The Italianization of Japan

There was a time when all things Japanese was money.

Rodeo and Fifth-Avenue shopkeepers drooled over Japanese tourists carrying wads of cheap dollars for anything made by Gucci, Pucci and Fiorucci. Investment bankers yearned to get their hands on the hundreds of trillions of yen sitting in near-zero-interest postal savings accounts. Law firms fought over the few top grads who could speak Japanese — or at least had a Japanese surname. Young Americans were convinced that only country bumpkins bought American cars instead of Japanese marvels of rolling efficiency. Hip sophisticates devoted themselves to learning the Japanese way of speaking, doing business, teaching math, sleeping, eating, fornicating.

What a difference a Lost Decade (or 15 years) makes!

Now Koreans are the electronics wizards and China and India are the hubs for business growth. Nobody wants to learn Japanese any more except maybe sushi names at Korean-owned sushi bars. And the loss of interest seems mutual. The Japanese are trying to figure out a way to get the 800-pound gorilla to leave their country, especially now that China is the world’s number 1 car market and Russia doesn’t seem to have much interest in nuking Japan.

As with the end of any love affair, the post mortems are coming fast and ferocious. The American media is already dissecting Japanese culture and character for the seeds of that nation’s downfall. Is it its homogeneity, frugality, rigidity, arrogance? Possibly eating lots of starchy rice makes people complacent? Or sushi and miso doesn’t quite provide enough calories for sustained effort?

In the American mind Japan is slipping rapidly down the slippery slope of cultural and economic senescence that transformed Ancient Rome into modern Italy — a once vigorous people long smothered in too much sauce. A place you go to on vacation, not on business. A place you rhapsodize with words like quaint, beautiful, charming, atmospheric, instead of dynamic, industrious, thrilling.

There’s more than spurious analogies for this supposition of Japan’s decline as an economic powerhouse and poetic decay into a great tourist destination. A nation that prides itself on its homogeneity, racial purity, conformity, has no rough, vigorous stock from which to draw the fuel for propulsion back up into the ranks of world powers. Japan has no porous borders across which large numbers of determined migrants can slip so as to infuse that nation with the vitality that keeps old wealthy economies (like the U.S.) competitive and perpetually renewed.

Of course Japan is a very wealthy and powerful nation relative to most of the world’s nations, and will remain so for at least a couple more decades. But when you see the raw energy of a China or India — with its vast hinterlands overflowing with youth wanting half a chance to prove themselves hard workers — you can’t help feel the inevitability of Japan’s Italianization. That’s hardly a disaster. Even today the dark, rain-drenched wooden structures of Kyoto or Nara holds more enchantment for me than the crumbling gray marble of Rome. And I’d rather be eating mochi and sipping tea on a platform by the rushing Arashiyama River than play Karaoke Revolution or Cruising USA on a Japanese game machine.