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World

Once-powerful Japan finds few believers in its recovery

TOKYO — Jesper Koll, an economist who’s lived in Japan for 26 years, says it’s not easy for him to keep faith in a country that’s shrinking, aging, stuck in protracted economic gloom, and losing fast ground to China as the region’s dominant power.

‘‘I am the last Japan optimist,’’ Koll said in a recent speech in Tokyo.

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Indeed, the once-common species has been virtually wiped out. It was only two decades ago that Japan’s boosters — mainly foreign diplomats and authors, economists and entrepreneurs — touted the tiny nation as a global model for how to attain prosperity and power.

But the group has turned gradually into nonbelievers, with several of the last holdouts losing faith only recently, as Japan has failed to carry out meaningful reforms after the March 2011 triple disaster.

The mass turnabout has helped launch an alternative — and increasingly accepted — school of thought about Japan: The country is not just in a prolonged slump but also in an inescapable decline.

There’s frequent evidence for that in economic data, and in the country’s destiny to become ever-smaller, doomed by demographics that will shrink the population from about 127 million today to 47 million in 2100, according to government data.

The current doom is a sharp reversal from several decades ago, when Japanese companies bought up Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center, and Americans argued whether Japan was to be feared or envied.

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Like a separate but related group, known as ‘‘Japan bashers,’’ the optimists were bullish about Japan’s future as an economic powerhouse. But unlike the bashers, who viewed Japan as a dangerous challenger to the United States, the optimists saw Japan as a benevolent superpower — rich but peaceful, with a diligence worth emulating.

Now, when Japan is discussed, it’s instead for its unenviable fiscal problems — debt, rising costs of social programs, and flagging trade with China because of an ongoing territorial dispute.

China, not Japan, is mentioned in US presidential debates and described as the next threat to American supremacy. Japan’s government has announced record quarterly trade deficits while some of its iconic companies — Sony and Sharp — have announced staggering losses.

By 2050, Japan ‘‘will be the oldest society ever known,’’ with a median age of 52, according to the recent book ‘‘Megachange,’’ published by the Economist magazine. Even over the next decade, Japan’s aging population will drag down the gross domestic product by about 1 percent every year. That will further strain Japan’s economy, which in 2010 lost its status as the world’s second-largest, a position now claimed by China.

Today, former Japan optimists also see a disturbing trend. Fewer Japanese, they say, want to interact with the rest of the world, and undergraduate enrollment of Japanese students at US universities has fallen more than 50 percent since 2000.

The generation now entering Japan’s job market is described by older workers here as risk-averse and unambitious, with security and comfort their top priorities.

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