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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The State of Simmering Discontent in Japan

Beneath the sheen of high-tech tranquility that characterizes modern, conformist Japan stirs an angry, alienated and deeply pessimistic populace teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

So the ascendance of a hawkish new leader, Shinzo Abe, as the handpicked successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday raises fears that the nation's long-repressed well of virulent nationalism, buried just beneath the surface, could again rise up, emboldened by a U.S. presidential administration seeking a surrogate partner to contain China's ambitions in Asia.

Japan is rapidly aging because its young women refuse to marry and bear children. They say raising kids in modern Japan is far too expensive and offers too little reward. Besides, compared to their mothers, the aspirations of educated women extend beyond child rearing, even though most Japanese men still insist their wives stay home.

The nation's middle-class army of sarariman, or white-collar workers, uniformed in their blue suits and white shirts, is committing suicide in record numbers -- three times as many as die in car accidents -- because the system of lifetime employment in which they started their careers is crumbling.

More troubling still are the more than 1 million Japanese twentysomethings who cannot find work and are not involved in any educational or training programs. A high number of these adults, primarily men, are social isolates, or hikikomori. They hide in their rooms for months or years at a time rather than try to fit into a society that demands mass conformity and uses quietly powerful repression to forge it.

This Japan has yet to design the social architecture necessary to embrace the individualism and self-expression we in the West associate with the post-industrial era. Neither schizophrenic nor suffering from any other mental illness, the only refuge these hikikomori find from a society they cannot trust is the bedrooms in their parents' apartments. They are the nails that stick up and refuse to be hammered down.

Into this unhappy stew of unacknowledged social unrest enters Abe, 52, who replaces the maverick Koizumi after his more than 5 1/2 years at the helm of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has essentially run the nation since 1955. Recent headlines proclaiming Japan's robust return to economic vibrancy are premature: the economy grew by only 0.2 percent in the last quarter (compared with nearly 3 percent in the United States), the national fiscal debt is 170 percent of gross domestic product and the nation is rapidly depopulating. Last year, there were 15,000 more deaths than births in Japan, a nation that does not welcome immigrants. Demographers predict that by 2020, one in nine Japanese will be over the age of 80.

Hobbled by the mountains of debt they accumulated after the collapse of the infamous "bubble economy" in 1989, Japanese corporations restored profits by laying off thousands of older workers and by not hiring younger ones. Little wonder that youth unemployment is at record highs, that more than 20 percent of working people in their 20s now earn less than 1.5 million yen a year (just under $13,000) or that nearly 32 percent of young workers are "nonpermanent" -- without job guarantees, annual raises or other benefits. Fifteen years ago, the comparable figure was 10 percent.

Abe, a well-known hawk, wants to rewrite the country's postwar Constitution in order to empower Japan's military. He promises to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which venerates World War II criminals, a move that riles leaders in Beijing and Seoul because it remains the spiritual pillar of the nation's wartime past. Abe is the grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who ratified the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that even today keeps American Marines on Okinawa. He wants to deepen the already-strong defense bonds that link Tokyo and Washington. He envisions Japan as a "country that can be proud of its history and culture," a nod to the virulent strains of nationalism still frighteningly potent within Japanese society.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush naturally sees Japan and Abe as Washington's closest ally in the Pacific, even though Tokyo's relations with its most important neighbors, China and South Korea, have never been more on edge. A United States that once worried about containing Japanese militarism now insists that Japan's Self-Defense Forces participate in the rehabilitation of Iraq, "putting boots on the ground," as U.S. officials put it, even though these acts violate the Constitution that U.S. occupation forces dictated to the Japanese. The White House and Pentagon would welcome a Japan that beefed up its defenses against a potential threat from North Korea and the surging power of China.

Yet this narrow focus on projecting military power obscures some potentially more disturbing truths. Only a few steps outside the spotlight being trained on Abe are powerful political leaders such as Shintaro Ishihara, the governor of metropolitan Tokyo. He wrote the book "The Japan That Can Say `No'," which controversially advocated that Japan strongly reassert its own national and military independence. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has recently advocated that his nation needs to study the option of "going nuclear," and no one doubts that Tokyo has lots of plutonium from its nuclear power plants and the technology to build bombs.

At times of economic and social strain, when millions of young men wonder how they will find work and what their nation will become, virulent forms of nationalism have a way of binding up deeper wounds -- witness the protests against Japan in China. Many Japanese recognize that their nation, so stifled by Washington since the end of World War II, has yet to determine its identity and national interests.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine a day when a re-armed, angry and nuclear-potent Japan cuts its ties with Washington in order to reassert a more independent foreign policy? Would that make Pacific Asia a more tranquil or a more dangerous place?

Japan needs to decouple its future from the United States, resolve the challenges of its history and move vigorously to create a new and more integrated relationship with its long-term economic partners in Asia, especially China.

The leaders of Japan's multinational businesses well understand this, and they might yet help transform the practical vision of their new prime minister. If they do not succeed, however, Abe's ascension ultimately might trigger the kind of arms race and brinksmanship that would destabilize all of Asia. In that sense, he could be the wrong man at the wrong time.

Michael Zielenziger is a former Tokyo-based foreign correspondent and the author of "Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation." This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times