Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan was buffeted by crises. Economic stagnation left the country with dim prospects. An aging society compounded the problem. Younger Japanese barely remember the era of wealth that catapulted their nation to the world’s No. 2 position.
Nature struck an even deeper blow to the country’s psyche. On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off the northeastern coast of Honshu, triggering a devastating tsunami. More than a quarter million people were displaced and nearly 20,000 were killed. A meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant followed. The world watched in horror as the greater Tokyo area, with a population of 38 million, seemed at risk. The Japanese people averted that nightmare, but 10 years later the trauma of what could have been still lingers.
In “Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century,” American journalist Dreux Richard offers an eclectic collage of stories about Japan in the decade since the earthquake. Three complex dilemmas organize Mr. Richard’s idea of Japan: decline, diaspora (or immigration) and reform.
The strongest in the series are the stories from Japan’s increasingly depopulated rural towns. Mr. Richard visits the port city of Wakkanai, on the northernmost tip of the country. Once a thriving economy, Wakkanai has declined as the region’s fishing stock was depleted and trade with the nearby Russian island of Sakhalin evaporated. Mr. Richard presents a rich array of voices to capture the city’s public-policy challenges as well as the plight of its elderly. Efforts at revitalization are regularly rebuffed. “I’m annoyed by the notion that people in Wakkanai should feel chastened,” laments the city’s former mayor, Yokota Kōichi, “that a city in decline should dare nothing.”
To explore the difficulties faced by Japan’s African immigrants—which officially number almost 22,000 but are estimated to be up to twice that with visa overstayers—Mr. Richard relies mostly on Prosper Anyalechi, a permanent resident from Nigeria who has been in Tokyo since 1991, to tell his own story. Expectations for Mr. Richard’s insights ought to be high, as the author reported extensively on the subject for the Japan Times newspaper between 2011 and 2016. According to Mr. Richard, few African migrants have more than a tenuous claim to a home in Japan; most live in isolation away from the society that hosts them. They have limited access to legal visas, and many who seek opportunity there end up staying beyond the term of their permits.
Every Human Intention
By Dreux Richard
Pantheon, 419 pages, $28
As Mr. Richard points out, when the economy was more vibrant and labor more in demand, Japan’s immigration bureaucrats habitually looked the other way. Now the migrants rely on informal networks of communication between Africa and Japan for tips on jobs, connections and schemes to make money. Lucrative plots to send containers of auto parts home to Africa entice would-be entrepreneurs, while Tokyo’s red-light districts seem replete with Nigerian owners and bouncers. The suggestion that even the most well-intentioned migrant will eventually fall to the seedier side of Japanese life permeates the success stories here.
But Mr. Richard treads lightly on the question of race and does not examine, for instance, how the African experience compares with those of other foreigners in Japan—Chinese, Korean, Filipino, American. Why are the Japanese whose lives intersect with Mr. Anyalechi’s and others like him absent for much of the story? And what keeps Mr. Anyalechi in Japan? Even those with wives and children in Nigeria seem to resist their homeland’s call as they become disillusioned with their lives in Japan.
The final section of the book focuses on the reconstitution of Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency after Fukushima. Here Mr. Richard uncovers an intriguing group: the academics who for years toiled outside the close-knit institutional network of Japan’s “nuclear village.” Before 2011, oversight of the nuclear industry fell to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the same bureaucracy that urged the industry’s success. Regulation was lax, to the jeopardy of public safety. After Fukushima a new agency had to be designed, one dedicated to public safety rather than industry profitability.
Though it’s wonky in parts, there is drama in Mr. Richard’s telling. Staffing the new agency was critical, resulting in a tug of war between those inside or affiliated with the industry and those new academics brought in to be “neutral.” Scientists accustomed to accepting ambiguity in their findings were caught off guard by the public’s hunger for certainty. After one particularly contentious public hearing, during which scientists refused to say definitively whether Japan’s nuclear plants rested on an active fault, one reporter expostulated: “What good are you to society? You clowns.”
Mr. Richard organizes these many disparate stories of individual lives under the banner of Japan’s sweeping social challenges. For anyone who has lived in Japan, these stories will be recognizable, even if the specific subcultures are unfamiliar. I happily followed Mr. Richard as he described life in a declining peripheral port, or in the Nigerian diaspora, or as a scientist called upon to make post-Fukushima Japan safe again. But the stories are disconnected; the journey is often difficult to follow and the final destination unclear. At times Mr. Richard chooses to be a journalist and at others to inhabit his characters. The book is at its best when he writes as a journalist.
A decade after Japan’s worst disaster since World War II, Japanese society is still aging rapidly and the bureaucracy still trying to cope with an increasing number of foreigners. Nuclear power continues to be on the agenda, though the public remains uneasy about it. A global pandemic has added to Japan’s churn of 21st-century transformation. Mr. Richard leaves us worried for the lives we encounter in a globalizing Japan, but they may be no more or no less precarious for being lived in Japan. If these early decades are anything to go by, the 21st century will force ever greater changes on all of us.
Ms. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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