The Search for Remedies

Japan in the Years of Trial

Yukiko Yamazaki, Department of Political Studies, Queen’s University [About | Email]

Volume 2, Issue 1 (Book review 5 in 2002). First published in ejcjs on 25 March 2002.

Masuzoe, Yoichi (ed.) (2000) Years of Trial, Japan in the 1990s, Tokyo: Japan Echo. ISBN 4-915226-08-5, Paperback, 371 pages.

Years of Trial: Japan in the 1990s is a compilation of writings (and some interviews) by Japanese writers from various fields.1 It is edited by a well-known social commentator and currently Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarian, Masuzoe Yöichi. Years of Trial consists of four sections, each containing an introduction by the editor and several readings. All the readings, with the exception of those from Miyazaki Isamu and Yamazaki Masakazu, are products of the 1990s and are taken from the magazine Japan Echo,2 which is associated with the public relations department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Simply by skimming through mass media reports of the last decade, one will find that Japanese society in the 1990s has been remembered as a time of turbulence unprecedented in the post-war period. Japan seemed (and still seems) to be plagued by a sequence of problems in almost every aspect of its society. Almost all these major problems in contemporary Japan are touched upon by the readings in Years of Trial: the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s; the fall of ruling Liberal Democratic Party from the government in 1993 after 38 years in power;3 the arrest of numerous bureaucrats for receiving bribes, including officers from the powerful Ministry of Finance;4 the Great Hansin Earthquake and Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin gas attack of 1995; and the beheading of a twelve-year-old boy by a fourteen-year-old boy in 1997.

Without doubt, these incidents upset ordinary Japanese and made many wonder what had gone wrong with their society. The mass media amplified this kind of sentiment, which is also reflected in the readings in this book. By reading Years of Trial, one can detect the sense of dismay, and the desire for immediate solutions which existed in Japan through the lost decade. The contributors in this book not only wonder what has gone wrong with their society, but also attempt to explain how these problems developed and give suggestions for solutions from their specific fields.

The book is divided into four sections — politics and diplomacy, the economy, society, and "civilisation". In the Politics and Diplomacy section, the topics range from domestic party politics to diplomatic issues. One can learn about the development of post-war Japanese politics as well as the more recent happenings of the 1990s, including the LDP’s historical loss and subsequent return to power (Kosaka, Hayashi, Masuzoe). In the section on the Economy, the book analyses Japan’s post-bubble economic troubles from a "liberal" perspective. Although originally written in 1986, the article by Miyazaki Isamu, former Director General of the Economic Planning Agency, is indicative of this section: Miyazaki emphasises the importance of the liberalisation of the Japanese economy as well as the expansion of domestic demand in order to reduce the trade surplus. His arguments have clearly resonated with many economists, as well as politicians, as a way of solving Japan’s problems in the 1990s. The section on Society tackles a very wide range of issues, from national emergency management to enjo kōsai (a euphemistic term, often translated as "compensated dating", which refers to the practice of school girls "dating" older men in return for large cash payments). Readers might think the future of Japanese society is gloomy especially when they read about Japan’s youth and education problems discussed from Chapter 18 through to Chapter 21. In the section on Civilization, the topics range from cultural change in Japanese society (the shift from a group oriented society to an individualistic one) to video game creation. Except for Sato’s piece, which is a critique on Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, the readings focus on the issue of "Japan’s national character".

Years of Trial covers a wide range of up-to date topics in Japanese society. Readers will be able to grasp quickly what has recently captured the attention of the Japanese mass media and what are the major problems in contemporary Japanese society. They will also gain an insight into how these problems are viewed by well-known Japanese commentators and scholars. Since each reading is relatively short (the longest is eighteen pages and the shortest is less than three-and-a-half pages, excluding editorial comments), this book would be very handy for the English-language reader with only a rudimentary knowledge of contemporary Japanese society. The book also includes charts outlining the major political parties and LDP factions since 1955 — a valuable tool for those interested in Japanese politics (pages 88–89) — while another chart comparing the old and new central bureaucratic structures may also help those who study the Japanese administration. Readings on video game creation and Japanese animation may intrigue even those people who are not usually interested in Japanese society. As such, Years of Trial provides an easily accessible and comprehensive introduction to Japanese society for English readers.

Still, the book is not without problems. First, while Years of Trial is good as an introductory text, it may not satisfy readers who want to know more about particular topics. The readings are not very long, so the information and analysis is at times limited. Also, the readings were originally journal articles from different sources and contain no bibliographical information. Since prospective readers of such an introductory text are not likely to be familiar with many of the books and journals on Japan, it would have been of great help if a list of suggested readings had followed each section or chapter. Second, although the book successfully covers a wide range of "issues", it is less successful in covering a wide range of "views". For example, in the economy section, Sakaiya Taichi, Ushio Jiro, and Kusaka Kimindo make a unified stance for changing the "traditional" Japanese employment relationship (that is, seniority based promotion and life-time employment).5 This issue is controversial, to say the least, and debate still continues today.6 Although Professor Ronald Dore argues for the "traditional" Japanese employment system in Chapter 13, after reading this book readers may think that Japanese are speaking with a single voice on the topic. Another example concerns defence, which is discussed by a MOFA officer, Tanaka Hitoshi. Japan remains deeply divided over defence and security issues, and is especially divided over whether the country should revise the "pacifist" Article 9 clause. This division was illustrated recently when the Koizumi government planned to use the Self-Defense Forces to support American actions in Afghanistan.

Another major flaw in the book concerns the gap between what the book’s writers see as the causes for Japan’s problems and what they see as possible solutions. Although the writers fully understand that the origins of Japan’s problems are related to the society as a whole, suggestions for solutions seem to be very limited and based on the writers’ desire to solve visible problems quickly. The suggestions of some writers make me wonder if Years of Trial is too narrowly focused.

Its treatment of education policy is a particularly good example. Masuzoe suggests that drastic social change during the rapid economic growth period, such as the increase in nuclear families and the penetration of TV, created an environment conducive to youth problems (pages 353-355). He then goes on to argue that, in order to solve these problems, Japan needs to learn from Edo-period education where "No curriculum was forced … from above, and the schoolmasters taught in accordance with the educational wishes of the children and their families" (Ishikawa Eisuke and Tanaka Yōko cited by Masuzoe, page 356). Thus, Musuzoe explains youth problems in terms of broad societal changes over an extended time period, but his solution is to make the current education system like that of the Edo period. Unfortunately, with respect to the massive social changes currently facing Japan, returning the education system to the Edo period seems both inadequate and inappropriate. Moreover, change to the education system is itself not a simple task (see Iwao, 256-259). As Iwao points out, the participants of a conference on education brought together by then Prime Minister, Hasimoto Ryutaro, could not agree on the causes of youth crime let alone on possible solutions (Iwao, 257). What is clear is that the problems of today’s youth are also problems for adults and, thus, cannot be artificially detached from society (pages 260-267).

Much the same thing can be said about enjo-kōsai. Kawai Hayao (page 241) suggests that "(t)here are many aspects of contemporary Japanese society that have facilitated …enjo-kōsai" and that the concept of "soul" should be introduced to Japanese society to solve this problem (page 243). Kawai thus clearly understands that the origins of schoolgirl prostitution lie in contemporary Japanese society; however, he also claims (page 245) that he has "no sympathy for them (the schoolgirl prostitutes) whatever…. (t)heir behavior is wrong, … and we must affirm this unequivocally". This view is highly problematic, however, and may lead readers to think that such comments are not the "solution", but, rather, part of the problem. First, Kawai ignores the role of men as customers in the "sex industry" broadly, and enjo kösai in particular, and thereby implies that "selling sex" (the role of women) is bad but that "buying sex" is fine. Second, by castigating, in the strongest terms, a segment of the population (teenage girls) that might be expected to lack maturity and thus make mistakes — while ignoring the nefarious activities of mostly middle-aged men who should, supposedly, know better — Kawai clearly shows himself to be a bully. He attacks the "easiest target", while ignoring the more influential (but less obvious) issue of men’s attitudes towards women in Japan, attitudes which are based upon hypocrisy and misogyny. To put "the soul back into human relationships" (pages 244-245) will change little if men who engage in such illegal activities are not properly punished and if the broader attitudes that men have towards women in Japan are not improved.

Finally, what should be made of the way the book portrays the 1990s — these so-called "Years of Trial"? According to the book, Japanese society in the 1990s fought against a range of problems, political, economic and social. However, as the readings suggest, not everything went suddenly wrong during this decade. The writers of Years of Trial describe developments in the society and try to explain today’s problems by looking at changes over the past twenty to fifty years. So, what makes the 1990s look so tough? Some might argue that the 1990s was not a decade that produced social problems but, rather, was a decade where many of the post-war problems of Japanese society coalesced to create a seemingly single mass of societal malfunction, a mass that was further compounded by economic stagnation. For instance, the decline of the LDP was due to problems within the party that had existed since the 1950s; pressures towards deregulation and liberalisation simply intensified with the increase of globalisation; and youth violence and bullying merely continued as they had from the 1970s. But everything looks worse when the economy is not growing.

In conclusion, it is clear that a long-term, holistic approach is required to solve Japan’s contemporary societal problems.However, the tone of this book seems to say past problems did not look so bad while the Japanese economy was growing and, accordingly, all that needs to be done is to get the economy restarted. This analysis reflects Japan’s over-obsession with economic development ever since World War II. If society is seen only through the ebb and flow of the economy, many problems are likely to go unnoticed or unsolved, and, if these problems are left unsolved, it seems unlikely that Japan’s economy, in the face of new global economic challenges, is likely to improve significantly. In the end, Years of Trial is a book of its time: it is unable to make the paradigm shift that would free it from Japan’s "economic obsession" and allow it to present a more comprehensive approach to tackle Japan’s many problems.

Further Reading

Dore, Ronald (2000), Stock Market Capitalism: Welfare Capitalism: Japan and Germany Versus the Anglo-Saxons, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pempel, T. J. (1998), Regime Shift: Comparative Dynamics of the Japanese Political Economy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ōtake, Hideo (Ed.) (2000), Power shuffles and policy processes: Coalition Government in Japan in the 1990s, Tokyo: Japan Center for International Exchange.

Tsuru, Shigeto (1993), Japan's Capitalism: Creative Defeat and Beyond, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Useful Websites

Japan Echo can be read on the Internet.

The library at the Australian National University has a great link on Japan.

The site by the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy (BRIE) at University of California, Berkeley, has online papers on various Japanese governmental policies.

The site by the Asia Center at Harvard University also has online papers on Japan.


[1] Except for two readings by non-Japanese: one is an interview with Carlos Ghosn, who became the first non-Japanese chief operating officer for Nissan Motor Co., and the other is a talk between the chairman of Keizai Doyukai, Ushio Jiro, and a prominent scholar on Japanese politics and economy, Ronald Dore.

[2] However, most of the readings were not prepared specifically for Japan Echo. This journal carries English-language translations of Japanese journal articles from various (mostly conservative) magazines to inform English readers about recent trends and opinions in Japan.

[3] However, the LDP quickly came back to power as a part of the coalition government in 1994 and formed the government solely by the party in 1996.

[4] Scandals involving bureaucrats are not directly touched by the readings in this book. Sakaiya Taichi mentions the "bureaucracy problem" as its relates to politicians and business. See "The 1993 Watershed and the Agenda for Reform", pp.117-26.

[5] Editor Masuzoe agrees with this point of view in his introduction (pp.3-5).

[6] It is very interesting that British professor Ronald Dore is more sympathetic to the Japanese employment system than Ushio Jiro in their talk (pp.174-90). Professor Miyasaka Junichi from Nara Sangyo Daigaku posts an excellent list of books on the Japanese management system in his website (Japanese) Also, a recent news report about employer-employee relationship can be read here (English).

About the Author

Yukiko Yamazaki received her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science at the University of Regina, Canada in 1997, before completing a Master's degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto in 1998. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Studies at Queen's University and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo. Her Dissertation topic is on the 1997 Fiscal Structural Reform Law enacted by the Hashimoto administration.

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