This week I went to Tokyo for a couple of days on business. I was last in Japan in the fall of 2003, but only went to Hiroshima that time. It's probably been fifteen years at least since I've been in downtown Tokyo. I forgot less Japanese than I feared, probably because I watch some Japanese television in Shanghai. But much seemed unfamilar to me---in part because I've forgotten, but also because things have changed.
What struck me most, was not new buildings, subway lines and stops, or shops, or even the signs of decline---the merger of Sumitomo and Mitsui Banks, once proud houses in their own right, or the obvious decline of Japanese department stores, some of which have even gone out of business. It was the change of mood in the country. When I lived in Japan some 30 years ago, it was the era of "Japan as Number One", when troupes of American and European businessmen made pilgrimages to the country to learn about quality and inventory control, problem solving, and kaizen. This was before the rise of China, and Japan was the economic powerhouse that seemed to threaten all.
The Japanese themselves seem bewildered by how fast things have changed. For them, too, all eyes are now on China, and Japan seems to have been passed by. I have to say, even Tokyo did not seem crowded to me--as if half the population had retired and moved to the country. The subway at rush hour was not as packed as Shanghai's, and famous streets like Ginza seemed nearly empty. Seoul has a lot more bustle these days. My memory of Tokyo is of masses of people, rushing everywhere---with order, but haste. Now, the crush of the crowd seems less, and the pace decidedly more desultory as well.
I only went to Japan a few times during the 1990s, which is now referred to as the "lost decade." I met up with some old colleagues (one from 25 years ago), and they said that younger generation in Japan that grew up during the 90s is both disillusioned and without the work ethic of days past. Though a lot of hope was put in the change of power a few months ago when the LDP was defeated after 50 years in power, that hope has pretty much dissipated (sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Just before I went to Japan, I saw a TV program on NHK that was about homeless people in Tokyo. There were homeless even when I was living there many years ago, but they were really on the fringe---now, due to job losses, it is a big problem. Changes in the labor laws in the country in the past few years have also created a much larger contingent workforce, with little to no job security (this is being cited in Japan as one cause of Toyota's recent troubles, since contingent workers are said to have less commitment to quality).
One person said to me that it has been difficult for Japanese to adjust to the fact that there is now truly poverty in the country, as in the days right after World War II. Then, Japan "rose from the ashes" to become an economic superpower, full of drive and ambition and with prosperity for the majority. Now, it seems to be in a fog, with no clear path and its young too disillusioned to lead the way, cowed by the great economic engine to the west, China. Demographics do not favor a second coming, either---by 2025 more than 25% of the population will be over 65.