‘Japan is not interesting’: thus the literary scholar Masao Miyoshi could, with a twist of irony, entitle an essay on his native country a decade and a half ago. The dramas that have since beset Japan might serve to qualify Miyoshi’s provocation. In 2011, the fifth most powerful earthquake ever recorded thrust parts of the archipelago four metres to the east and jolted the country back to the front pages. The accompanying tsunami towered forty feet high, killed twenty thousand, displaced 300,000, and ignited the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Capitalists hoped the destruction would be creative. When the waters cleared, the ldp was returned to power under the leadership of an unlikely innovator promising to jump-start the economy and revive the country’s animal spirits with bold inflationary measures. The Economist lost no time blazoning Abe on its cover, kitted out as Superman, punching the skies.

Economic crisis and opportunity have in the past prompted a number of leading journalists to move from broadsheet to octavo and assess the island nation. In 1989, Bill Emmott predicted in the incongruously titled The Sun Also Sets that Japan would continue to hold strong (a revised edition appeared within a year). The resulting doldrums encouraged Richard Katz to take the patient’s temperature a decade later in Japan: The System that Soured; again the diagnosis—only electoral reform could shake it awake—misread the symptoms. With Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, David Pilling joins this group. A dozen years covering East Asia for the Financial Times have equipped him to update the tradition with another plotter of economic diagnosis-cum-prescription, and he pays his dues to it. Written for a non-specialist Anglosphere audience, Pilling’s book is best read not just as an example of the expanding genre of works by foreign correspondents stepping back to look at the societies where they have been posted, but also as an illustration of the ways in which Japan is changing in the neoliberal imaginary. In both respects, Pilling’s tone and method are distinctive.

Bending Adversity is framed by vivid descriptions of the tsunami and its aftermath. Pilling aims to take the disaster as a starting point for a broader inquiry into how Japan’s institutions and its people have dealt with comparable crises. The country’s modern history has been punctuated by abrupt changes of course in response to existential threats: the revolution-from-above of the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s; the Blitzkrieg imperialist expansion of the 1930s and 40s; the breakneck growth that made it the world’s second largest economy in the 70s and 80s; the equally dramatic bursting of its property bubble after 1989, leaving it a world leader in zombie banks and deflationary stagnation, the ‘Japanese scenario’ a spectre haunting the post–2008 us and eu. Might the horrors of the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima—plus, Pilling slips in, the rise of China—galvanize Japan’s leaders into a new leap forward? In successive chapters, he examines the ideology of Japan’s uniqueness, the history of the country from Meiji times to the Pacific War, the economic miracle of the post-war decades and the debacle of the nineties. He then considers the social and cultural effects of the decades of slow growth since, the ways in which it has been handled, the Koizumi years, Japan’s demographic prospects, the situation of women and youth, and its diplomatic isolation. An afterword asks whether Abe will seize the chance to ‘bend adversity’ once again.

In substance, the book divides into three kinds of writing: reiteration, rectification, and reportage. The chapters on the post-war economy rehearse stories familiar to anyone with a newspaper habit. These follow on much stronger sections untangling the nationalist imaginary—no other nation seems more unique or homogeneous than Japan—that ties up not merely right-wingers and people on the streets, but many analysts as well, who describe the country only in terms of how different it is to everywhere else in the world. This eye for diversity keeps the reportage fresh, which is at its best in the coverage of the tsunami. The volume opens with the country upended and its contents shaken out. Pilling tells the story of the Triple Disaster in gripping style through the fate of Rikuzentakata, an ancient town whose 70,000 seaside pines were regarded as one of the scenic beauties of Japan. They resisted the 9.0 earthquake that turned the earth to liquid with the force of 600 million Hiroshima bombs, but were no defence against the tsunami which followed half an hour later. A ghostly dust—remnants of collapsed buildings—preceded the wall of mud towering over ten yards high that reduced the settlement to a churning wreckage of homes, boats, schools, hospitals, and factories. Four minutes after the tsunami reached shore, nothing remained, and one in twenty were dead: ‘It was as if the man-made world had vomited up its innards. The things that were usually hidden—piping, electric cables, mattress stuffing, metal girders, underwear, electricity generators, wiring—were suddenly on full display, like secrets expelled from the intestines of modern living.’ The waves breached even the evacuation centres, sending escapees to the roof, from which they were swept away. The elderly drowned in their beds; the young, trying to rescue them.

At the other end of the book we are shown, as in some darkly comedic action film, the government and the power company in charge of Fukushima bungling clean-up efforts, concealing information, and destroying what remains of public trust. While the president of tepco hides in his office, the Prime Minister orders what company officials are reluctant to do—extinguish the plant but contain the meltdown by dumping seawater onto the reactors. But strong winds blow the loads dropped by helicopters back to sea. The ombudsman, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, routinely covers up accidents and ignores warning signs from safety checks. The workers who carried these out did so under abysmal conditions—almost 90 per cent of the labour force at Fukushima Daiichi was sub-contracted, or sub-sub-contracted, with the day labourers carrying out the most health-threatening jobs. The government considered evacuating Tokyo, a metropolitan area home to 35 million, but would not release reports on the amount of radiation being leaked. A terrified public was not willing to let this slide, and more than 100,000 in the capital took to the streets in recurrent protests—a story barely covered in the Japanese media, notoriously more lapdog than watchdog. The catastrophe aroused both great solidarity, of which Pilling provides moving examples, and parochial discrimination. The people of Kyoto reject funerary honours for the souls of the dead in Rikuzentakata, fearing that, if burned, the wooden slats bearing their post-mortem names would contaminate the ancient capital. The rural mayor in Tohoku responds not with bitterness, but with the dignity and decorum that are rarely far from social interactions in Japan.

In handling these dramatic events, Pilling’s anthropological sensibility, his gifts of empathy and observation, serve his journalism well. For the most part he eschews critical analysis of the sort offered by scholars such as Karel van Wolferen, Jeff Kingston, R. Taggart Murphy or Gavan McCormack. He opts instead for the role of a sympathetic listener, with a sharp ethnographic eye. Postmodern anthropologists would nod approvingly at his aim to portray Japan ‘as I find it’ and ‘allow, wherever feasible, the Japanese to speak for themselves in all their diversity and noisy disagreement’. That meant taking the trouble to learn the language. Pilling is modest about his spoken command of it, but reading, which he succeeded in doing, is more difficult—the orthography, after all, combines three different writing systems and requires the mastery of at least two thousand characters, each pronounced in multiple ways, enough to daunt most reporters. Its polyvalence is there in his title, taken from a Japanese saying, which without prepositions is nicely ambiguous, carrying a hint of the object as agent: bending under adversity shows resilience as much as bending adversity suggests power.

When, over the larger stretches of the book, he turns to social and economic life in non-emergency conditions, the results are more ambiguous. Reporting the devastation of the tsunami, Pilling meets and talks with humble folk: a former artisan, a pair of women running a modest café, a hotel employee. But outside the disaster zone, the social horizon narrows. No workers, no farmers, no housewives—categories outside the ken of the pink paper. The ft’s business card opens many doors, but behind them are principally mirrors of its own readership—businessmen in cutting edge firms, media commentators, pop intellectuals, celebrity novelists, a couple of ngoers. They often express vivid and pungent opinions, which rarely coincide. Scholarship and the arts fare little better. One critical sociologist does feature: Yamada Masahiro, whose less than upbeat view of generational changes in Japan leaves Pilling uncomfortable. Literary critic Kato Norihiro, a regular in the New York Times, fails to convince him that zero growth doesn’t matter, but is more wistfully appealing. The breezy, bestselling PhD student Furuichi Noritoshi, explaining that Japanese youth have never had it so good, is a better bet. Murakami Haruki trots out his well-worn sayings from the lost generation, and a pulp novelist explains women’s bitter fate. As interviews go, none is dull or uninformative. But the resulting collage, which has neither up nor down, serves poorly as a roadmap of the country; it is a restricted one as well, with no unconventional features plotted. Korean-origin Zainichi thinker Kang Sangjung, or a heterodox financial analyst like Mikuni Akio, should not have been beyond the bureau’s rolodex. Animé director Miyazaki Hayao might be more interesting to hear from than, yet again, an over-exposed Murakami.