(…continued from last week)
While change is inevitable after so much devastation and loss of infrastructure, the question becomes: what form and character will those changes take? And how much change will result from how much human energy unleashed?
One cruel scenario is the possibility that this disaster wounds Japan’s ossified postwar paradigm but leaves intact its stultifying bureaucracy (corporate and governmental) and the conformist systems of education and advancement that sustain it. Japan suffers without achieving rebirth.
Assuming that Japan does find the momentum for change, the second question is: What if this momentum takes Japanese society in a negative direction?
Some historians cite the upheaval following the 1923 Kanto Earthquake – a disaster of much greater magnitude that leveled the capital and killed more than 105,000 – as precursor to the 1930s militarism that led the nation into a much worse manmade disaster that culminated with our first two nuclear tragedies. Japan compounds tragedy with foolishness that brings further tragedy.
Worst case stated, I believe an optimistic scenario much more likely to unfold.
Across the Middle East, we have seen systems far more change-resistant than Japan’s topple in weeks as citizens shed their apathy and discovered common cause. Online social media has been the catalyst.
I feel a similar wave gathering strength in Japan. Driven by that innate Japanese disaster reflex, people have shed their apathy and are riveted to the news and social media. With no barriers to free speech, the Japanese web is abuzz with discussions of disaster relief, nuclear fact versus fiction, alternate energy sources, conservation… and politics. Impromptu aid efforts and protest movements are springing up. Rumors abound but propaganda and cover-ups quickly get exposed. The momentum for change is bottom-up.
Populism might provoke a slight up-tick in ultra-nationalism, but to little consequence. Japanese thought and fashion is much more intertwined with the Western democracies than it was in the 1930s. But with no shared passion for guns, religion, lower taxes or libertarianism, America’s Tea Party leaves Japanese cold. The Western trends that catch youthful imagination here are mostly green and lefty. If you want an audience, offer organic, sustainable, alternative energy surfing.
Sneer all you like at the objects of youthful idealism; young Japanese are unlikely to join the nation’s coming wave of entrepreneurialism without some sort of motivating passion. Few are driven to be entrepreneurs by desire to be their own boss.
Those that do take the plunge face fewer barriers than their parents did. Twenty years ago it was nearly impossible to reach a international audience without massive support from large corporations with access to mass-media and control of key station-front retail locations. Today, a web-savvy 20-year-olds can hope to capture imagination from Hokkaido to Okinawa and the world.
Its magnitude remains to be seen, but we can anticipate a coming wave of youthful creativity and productivity in Japan. In circumstances like these, it’s hard-wired. Foreign investors, direct and indirect, have a key role to play in encouraging it.
As the next Honda or Sony is will inevitably be born from this crisis, to foreign angels these shoots spell opportunity. Given the proper amount of support and encouragement built on top of an already strong innovation base, these foundlings may one day make adoptive parents proud.
So if a fund manager or prospective direct investor were to ask me how they should view Japan right now, this would be my answer. If you play the weather and not the climate I have no advice. But if you are among those whose investments are informed by awareness of the fundamental forces of natural evolution, then Japan is an intriguing place to be.
If looking for a bellwether, watch for reform of Japan’s electoral law that prohibits candidates’ use of social media once an election has been called. A restriction of democracy that is almost Egyptian, this reduces politicians to driving around in annoying loudspeaker trucks blasting nothing more sophisticated than, “My name is Tanaka, please vote for me.”
Japanese are finally in the mood to talk about change. Given an opportunity for thoughtful discussion they will vote to make it happen. Your comments are always welcome.