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BOOK REVIEW | 'Examining Heisei Japan, Volume III: Economy'

The third volume, supervised by Shinichi Kitaoka and edited by Takao Komine, describes how unprecedented economic challenges of the Heisei era shaped Japan.



"Examining Heisei Japan, Volume III: Economy" (Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2023) supervised by Shinichi Kitaoka and edited by Takao Komine.

This is the second volume to emerge (and the third volume of the set) in the series, Examining Heisei Japan series sponsored by the Japan Institute for International Affairs. Series supervisor Shinichi Kitaoka and editor Takao Komine introduce how over the Heisei era — the years between 1989 and 2019 — Japan faced not only the collapse of the "bubble economy" but also a number of unfamiliar problems domestically and worldwide that it had to address. These included major natural disasters, war and the fluctuation of energy prices, the Asian Financial Crisis, the Lehman Shock, low birthrates, and a super-aging population.

Komine is a former official with the Economic Planning Agency and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport as well as a senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research. According to him, the policy responses to these issues, unfortunately, "took the form of an ongoing process of trial and error, sometimes so experimental that they were implemented without any clear idea as to the outcome" (p 10). He explains that this was "arguably unavoidable given the unprecedented nature of the issues faced," and observes that many of the Heisei-era problems continue today in the Reiwa period (pp 10-11).

This is true not only for economic policy but for most government remedies as well. They are not thought out well. Indeed, they seem to be made by detached elites without outside and usually better-informed insights. What is worse, officials are often not held accountable.

Shinjuku Skyline in Tokyo, Japan in October 1996 (Heisei 8).

An 'Advanced Nation of Problems'

The purpose of the book, however, is not to assign blame. It is instead to provide lessons for other countries using Japan's economic experiences. This is ironic in a sense because modern Japan's development was a model for countries in the prewar and postwar periods for its successes. But now, it is being looked at as a case study for unsuccessful approaches.

Komine seems to recognize this when he writes, "Japan is often ironically described as the 'advanced nation of problems' in the sense it was the first to experience issues that came later to other countries, or even as the 'department store of problems,' as it has experienced a wide range of challenges" (p 10).

These observations are very much true. But so is the fact that Japan tends to react in a manner that is too little, too late. As such, problems do not go away but grow or compound, like interest. In that sense, just like how Heisei's issues are affecting policies today, so too can it be said that Showa's problems affected the Heisei era. 

Takao Komine (Nakasone Peace Institute website)

Book Structure

Nearly 40 scholars and practitioners contributed chapters to Examining Heisei Japan, Volume 3: Economy (Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture, 2023). It came out ahead of Volume 2 on politics, scheduled for publication at the end of 2023. 

The volume is divided into seven parts, each with several chapters per part. Some of the parts have subthemes as well.

  1. The Heisei Economy
  2. The Formation and Collapse of the Bubble
  3. Deflation and Monetary Policy
    1. Deflation
    2. The Big Bang and the Final Crisis
  4. Koizumi's Reforms
  5. Abenomics
  6. The International Economy
  7. Other Policy Issues
    1. Inequality and Poverty in Japan
    2. Labor-Market Reform
    3. Fiscal Reconstruction
    4. Rural Japan
    5. Population
Former Prime Minister and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Keizo Obuchi announces the new era name "Heisei" at the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo on January 7, 1989.

Visualizing the Future from Japan's Past

Most of the chapters are articles previously published between 1994 and 2018. Others are the texts of speeches, such as one delivered at the Japan National Press Club in 2012. In several cases, the chapters were jointly authored. 

The Foreword, written by Kenichiro Sasae, President of JIIA, and the Preface, written by Komine, were prepared for this volume.

Like the first volume on foreign policy and security issues, the chapters for the most part originally appeared in Japanese. They were later translated into English and published in a variety of journals and newsletters, such as the Asian Economic Policy Review, Japan Review of International Affairs, and the long-defunct Japan Echo

Unlike the earlier book, this book lacks an abstract before each chapter, which I found helpful with Volume 1. However, in this volume, Komine has written an overview for each part, which includes a description of the authors. Most of the chapters include endnotes, a bibliography, and in some cases appendices, for further reading and reference.

The late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces the new era of Reiwa on April 1, 2019. (© Prime Minister's Office)

The book features a six-page chronology — far shorter than the previous volume — of the Heisei Era with dates and events affecting economic matters. As readers know, there were 18 prime ministers during the 30-plus years of the Heisei Era, from Noboru Takeshita to Shinzo Abe. Their names are listed in the chronology, along with the length of their respective times in office.

I highly recommend this volume to those interested in reviewing the past three decades of economic policy and trying to visualize where things are headed over the next couple of decades — both in Japan and abroad.

About the Book:

Title: Examining Heisei Japan, Volume III: Economy 

Authors: Supervised by Shinichi Kitaoka, edited by Takao Komine 

Publisher: Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture (2023)

ISBN: 9784866582276 

Format: Hardcover and eBook


Reviewed by: Robert D Eldridge

Eldridge is a former associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University, and also the translator of numerous books, including "Watanabe Tsuneo, Japan's Backroom Politics: Factions in a Multiparty Age" (Lexington, 2013). Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.

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