Working in Japan as a foreign correspondent, as I did three decades ago for The Economist and as David Pilling did brilliantly for the Financial Times from 2002 to 2008, can be a frustrating business. You quickly realise that the big news about Japan is that there’s no actual ‘news’ there. Or, more precisely, that Japan is a culture of processes and evolutions, not big events, flashy announcements and dramas. This makes it all the more fascinating, but produces another phenomenon, born out of frustration: a yearning, prevalent among foreign observers and also many Japanese, for a big exception to this rule – an event, even a crisis, that might accelerate these processes and produce a sudden transformation.
Since 1991, when Japan went from boom to bust and stagnation, this yearning has become ubiquitous. A theory, for which there are in fact only two historical moments of relevance, has been heard time and again: that Japan needs a sudden jolt to transform itself. The first such instance was