The all-time, best-selling book by a Western author translated into Japanese is said to be Harvard professor Ezra Vogel's controversial "Japan as Number One: Lessons for America," published in 1979. After the 1986 Plaza Accord, Japan was beset by stock inflation, and during those boom years, referred retrospectively as the "bubble economy," many began wondering if Vogel's predictions might come true. But after the law of gravity inevitably set in, the impact on capital and property markets was precipitous, and by 1991, a less-heralded writer named Jon Woronoff had penned an ambitious rebuttal to Vogel's book titled "Japan as (Anything but) Number One."
Still, Japanese haven't forgotten Vogel's sunny optimism about their country; so when Sapio (May) produced a cover story titled "Will Japan become the world's top superpower in 2050?" it assigned U.S.-based Makiko Izuka to track down Vogel, a spry 85, and ask if the impressions that originally led to his bestselling work have changed, and if so how.
"At present it is pointed out that Japan faces a variety of problems, and I'm hearing numerous voices expressing concern for Japan's future," Vogel begins. "But I don't think things are that serious. That's because when viewed globally, Japan is quite a good society." What follows is two pages of running commentary.
Vogel acknowledges that the population decline will present problems, solutions for which will be needed to support the aging population. Even with the total population decreasing to 90 million, however, considering the size of Japan's land area, Vogel does not see that to be a serious problem.
What he admires most about Japan is its orderly society, which has few equals in the world. For the past 10 years, Vogel has welcomed about 60 students a month to his home, where Japan's future is discussed. He says he's "deeply impressed" by the poise of the Japanese students he meets, particularly in terms of how they demonstrate mutual respect and pay attention to the opinions of others. Chinese students by contrast, show a tendency toward being ambitious and egotistical. When the Japanese students are asked in which country they hope to live in the future, they usually reply "Japan." In contrast, the replies given by Chinese students are typically the U.S., Australia or Canada.
So while China's overall economic indices have eclipsed Japan's, that country confronts serious problems such as the growing gap between the wealthy and poor, as well as a deteriorating environment, leading many concerned individuals to consider emigrating. Japan's solidly established middle class makes it a good place to live. Vogel also has a favorable impression of Japanese women. Thirty years ago, the standard for women to achieve equality with men obliged many of them to affect masculine mannerisms. But Vogel feels that Japanese women are able to debate with men as equals while maintaining their femininity.
"When I published 'Japan as Number One,' the country was advancing incrementally and a mood of optimism prevailed. People believed that the standard of living for the children's generation would surpass their parents. But presently many Japanese rue the future and feel secure if they can maintain the status quo."
Thanks to their reasonably good standard of living, however, Vogel would not describe Japanese concerns as serious compared with the disaffected Americans who support Donald Trump.
Japan's postwar economic boom was created by "hungry" industrialists like Soichiro Honda and Konosuke Matsushita, who were not averse to taking major risks. This is why South Korea's Samsung has surpassed such Japanese majors as Toshiba and Hitachi and Vogel thinks Japan will need to return to these roots if it wants things to become better. He also advises Japan to make greater efforts at globalization, such as by employing outstanding foreign human resources and achieving a more cosmopolitan business environment. Along with expanding usage of English, its universities should change to start the academic year from September in line with other countries, and work at bringing in excellent students and faculty from abroad. And thirdly, Vogel advises Japanese politicians to pay more heed to the advice of the nation's elite bureaucrats, as was commonly practiced in the 1970s.© Japan Today