"To instruct and to delight", which Horace called the aim of the poet, is at least as appropriate for the non-fiction author. All too often, instruction spills over into lecturing and any delight is swamped by turgid prose. David Pilling's "Bending Adversity", however, is a sterling example of just how instructive and delightful non-fiction can be. Mr. Pilling, the Financial Times Tokyo bureau chief from 2002 from 2008, has an expert knowledge of Japan's economic and political systems. He also shows a perceptive appreciation for Japanese history and its culture. Finally, he is a gifted and entertaining writer, who can focus on touching vignettes or on complex ideas with equal precision. This is perhaps the best book I have read about Japan in quite a while; I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in where Japan is now.
Mr. Pilling begins and ends with the triple shock of March 2011 -- the earthquake, the tsunami, and the release of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. He brilliantly describes what the stricken area looked like after the disaster, and how people behaved during and after the crisis. They behaved very well, which brings him to his trope of "bending with adversity". The Japanese as a people, a friend tells him, are not destroyed by calamity, because they adapt, move on, and begin again. He explores this idea through the last 150 years of Japanese history, when violent change (the opening of Japan, Japan's defeat in World War 2} provoked dramatic adaptation.
The middle part of the book discusses Japan's economic situation, and Mr. Pilling very pertinently points out that reports of its death have been been exaggerated. He quotes a British parliamentarian, visiting Tokyo in the mid-2000's. Stunned by the brilliant lights and hyperactivity of the capital, the MP said "If this is a recession I want one". Japan has lost ground relatively, in part because of falling prices and a declining population: price-adjusted GDP per capita has held up much better than other measures. And this is reflected in the fact that in absolute terms Japan still enjoys very high living standards, very low crime, and a low unemployment rate.
This isn't to say there are not problems. There are, and Mr. Pilling shows how some of these impeded recovery from the 2011 disaster, and may in fact have contributed to it. A cosy bureaucratic/business establishment acts to paper over, to conceal, to misdirect. Politics remains ineffective; it is two decades since the bubble collapsed, but many of the reforms that could have alleviated or avoided it remain undone. And Japan's external relations are increasingly problematic, in large part because of the rise of China, but also because of Japan's unwillingness to confront its past.
Still and all, Mr. Pilling's exploration of Japan is much more hopeful, and much less cliched, than much other recent writing on Japan. His book is well worth reading.