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In The Handmaid's Tale, her classic dystopian novel of speculative fiction about a United States dominated by religious fundamentalists who have stripped women of virtually all rights, Margaret Atwood writes memorably, "We yearned for the future. How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?" No matter how grim the present, the future holds promise if not necessarily hope: a kind of forward momentum that bespeaks the chance, through impending 20/20 hindsight, to make sense of the blighted present. And it is taken for granted that most works of science fiction or speculative fiction are not really about the future at all; they are about the world we now inhabit, which is explained, rationalized, and interpreted through reference to a possible future.
When the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) began its Possible Futures series (Vol. 1 published in 2011 by NYU Press), it was an effort to grapple with the consequences of the global financial meltdown of 2007–8. And it is telling that in addition to a few detailed chapters about the financial sector, many of the contributors to the initial three volumes were the kind of macrohistorical sociologists, global theorists, and historians of consciousness—like Immanuel Wallerstein, Saskia Sassen, and Gopal Balakrishnan—whose work has aimed at compelling intellectual accounts made that much more alluring by their daunting (and occasionally bewildering) comprehensiveness. After all, if one of the major questions was whether global capitalism had finally hit the skids, as it seemed to have done, what would our world soon look like? Or, perhaps more accurately, should we understand the world of 2008–10 through the rubric of a failed global capitalist system whose wreckage was bound to accumulate?
Predictably, I can find no reference in these initial volumes to one possible future: that the world's most powerful country would have a presidential election won a by a foul-mouthed reality-television star who frequently took time during his campaign—when he was not otherwise engaged in fat-shaming former beauty queens, mocking a disabled reporter, and threatening in particular Muslims and Latinos with an almost Inquisitorial ferocity—to demonstrate a dismaying lack of knowledge of even the most rudimentary history, diplomacy, or science.
Frank Baldwin and Anne Allison, the editors of Japan: The Precarious Future, clearly understand the mandate of the SSRC's series (of which [End Page 479] their volume is one of two that focus explicitly on one country; Russia is the topic of the other) as well as the limits of crystal-ball technology. And so their volume on Japan's possible futures asks its authors to "use their analytical skills and knowledge of Japan and East Asia to look over the horizon," with a focus on the next "three to five years" (p. 2). Fortunately, both editors come to the project with crucially relevant experience allowing them to envision the project and to assemble a singular talented group of contributors. Allison, of course, is the distinguished anthropologist whose most recent monograph, Precarious Japan (Duke University Press, 2014), deals with the social consequences of Japan's recession and the 2011 triple disaster; Baldwin is revered among social scientists working on Japan as the former head of the SSRC's Tokyo office and a central figure in the Abe Fellowship program, the research fellowship that has supported many dozens of scholars (full disclosure: myself included) for lengthy research projects. The volume leans heavily but not exclusively on former Abe fellows for individual chapters.
The volume's early chapters are clustered mostly around the social and economic dimensions of what many have described, perhaps misleadingly, as Japan's "lost 20 years." Sawako Shirahase's superb demographic portrait of the country in chapter 1 calls attention both to Japan's well-established aging, low-birthrate society as well as to the gendered employment and social welfare structures that have bedeviled efforts to reverse the looming fiscal catastrophe associated with many elderly pensioners and few young workers to support them. She, like several...