When I was flying back from Stockholm this week, I noticed a book on sale at Arlanda airport called Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works And What We Can Learn From It.
I didn’t buy it but I would like to read it. After all, on the surface Sweden seems wonderful – although it’s rather cold.
The parts of Stockholm I visited were clean, with lots of public art and smooth transportation. I was particularly impressed by the university. The service in the shops and restaurants was great. And a guided tour of the City Hall emphasised how much Swedes cherish democracy.
During my trip I learned that Sweden has the first feminist government in the world. The government’s website explains that this means: “Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice.”
I wonder if anyone has ever considered writing a book about Japan called Almost Kanpeki (Perfect). As a society, Japan works well. Like Sweden, it has good public transport, great customer service and sophisticated education. It’s a democracy and gender equality is enshrined in Clause 24 of the Japanese constitution.
Yet I doubt any publisher would welcome a book which only sings Japan’s praises and overlooks all its problems. After all, the media have been reporting that the country is on the way towards another severe recession.
“The future of the Japanese economy is gloomy and efforts to deal with the low birthrate and rapidly aging society haven’t worked,” says Akira Nagae, a 62-year-old former magazine editor and author from Hokkaido.
I used to like bookstores
I was struck by the title of Mr Nagae’s new book: “I used to like bookstores: Behind the scenes of the flood of hate books.” It was published last November by Tarojiro Editas.
In an interview, Mr Nagae explained that the “hate books” he sees flooding the Japanese stores are normally focussed on two other countries: China and South Korea. He thinks some writers are deflecting their own anxiety about Japan’s problems and turning into unfounded criticism of those nations.
“In 2019, the relationship between Japan and South Korea was the worst it has ever been,” Mr Nagae told Nikkan Gendai. “Around this time, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of so-called hate books. Set up in corners of the bookstores, stacks of such books using discriminatory words about South Korea were displayed to catch the notice of many customers.
“In my book, I try to clarify the backdrop of why bookstores in Japan are circulating hate books and what occurred to cause this to happen.”
Learn from the Swedes
I believe the Japanese can learn something from the people of Sweden. I can see from the Twitter feed of the author of the Almost Perfekt book, David Crouch, that he doesn’t regard Sweden as paradise. He acknowledges that it has economic and social problems, some of which are very similar to those in Japan.
But in highlighting the good points about Sweden, he tries to suggest ways other societies could implement ideas which work well. I doubt that his book praising Sweden will lead any reader to start hating its neighbours, such as Denmark, Norway and Finland. After all, why should praise for one country lead us to dwell on the shortcomings of its rivals?
Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns have been enemies in the past. But they now co-operate in facing many modern challenges.
Japan and its East Asian neighbours are also deeply interlinked. For that reason, I support Mr Nagae’s campaign to get the hateful books taken off the shelves.
And if we can all manage to be a bit more positive, I am sure that our Swedish friends would give us an encouraging smile.