Bright lights, big city: a bustling crossing in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo in 2013. Photo: MARTIN ROEMERS / PANOS
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What the west can learn from Japan’s “lost decades”

Roland Kelts wonders whether Japan-style stagnation would really be so bad in the west.

I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, mostly Tokyo and New York and a few other American cities, several times a year. The contrast is jarring. Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure was creaky and basic services such as ground transportation were chaotic and unreliable.

I steel myself before landing, my mind tallying variables and unknowns: will my luggage land with me and emerge on the dingy carousel? Will the taxi that I booked online in advance arrive on time, at the right terminal, or at all? Will traffic impede me on my journey?

And then there’s the view. Whether it’s the outskirts of Queens on the way from New York’s JFK International Airport or the fringes of the Los Angeles highway off-ramps by LAX, everything seems a bit run down and decrepit.

Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze.  All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading during touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of and nothing is broken. As I ease into town, usually on the limousine bus service, the streets outside are teeming with well-dressed urbanites heading home from work or out to restaurants, everyone in motion with purpose and meaning.

But that’s not what the papers say. Japan has experienced more than two decades of a stagnant-to-recessionary economy since its 1989-90 bubble burst. It has become the world’s economic whipping boy, described repeatedly as “the sick man of Asia”, incapable of revival, doddering off into the sunset.

The reports of Japan’s societal stagnation are no prettier. Stories about the country’s ageing population and plummeting birth rate abound – with the latter hitting a record low last year amid dire predictions of a disappearing Japan. At current rates, demographers estimate that the overall population will drop by 30 million by 2050.

Japan’s 2014 fertility rate is low – 1.4 births per woman – but David Pilling, a former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, notes that South Korea’s is lower and those of other developed countries, from Taiwan and Singapore to Germany and Italy, are similarly low. “Much of the world is going Japan’s way,” says Pilling. “If Japan is doomed, so are many others.”

However, Pilling adds, the alternative isn’t necessarily better. “Can we really only conceive of a successful economy as one where the population increases year after year? By this measure, Pakistan and many African countries should be screaming success stories. They’re not.”

Japanese men and women, meanwhile, are tagged as “sexless”, caught up in a “celibacy syndrome” (sekkusu shinai shokogun) that has both the married and the single declaring their lack of interest in sexual relations. Japan’s young shut-ins (hikikomori) are socially withdrawn digital hermits who confine themselves to their bedrooms, video games and online chats. The so-called herbivore or “grass-feeding” men (soushoku danshi) avoid competition in any arena, be it romantic or professional. Their female counterparts greet them with a shrug, collect their pay cheques and dine out with their girlfriends.

Intuitively, you might think that this shrinking, even disappearing Japan should not look and feel as good as it does. To visitors, expats and residents alike, Japan is still one of the richest, most civilised and convenient countries in the world. There should be potholes in its streets and pickpockets in its alleys. Shops, restaurants, bars and factories should be darkened and idle. Trains should be late and the passengers poorly dressed and busking for change.

The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of the safest major cities in the world put Tokyo on top, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, at number three. While smaller and mid-sized Japanese cities betray some of the conventional signs of economic hardship (boarded-up storefronts and sparsely populated shopping malls), in a world beset by rising fanatical violence and rancorous racism and inequality, safety is nothing to sneeze at.

In his 2014 book Bending Adversity, Pilling grapples with the cognitive dissonance at the heart of 21st-century Japan: is it a harbinger of global stagnation? Or is it a model of global sustainability? In the book’s most-quoted passage, a British MP, on arriving in Tokyo in the early 2000s and surveying its lively environs, is reported to have said: “If this is a recession, I want one.”

I caught up with Pilling, who is now based in Hong Kong but frequently returns to Tokyo, to ask if he has had a change of heart about the resilient, sustainable Japan that he outlines in his book. He remains deeply sceptical of the knee-jerk pejoratives associated with stagnancy.

“Do rich societies really need to get richer and richer indefinitely?” he asks. “A lot of improvements in standard of living come not through what we normally consider as growth but through technological improvements.”

Pilling considers Japan’s stagnant years as a time of remarkable domestic growth, if not the kind associated with standard economic measurements such as GDP. “Many would agree that the standard of living, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, has improved significantly in the so-called lost decades. The city’s skyline has been transformed; the quality of restaurants and services improved greatly. Despite the real stresses and strains and some genuine hardship, society has held together reasonably well. If this is what stagnation looks like, humanity could do a lot worse.”




What makes one society hold together “reasonably well”, while others fail? You have only to look to the Japanese language for insight. Common words such as ganbaru (to slog on tenaciously through tough times), gaman (enduring with patience, dignity and respect) and jishuku (restraining yourself according to others’ needs) convey a culture rooted in pragmatism and perseverance.

After the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, the international media were awash with stories about the dignity and almost super­human patience of survivors, many of whom peacefully waited hours in single-file lines for relief supplies, only to be turned away in the frigid weather and asked to try again the next day. No one rushed to the front; no one rioted. In shelters, meagre foodstuffs such as rice balls were split in half or into quarters to make sure that
all had something to eat.

Nearly everyone was on the same page: Japan’s population is 98.5 per cent Japanese, as defined by citizenship. While ethnic diversity has its advantages (and some academics point out that, when you analyse the population’s regional roots, Japan is quite diverse), a set of common cultural values, instilled from birth, may strengthen resilience in the face of crisis and adversity.

The journalist Kaori Shoji tells me that having little to hand and learning to make the most of it are essential components of the Japanese character. “The Japanese temperament is suited to dealing with poverty, scarcity and extremely limited resources. If [the American commodore Matthew Perry’s] black ships didn’t show up [to open Japan to western trade] in the 19th century, we’d still be scratching our heads over the workings of the washing machine or the dynamics of a cheeseburger. On the other hand, with . . . centuries of frugality behind us, we have learned to be creative. Frugality doesn’t have to mean drab stoicism and surviving on fish heads.”

Japan’s stagnation, pilloried by economists and analysts in the west, may turn out to be the catalyst for its greatest strengths: resilience, reinvention and quiet endurance.

Until a couple of years ago, I lectured Japan’s brightest and best at the University of Tokyo. My Japanese students were polite to a fault. They handed their essays to me and to my teaching assistant with two hands affixed to the paper, as if they were handling sacred artefacts. They nodded affirmatively when I asked them if they had understood what I’d said, even when they hadn’t. They were never late to class and they never left early.

When I pressed them on their future plans, however, they expressed a kind of blissful ambivalence. “I’d like to help improve Japan’s legal system,” Kazuki, a smart and trilingual student from Kyushu told me. “But if that doesn’t work out, I just want to be a good father.”

Sayaka, a literature major from Hokkaido, asked me if I understood her generation’s dilemma. “We grew up very comfortable,” she said. “We learned not to take risks.”

The lack of risk-taking – anathema to today’s “fail-fast” Silicon Valley culture – would seem to indicate stagnation writ large. But what if it’s a more futuristic model for all of us, even superior to Japan’s sleek, sci-fi bubble-era iconography: all hi-tech and flashy yen but no soul?

The Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato, a columnist for the New York Times, sees a radical example in Japanese culture that he describes as a model of “de-growth”, of returning to other measures of growth that transcend stagnancy, focused instead on quality of life.

“The shape of wisdom as well as self-worth has drastically changed,” he tells me at his office in Takadanobaba, north-west Tokyo. “We can point to periods of change: the late 1980s with Chernobyl, or the early 1990s with the end of the USSR and communism, or the early 2000s with 9/11. And finally, the early 2010s, with 11 March 2011 and Fukushima Daiichi.”

Kato sees our world as one of fundamental transition, from dreams of the infinite to the realities of the finite – a transformation that Japan grasps better than most. “I consider younger Japanese floating, shifting into a new qualified power, which can do and undo as well – can enjoy doing and not doing equally.”

I ask him if Japan’s model of stagnancy as strength can educate the rest of the world in the possibilities of impoverishment. “Imagine creating a robot that has the strength and delicacy to handle an egg,” he says. “That robot has to have the skills to understand and not destroy that egg. This is the key concept for growing our ideas about growth into our managing of de-growth.”

Handling that egg is tricky. A spike in volunteering among young people in Japan after the nuclear disaster suggests that, despite the global hand-wringing over their futures, they are bypassing the old pathways to corporate success in favour of humbler forms of participation.

In 2005, the Tokyo University graduate Mitsuru Izumo, who had a cosy law firm gig in his lap, left to found a start-up, – a way of feeding the world’s poorest using algae hybrids. A Keio University graduate is now selling stitched bags from Ethiopia. Haruka Mera of the website Ready For? is thriving by facilitating global crowd-funding campaigns for Japanese start-ups.

Mariko Furukawa, a researcher for the Japanese advertising firm Hakuhodo, thinks that the “think small” mentality of young Japanese is turning stagnancy into sustainability. She cites the proliferation of agri-related start-ups – peopled by young Japanese who are leaving the cities for rural environs, despite the low returns, and who don’t seem to care about globalisation.

“These small techs should really add up to something and we may be able to replace [stagnation] with new innovation, not necessarily new technology,” Furukawa says. “I think the Japanese ability to innovate in such things is very strong. And so, because these city planners and urban designers are talking about downsizing the cities, wrapping up into smaller furoshikis [rucksacks], so to speak, the awareness is there; they know what needs to be done. In this sense, we may be at the forefront of developed economies.”

Furukawa notes that many European nations facing similar dilemmas don’t have the same tools to address them. “Europe has been suffering from low growth. But I don’t know if they are that innovative at new ways of living.”

Japan’s Blade Runner image of yesteryear – a futuristic amalgamation of hi-tech efficiency coursing through neon-lit, noirish alleyways in sexy, 24-hour cities – was really a blip in the nation’s history. Today, the country is more about quality of life than quantities of stuff. In its combination of restraint, frugality and civility, Japan may serve as one of our best societal models of sustenance for the future.

Roland Kelts is a contributing writer for the New Yorker and the Japan Times and the author of “Japanamerica” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article is published simultaneously as part of the “Stagnation” season of the Long + Short, Nesta’s free online magazine of ideas and innovation:

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken