- Empire of Hope: The Sentimental Politics of Japanese Decline by David Leheny
We have just begun to reckon with the last 30 years—how to understand and name what in conventional shorthand has been called the lost decades. Some scholars of contemporary Japan have taken to putting "lost decades" in quotation marks to acknowledge both the moniker's insufficiencies and [End Page 556] the lack of compelling alternatives. Others subtly perpetuate or even actively embrace the popular characterization of this period as one marked overwhelmingly by loss and decline. In this rendering, decline is a particular kind of loss—of a past assumed to be better than the present, often measured by stubbornly fixed yardsticks such as economic growth, marital status, and fertility rate. A prevailing and unchanging sense of malaise is assumed to be rooted in lived experience, with little clarity about what was lost, when, and by whom.
With refreshing originality, Empire of Hope: The Sentimental Politics of Japanese Decline complicates simple narratives of loss. David Leheny illustrates how expressions of decline and loss were laced with the rhetoric of hope, if not so confident as to be audacious, then substantive enough to affirm that the stories of postbubble Japan have not only been of doom and gloom. He gives examples of narratives that look ahead to a future, one in which, and over which, Japan has agency to become something better. The very imagination of a future that is somehow good challenges the notion that the ability to see beyond the present and to believe in progress has been utterly lost.
In pointing out how such narratives have been tinged with feelings of hope, Leheny offers more than valuable observations about the articulation of national identity in contemporary Japan. The book does something much more innovative: it examines the intersection of narratives and emotion in Japanese political life. Empire of Hope is about how emotions operate in politics: not how they themselves are a motivating force, but how representations of emotions are important elements in the creation of stories that a nation tells itself about itself. The book shows how political ideas, claims, and goals gain traction when they appeal to what is presented as national emotion and are connected to what is presented as a shared national narrative. Japan's shared national narrative, argues Leheny, is that the country's earlier, extended period of economic growth was brought about by "collective national effort" (p. 11). In a time of prolonged economic stagnation, the more optimistic prognoses about Japan's future have stemmed from the belief that the country might once again come together to realize "national success" (p. 12).
Each of five body chapters focuses on one case study to forge a distinct piece of the book's fundamental argument about the inextricability of emotions and narratives. The first takes up the immediate aftermath of the tragic collision of the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries training boat, in 2001. Examining how the Japanese and U.S. governments portrayed feelings about death in relation to the question of whether the boat should be raised to recover the bodies, the chapter illustrates how the description of national emotions was used to preserve a shared story about the triumph of cooperation and mutuality over [End Page 557] cultural difference in the U.S.-Japan relationship. In this chapter that is more about international politics than any other, Leheny introduces an important point about how national emotion and narrative can defuse the explicitly and uncomfortably political, in this case, tensions and resentments about the power differential between the United States and Japan. National emotion and narrative are also shown to elide the complexities of individuals' emotions. In the negotiations over the fate of the Ehime Maru, the construction of a national grief that could be adequately addressed through concrete action was incongruent with the grief of victims' families which could not be so neatly resolved.
The four subsequent chapters are not concerned with...