At the beginning of the new century Japan, widely seen as a 'miracle country' between the late 1950s and early 1990s, was struggling out of its recession, which became particularly acute between 1997 and 1999. The 1990s were a time of turbulence in Japanese politics as in the economy, and pressure for restructuring has been strong. Grave weaknesses in the banking system were revealed in the form of a massive overhang of bad debt inherited from the boom period of the late 1980s and the subsequent collapse. An ambitious programme of reform of the political and economic system was announced by the Hosokawa coalition Government that replaced single-party rule by the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, but the path towards implementing reform proved far from smooth.
Through the succession of administrations following from that of Hosokawa, the process of reforming the system seemed to take a step back every time there was a step forward. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that Japan is gradually changing. It is widely recognised that in many areas of life the old methods do not work well any more and need radical surgery. Even so, the view, widely expressed at the beginning of the new millennium, that the only viable course for Japan is to converge towards a North American model of political economy, needs to be treated with a dose of scepticism. For one thing, a major civilisation such as that of Japan does not ditch its embedded traditions overnight, merely because the economy is failing to reach former heights of performance and growth. For another, there is a long history of concern about the 'particularity' of Japan in debates going back many decades. Even though these debates have at times contained elements of absurdity and even gross liberalism, they constitute part of a mind-set that sees the nation called 'Japan' as an entity that needs to find its own way in the world, rather than consuming in an automatic or haphazard fashion influences that press upon Japan from outside.
The Nissan Institute/Routledge Japanese Studies Series was begun in 1986 and recently published its fiftieth volume. It seeks to foster an informed and balanced, but not uncritical, understanding of Japan. One aim of the series is to show the depth and variety of Japanese institutions, practices and ideas. Another is, by using comparisons, to see what lessons, positive or negative,