Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs, second from left, and Beijing-based correspondent Hannah Beech met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo. Abe, who became Japan’s youngest postwar Prime Minister during his first term in 2006–07, is working on reinvigorating Japan’s economy and ultimately “refashioning Japan as a model modern nation-state—a democratic force that can be a counterweight to an authoritarian China.”
Dominic Nahr——Magnum for TIME
April 17, 2014 5:53 AM EDT

Driving around Tokyo, through shiny streets thick with shoppers, you have to remind yourself that the world’s third largest economy has been gasping for air for years. It is one of history’s great puzzles, how a country could arise from defeat in a world war and build an economy so muscular that it was the envy of the world, only to stagger and then stall as rivals like China and South Korea surged. It did not help that Japan’s political leaders were so weightless that they were treated as disposable, or that many companies viewed individual risk-taking as reckless vanity, or that half the nation’s talent pool–its women–largely sat on the sidelines of its economy.

Shinzo Abe, the popular Prime Minister, is determined to change all that and in the process restore Japan’s pride in its destiny. Beijing-based correspondent Hannah Beech and I sat down with Abe on April 9 to explore his plans. We talked about “Abenomics,” the debate over his pronounced nationalism and whether China is fanning regional tensions to distract attention from unrest at home. “There’s a real sense of energy in Japan that didn’t exist a couple of years ago,” Hannah observes. “Whether this energy can be sustained and whether oversize expectations will be dashed are big questions. But there’s no doubt Abe is linked to that renewed sense of self-confidence.”

Hannah’s mother was born in Japan in 1944; she remembers the desperate poverty, the U.S. soldiers handing out candy to children. “She married an American, even though her father died fighting Americans. Now she’s back living in Tokyo in a prosperous neighborhood with a Scandinavian bakery, an Italian restaurant and a Dean & DeLuca nearby,” Hannah notes. “We shouldn’t forget just how far Japan has come in 70 years–and it is this very recent history of renewal that should give us hope that Japan can restore itself again.”

Nancy Gibbs, MANAGING EDITOR

BEHIND THE STORY

TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs, second from left, and Beijing-based correspondent Hannah Beech met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo. Abe, who became Japan’s youngest postwar Prime Minister during his first term in 2006–07, is working on reinvigorating Japan’s economy and ultimately “refashioning Japan as a modern nation-state–a democratic force that can be a counterweight to an authoritarian China.” For more, see page 26.

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This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.

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