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  • "A Japan where every person can have hope for tomorrow" sounds like a fairly modest aspiration.

  • But that was the hope that Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, expressed for the new Reiwa imperial era.

  • Associated with the crowning of Emperor Naruhito, the new Japanese monarch, on May 1.

  • For Mr. Abe, awakening a sense of optimism in his fellow countrymen is part of a broader mission.

  • The Japanese prime minister knows that his country faces serious challenges.

  • Including an ageing and shrinking population, a heavy debt burden, and the potential threat of a rising China.

  • The success or failure of efforts to inject new dynamism into Japan will affect the whole world.

  • Japan is the most powerful democracy in Asia, and the third largest economy in the world.

  • So it is crucial for the global balance of power.

  • For Mr. Abe, who's likely to step down in 2021, issues of international resilience and domestic revival are closely connected.

  • Japan needs to be economically strong and optimistic about the future if it's to resist succumbing to fatalism about living in a China-dominated region.

  • The demographic difficulties that Japan is facing are underlined by official projections.

  • A low birth rate and an aging population means that Japan's population has been declining since 2010.

  • It currently stands at a little over 126 million, but official projections suggest that it will fall below 100 million in 2053, and go as low as 88 million by 2065.

  • In an effort to respond, the Abe government's tried to make it easier for women to both work and have children.

  • And Japan's also doing more to encourage emigration.

  • But even the modest measures taken so far prove very controversial in a country that treasures its cultural homogeneity.

  • Some government advisers worry that Japan may even fall prey to the populist anti-immigration politics already visible in the US and Europe.

  • A shrinking population is a drag on GDP.

  • And a smaller economy will make Japan's debt burden even harder to manage.

  • At nearly 240 percent, the government's debt to GDP ratio is the highest in the developed world.

  • Government economists worry that the rising medical bills of the elderly will further strain government finances in the coming years.

  • And the fear of higher taxes or even a debt default might also deepen pessimism about the future.

  • And then there's fear of China.

  • The Chinese army and navy are growing rapidly.

  • And the Japanese are painfully aware that modern Chinese nationalism feeds on hostility towards Japan, kept alive by memories of the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.

  • "No defence that China can devise, be it men or material, can withstand this relentless advance."

  • "Triumph is to the invader."

  • Mr. Abe notes that Japan needs friends, and he's done his utmost to preserve the special relationship with the US,

  • and to build a new special relationship with India.

  • Mr. Abe has his political roots in the nationalist wing of Japanese politics.

  • And he's maintained links to groups that have alarming attitudes to Japan's wartime role.

  • But the prime minister is intelligent enough to understand that in modern Japan, a nationalist needs to be an internationalist.

  • Building alliances and international links that will allow Japan to thrive even as China rises.

  • That challenge is likely to define the new Reiwa era.

"A Japan where every person can have hope for tomorrow" sounds like a fairly modest aspiration.

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