To be in Tokyo during the cherry blossom season is to be reminded of three things. First, the transience of all natural beauty. Second, the possibility that a modern city can be truly lovely. Third, the achievability of political stability in the 21st century. To a visitor from London it is the third of these that is the most enviable.
After all, the UK capital has pretty good blossom at this time of year. And parts of it — I think of Highgate, jewel of the city’s lofty north — are still strikingly beautiful. But political stability? The unhappy Briton can only gaze in admiration at the serene condition of Japan today.
Bear in mind that despite the bitter war they fought in the 1940s, Britain and Japan have much in common. Both are densely populated island nations off the vast Eurasian landmass. Both were once mighty empires. Both are still quite rich. Both are constitutional monarchies.
Much that one sees in Japan today has its origins in the Meiji era, when the nation’s leaders modernised their country by copying as much as they could of what they saw in the industrial West. Britain was one of their principal role models. It is no accident that the Japanese word for a suit — sebiro — derives from “Savile Row”. And a striking proportion of Japanese politicians look as if they still get their suits tailor-made.
Yet while Britain today is in a state of acute political crisis, Japan seems a model of political stability. Is this a matter of personalities — the sad fact that Theresa May is a talentless leader, and Shinzo Abe a gifted one? Partly. But there is more to it than that.
The Japanese, crushed in 1945, conceded only a superficial Americanisation of their culture and institutions. To a remarkable extent, Japan did not change. It merely jettisoned the hysterical nationalism that had come to the fore in the 1930s and reverted to the Meiji era. Not only did the emperor survive, but so did the country’s social elite. It accepted land reform, but retained political power. The same applied to corporate Japan.
The continuities of Japanese history are exemplified by the political pedigree of the prime minister. Mr Abe’s great-great-grandfather was a general in the imperial army. His maternal grandfather was a member of Hideki Tojo’s cabinet during the Second World War and prime minister in the late 1950s. His other grandfather served in the country’s House of Representatives (and was an opponent of Tojo). His father was Japan’s foreign minister in the 1980s.
The continuities also manifest themselves in the complex system of manners that governs Japanese social life. Nowhere else will you encounter such politeness. After two days, my back hurt from bowing, and I had said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (“Thank you very much”) at least a thousand times.
The contrast with Britain’s postwar history is striking. Victorious in war, we jettisoned as much as we could of our Victorian and Edwardian heritage. A new class entered politics from state schools and redbrick universities, greatly diluting the hereditary element. Today a bespoke suit of the sort favoured by Jacob Rees-Mogg looks quaint in the Commons, as if he had wandered in from the set of Darkest Hour.
As for our manners, which were once famously strait-laced, there has been a precipitous decline into vulgarity, so that Americans now seem polite by comparison. Last week, according to Newsnight’s political editor, Nicholas Watt, a cabinet minister responded with, “F*** knows,” when asked why Theresa May was holding yet another Brexit vote. Earlier this month Boris Johnson declared that money spent on investigating historic cases of paedophilia was being “spaffed up a wall” — a term new to me. Even members of the elite now talk like louts.
In many ways, you might think, Japan has much bigger problems than Britain. According to the World Bank, the old-age dependency ratio in Japan — the ratio of people over 65 to those of working age — is 46%, the highest in the world. The UK ranks 17th in the senescence league table.
Japan’s gross public debt is now 238% of GDP, again the world’s highest proportion. Britain’s is 87%, according to the International Monetary Fund, putting us in 29th place. We lead Japan in terms of innovation, economic and political freedom, ease of doing business and even happiness.
And yet consider the political states of the two countries. In Japan the main question is whether Abe — who has been prime minister since 2012 and has led his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to three successive election victories — should stay on beyond 2021, when his term as LDP leader is supposed to end. The other big question (to be resolved tomorrow morning) is what the name of the new imperial era will be when Emperor Akihito abdicates to make way for his son Naruhito.
Meanwhile, in London, a political crisis of 17th-century magnitude continues to unfold. Three years ago I warned in these pages that it would be much harder for Britain to leave the EU than the proponents of Brexit were claiming. I underestimated the degree of difficulty. I did not imagine the Brexiteers would end up voting against Brexit, as many did for the third time on Friday.
So badly has May bungled Britain’s great divorce that she could not even get her withdrawal agreement passed by promising to resign if MPs voted for it. The result is that Britain’s political fate now depends on . . . the EU, which gets to decide whether to grant Britain a longer extension than the 12 days currently remaining before we leave the EU without a deal and enter an economic crisis of unknown scale and duration.
There was something touching and at the same time terrifying about last week’s exchange between Rees-Mogg and Sir Oliver Letwin, when the former asserted the prerogatives of the Queen’s ministers and the latter insisted on the constitutional supremacy of the House of Commons.
This Tudors-and-Stuarts argument would not have been out of place in an Oxford history tutorial, but in the Commons it seemed at once frivolous and reckless. If such fundamental questions now divide Conservatives, the party seems destined for defeat at the next general election, especially if that is to happen sooner rather than later.
Why are Japan and Britain in such different political states? The superficial answer is there was never an Asian Economic Community that Japan chose to join in the 1970s. Across the water is just the vast authoritarian superpower that is China.
A more profound answer is that while Britain has embraced immigration, Japan has resisted it. True, there has been a quiet increase in the number of foreigners residing in Japan since 2014. There are now almost 1.3m foreign workers in the country, most from other Asian countries. But the foreign-born share of the population is just 2%, according to the World Bank. The figure for the UK is 13%.
Future historians will wonder why the Tories decided to commit seppuku over Brexit. But perhaps conservatism itself is just incompatible with immigration on this scale and the Brexit breakdown is merely a symptom. The Japanese probably think that — but they are too polite to say it.
Niall Ferguson is the Millbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford