Japan has a long history of opening up to the world and closing down – like some mythical sea creature which comes to the surface every few centuries to breathe.
Even before the Earthquake and tsunami hit, the combination of the world's most aged population, over a decade of relative economic decline, and the clearly apparent change from the post-war settlement which left the country as a safe satellite of the unchallenged regional superpower (USA), had created a feeling of drift and dislocation for Japan on the international stage.
Bids to host big events can be a useful litmus test of whether a country is really up for engaging internationally. I have seen this at first hand through working on two bids for Japan – Tokyo 2016 Summer Olympics and Japan 2022 FIFA World Cup. Political ambivalence, uncertain levels of public support, and the personal struggle which I witnessed for Japanese speakers literally to engage, to stand and deliver using English on a world stage, all suggest a kind of withdrawal. Yet the energy and appetite to take part in the bids – and Japan is gearing up for what will quite possibly be a successful bid for the 2020 Olympics – shows a real desire to embrace and welcome the world.
So to my mind the big question is almost one of Japan's destiny: what effect will the disaster of the past week have on Japan's standing in and relations with the world? Will it retire to lick its wounds, a wounded environment, wounded infrastructure, a wounded population and economy? Or will this – as some disaster zones around the world have done with extraordinary success – become a defining moment of re-engagement, of global solidarity for Japan, when it can build relationships of goodwill unlike at any time in its history?