In Praise of the Japan That Can Be

Review: Clyde Prestowitz, ‘Japan Restored’

Tokyo skyline / AP

Clyde Prestowitz’s rousing Japan Restored documents the contemporary phenomenon of students, businesspeople, and indeed entire nations "passing over" Japan in favor of supposedly more dynamic and vibrant societies elsewhere in Asia. Like many Japan watchers, Prestowitz finds this to be a curious habit. The thought of passing over a country with a population the size of Britain and France combined, the most technologically advanced military in East Asia, and one of the world’s largest economies seems nothing short of bizarre.

Leveraging his decades of public and private sector experience in Japan and the region, Prestowitz takes the reader at breakneck speed through the issues facing America’s oldest Asian ally. No one will mistake the depth of Japan Restored for that of a more academic text (the argument isn’t helped by the lack of references), but its breadth and accessibility allows more casual readers to become conversational in the language of Japanese political and social reform.

Prestowitz places the crisis facing Japan in the context of two other periods of drastic Japanese reinvention: the 1868 Meiji restoration and the postwar consolidation of the modern democratic Japanese state and its institutions, which gives you a sense of scale for the challenges he believes face the Pacific nation. Using the sometimes-clumsy device of an "Extraordinary National Revitalization Commission," Prestowitz draws a contrast at the beginning of each chapter between the Japan of today and the Japan of 2050, a world-leading society that has adopted Prestowitz’s recommendations and emerged at the leading edge of science, technology, and industry.

Along the way, he offers hypothetical scenarios that range from the probable (a retrenchment of the U.S. military presence in Japan) to the probably-not (a 2017 takeover of Sony by Korean electronic giant Samsung). But to quibble with some of the more out-there predictions misses the forest for the trees. Japan Restored is not meant to be a crystal ball, but rather an engaging exercise in diagnosis and prescription. Even the Samsung-Sony takeover appropriately illustrates real issues facing Japanese companies: problems with corporate governance, lifetime employment, and a stubborn refusal to fast-track innovative ideas.

In offering his suggestions for a revitalized Japan, Prestowitz shrewdly avoids a problem common to foreign (and even some Japanese) readings of Japan—that of understanding the country and its problems as though they exist inside a hermetically sealed box, entirely unique and beyond analogy. Japan may be facing a dire fertility problem, but so too are its Northeast Asian neighbors China and South Korea. Japan’s security situation may be growing less certain, but this is a problem it shares with many of its allies. Its economy is too dependent upon preservation of the status quo and too reliant upon old "blue" models of lifetime employment, just like those of many European nations.

Using this comparative method, Prestowitz gains the luxury of picking solutions from all over the world, pushing the reader to believe that the problems facing Japan are far from insurmountable or unique. The answers to the demographic crisis can be found in the natalist and working-women-friendly policies of Northern and Western Europe. Japan should look to Poland, Finland, and Germany for means by which to achieve true national English-speaking proficiency. The "disruptive" and innovative businesses of Silicon Valley and South Korea offer lessons for the now-complacent giants of Japanese industry.

Hearteningly, the direction of Prestowitz’s thinking seems popular with the Japanese government these days. The administration of Abe Shinzō has recently concluded a "final and irreversible" agreement with South Korea over the issue of comfort women, and recent changes to Japanese law give the Self-Defense Forces more tactical flexibility under the "collective defense" doctrine. The gutting of the arms export ban has allowed Japanese defense and heavy industry companies access to new markets and partners. These shifts have allowed Japan to punch at its own weight in international affairs and no longer relegate itself to so-called "checkbook diplomacy."

Abe may be the sort of transformational Japanese prime minister that only comes about once in a generation, but as Prestowitz acknowledges, what is needed to realize his vision is an enthusiasm among Japanese for true reform. A reinvigorated, strengthened Japan is crucial to maintaining America’s chief strategic interest in the Far East: an East Asian community governed according to the rule of law. Japan Restored is a fine call-to-arms for Japan and its allies.