western iconography — pop music, fast food chains, literature. It is in these disorienting settings that his characters, usually hyper-individualistic loners, are set adrift, as individuals in an uncertain world.

He is quite unlike earlier Japanese writers who have achieved international prominence, like Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Mishima Yukio, both of whom dealt with themes that could be described as typically Japanese.

So in a way Murakami can be seen as a harbinger for a more globalized Japan — a Japan less rooted in its past, more individualistic, and ever more permeable to outside influences, even while emitting global trends of its own. (NB: Murakami hasn’t made overt arguments about what Japan should look like; I am extrapolating from his writing.)

Whether “Cool Japan” will be a better Japan depends on your perspective. To nationalists like cartoonist Kobayashi Yoshinori, this Japan is abhorrent. (Just look at the introduction in the first volume of his three-volume graphic manifesto, On War, in which he describes Japan as being “at peace” while showing images of lewd, out-of-control youth, middle-aged perverts, and other apparently objectionable miscellany of modern Japan.) Abe Shinzo, whose nationalism is a more mainstream variety, would nevertheless be uncomfortable with Murakami’s Japan. What this means is that like every other country in the world, Japan will have an ongoing debate as to the conditions of its engagement with globalization.

However, for another look at how “Cool Japan” will mold the world we live in, let’s return to another article from the BBC, which discusses how Japanese media companies are targeting elderly consumers. I have long suspected that Japanese corporations stand to make a killing from the graying of the world. After having cut their teeth, so to speak, on Japan’s rapidly aging population, they’ll be well placed to exploit aging markets in the US, Europe, and, increasingly, China, which means that as other countries struggle to support their elderly populations, Japan will be getting rich off them. Imagine, Japan’s gaining relative power because it has a head start in dealing with aging and is prepared to market products to take advantage of relative decline in other countries.

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