The Future of Japan

What do the next forty years hold for Japan?

May 18, 2001

What do the next forty years hold for Japan?

In 2040, the United States and Europe will still be important, for they have enormous strengths and will be less troubled by the internal conflicts and jockeying that will confound Asia. But at some point, economic primacy is likely to return to Asia after a 500-year absence.

Yet, the Asia that gains primacy will also be very different from the one today. Indeed, those changes within Asia will be almost as important to the world as the relative changes in power between East and West.

And while we cannot see into the future, one can see the beginnings of the reordering within Asia. Some countries are rising and others faltering — just as European and American states have risen and fallen in past centuries. Hints of these changes are visible in the most unlikely places.

In 2040, Tokyo looks like a very pleasant place. The move of the imperial family to Kyoto has opened up the imperial Palace as a grand new park for the elderly in central Tokyo.

Sprightly men and women in their eighties and nineties, many sporting bionic legs and the new artificial skin that does away with wrinkles, walk their robotic pets through the park, allowing them to lift their legs on trees and emit a stream of fragrant perfume.

Decentralization and the diminishing importance of government bureaucracies have led businesses and professionals to move elsewhere in Japan. The resulting 30% reduction in Tokyo’s population has been catastrophic for property prices, but a huge benefit for renters and for the livability of Tokyo.

The old crack about Japanese living in rabbit hutches has disappeared now that the average Japanese has more housing space than the average American. Japan’s population decline has been even greater than anticipated, because many elderly people are moving to Japanese retirement communities in the Philippines and Indonesia. There, they can be pampered inexpensively by nurses and assistants. In Japan, in contrast, labor shortages have made elderly care a bit of a nightmare.

The new Murdoch-owned Nippon Today, with its daily diet of sex, crime and tips on gum care, has eclipsed the Asahi and Yomiuri to become Japan’s leading newspaper. It is delivered electronically to homes around the country and is condemning the way U.S. banks now dominate Japan’s economy.

“Tear It Down,” had been Nippon Today’s banner headline the day the new Citicorp Tower had opened as the tallest building in Japan. But most people seem resigned to the changes — and a bit reassured that Sony-Toyota, Inc., is the largest and most profitable company in the world.

It dominates the market for driverless automobiles and pilotless airplanes as well as for personal-assistant robots. “Japan may be a lesser country today,” explains Prime Minister Makiko Son, “but we Japanese are living better than ever.”