The 2008 meltdown of global finance hit Japan hard. To be sure, its banking system was fairly well insulated from the worst of the damage, but the subsequent worldwide recession took the Japanese economy down with it. The institutions of economic security that had bought political peace for a half-century began visibly crumbling, and the electorate responded by sweeping the ruling Liberal Democratic Party out of power for the first time since it was founded in 1955. And yet, a decade later, the ldp is back in charge with no serious political challenge on the horizon. The populism of right and left that has roiled Europe and the United States is nowhere to be seen and, while the economy may not be what it was in the days of the ‘Japanese Miracle’, it has not been in terribly bad shape either—particularly in contrast to its peer economies, Germany, France and Britain. This is remarkable considering that in 2011 Japan endured an earthquake-cum-tsunami that has been accounted the most expensive natural disaster ever, a cataclysm which sidelined the nuclear-power plants that had supplied a third of the country’s energy requirements. What happened, or perhaps didn’t happen, that allowed Japan to muddle through these manmade and natural disasters relatively unscathed—and relatively unchanged?

To answer that question, we should start by looking at the people who run Japan. In doing so, it may be instructive to bear in mind Orwell’s comment about the uk upper crust:

One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed . . . That could not happen if these people were the cynical scoundrels that they are sometimes declared to be. It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable.footnote1

Japan’s ruling class—unlike its American, if not its European, counterparts—is still morally ‘fairly sound’. Its members live materially comfortable lives, but they do not gin their country’s politics and finance to divert rivers of money into their pockets. They do not revel in obscene displays of wealth; you will not find new clusters of matchstick towers in Tokyo, as you do in New York, from which the rich lord it over everyone else. Like upper-class parents everywhere, Japan’s decision-makers obsess over the credentialing of their children, and shell out wads of yen for private tutoring and cram schools. But they cannot buy their kids’ way through the official gates into the ruling elite by donations to the Law Faculty of the University of Tokyo. The youngster either passes the entrance examination or doesn’t.footnote2 For the people who run Japan see themselves as genuine patriots and usually, they act like it. Many are direct descendants of the samurai who constituted Japan’s de jure ruling class in the pre-modern era, and were effectively turned into bureaucrats by the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867). With one notable break, bureaucrats have pretty much run the country ever since. ‘Samurai’ literally means ‘one who serves’, and today’s samurai, if you will—bureaucrats in the elite ministries; senior executives in establishment banks and corporations—inherited the obsession with reputation and the contempt for flashy, commercial values that characterized their institutional—and, in many cases, biological—ancestors.footnote3

The break in bureaucratic rule lasted from 1868, when a small group of disgruntled lower-ranking samurai from western Japan engineered a coup d’état, until the 1920s, when the last of them died off. During that period, these samurai-turned-oligarchs ran the country. Everyone knew who they were. They controlled the major political institutions—ministries, political parties, national legislature (the Diet), Army, Navy and police; together with their allies, they owned and ran most of the important economic institutions including the sprawling zaibatsu conglomerates. The oligarchs’ passing led to the re-emergence of bureaucratic rule and murderous power struggles among competing bureaucracies. The victors were, predictably, bureaucracies with the means of coercion at their disposal: the Imperial Army and the Naimushō (Interior Ministry), which ran the police. But their triumph was not total. The Army never succeeded, for example, in bringing the Navy under its purview, with disastrous results for Japan’s efforts in World War Two. Capital accumulation remained partly in private hands.