Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

Overview

“[A]n excellent book...” —The Economist

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling presents a fresh vision of Japan, drawing on his own deep experience, as well as observations from a cross section of Japanese citizenry, including novelist Haruki Murakami, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, industrialists and bankers, activists and artists, teenagers and octogenarians. Through their voices, Pilling's Bending Adversity captures the dynamism...

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Overview

“[A]n excellent book...” —The Economist

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling presents a fresh vision of Japan, drawing on his own deep experience, as well as observations from a cross section of Japanese citizenry, including novelist Haruki Murakami, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, industrialists and bankers, activists and artists, teenagers and octogenarians. Through their voices, Pilling's Bending Adversity captures the dynamism and diversity of contemporary Japan.

Pilling’s exploration begins with the 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. His deep reporting reveals both Japan’s vulnerabilities and its resilience and pushes him to understand the country’s past through cycles of crisis and reconstruction. Japan’s survivalist mentality has carried it through tremendous hardship, but is also the source of great destruction: It was the nineteenth-century struggle to ward off colonial intent that resulted in Japan’s own imperial endeavor, culminating in the devastation of World War II. Even the postwar economic miracle—the manufacturing and commerce explosion that brought unprecedented economic growth and earned Japan international clout might have been a less pure victory than it seemed. In Bending Adversity Pilling questions what was lost in the country’s blind, aborted climb to #1. With the same rigor, he revisits 1990—the year the economic bubble burst, and the beginning of Japan’s “lost decades”—to ask if the turning point might be viewed differently. While financial struggle and national debt are a reality, post-growth Japan has also successfully maintained a stable standard of living and social cohesion. And while life has become less certain, opportunities—in particular for the young and for women—have diversified. 

Still, Japan is in many ways a country in recovery, working to find a way forward after the events of 2011 and decades of slow growth. Bending Adversity closes with a reflection on what the 2012 reelection of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and his radical antideflation policy, might mean for Japan and its future. Informed throughout by the insights shared by Pilling’s many interview subjects, Bending Adversity rigorously engages with the social, spiritual, financial, and political life of Japan to create a more nuanced representation of the oft-misunderstood island nation and its people.

The Financial Times
“David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: ‘If this is a recession, I want one.’ Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements.”

The Telegraph (UK)
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: “When we were rich, I hated this country”... well-written... valuable.”

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan."

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - James Fallows
The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction. First the earthquake itself…Then the tsunami…[and] the next stage, in which survivors walked across a flattened landscape searching for any sign of the people, belongings, entire neighborhoods that had disappeared. For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey's Hiroshima—and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/18/2013
Financial Times Asia editor Pilling draws on his own experiences, as well as interviews with novelists, academics, politicians, former prime ministers, executives, bankers, activists, and citizens young and old to provide a probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan. Covering the country’s history, politics, culture, economy, society, and foreign policy, he begins with the “triple disaster” of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown to explore how Japan confronts adversity and adapts to difficult circumstances. According to Pilling, Japan’s reluctance to end its isolation has long shaped its foreign policy, so that even with its former economic dominance, “it lacked geopolitical clout.” Though the country’s extraordinary economic success in the 1970s and ’80s made its collapse in 1990 harder to bear, Pilling argues that Japan has handled its economic stagnation better than expected, maintaining its social cohesion and high standard of living. As the interviewees attest, Japan is changing, particularly for the young, who have no guarantee of lifetime (or even regular) employment, and who describe themselves as socially responsible and more civic-minded than previous generations. Pilling concludes that Japan’s economic deflation, declining fertility, and rapidly aging population mirror worldwide trends in other developed countries, and the world has much to learn from Japan’s failures and successes. Agent: Zoe Pagnamenta, Zoe Pagnamenta Agency. (Mar.)
Library Journal
10/15/2013
Who better than the Asia editor of the Financial Times to tell us about contemporary Japan? Pilling starts with the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, then tracks back to show how 19th-century defensiveness led to 20th-century imperialism, and finally looks at the financial bust of 1990.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-29
A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change. In his first book, Financial Times Asia editor Pilling draws on scores of interviews to investigate Japan's culture, politics, economics and social life as it tries to recover from a severe economic downturn that began in 1990. The author celebrates Japan's "social cohesion, a sense of tradition and politeness, a dedication to excellence and relative equality," but he acknowledges a counter view—that Japan is "an unredeemably xenophobic, misogynist society, hierarchical, shut off from new ideas, and unable to square up to its own history." Unlike China and Korea, Japan remained isolated for much of its early history, resisting connection to other cultures with advances such as written language and metallurgy. Its feudal society persisted well into the 19th century, when leaders intent on modernization deliberately created "emperor-centered myths" to foster nationhood, as well as elevating Shinto, "an animist set of folkloric beliefs," to become the unifying religion. Much of Japan's conviction of its uniqueness, cultural superiority and racial homogeneity, Pilling argues, "is propaganda" initiated at that time. Yet that propaganda fueled a desire to prove military prowess and catapulted Japan into its disastrous attack on Pearl Harbor. The author focuses on recent catastrophes—the devastating 2011 tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster—to question Japan's capacity for resilience. He concludes that those "twin shocks…do seem to have shaken Japan psychologically," but he notes that other factors—businesses' globalization; changing dynamics of relationships between men and women; young people's often strident questioning of tradition; and a stronger two-party political system—have been evolving for the last two decades. Japan has proven itself resilient, at the same time remaining justly proud of being the third-largest economy in the world and richest economy in Asia. The author's articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan's cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.
From the Publisher
James Fallows,The New York Times Book Review
“The ground-zero disaster reporting will command the attention of any reader. Pilling vividly recreates the waves of different sorts of destruction... For me, these scenes powerfully recall John Hersey’s Hiroshima--and although the causes were obviously different, in each case the longest-lasting source of damage came from radiation... Pilling is eloquent and direct.”

The Los Angeles Review of Books:
“[Pilling] is a splendid writer. Readers already familiar with Japan will learn more, or at least learn to think about it differently; those new to it could ask for no better starting place... Pilling’s Bending Adversity is an important and urgent read.”

The Financial Times
“David Pilling quotes a visiting MP from northern England, dazzled by Tokyo’s lights and awed by its bustling prosperity: ‘If this is a recession, I want one.’ Not the least of the merits of Pilling’s hugely enjoyable and perceptive book on Japan is that he places the denunciations of two allegedly “lost decades” in the context of what the country is really like and its actual achievements.”

The Telegraph (UK)
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: “When we were rich, I hated this country”... well-written... valuable.”

The Observer (UK)
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Economist
“The result is Bending Adversity, an excellent book for which 3/11, as the event is known in Japan, is as much pretext as subject matter. For Mr Pilling’s thesis is that, horrifying though it was, the triple disaster three years ago was neither a game-changing event nor truly novel... This will be a disappointment to all those who liked to think that 3/11 could bring about the third great transformation in the country’s modern history. The first two were the opening up of Japan following the restoration of imperial rule in the 1860s, and the economic and democratic miracles after 1945. Yet in both cases an old regime had collapsed, making a new start unavoidable. Today’s situation, as Mr Pilling rightly perceives, is quite different. Japanese culture is one of evolution, not revolution: one that seeks advances through myriad small steps rather than great leaps forward.”

Japan Times
"[Pilling] has written a superb book on contemporary Japan that, better than any other I have read, manages to get the reader inside the skin of Japanese society"

The Times (UK)
"For anyone who wants to know more about the world’s third largest economy — its history, its changing social patterns and its uneasy relationship with its neighbours — this is an essential read; a wonderful combination of informed analysis, lively conversation and personal anecdote."

New Statesman(UK)
"Pilling’s command of structure is enviable...The stories have visceral power and are beautifully told."

The Guardian (UK)
"[A]n authoritative and entertaining attempt to explain the mysteries of [Japan]"

The Spectator (UK)
"[Pilling] does an excellent job of reappraising those lost years of economic deflation and social and political stagnation"

Publishers Weekly (starred):
"A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan."

Kirkus Reviews:
A sweeping view of contemporary Japan portrays its complexities and potential for change. The author’s articulate and diverse interviewees—scholars and teenagers, housewives and politicians—vividly and passionately testify to Japan’s cultural contradictions, ambitions and strategies for survival.”

Booklist:
"A vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity."

Evan Osnos, staff writer of The New Yorker:
“David Pilling’s vivid and humane account of Japan is the book we needed. He seamlessly unites moments of thunderous drama with scenes of exquisite serenity, revealing the dynamic at the heart of the country he knows so well. He blends precise analysis and unobtrusive firsthand reporting, allowing his cast of writers, farmers, and pols to struggle, on the page, with Japan’s era of fragile power and its search for renewal.”

The Observer (UK):
Authoritative and entertaining... [Pilling] deftly manages the trick of illustrating grand sweep with small anecdote... This book makes a good fist of disentangling the curious charms of the Japanese and for helping outsides to understand them a little better.”

The Telegraph (UK):
“Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, is perfectly placed to be our guide, and his insights are a real rarity when very few Western journalists communicate the essence of the world’s third-largest economy in anything but the most superficial ways. Here, there is a terrific selection of interview subjects mixed with great reportage and fact selection... he does get people to say wonderful things. The novelist Haruki Murakami tells him: 'When we were rich, I hated this country'... well-written... valuable.”

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet:
"Bending Adversity is a superb reappraisal of the so-called 'lost decade(s)' of contemporary Japan. David Pilling combines a historian's breadth of vision, an anthropologist's clearheadedness, an investigator's knack of knowing what questions to ask, an economist's grasp of the circuitry of money and a top-notch journalist's curiosity about the human effects of political causes. The result is a probing, nourishing and independent-minded book for any reader seeking to understand modern Japan and its unsure place in the world. I recommend Bending Adversity without qualm."

Ryu Murakami, author of Coin Locker Babies:
“Whether writing about the bubble and its aftermath, persistent deflation, or the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster, Pilling uses individual stories to starkly reveal the truth about Japan.”

Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India:
“Writers on Japan tend to get either its economy or its culture. David Pilling is that very rare craftsman who gets under the skin of both and can magically bring them alive—sometimes in the same sentence. In an age of narrow specialism, Pilling’s writing reminds us why there is no substitute for high-caliber journalism. If you had time only for one book on Japan, you should start and finish with Pilling’s.”

Kenneth B. Pyle, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington:
“David Pilling is a gifted writer. From many years of reporting, he has crafted an absorbing and perceptive portrait of contemporary Japan and its people. I am impressed by the insights he draws from interviews with a cross section of Japanese leaders and citizens. If you could read only one book on today’s Japan, this should be it.”

Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; author of The Logic of Japanese Politics:
"David Pilling’s Bending Adversity is a major accomplishment. In lucid and engaging prose he takes the reader inside Japan, providing a needed antidote to the popular view that recent Japanese history is mostly one of adversity and failure. He offers a remarkably thoughtful and balanced appraisal of an extraordinary country. I highly recommend Bending Adversity to anyone interested in understanding how Japan became one of the world’s leading economies and why it is likely to retain that position for many years to come."

Karel van Wolferen:
"Pilling’s book reads like a (very well written) travelogue, not only crisscrossing Japan but also through wandering into its history. I can, again and again, immediately wistfully identify with the atmosphere he evokes. He does so, much of the time, through letting thousands of Japanese speak, who relate what they saw and thought of the subject matter he touches on. It is very serious in parts, as when he reports on the 2011 tsunami calamity and Fukushima catastrophe, and what it demonstrated about Japanese resilience. He is sometimes playful, and at other times explains things by raising points, which while tempting disagreement at first make you think again. This is Journalism of a high order, with scholarly excursions, evenly paced and never boring. When coming to the end of the book you feel that in this thorough survey he has covered practically all the things cognoscenti would consider most relevant to know about the Japan of today and recent past."

Yoichi Funabashi, PhD; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation:
"This is the first, groundbreaking rendition to come out on Japan's Lost Decades. David Pilling, one of our era's most perceptive observers and journalists on Asia, has described the age in a manner both profound and engaging—reminiscent in this vein of John Dower's great opus, Embracing Defeat."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205842
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/13/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 413,767
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times. He was previously the Tokyo bureau chief for the FT from January 2002 to August 2008. Pilling’s reporting from Japan and his weekly column on Asia have won several prizes, including from the Society of Publishers in Asia Awards and the UK’s Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He lives in Hong Kong.
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