Japan's Uncertain Future: Key Trends and Scenarios

Article excerpt

Japan has plummeted from economic powerhouse to faltering giant in less than a generation. What kind of future will be shaped by the forces that are driving Japanese society?

Japan is crossing a threshold from one historic period into another but is uncertain which potential new era will emerge. The outcome will affect everyone in an increasingly globalized future.

After rising from the rubble of World War II, Japan prospered from 1960 to the late 1990s. Now that period of prosperity appears to have come to an end. Those three decades were characterized by Japan's economic resurgence, high growth rates, a dedicated and group-oriented workforce, economic nationalism, relative cultural homogeneity, and a social structure that retained many of its premodern features, especially with regard to gender roles and family structure.

The task of this article is to imagine the other side of this threshold, to inquire as to what the "next period" in Japanese social history may look like.

Three Forces Create the Future

The convergence of three large-scale driving forces will determine the resulting shape of Japanese society in this next period. These driving forces are the restructuring of the Japanese economy, the long-term effects of demographic change, and the coming of age of the generation known as the "new breed."

* Restructuring of the Japanese economy. The economic downturn of the 1990s seems to be having more profound effects than simply a downturn in the value of the yen or of the real estate market. The systems of lifetime employment, of devoted "salarymen" who over-worked themselves for the good of corporation and country, and of capitalism dominated by corporate bureaucrats and government ministers have been seriously undermined. Japan is losing its hold as a leading economy and is instead chasing the rest of the industrialized world.

* The long-term effects of demographic change. By the first quarter of the twenty-first century, a significant portion of Japan's population will be over 65 years old and the birthrate will hover very close to 0%. These demographic trends will influence both the economy and the social, cultural, and familial institutions of Japan. Older Japanese will need to be cared for; no system of social security of the American or European variety now exists. The burden may well fall to families, specifically to women. The slower birthrates and grayer population will put pressure on labor markets, as companies scramble to find enough skilled and unskilled workers.

* The coming of age of the generation the Japanese refer to as the "new breed." These are the children of the postwar generation that rebuilt Japan with their hard work and self-sacrifice. This younger generation has not known poverty, or even deep economic recession. Critics complain that they are not as devoted and driven as their parents, and are content to enjoy the benefits of materialism and consumerism. They appear more individualistic than earlier generations, less willing to sacrifice for the group. Older Japanese find them rude and without values.

At the same time, the new breed appear more cosmopolitan, more accepting of outsiders, and less bound by traditional gender assumptions. This generation may well hold the key to the shape of the next period in Japanese history. As they mature and assume positions of responsibility, the new breed may govern Japan in a radically different fashion than previous generations. On the other hand, like American baby boomers who were radical in their youth but who acted more like their parents as they matured, the Japanese new breed could begin to think and act as their parents and grandparents did, making the next period in Japanese history far from a radical break.

The effects of these three driving forces--economic restructuring, aging population, and "new breed" generation--will not be felt in isolation. …