Japan as a Land of Reinvention, Resilience, and Noisy Disagreement

By Alexis DuddenMarch 13, 2014

Japan as a Land of Reinvention, Resilience, and Noisy Disagreement

Bending Adversity by David Pilling

AS JAPAN CONFRONTS the third anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disasters, the nation finds itself in the news for reasons very different from the terrible trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that struck that day. Today, the country’s strategic policy in the East China Sea grabs headlines as leaders recalibrate Japan’s response to China’s threatening gamesmanship there. Next item: the economy, as Tokyo clings to a fiscal course designed to pull the nation out of its protracted slump while many are increasingly impatient with the results. And then, from the culture desk, the region’s history wars are resurgent, because a number of Japanese officials are again denying atrocities committed in the nation’s name over 70 years ago. Some wonder whether those in charge are summoning the old war now to provoke a new one to cover failures on the security and economic fronts.

David Pilling offers a lucid entrée to this combustive mix with his newly published Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. The author of this essential history of the present is the Hong Kong–based Asia editor of the Financial Times, who lived in Japan during much of the first decade of this century. Throughout the book, his elaboration makes clear above all that he cares deeply about the place and many of the people who live there. Moreover, he is a splendid writer. Readers already familiar with Japan will learn more, or at least learn to think about it differently; those new to it could ask for no better starting place.

Pilling locates himself and his intentions right away, explaining that the book was

swept into existence by [the] giant wave [of March 11, 2011, which] provided impetus for an idea that had lain dormant […] for several years. My aim was to create a portrait of a stubbornly resistant nation with a history of overcoming successive waves of adversity from would-be Mongolian invasions to repeated natural disasters.

Through focus on such “resistance” and “adversity,” Pilling subtly points to his substantial contributions to the field of Japanese studies. Bending Adversity brings into relief Japanese society in ways that run counter to a tendency in the genre to box Japanese people into rigid forms, or, as he comments, to describe the country “as (one) would like it to be.” Different from classic, widely popular books in this vein — the most germane being The Japanese (1977) the long-famous study by former American ambassador to Japan and Harvard professor Edwin O. Reischauer — Pilling emphasizes that although “the Japanese harbor an image of themselves as uniquely harmonious, theirs is a country, as any other, cut across by class, region, gender, and age, challenged by subcultures and shaped by structural change.” Through voices of individuals who at once resist and form each of these categories, Pilling’s interrogation succeeds in presenting Japanese as “diverse” and full of “noisy disagreement” — words not often ascribed to Japan, and especially not in the wake of March 11, 2011.

A number of things make Pilling’s take on Japanese society fresh and important right now. First and foremost, the author is an economic thinker, and he returns readers regularly to the financial health of a particular moment — or lack thereof — and how and why this would matter at that historical juncture to society. Second, he demonstrates a deep understanding that artists and writers are often far better social theorists and commentators than political pundits and policy makers. Pilling’s allotment of a considerable amount of space in his book to such perspectives is unusual and welcome. Finally, Tokyo’s relations with Washington, DC, are especially fraught right now. That we have an excellent book in English about contemporary Japan told by a knowledgeable outsider to this dynamic — a Brit — allows for different nuances on the matter of American bases and soldiers in Japan — especially with regards to Okinawa — as well as the position of Japan in Asia and the world.

The book’s best discussions are those that go for the country’s economic jugular. These sections are sprinkled throughout the book and are full of useful statistical information as well as splendid anecdotes such as the Osaka bar hostess famous for selecting stocks for her customers through Ouija board–like communications with a giant ceramic toad (which, after several lousy tips became clear was actually a Yamaichi Securities trader/customer who wanted to lure investors). Pilling catches readers up to speed on general modern history and explains in clear and thoughtful prose how a speculative bubble during the late 1980s supplanted a more grounded, solidly expanding economy — “encouraged by the belief, derived from post-war experience, that when it came to property prices, the forces of Sir Isaac Newton no longer applied to Japan” — and burst cataclysmically in the 1990s. Relating this to the picture at large, Pilling pithily observes:

Successive governments’ failure to mount anything other than a sporadic response to deepening economic gloom meant that the political system, so stable in the post-war period, limped from crisis to crisis. […] It marked the start of a period of political dysfunction that persists to this day.

With subtle balance, Pilling weaves together comments from sources that range from the famous — including the world-renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and the Pulitzer Prize–winning American historian of Japan John Dower — to journalists and academics known in Japan but less so abroad, in order to tease out a multivocal read of Japan today. Especially prescient given the current Japanese leadership’s constant reassurances that “Women-omics” is essential to Japan’s future, he engages numerous challenges that women face wanting to enter the workforce, from bosses’ habits of taking junior employees to sex clubs as part of the hazing process to ingrained, socialized “norms” that regard women as aberrant if they aspire to something other than multicourse lunches at expensive French restaurants. Most important, at each turn Pilling circles readers back to questions of supposed Japanese “uniqueness” (known in Japanese as “Nihonjin-ron”) to underscore how these cultural constructions constrict the nation’s international potential. The best comment in this vein comes from Masahiko Fujiwara, a well known conservative essayist and mathematics professor, who puts a stop to Pilling’s attempts to expand their conversation about cultural stereotyping and national identity by stating that “British rain and Japanese rain are quite different.” You can almost see the author smiling in frustration.


Pilling is not smiling, however, in his descriptions of the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, devastation. Like many other observers, he applauds what worked: the individual and collective resourcefulness, chutzpah, and resilience that define the book’s subtitle, Japan and the Art of Survival. He brings the reality of things into relief through a photographer friend of his, Senoue Toshiki.

[Toshiki] spent weeks on end in the no-go zone around Fukushima, documenting what happened to the abandoned towns and villages in the shadow of the nuclear plant. […] On one occasion he was detained by police and warned it was illegal for him to be in the area. Toshiki was having none of it. “The government is not going to tell me where I can and cannot go in my own country,” he told me. By this time, at least he had got hold of a Geiger counter.

As such acts of quiet bravery suggest, the greatest challenge of all is that combination of industry and government, Japan, Incorporated. Pilling would like to leave his readers hopeful. He is not naive, but the book does conclude on a note of optimism, written just after current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reelected in the fall of 2012. Economic thinker that he is, Pilling clearly wants to hope that Abe’s bold claims about implementing a vigorous economic policy will actually do something positive for Japan and thus for the world. After all, as he writes in the book’s final sentences,

It seems a safe assumption that, whether [the economic reform program] works or not, Japan will remain one of the world’s top five economies for several decades to come. […] [I]t would be foolish to count Japan out just yet.

It’s been a year and a half since Pilling wrote these lines, the economic plan is not working, and the prime minister and his supporters are letting down their countrymen — many of whom voted them into office — by sidetracking themselves into cheap nationalistic ploys to stay in power. (Pilling would likely agree with this assessment, given his recent articles in the Financial Times.) Many outside Japan and many within are wholly confused by the leadership’s determination to drag the country backward into history wars or tests of the US-Japan alliance when there is such promise within Japanese society to benefit the nation and the world. For these stories and more, Pilling’s Bending Adversity is an important and urgent read.


Alexis Dudden has written extensively about Japan and Northeast Asia, publishing in Dissent, The Diplomat, and The Huffington Post, among other venues.

LARB Contributor

Alexis Dudden is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. She has written extensively about Japan and Northeast Asia, publishing in Dissent, The Diplomat, and the Huffington Post among other venues. Her books include Troubled Apologies Among Japan, Korea, and the United States and Japan’s Colonization of Korea, and she is currently a visiting research fellow at Princeton University writing a book about Japan’s territorial disputes and the changing meaning of islands in international law. 


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