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Bending Adversity – Japan and the Art of Survival

Book Review:Bending Adversity – Japan and the Art of Survival

By Fraser Cameron

15 December 2014

David Pilling’s Bending Adversity – Japan and the Art of Survival is a masterful account of how the nation that was about to take over the world in the 1990s slipped into a semi-permanent recession and how it copes with this relative decline in living standards. During his six years (2002-08) as the bureau chief of the Financial Times in Tokyo, Pilling immersed himself in Japanese culture and politics. He makes the point that Japan still counts in the world with 8% of global output compared to less than 4% for the UK. It is the world’s biggest creditor and has the second highest holding of foreign exchange.

Following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 that destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactor, Pilling made several visits to Japan to assess how the country coped with the disaster. His account is a sympathetic portrait of a country that is less open to outside influences than any other major Asian country. There is a Japanese way of doing everything, from making tea to bowing to one’s colleagues.

Through a mix of interviews with politicians, bankers, editors, academics and ordinary Japanese he allows the citizens to offer their own perspectives on how the country is changing due to adverse circumstances.  The old jobs for life culture is rapidly eroding as more and more young people are offered only short-term contracts. Women are still struggling for equality in the labour market. The horrendous public debt - over 220% of GDP - is a millstone around the government’s attempts to reform pensions and healthcare. At the same time Pilling suggests that the Japanese have been able to preserve living standards and social cohesion better than is commonly acknowledged.

But Pilling is critical of the ‘rotten body politic’ and an official culture that is riddled with ‘paternalism, complacency and deceit’. Japan has not been blessed with strong political leaders. A succession of prime ministers have come and gone with few making any imprint. Pilling has a soft spot for the quaffed Junichiro Koizumi, ‘the most charismatic prime minister in a generation.’ But ultimately he failed to overcome the deeply entrenched vested interests in Japan.  In the aftermath of Shinzo Abe’s election victory it will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Koizumi failed.

Pilling concludes that despite all its problems Japan remains a resilient, adaptive society and its history suggest it has the ability to confront and overcome the many difficulties it faces. We shall see.