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The Penguin Press



Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

Edited by Ann Godoff

Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling’s eye-opening portrait of contemporary Japan.

Earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown: three interlocked disasters which simultaneously threatened Japan, but which have somehow galvanized a strong national political and economic response. Bending Adversity is a portrait of a stubbornly resistant nation with a history of overcoming—and transcending—successive waves of adversity.

In Bending Adversity, 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, liberal school teachers and conservative defenders of tradition. Through their voices, Pilling 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 number one. 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 financial collapse might be viewed differently. While financial struggle and national debt are a reality, postgrowth 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.

Japan is in many ways a country still 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 Pilling’s own insights and those of his 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.



“[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 Los Angeles Review of Books

“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.” Financial Times

“An excellent book for which 3/11, as the event is known in Japan, is as much pretext as subject matter.” —The Economist

“A probing and insightful portrait of contemporary Japan.” Publishers Weekly (starred)

“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.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity.” —Booklist

“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.” Evan Osnos, The New Yorker

“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 Observer (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 Telegraph (UK)

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.” David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

“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.” Ryu Murakami, author of Coin Locker Babies

“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.” Edward Luce, author of In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

“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.” Kenneth B. Pyle, the Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington

“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.” Gerald L. Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; author of The Logic of Japanese Politics

“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.” Karel van Wolferen

“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.” Yoichi Funabashi, PhD; Chairman, Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation

Author Q&A


Many reference 1990, the year the bubble burst, as the turning point in Japan’s postwar history. The novelist Haruki Murakami, however, argued that 1995 was the year I should be looking at. That year was the year of the earthquake in Kobe and a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway—twin psychological shocks that brought home the country’s changed circumstances with absolute clarity, he told me over lunch in a quiet Tokyo restaurant in 2003. When the modern city of Kobe collapsed, he said, faith in Japan’s engineering prowess, its very modernity, crumbled with it. More frightening still was the attack by members of a murderous Doomsday cult. That shattered the myth, he said, of a harmonious nation that would always pull together in the same direction. Japan’s very social consensus was rotting from within.

The Japanese are good at role playing and suspension of disbelief. But 1995, Murakami said, woke them from their reverie. “We believed in our system. We had been getting richer and richer and we thought our system would be stable forever. We believed that, if you were part of the Mitsubishi Corporation, you would be all right forever. But after 1995, we are no longer so confident. We have come to think that there is something wrong with our system. It is a time of great change in our way of thinking.”For him, the events of that year were connected with the collapse of the old economic model. They marked the violent death throes of a system that he had always felt was somehow rotten. “I think the burst of the bubble economy was good for Japan. When we were rich, I hated this country. It was stupid, foolish, and arrogant. We were so confident about our system. This system was right. Japan was number one, stupid things like that,” he said. “The bubble burst and we have problems these days. But I think it’s good. I think our society is healthier than it was ten years ago. Back then, we thought we were right. But now we are kind of cool and we are thinking, ‘What am I? What are we?’ I think that’s good. It happens in history. I think it is only a matter of time before we recover, economically and mentally.”

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