The Economic Crisis in Japan: The Loss of Grand Narrative

The Economic Collapse

In 1991, the Japanese bubble economy collapsed. Unsustainable economic growth and rampant speculation eroded the financial structure and security of the previous decade. Due to an increased governmental emphasis on centralization, millions flooded into Tokyo. As land prices skyrocketed to the tens of thousands of dollars per square foot in downtown Tokyo, a euphoric sense of optimism pervaded investors. Low interest rate loans from banks were given out with small chances of being repaid. Many investors borrowed extremely heavily from banks in order to invest billions in the new companies and real estate properties. The Japanese government, concerned about the unsustainable bubble exploding in Japan, made the banks sharply increase their loan rates. As a consequence, the Nikkei stock index crashed, and the bubble essentially burst. There was no money to pay back the banks, who subsequently had to rely on the government to borrow heavily and bail them out. There was no real recovery from this bubble collapse for the following decade, often deemed the “Lost Decade”. The Nikkei stock index continued to steadily fall through the 90s and early 2000s. Trillions of dollars were wiped out when the real estate prices dropped to less than 1% of the pre-bubble prices. This economic collapse brought with it a host of social and cultural changes.

 Azuma: Grand Narrative Collapse
In Hiroki Azuma’s work on Otaku, Japan’s Database Animals, he makes a compelling argument using a notion he calls the “Grand Narrative”. He uses the Grand Narrative to describe the database-like structure that manga and anime are composed of. The specific moe elements indicate a certain lack of participation in any sort of grand storyline. This lack of a morally encoded production symbolizes the Otaku’s way of not participating in the Grand Narrative of Japanese culture. This idea of the “Grand Narrative” can be applied to the economic and social collapse in 1991. Once the bubble collapsed, many people of the older generation looked for some reason or scapegoat to explain it. Several categories of people were attacked ruthlessly in the media.
Kelly & White’s paper called “Students, Slackers, Singles, Seniors, and Strangers: Transforming a Family Nation” argues that these are the main categories of social unrest. Students lack the ability to get jobs, often failing to transition effectively from the educational system to the workplace. Many are forced into low-paying part time jobs, signifying the slackers. Young men and women are tending to stay single for longer. The rapidly growing percentage of the population that is older and not working is a

This publication was one of the most controversial pieces of neo-nationalist literature. Published in 1998

social drain on the economy. The large non-ethnic Japanese population that conflicts with the early nationalism of “ethnic homogeneity” undermines Japanese societies most basic beliefs. All of these types of people are demonized for not participating in the traditional sense of Japanese society. They are accused of not belonging to and perpetuating what made Japan great prior to the bubble. Seen as the reason for the collapse, they offer a view of why the Grand Narrative was lost. By failing to participate in the Japanese societies moral codes, they fail to participate in the “Grand Narrative” of Japan. Incidences such as the Miyazaki child murders, the Kogal girl scandal, and many other highly publicized moral collapses show that the Grand Narrative was seemingly lost.

Neo-Nationalism: A Return to the Grand Narrative
As the decade dragged onwards, with continuously dropping stock prices, and the economy failing the recover, a new return to the Grand Narrative emerged. Neo-nationalism became a highly important and powerful faction in the political scene. Several important neo-nationalist decisions were made by prominent figures. The Japanese Prime Minister visited the highly controversial Yasukuni shrine in 2001, publicly acknowledging the sacrifices made by many war criminals of World War II. This symbolized for many other Asian countries the return of Japan to its nationalist roots which led to many conflicts before and during World War II.
The textbook controversy was a neo-nationalist propagated change to certain history textbooks in regard to World War II. It cast Japanese aggression in a more positive light, white washing many of the casualties. Certain events such as the Nanjing Massacre were described with questionably factual material. The neo-nationalist sentiments have gained much ground in recent years. Authors such as Kobayshi Yoshinori published entire volumes on the “truth” of the war. Most importantly, these books were aimed at younger generations of people. The same scapegoats that fueled media attacks on the loss of Japanese values were the targets of the neo-nationalist literature. The growth of these neo-nationalist youth movements represents a return to the Grand Narrative. However it is important to recognize that the Grand Narrative being supported by the neo-nationalists today is much more analogous to the pre-World War II Japanese sentiments of racial superiority rather than the

Translation: Peace. A festering peace. Nobody knows the true nature of peace

economic bubble Grand Narrative of hard work and national pride.

The Dispute of “Collapse”:
The term of “collapse” is often used to described the popping of the economic bubble. Yet “collapse” is not a neutral term. By taking Azuma’s idea of the “Grand Narrative”, collapse comes to mean a disassociation from the national narratives that guided the Japanese society into economic success. But perhaps the “collapse” wasn’t a collapse for everyone. For the individuals that did not want to participate in the Grand Narrative of everyday life, the collapse was not a negative thing. It symbolizes the post-modern world that they have come to live in. Lacking cultural directives and narratives, the “collapse” symbolized the evolution of society to a super-flat stage where the Grand Narrative had no place. Street art, fashion, internet phenomena, literature, music, and many other contemporary social outlets represent a new age of non-Grand Narrative.

1. Do you think the premise of the paper is strong? Can Azuma’s Grand Narrative actually be applied to this economic bubble collapse?

2. Why was it that the neo-nationalist movement was so attractive to young people? Does it seem like people still yearn for some sort of Grand Narrative?

3. Where does this posting fit on the website? Is it a single topic, or more of a synthesis of several topics?

4. At what point does Azuma’s Grand Narrative model stop working? Does it truly capture the nature of Japanese society?


Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Brinton, Mary C.. Lost in Transition: Youth, Work, and Instability in Postindustrial Japan. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Kelly, William, and Merry White. “Students, Slackers, Singles, Seniors, and Strangers: Transforming a Family-Nation.” In Beyond Japan: The Dynamics of East Asian Regionalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 63-84.

Mitani, Hiroshi. “The History Textbook Issue in Japan and East Asia.” In East Asia’s Haunted Present. Westport: Library of Congress, 2008. 83-93.


  1. David,

    I find this view of Azuma very interesting. As someone who focuses mainly on literature/culture/language, the economy would be the last place I would expect to look for this argument. I think that Azuma’s idea of a grand narrative can be applied to any field of study or subject matter. He raises a compelling argument that raises a lot of questions about not only consumption, but of social workings as a whole. And a strong component of social workings is the economy and money. So yes, I believe his argument can be applied here. I think the Neo-Nationalist argument was so attractive to the younger generation because it gave them something to believe in. They grew up in a popped economy with heavy expectations placed upon them to do well in school to get a “lifetime job” when in the end, the system failed them. So the Neo-Nationalist movement might have been a site of “rebellion” against what they have been raised to believe their whole lives. There was a Grand Narrative that they could find comfort in. This topic, I believe, belongs possibly under “social phenomenon” or “social issues” since the economy is more of a social issue than anything else. Azuma himself provides an example of when his model doesn’t work. One of these examples is Miyazaki films. In class discussion about the Miyazaki fandom, it can be seen why this is so.

    Great post. Really compelling, made me think!

  2. Chris Young says:

    This is a really interesting viewpoint and application of the database concept. I would definitely have to agree that the desire for a grand narrative, even a controversial one like racist neo-nationalism, is certainly present in Japan’s postbubble culture. However, I would hedge that the database model is more appropriate when considering current societal demands. Within this database model, the search for smaller micronarratives like Freeter sociality and otaku culture are present, and I think these newer subcultures represent a form of resistance that may be a call for a narrative in and of itself. The financial collapse may have been a catalyst for many of the issues currently observed in contemporary Japanese society, but many of these problems seem more pervasive and probably existed well before the bubble economy popped. While newly-emerging micronarratives are as frequent as database elements themselves in today’s Japan, the underlying current of unrest and longing for a grand narrative is perhaps most prominent in the persistence of the neo-nationalist rhetoric woven through Japanese society. This is a good post, David.