The ‘lost decade(s)’
The collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s ushered in more than one ‘lost decade’ of economic growth, and it contributed to a wide sense of social and political malaise by the beginning of the new millennium. Far from the new century being a ‘Japanese century’, some foreign commentators now characterized Japan as a ‘setting sun’, as opposed to a ‘rising sun’. To some Japanese observers as well, many of the institutions, structures and values that fostered Japan’s economic growth and social stability in the past came to be seen as obstacles to growth. Recurrent recessions, ‘restructuring’ and high unemployment rates shredded postwar Japan’s social contract – economic prosperity for all in return for hard work and loyalty. Instead, they created insecurity and new troubled social groups of once privileged middle-class salarymen and university graduates, while social issues of ageing, minority discrimination, women’s inequality and problems of children and teenagers remained unresolved. Dashed was the myth of most Japanese as middle class, replaced by a sense of an unequal society ( kakusa shakai ). The mass media, popular culture and consumer industries were often blamed for spreading materialist values and encouraging violence and decadence. We will see that they also offered some new role models and lifestyle choices and pride in Japan’s ‘soft power’ throughout the world.