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The South Atlantic Quarterly 99.4 (2000) 629-668

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A Roadmap to Millennial Japan

Tomiko Yoda

This introductory essay aims to provide an overview of the context that brings together the articles in this issue: the ongoing discursive construction of Japan during the long economic downturn of the 1990s. A huge volume of commentaries on the malaise afflicting Japan, unleashed particularly from the neoliberal and neonationalist camps, has fed into and shaped the impression of overall national doom. Against this backdrop, the present essay points out a significant degree of complicity between the Japanese neoliberals and neonationalists, despite their apparent disagreements on their attitudes toward economic globalization and the role of nation-states today. I examine some of the representative claims made by the two sides, analyzing the politics involved in their discursive manufacturing of the "crisis."

In the latter half of the essay I explore some theoretical frameworks through which to make sense of 1990s Japan that counters the widespread tendency to isolate it both spatially and temporally. Instead of defining the 1990s through the recession and its effects, I suggest examining the decade in relation to the [End Page 629] broader historical trends of globalization and postmodernization that followed the completion of Japan's postwar economic modernization. I argue, furthermore, that this perspective helps us understand the profound sense of not only economic but also sociocultural disturbances in Japan with which the decade has become identified.

The economic turmoil of the 1990s has often been cast as both the cause and the effect of the sudden malfunction of the "Japanese system," which allegedly encompasses not only politics and economics but also the nation's social and cultural organizations that took shape in the process of its modernization. This essay approaches sociocultural trends in the 1990s not as the effects of such an abrupt breakdown but as a culmination of the historical process by which the apparatus for producing and reproducing the national community has undergone a complex course of decline. In the last section of the essay I discuss how we may analyze the 1990s as a paradoxical nexus of the retreating national order, on one hand, and the widespread eruption of nationalistic sentiment, on the other. The section also examines the dominant currents of the intellectual landscape in 1990s Japan and the nature of the crisis that it articulates.

It is the built-in constraint of the introduction that the discussion here barely scratches the surface of an extremely broad range of issues. Furthermore, an attempt to make sense of events so close to the time of writing and still in the process of unfolding cannot help but be tentative and speculative. While recognizing these limitations, however, I believe that taking a stab at mapping this complex terrain into some manner of coherence may contribute to the discussion of what really is at stake in trying to understand the nation's turbulent decade.

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The recession of Japan in the 1990s acquired an epochal status as it became increasingly identified with the breakdown of the nation's unique economic system: the growth machine supported by the iron triangle (industry, bureaucracy, and single-party politics) as well as by the ethos of harmony and formidable work ethics of a homogeneous and highly disciplined population. It is said that while this formation underwrote the nation's "miraculous" high-speed industrialization and growth that made it a poster child of modernization theory and enabled its subsequent rise to the ranks of global economic superpower, it is now strangling the nation with a stagnant economy. [End Page 630] Commonly thought to be at the heart of the so-called Japanese disease is the impasse stemming from the giant export-dependent economy that has left its domestic economy relatively underdeveloped. Conditions such as an extremely high cost of living rigged by an overregulated and inefficient import, distribution, and retail structure; the inadequacies of social security; and a tax system that punishes consumption have consistently squeezed the funding from Japanese households into industries as a cheap source of money, mediated largely by commercial banks. Under heavy protection...