Connect with us


BOOK REVIEW | 'Crisis Narratives, Institutional Change, and the Transformation of the Japanese State'

Edited by Sebastian Maslow and Christian Wirth, "Crisis Narratives" assembles the work of a dozen scholars to explain how Japan has changed since the 1990s.



This skillfully edited volume by a dozen scholars explains the changes that have taken place over the past three decades in Japan. Crisis Narratives, Institutional Change and the Transformation of the Japanese State does this by focusing on different crossroads the country has faced during those years. 

The week I first arrived in Japan, in the summer of 1990, Iraq's late dictator, Saddam Hussein, also invaded neighboring Kuwait. His act set off the Gulf Crisis and subsequent war over the next six months.

During that time, I was able to closely watch Japan's diplomatic response, or lack thereof, from within Japan. Eventually I also studied it academically. Japan failed to grasp the changed international situation following the end of the Cold War. And it failed to adjust its policies (not playing a direct role in global security affairs). 

Nor did Tokyo understand the political frustration in the United States with Japan's disengaged, ATM-like approach to foreign affairs. The end result became an unprecedented domestic political crisis.

The Editors' Approach

Although the present volume does not discuss this episode in any detail, I do not use the word "crisis" lightly here. The situation brought about major changes to Japan. And it looked like Japan would not deal with it well at first. Indeed, one famous book at the time was titled, Nihon no Haiboku (Shinchosha Publisher, 1996), or Japan's defeat.

Sebastian Maslow and Christian Wirth have edited a very interesting collection of chapters on Japanese society and the state in the decades that followed. It is an effort to show the "profound change" that Japan is going through as compared to "the conventional diagnosis of stasis…[in] much of the existing scholarship" (p. 3).

Specifically, they use the critical sociological approach of Colin Hay's "crisis narratives" as a way to examine and explain state transformation. The book's contributors analyze "both the real failures of Japanese social, economic, and political systems and the subjectively perceived and narrated interpretations of decline and crisis" (Ibid).

Some of the challenges faced during this time included the North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons tests and Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese citizens. As well, there was the Okinawa rape incident, the Taiwan Strait crisis, and the Asian financial crisis. Moreover, there were the 9.11 terrorist attacks, 3.11 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster, to name a few. Some of these topics are also covered in this book.

Giving It Structure

The book is divided into 3 parts, with 10 chapters, in addition to an introduction and conclusion. All are carefully researched and generally well-argued. Overall, it reads like a very well edited book with a good division of labor. Topics that weren't discussed in certain chapters were nicely covered in others. 

As such it reads quite well, although there are of course differences in perspectives between the authors. This is explained later.

Book Cover (Courtesy of SUNY Press)

Table of Contents

Introduction: Crisis Narratives, Institutional Change, and the Transformation of the Japanese State (Christian Wirth and Sebastian Maslow)

Part I: Narrating Japan's Social Crisis

Chapter 1. Japan's Melting Core: Social Frames and Political Crisis Narratives of Rising Inequalities (David Chiavacci)

Chapter 2. Authoritarian Populism in Everyday Life: The Discursive Politics of Demographic and Lifestyle Changes in Japan (Hiroko Takeda)

Chapter 3. Save Our Students? Shifting Subjects of Higher Education Crisis in Japan (Jeremy Breaden)

Part II: Narrating Japan's Political and Economic Crises

Chapter 4. A Crisis of Democracy: Civil Society and Energy Politics Before and After the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster (Koichi Hasegawa)

Chapter 5. From Leader to Laggard? Crisis Narratives and Structural Reform in Japanese Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (Iris Wieczorek)

Chapter 6. Contradiction and Discontent in Japan: Abenomics and the Failing Politics of Economic Reform (Saori Shibata)

Part III: Narrating Japan's National Security Crisis

Chapter 7. "Failures" and "Crises" in Japanese Foreign Policy: The Democratic Party of Japan's Rule 2009-2012 (Paul O'Shea)

Chapter 8. From Ashes to New: The Delegitimization and Comeback of Japan's Official Development Assistance (Raymond Yamamoto)

Chapter 9. A State of Crisis: North Korean Missiles, Abductions, and the Transformation of Postwar Japan (Ra Mason and Sebastian Maslow)

Chapter 10. "The World is Marveling at Japan!" Japanese Strategies to Avoid its "Crisis of Confidence" (Shogo Suzuki)

Conclusion: Narrating Japan's Crisis, Narrating Japan's Rebirth (Sebastian Maslow and Christian Wirth)

Assessing the Book

I feel that several of the authors downplayed the multiple crises Japan is facing. Said another way, because Japan does not face the problems head on and offers solutions that miss the real issue, the challenges only compound, like interest. So, while the severity of each challenge may vary and appear small at a particular juncture, they can easily multiply and affect one another, creating a snowballing or domino effect and becoming a real crisis. 

Solutions offered by politicians and bureaucrats also create what I call a "policy traffic jam" in which movement gets bogged down and works at cross purposes. For this, a bigger picture is needed. This may be what the authors of this book seek to explore in a future volume.

The editors of the present volume conclude that Japan "is heading," in their words, "toward a 'catastrophic equilibrium' where the 'old cannot die, and the new cannot be born' until a more drastic 'decisive intervention' occurs, or the existing structures die away" (p. 290). Those interested in Japan will want to read this book and reference it.

About the Book:

Title: Crisis Narratives, Institutional Change, and the Transformation of the Japanese State

Editors: Sebastian Maslow and Christian Worth 

Publisher: State University of New York Press (2021)

ISBN: Hardcover : 9781438486093, 344 pages, November 2021

ISBN: Paperback : 9781438486086, 344 pages, July 2022

Learn More and buy the book through the publisher's website or other online booksellers. 


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge

Our Partners