This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.
Two decades of economic stagnation, surging social problems, and political inefficacy have cast a shadow on Japan. So are there any reasons for optimism about its future? More sophisticated Japan optimists may point to economic indicators like GDP per capita, key cooperation with the United States in geopolitical affairs, or a prominent role in international assistance. However, as an ethnographer, I would like to highlight more street-level phenomena. There is a long list from which to choose (safe streets, vibrant food and fashion scenes, healthy elderly communities, persistent cultural attributes like omoiyari that discourage self-centeredness, etc.), but I will brashly highlight two improbable locales for optimism about Japan.
First, let’s take a quick trip to Kingston, Jamaica, to see five young Japanese win the World Reggae Dance Championship during Jamaica’s 50th Independence Jubilee. The group, called “Japan Squad,” includes young men and women with origins spanning from Okinawa to Hokkaido. They won over the hometown crowd with choreography that demonstrated a keen knowledge of contemporary Jamaica and its history, including moves from the ska period, references to James Bond films made in Jamaica, humor, and even a bit of air-cricket. This is just one of numerous moments when Japanese have made a major splash on the global reggae/dancehall scene. Media often depict Japanese youth as inward looking, not willing to take chances, socially inept, distracted by the 2D world, and even sexless. But reggae fans and artists in Japan are more like Ezra Vogel’s outward looking Japanese of the 1970s—they want to learn from other cultures, experience them directly, interact with non-Japanese, and share what Japan has to offer the world. However, these Japanese ragamuffins are less America-centric and more global, preferring patois over American English and ackee and saltfish over hamburgers. They are critical but not reactionary anti-American, since their immersion in Jamaican culture often involves travel to the United States. They are thus visible participants in global reggae culture in places like New York and London, and have become active in spreading it throughout Asia. Pioneer sound system Mighty Crown appears regularly at major international reggae events and produces one of a number of entrepreneurial Japanese street clothing lines visible on the global scene.
But does this global prominence just reflect a sophisticated level of consumption, an inheritance of the brand-conscious shinjinrui (“new humans”) of the 1980s bubble? The presence of reggae artists and fans in the post-3.11 triple disaster relief effort and anti-nuclear movement suggests that subcultural participation can foster political activism. More importantly, political songs and rebel themes have been prominent in the Japanese reggae scene from the get-go. Marvin Sterling, in his ethnography of Japanese reggae subcultures, points out that participants often use it to question notions of homogeneity in Japanese culture as well as class and gender inequality. The global reach of this subculture and its focus on direct interaction with Jamaican and other youth points toward potential advancement of what Ian Condry in his analysis of Japanese hip-hop has called transnational cultural politics of affiliation. A prominent role of young Japanese in a subculture that spans “developed” and “developing” worlds while critiquing inequality, I believe, calls for optimism.
My second unlikely locale for Japan optimism brings us to San’ya, Tokyo’s former day labor ghetto, where Sanyūkai operates a free medical clinic, does street outreach, provides hospice housing, and fosters social capital for poor and unconnected individuals. The surge in civic activity after the 3.11 triple disasters gets much warranted attention, but anti-poverty groups that have been active throughout the post-bubble period highlight a longer, more durable trend. Like many organizations in Japan’s expanding civil sector, Sanyūkai’s staff and volunteers are of diverse backgrounds. The director is Quebecois, the head nurse American, and a good proportion of volunteers, such as myself, are non-Japanese, including international students, Catholic nuns, and brothers from all over the world, as well as a Chinese Buddhist group that provides food once a month for street outreach. Nearly all non-Japanese at Sanyukai are fluent in Japanese and immersed in its culture and society. The core Japanese staff, volunteers, and “ojisan” (older men that make up the majority of clients) are also diverse in terms of age, occupational, and geographic background. While not without its limitations, this collective effort provides a glimpse at a possible future Japan that embraces, celebrates, and capitalizes on diversity of background and perspective to address social problems.
Across town in Shinjuku Ward, another private nonprofit organization called Moyai also aids persons experiencing poverty and social isolation, but is more assertive in keeping government accountable. It was founded by two men who began advocating for people experiencing homelessness in the 1990s, when they were in their 20s. They formed Moyai to provide guarantors and consultation for persons trying to get out of homelessness. One of the founders, Yuasa Makoto, was a leader of the haken mura movement to aid dispatch workers displaced amid the “Lehman shock” in 2008. The movement contributed to reforms of seikatsu hogo welfare benefit administration and Yuasa has consulted Democratic Party of Japan cabinets on poverty. The other founder, Inaba Tsuyoshi, is actively working to ensure that ongoing debates about welfare reform are based on research and the voices of recipients rather than poor-bashing rhetoric.
So, some may see Japan’s future as determined by bleak economic and demographic indicators, xenophobic oyaji (old men) in dark suits, antisocial otaku, weakling sōshoku danshi (herbivore boys), suicidal hikikomori (shut-ins), and mindless parasite single gyaru (girls). But I see the future of Japan more in the hands of assertive, optimistic, and outward looking youth like those immersed in global creative industries and subcultures, and the mix of younger and older generations, Japanese and non-Japanese, leading social movement organizations that work towards a diverse inclusive society. Many problems will persist and Japan will most likely not retain its global economic stature of the 1980s. But I see Japan in the future as rising up to the challenges of globalization and thriving as a more multicultural society that still retains core Japanese values and culture.
Matthew Marr is assistant professor of sociology at Florida International University.