TOKYO THESE DAYS LOOKS LIKE Asia’s oldest metropolis—at least to those accustomed to the shinier buildings, grander avenues, and the more garish newness of Shanghai. Compared to the upstart countries of Asia today, much of Japan presents a spectacle of aged modernity: brown plains marked by a clutter of small houses, and crisscrossed by giant power pylons. Even the wild beauty of the country’s coastal areas is now touched, after the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, with menace. And it is with some shock that you recall that Japan was where once the future lay, before its bubble burst in the early 1990s, and the country, pushed inward by adversity, became a strange absence in our lives.
While Japan languished within a low-growth economy, its poor cousin of the 20th century, China, unexpectedly became Asia’s pre-eminent economic power, and its old domineering mentor, the United States, suffered a severe economic and geopolitical diminishment. Now, insecurity caused by the rise of China, and America’s growing inwardness, is driving neo-nationalists in Japan to risky geopolitical and economic experiments. China, in turn, seems fully committed to anti-Japanese nationalism—violent demonstrations, often abetted by the communist regime, erupted in 2005, 2010 and 2012.
Japan’s new prime minister, Abe Shinzo, has been promoting an ambitious plan of national renaissance, which looks, particularly to the country’s alarmed neighbours, like revanchism. Though well below the highs of the early 1990s, the stock market has responded keenly to ‘Abenomics’, his strategy to kick-start the Japanese economy, which combines devaluation of the yen with increased public spending on infrastructure, and aggressive quantitative easing. Emboldened by early success, the prime minister, a conservative nationalist, assures his rapidly ageing electorate that “Japan is back.”