Bending Adversity - Japan and the Art of Survival

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“[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, incl...
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“[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.

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 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."


 

Product Details

Hardcover: 416 pages

     
     
     

    Editorial Reviews

    From Booklist

    An earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown made 2011 a particularly rough year for Japan, revealing long-running worries about seismic instability, economic vulnerability, and the need for political reform. Yet the nation has recovered well, continuing as a major economic and geopolitical power. Pilling, a Financial Times correspondent to Japan for seven years, examines the extraordinary resilience of the Japanese people and institutions through recent disasters and more historical catastrophes. Even as it continues to recover from the angst of having lost its way as a leader in technology, Japan draws on a culture that recognizes the opportunity to transform bad fortune—or bend adversity. Pilling talked to a broad cross section of Japan—young and old, industrialists, bankers, teachers, students, shopkeepers—for a vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity. He details Japan’s constant trade-offs between, on the one hand, stifling conformity and a paternalism that protects citizens from the harsh realities of market forces and, on the other, a surprising ability to adapt to change en masse even as it also balances its relationships with the U.S. and China. --Vanessa Bush
     

    Review

    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 Adversityan 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 ma...


     

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    3 of 3 people found the following review helpfulBy Joseph W. Hlebica on May 15, 2014
    Format: Hardcover
    I am only in the early chapters of Pilling's astonishing book, and already I am amazed at how deeply affected I am by it, both intellectually, and emotionally. Perhaps it helps to have been a foreign journalist in Japan myself, during the bubble decade of the 1980s, though I don't mean to dispel the opinions of others simply because I share Pilling's experience as an expat journalist/Asian studies academic, but these experiences allow me to bring to his book special insights that afford me the privilege of stating without equivocation that his thesis is entirely on the mark, or as the elder Japanese archers I studied with might say, ATARI! [No, not the checkered gam-software manufacturer.]. Pilling's is precisely the sort of book we expat journalists used to read with embarrassment, almost every chapter containing a statement which we announced aloud to ourselves, or to the room, "I wish I'd written that!" I am especially impressed with the early chapter that deconstructs popular and long-held myths about Japan. And the fact that he embarrasses Rush Benedict's opus of disinformation, "The Crysanthemum and the Sword", is especially daring and refreshing. I concur. I remember whole sections of bookstores in Japan featuring books on the subject by half-informed foreigners and self-deluded natives that attempted to explain Japan, all for naught. I dare say Pilling's book comes alarmingly close to achieving this elusive goal. When I first broke into journalism in Tokyo, as a op-ed contributor to the local foreign-language newspapers and magazines on subjects of arts, leisure, and travel, I was often chastised by elder expats who had a favorite saying: "After about a week in Japan, every visitor can write a book about it; give it a month, and you can maybe write a magazine article; after a year here, you can't write anything." In my opinion, Pilling, having allowed his long experience in Japan to distill and then overflow in the wake of the Fukushima apocalyptic trifecta, has achieved a work I would only compare to Donald Richie's fabulous "The Inland Sea". This is a rare insight into an enigmatic and misinterpreted culture. Do yourself a favor and read it in addition to -- or instead of -- anything else out there in print on Japan. Enjoy.
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    2 of 2 people found the following review helpfulBy Simon Locke on March 30, 2014
    Format: Hardcover
    Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Pilling's Financial Times articles on Asia and Japan through the years, I was expecting Bending Adversity to be a great read, provide insight into and a deeper understanding of modern Japan. I was not disappointed. This is an excellent book. Pilling weaves together the perspectives of his many Japanese and non-Japanese sources with his profound multi-dimensional knowledge of Japan into a narrative that is illuminating, very human, refreshingly honest and balanced. Highly recommended.
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    1 of 1 people found the following review helpfulBy michael d. mosettig on May 15, 2014
    Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
    David Pilling is probably the best Western commentator on Asia at this time. This book offers brilliant insights and observations about contemporary and historic Japan.
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