It’s good to get away from Greece every once in a while just to be reminded of how big and complex the world is. Japan is a faraway country that is at the epicenter of tectonic changes that affect us all. It is an extremely serious country and very different to Greece. So many little things make an impression. Like the renovation of a building right in the center of Tokyo. Construction went on into the night, but there was no noise, no shouting. The sidewalk in front of it was cordoned off with dozens of small lights and workers in fluorescent vests politely guided pedestrians safely past the works, bowing their apologies for the inconvenience caused. When a bullet train pulls up at a station, there are always cleaning crews waiting right where the doors will open. They bow to the passengers, clean out the car within five minutes flat and bow to the new passengers coming in.
Yes, it is a very different country. Its people work very hard and like to go out quite a lot because their apartments are very small and often far away from work. The country right now is facing a major demographic challenge. The director of Japan’s biggest newspaper told me on my recent visit there how the workers who deliver newspapers often have to check if the subscribers are alive, because most are very elderly. No one knows how the problem of the aging population will be solved, but the solution of immigration has been ruled out so far. Academics and businessmen prefer to focus on how technology, and robotics specifically, can help the country’s elderly citizens.
But Japan also has China to deal with. Relations between the two countries have always been tense. China is aware of its own strength, wants to be the leading force in the region and takes every opportunity to strengthen its strategic advantage. Just to give you an idea of its sheer size: I recently read that every four months, China’s growth comes to the same amount as Greece’s annual gross domestic product. And if there is one capital where concerns are running high over whether the West – and the USA in particular – is entering a state of decline and straying from its post-World War II values, then that is Tokyo.
There are, of course, politicians and others who believe that, being an island, Japan can shut itself off itself off from the rest of the world and be self-sufficient. That said, it is clear that Japan will soon face some major strategic dilemmas as global power and money shifts to Asia. The world is changing rapidly. Christine Lagarde recently said that the International Monetary Fund may move its headquarters to Beijing in the next few years, when China surpasses the US in wealth.
Over here in Greece, this may all seem somewhat academic, the problems of a different world. But when we’re talking about a country like Japan, there is nothing distant about these issues.