Future-shocked Japan

I first want to wish a happy and healthy New Year to all of my readers.

After a bit of break, I’m back to posting, although my posts will most likely be on a more abstract level, like, say, this post, because Japan is on holiday for the week.

The title of this post refers to the 1970 book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler (with uncredited work by Heidi Toffler). I read Toffler’s book not too long ago, and it’s high on my list of books that have remained relevant long after their initial publication. I guess that’s why it’s still published as a mass market paperback.

In any case, I was prompted to think about Future Shock today after reading this op-ed in The Japan Times by Kimihiro Masamura, professor emeritus at Senshu University.

Masamura’s thesis is that Japan’s political leadership has to date failed to respond effectively to the panoply of problems plaguing Japanese society. He writes:

In order to build up again the basic strength of society, the quality of life must be improved. It is necessary to change the people’s orientation toward work, restore the function of the family and change the landscape of cities and agricultural villages. It is also necessary to restore the family’s power to raise and educate children, and the power of schools to educate children and reconstruct the whole environment surrounding children — or the totality of nature, society and culture in which children are born and grow.

Masamura’s diagnosis of Japan’s problems sounds familiar — namely, like Toffler’s idea of future shock.

Toffler considered the impact upon individuals and societies of the rapidly accelerating pace of social change in developed countries. He wrote:

Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on an old one. It is culture shock in one’s own society. But its impact is far worse…Take an individual out of his own culture and set him down suddenly in an environment sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to — different conceptions of time, space, work, love, religion, sex, and everything else — then cut him off from any hope of retreat to a more familiar social landscape, and the dislocation he suffers is doubly severe. Moreover, if this new culture is itself in constant turmoil, and if — worse yet — its values are incessantly changing, the sense of disorientation will be still further intensified…Now imagine not merely an individual but an entire society, an entire generation — including its weakest, least intelligent, and most irrational members — suddenly transported into this new world. The result is mass disorientation, future shock on a grand scale.

Arguably future shock is the disease that not only Japan, but every developed society (and increasingly, developing societies) has suffered from, to greater or lesser extents, since Toffler first coined the term in the 1960s. Japan has already suffered from future shock in a substantial way — the breakdown of its political and economic institutions during the 1990s — but until recently it was relatively immune to social stresses. No longer. The bullying problem, the general failure of schools to prepare students for the future, the new relationships between grown-up children and their parents, the aging problem: these are the symptoms of a society undergoing a much more substantial social shift.

While better leadership is essential to help Japan through the convulsions of future shock, it is a necessary but insufficient condition; there will be no top-down solutions to Japan’s social problems. In his op-ed Masamura points out what has to change:

We must think what the government has to do to ensure the people’s safety and stabilize their lives, and to protect the environment. Japan is suffering from a vicious cycle: The government’s policies are poor and cause anxiety to the people. As a result, the people do not have intellectual and spiritual latitude to think about the future of the nation and society, and become indifferent to politics. This leads to the government’s policies becoming even poorer. We need to create a positive cycle: The government’s activities concerning the people’s safety and lives would be strengthened, enabling the people to have intellectual and spiritual latitude, and to start thinking about the future of the nation and society, and becoming interested in politics. As a result, the government’s activities will be improved.

For Japan to change Japanese society will have to become more dynamic. The Japanese people must break the habit of looking to Tokyo for guidance when something goes wrong.

I will leave you to mull the implications of Japan’s future shock. And if you haven’t read Toffler’s book, now would be a good time to do so, because when looking the problems plaguing Japanese, American, and European societies today, his diagnosis is remarkably accurate.

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