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  • Dec 20, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

World may suffer for China's distorted view that Japan is on the slide

Tom Plate says China's newfound assertiveness in its territorial disputes with Japan rests on a misguided belief that its rival is in decline - a mistake the world may have to pay for

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 3:58am

Try it, you might like it: a sense of proportion. Avoid the extreme cry of apocalypse now - or, at least, of apocalypse soon. Stretch your intellectual and historical horizons to appreciate Japan as an expanse of more than just a few decades, or of even just a few centuries. It is a culture and a people that will endure.

Here are some obvious points. Japan is not about to tip over and fall into the Sea of Japan, not to mention into the East China Sea. It is millenniums old and culturally deep - as rooted as any society we have on earth. It is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, with a population of nearly 130 million. It may be ageing, as is much of Asia, but it is anything but unproductive or spent or destitute.

As Chris Patten, now chancellor of Oxford University and Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, rightly notes in reviewing a significant new book on Japan: "Japan's real per capita income has risen 0.9 per cent a year since 2002, faster than the US and Britain; unemployment even in the worst years of recession never rose above 5.5 per cent and was at 4.1 per cent at the end of 2012; social cohesion remains strong; its companies are more global than ever with huge overseas investments. Japan is still by a comfortable margin the third-largest economy in the world, with citizens on average eight times wealthier than the Chinese."

Japan may be ageing, as is much of Asia, but it is anything but unproductive or spent or destitute

These observations correctly reflect the theme and tenor of David Pilling's excellent new book, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Pilling takes the long view about Japan: as it were, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew - who, at 90, lived through the Japanese occupation, its second world war devastation and its relentless return to prominence - rightly notes that it would be "madness" to ever count the Japanese out. But with the mass international news media, still influential despite the splintering by social media, measured assessments are often rare.

Remember this? In the 1980s, Japan, the economic powerhouse, was "taking over" the world. But, by the next decade, debt-laden Japan was reported to be utterly "lost". How is such a sharp plunge from near-dominance into near-oblivion possible? It makes no sense. It is media yin-yang at its silliest.

But at least one major actor bought into the decline line: Beijing. As China's return to prominence on the world stage was cheered as historic, Japan's decline was framed in almost funereal terms. As if actually believing that win-lose narrative, Beijing began reasserting old claims almost fearlessly.

When you consider the risks of conflict between the globe's second- and third-largest economies, not just for East Asia but also for the world, is there any bilateral tension as idiotic and pathetic as two elephants shaking their tusks in a dumb quarrel over rocks named Senkaku (Japanese) or Diaoyu (Chinese)?

And, yet, that is where the sumo mat has been put down. As Beijing has been brassily advertising its air and sea territorial claims for all the world to see, in Tokyo, the government of Shinzo Abe has been rocking its tusks back in response. If compromise is in the air, it is not visible. Collision seems probable.

This could put at risk China's astonishing economic rise, and Japan's core relationship with the United States, which for the time being at least has no appetite for jumping into a serious conflict in East Asia. Yet Tokyo stubbornly digs in as China stubbornly persists. Neither political culture appears capable of facing reality, only saving face.

It is impossible to observe the Abe government without worrying about whether Japan will now take a bad turn. Let's face it: for two decades, its political culture has veered close to the resolutely unimaginative.

You wonder how such a fabulous country that has spawned the most skilful multinational corporations and universally admired technological products (not to mention phenomenal literature and awesome art, design and film) can throw up prime ministers and governments of such rigidity and banality as would challenge a satirist to further caricature.

One feels great sympathy for the population, which for decades has remained admirably and even stoically pacifist. But it now faces the reality of a China that has risen from a long sleep with pent-up energies eager to settle old scores.

And so the Japanese are weighed down with a shogun power culture underlying the structure of their dysfunctional party system.

The only obvious transformative option would be a reversion to imperial authoritarianism. That would surely prove a cure worse than the disease. But it could just be that China's new assertiveness will help push Japan in that direction faster than anyone realises.

Loyola Marymount Professor Tom Plate is the author of In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia, as well as the Giants of Asia book series

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This article is now closed to comments

mymak
Japan is a vibrant nation with a future. However, Japan also accommodates more than one political view and one historical narrative. Not being Japanese or Chinese I am astonished that the media and the general population cannot judge the Diaoyu Islands issue in a more objective manner. Having visited Okinawa I was surprised to see that China's former rule of these islands was not covered up but rather celebrated. The facts are that China has long claimed territory in that part of Asia. It no longer claims Okinawa but historically it does appear that it has a reasonable claim, backed by previous international agreements at the end of World War II, on the Diaoyu Islands.
The writer of this article has attempted to construct a new narrative whereby China seeing Japan as a weaker nation is unscrupulously taking advantage and grabbing land. This is not the case. Both Japan and China have long been at loggerheads over these islands but the changing political environment in Japan has led to an escalation in the crisis.
One would hope that the rabble rousers on both sides would be frozen out by the majority and previous international agreements could be honoured, in particular by the Japanese Government.
M Miyagi
Japan unlike the countries she conquered wasn't as destroyed during the Japanese rampage across the Asia-Pacific. Also the Japanese loot all, kill all and burn all policy allowed Japan to loot an estimated 100 Billion USD in wealth and at the same time destroying an estimated 10 trillion USD in wealth (in 1945 dollars) belonging to the victims of Japanese aggression. While having a head start vis-a-cis the hapless Japanese victims off course Japan can be expected to do better especially since the losers in WWII weren't required to compensate the victims. Also by having a few Class A criminals executed, Japan was basically allowed to maintain her obnoxious war culture with the US occupiers batting an eye due to the cold war. Wealthy Japan with ill gotten gains off course became recalcitrant to the extreme and made no progress in terms of human rights or morality. If fact the Japanese state is a sham one party "democracy" under the oppression of the fascists LDP with the mad man Shinzo Abe now rearing his ugly head for the world to see visiting the Yasukuni War Shrine that even the Japanese Emperor avoids. What's the point of being wealthy while being totally morally bankrupt? Not only is this a disservice to ordinary Japanese but a certainty for doom being on the wrong side of history. Ordinary Japanese doesn't believe the lies of the Japanese fascists government, why should the world be any different?
hongkiejj@malaysiaboleh
abe knows full well japan is in a decline. There is nothing to shout about in japan. Declining and ageing population, stagnant economy and his much vaunted abenomics is just a momentarily feel good affair but without real solid structural reform, japan will fail yet again. All his arrows will sizzle before it reaches its intended target. Without china to fully embrace or open to Japanese products, I don’t see how japan will succeed in this.
japan just can’t keep printing its way out of this **** hole and within the international business community, there is a growing uneasiness tolerance. Just exactly how long does japan intend to keep this up ? even its biggest ally usa will not agree openly to such nonsense if it continue forever and ever.
shogunate the samurai way or a reversion to imperial authoritarianism transformation is not the main issue. The threat is not coming from china but within japan itself. Japan has a choice…and wisely they should bury the historical grievance between not only with china and korea but the rest of asia as well. only when japan has the balls to face their past and make sincere effort to repair the damage, japan will be respected.
china is one damn important market dat cannot be ignored or simply brushed aside. This is not the china of yesterday but the new china of tomorrow. like it or not, china will continue to progress with or without japan irregardless of what tp has written.
sam.gillespie.184
Tom Plate writes for the English readers and by the plain dumbness of this opinion piece, he must have thought that the English people must have very low IQs so as to believe in this type of trash writing. Nothing is more insulting to the intelligence of the reader when TP trying to convince them that he can predict the future of Japan and expecting them to believe him.
I don't know if Japan will be in decline or not but I know for sure that with dullards like Tome Plate, the West isn't having much hope of climbing out of decline.
pslhk
Free speech doesn’t mean scmp editor has to run
inferior copies of other people’s opinions
such as the undigested rubbish of TP
Despite CP’s rather superficial analysis (FT, Jan10) it is readable
but don’t waste time on TP
“China's distorted view that Japan is on the slide”?
“The only obvious transformative option
would be a reversion to imperial authoritarianism”?
The only thing clear about TP is his bias
He clearly doesn’t know what he is saying
because he is unaware of his own ignorance
Mikado
The truth is that it is Japan under the rightists Government with Shinzo Abe as PM have a distorted view about almost everything whether it is Japan's Barbaric War history or Japan's sickness that is now affecting Japan's relations with the rest of the world.
Dao-Phooy
What a shoddy piece! If the SCMP is going to print something like this then it should consider posting articles with opposing views to provide balance. No, I take that back - it should never have accepted such a poorly written article in the first place.
pulsamsara.xi
We stand with Japan.
baysidedweller
Dear Mr. Plate,
Let's get the story straight - it all started when the far right former Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara of Tokyo started fanning the flame of buying Diaoyu island and the incompetent former Prime Minister of Japan Yoshihiko Noda followed suit and gave Shinzo Abe the opportunity to be the next Prime Minister.
Even New York Times news analysis back on December 26, 2013 titled "With Shrine Visit, Leader Assets Japan's Track From Pacifism" pointed out correctly that Abe is bringing Japan further to the right and raise the tension in the region including Japan's relations with South Korea and this is worrisome.
China DID NOT raise the bar on the territorial dispute! Japan did. Japan is also planning to include Diaoyu and Dokdo as it's territory in textbooks.
I am not disagreeing with you that Japan is a formidable foe if war erupts and they are the third largest economy in the world, but that does not give them the right to distort history.
It is too soon to tell if abenomics will work or not, and if it does not, watch out!
I noticed you were a media fellow in Tokyo at the Japanese Foreign Press Center's annual Asia-Pacific Media Conference. Question I have for you is: did you get paid by the Japanese government to write this?
ldAsia
What an incompetent author - without slight analytic skills and historical understanding.
If Japan is reversed to imperial authoritarianism, their aggressive characteristic will naturally again lead them to sneak and invade - as again "Nazi of the Orient". To date (21st century), they've never shown a touch of remorse for murdering, raping, and gassing millions of people (infants, women, man and the elders). They are the only people on earth being nuked miserably and yet, they still have the guts to lie and change about the facts in their history text-books – brainwashing their future generation that they were “Good-will Ambassador” instead, and they had not been nuked (those were celebratory fire-work display) during WW2. How can you deal with a country that has such LOW character!! It is a joke that many in this world still believing them. They do not even realize that they are being treated as kindergarten kids and being pulled around with a noose. Again, to date (21st century), Japan (as an only bombed BIG loser in the world) still engaging in stealing islands from Korea, Russia, and China.

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