This year, 2018, is the 150 year anniversary of the Meiji Revolution. This period saw a massive upheaval in Japanese society. Its policy of isolationism ending with the Black Ships of American, Matthew Perry and the military Shogunate that had ruled for 400 years was overthrown. The Emperor Meiji mandated both political and cultural reforms that resulted in one of the fasted Industrialisations in the world, removed anti-finery laws that kickstarted the textile industry (the gorgeous kimono we appreciate today were a rarity before this); and encouraged western styles of dress: suits, ties, bowler hats. Over the ocean, China and the rest of Asia was being carved up by colonial powers, and Japan did not want to be next (and of course, in the following century, became a colonizing power itself).
Back to the present and Japan stands at the precipice again as already the effects of the rapidly ageing population can be felt. “Desperately seeking staff” signs line the windows, and bathroom stalls of businesses, and it is reported that within Tokyo, 60 to 70 percent of late night staff at convenience stores are foreigners. Industry wants the government to include convenience stores within the work visa.
Yet, politics here seems to be stalled. Public awareness and interest in the machinations of the Abe government is as low as evidenced by the appalling rates of election turnouts.
Hiromi Murakami asks the question, Where Is Japan Going? in her Japan Times article, focusing on entrenched, counter-productive and even corrupt work norms, along with the general malaise and apathy surrounding politics.
As a permanent resident of Japan, and someone interested in the concept of identity, I worry about two scenarios that, taken to extremes, would be extremely damaging to this wonderful country: Either a conservative, “Let’s keep Japan Japanese“, narrative that sees foreigners and foreign ideas pushed out; or, on the other side of the spectrum, the essence of what makes Japan special, its unique culture and mindset, being lost to inundation as the native population shrinks and foreign workers are brought in to prop up society.
Partly to explore this concern, and partly to provoke more thought and conversation about it I made a film, called Impossible to Imagine. After all the heavy talk of politics and depopulation, a romantic film might not be how one might expect me to tackle the issue, but I hope that it will be both an enjoyable experience to watch, and then provoke some questions to talk about later. The title refers to my inability to see where Japan is going to end up in the next 15 to 20 years. Will it limp along in this post-Bubble, Showa-era-leftover way? Will, 150 years after the West forced its way in and caused changes and upheaval, it be consumed or will it be again able to revolutionise, to take the best from the outside world, remix it Japanese-style, and come out stronger than before?
What do you think?