Japan has the world's second largest economy and Japanese brands dominate in many global markets. Japanese citizens enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world and healthcare is universal and affordable. Japan's streets are among the safest anywhere and its people among the most courteous. In PISA comparisons of reading ability, mathematics and science, Japanese students routinely score highly. These and other indices describe a country that is healthy, safe and successful.
But it is possible to paint a very different picture. Japan's economy has been stagnant for two decades and in many highly protected industries Japanese productivity is far below that of its principal competitors. Civil society is anaemic. Bureaucracy is sclerotic. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The UN ranks Japan a shameful 54th in terms of gender equality. Japan (with a current population of 127 million) has produced fewer Nobel Prize winners than either Switzerland or the Netherlands. In international comparisons of English skills, Japan usually scores dismally and its education system is often accused of stifling creativity, originality and initiative. This is a side of Japan of which worldwide consumers of Toyotas, Nikons and Sonys are seldom aware.
Respectful of Japan's very considerable achievements but also honest about its significant problems, the authors of this very readable book set out to describe a better future for Japan. They argue that the country has a huge reservoir of untapped talent, that its protectionist and mercantilist policies are self-defeating, and that what they called its 'self-imposed Orientalism' blinds it to the benefits and advantages of greater exposure to foreigners. Indeed, a key thread running through this book is the extent to which Japan is still a 'closed' society. It can be accused of looking inwards, not outwards, backwards, not forwards. And its attitude to those beyond its shores is at best ambivalent, at worst disdainful.
It may be presumptuous of three foreigners to lecture Japan on its failings and to propose a vision for its future. But the tone of the book is constructive rather than critical and the authors' admiration for much of what Japan has created and achieved is obvious. Moreover, their sources are numerous, documented and reliable and their conclusions convincing. This is a well-researched book which advances a coherent argument: Japan has far more to gain from embracing change than it has to lose.