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Pressure Points
Is Japan's 'third opening' now under way?

Looking Glass: Novelist Murakami Ryu sees a dim future

Whenever accused of being terminally cautious, conservative and stuck in neutral, Japanese tend to repeat the same thing. Morishima Nobuo is no exception. "People say Japan cannot change, but it went through tremendous transformations during the Meiji Restoration and the post-war Occupation," says the manager of the Isshinjuku public policy school in Tokyo. The instant history lesson is both a reflex — and a mantra of hope: We did it before, and we can do it again. But so far, Japanese society has stubbornly remained closed and bound by traditions. "The difference now is that there is no direct gai atsu [foreign pressure], so we have to change on our own," reckons Morishima. But is sufficient internal pressure for serious reform finally building up? Some Japan watchers are beginning to think so.

Back in 1853, the gai atsu came in the form of four "black ships" — a U.S. navy expedition — that anchored in Uruga Bay near Yokohama, demanding that Japan end its centuries-long policy of isolation. The revolutionary response did not come from the elite. Galvanized by the threat of foreign colonization, young middle- and lower-rank samurai of the Satsuma and Choshu fiefdoms in southwestern Japan pushed out the conservative bureaucrats in their domains and instituted reforms to strengthen their finances and military power. Then the upstarts turned their eyes toward the nation, ousting the flagging Tokugawa shogunate and establishing a new government under Emperor Meiji in 1868. They went on to abolish the feudal system, set up a legislature, enact a constitution, and launch an industrial economy, creating Asia's first modern nation state. Though the young samurai had kicked out the old elite, they also imposed a rigid, hierarchical system to carry through their revolution.

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In 1945, the gai atsu was imposed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the American occupation forces following Japan's defeat in World War II. Aiming to demilitarize Japan, develop a democratic political system, and establish an economy free from the control of the zaibatsu conglomerates that had supported the nation's imperial hubris, MacArthur purged the government and business elite of those too closely associated with the pre-war regime (although most later made their way back). He also pushed through a new constitution and numerous laws, many drawn up by young, idealistic Americans. Entrepreneurs like Morita Akio of Sony and Honda Shoichiro of Honda Motor added to Japan's energy, as did previously marginalized segments of society like blue-collar workers and women. But the guiding force that directed that energy and led the war-shattered country to economic superpowerdom was the highly educated elitist bureaucracy. It still holds sway today.

There is now some gai atsu coming from the emergence of global markets and the demands of foreign investors. But the real pressure for a so-called third opening is from an almost universal recognition among Japanese that their country has not changed with the times. "Politics, economics, and society — we have three bubbles that burst on us. Yet blueprints for dealing with the 21st century — middle- and long-range both — are sadly lacking," wrote former premier Nakasone Yasuhiro recently. "At the moment we need statesmanship in no way inferior to the Satsuma/Choshu reformers or MacArthur." Unfortunately, if there is one thing missing in Japan, it is visionary leadership. So is a third opening a pipe dream? Maybe not. Says veteran Japan watcher Frank Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College: "I firmly believe that the third opening has already begun, that it will continue, and that it will ultimately transform Japanese society, as well as its economy and political leadership."

In a recent essay in the journal Foreign Policy, Gibney wrote that "the third opening is nothing more nor less than the changes now occurring through the 'computerization' of the Japanese people. A salaryman with a personal computer is a different person from the well-mannered cog in a production machine that he has been in the past." The information technology revolution is empowering smaller companies and their workers, as well as individual Japanese. Consumers are surfing for cheaper prices. Informed patients are questioning their doctors. Voters are sharing information about candidates.

Japan's first two openings to the outside, however revolutionary, preserved its "vertical" society. The third — if it succeeds — will not. "In this new 'lateral society' of the Internet world, Japan's younger generation must become individually assertive in a way that was never expected of its elders," Gibney concludes. That will surely be the greatest revolution yet.

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