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    Old ワイン in new ボトル

    The New York Times is running a series of articles about Japan and how people are adjusting to the realization that the economy is probably permanently screwed. The first installment may be lame simply because it’s an overview and therefore doesn’t have room for reporter Martin Fackler to dig into anything specifically. It doesn’t look promising, though. Read it, and you learn the following:

    •   Property values have never really recovered since they nosedived in 1991, so mortgage holders are in sorry shape.

    •   The lifetime-employment system is in shreds, so lots of young people do unstable freelance work and are very anxious about the future.
    •   Deflation means no one wants to take entrepreneurial risks. Such new businesses as are arising are designed to help people weasel their way out of debt.
    •   People aren’t buying expensive clothes, weddings, houses, and nights out anymore.

    All right, you say, none of this is new, but the reporter isn’t trying to argue that it is; he’s arguing that Japan has reached some sort of turning point in how people are responding to it. It’s been two decades since the bursting of the Bubble, and with the world economy now suffering, Japan’s fatalism has deepened perceptibly.

    That sounds fine, but the article doesn’t bear it out. There’s nothing in it that Michael Zielenziger couldn’t have written in his sleep ten years ago, and Fackler surely knows that. (IIRC, he has degrees in Asian studies and has spent his career in Asia.)

    After years of complacency, Japan appears to be waking up to its problems, as seen last year when disgruntled voters ended the virtual postwar monopoly on power of the Liberal Democratic Party. However, for many Japanese, it may be too late. Japan has already created an entire generation of young people who say they have given up on believing that they can ever enjoy the job stability or rising living standards that were once considered a birthright here.

    “Waking up to” implies something in progress but relatively new, but that’s very misleading. In fact, voters have been reform-minded since at least the Koizumi administration. His ascendancy took place within the LDP, yes, but it was widely seen as giving hope that the old guard would be swept aside and needed changes would be made. The LDP won by a landslide when Koizumi declared that he was making the 2005 snap election a referendum on Japan Post privatization. And NHK (the last entity in the archipelago to find out about any new trend, much like the NYT Style Section) has been running programs for well over a decade about the increase in the number of freeters among young people, the failure of property values to recover since the Bubble, the rise of bargain-hunting chic, and the decline in whoopee-making in Japan’s most exclusive entertainment districts. Japan may be experiencing a new and noteworthy crisis of confidence, but you can’t support that by trundling out tired cliches about empty boutiques full of “Sale” signs.

    Not to be outdone, the WaPo this week had an exquisitely vacuous story about changes in Japanese manhood. Men are getting more insecure but also more cuddly, don’t you know:

    To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don’t know what they want.

    Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan’s young men.

    But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy’s roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan’s future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost “the willingness to sacrifice for the company,” said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book “Contemporary Japan.”

    Kingston added: “And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn’t work. But they aren’t sure what comes next. They’ve seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan.”

    For the love of Amaterasu: “A growing number of experts”? “A growing understanding”?! Restructuring and downsizing entered the Japanese vocabulary as unwelcome buzzwords when I was in college, which was not yesterday. The Long-Term Credit Bank and Yamaichi Securities collapsed in 1997 (later than when I was in college, but also not yesterday). For over a decade, the Japanese media have been chock-a-block with stories about creepy unattached young men and their stuffed animals, brassy unattached young women with no intention of starting families, and various other indications that young Japanese men are turning out to be soft, rudderless, unmarriageable, borderline-autistic pussies. (The clothing thing is particularly comical to read about, since reporter Chico Harlan’s colleague was already writing silly, ill-supported crap about the deeper meanings of new Japanese men’s fashion five years ago.)

    So the idea that insecurity about the future is something we’re just getting around to noticing is malarkey. Like Fackler, Harlan may have good reason to think that Japanese manhood is reaching some sort of significant transition point right now, but memes that have been around since the Lost Decade are not evidence for that. Harlan also demonstrates no awareness that, going back at least to the Heian Period, Japanese culture does not consider it unmanful to be somewhat dandyish or to take an interest in the decorative arts. If elder Japanese frown on guys who host dessert-tasting parties, it may be because having the leisure to do so suggests a lack of career focus rather than because the activity itself is feminine.

    Furthermore, “Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors” is an inane statement. That a few internationally competitive companies were generating enough wealth to carry the inefficient domestic economy in which most workers were employed was understood ages ago. You can argue that efficiency is only one criterion among many for whether workers are being used well, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that salarymen powered Japan’s fortune.

    The superficiality and lack of historical perspective here are frustrating because the questions raised are genuinely interesting and important. After the Japanese economy had sucked for ten years, there was talk that Japan was ready to bounce back. I remember the conversations: Koizumi had been elected. Korea had recovered from the 1997 Asian financial crisis by instituting hard but necessary reforms, demonstrating that a Tiger Economy similar to Japan’s could manage it. The federal ministries were being restructured to make them more efficient. Trade with a rising China promised to open new doors.

    And then it just kind of didn’t happen. The Japanese set their teeth and kept soldiering on, and ten years later they’ve made little progress. I think Fackler and Harlan are very probably right to say that the Japanese attitude toward the future has hardened from anxiety into real fear, but neither of them seems to want to ask the really thorny questions about where the problems lie. Quotations from economic analysts whiz in and out of each article like late-summer yellowjackets, but they’re never really dealt with.

    I would love to see an enterprising reporter from one of the major news organizations go to all these people who used to man-crush on Japan’s technocratic leaders—the Ezra Vogel and Eamonn Fingleton types—and ask them what genius moves they propose now. When Japan was betting correctly on which industries to pour resources into, it could afford the weak-people-strong-state practices it became famous for: mutual shareholding, proportional reductions, lifetime employment, makework office jobs used to keep the unemployment rate down, a ridiculously hypertrophied construction industry, shut-up-and-copy schooling. The economic devastation of the war was a recent memory, and wealth kept rising. People had good incentives to muster superhuman discipline and perform their roles as worker ants.

    Unfortunately, once the Japan Inc. brain trust started erring, it couldn’t change. Lines of authority were often unclear, and where they were clear, there were too many federal bureaucrats and favored-industry bigwigs with stakes in the existing system to make reform possible. The Japanese system rewards long-range planning and does whatever it can to avoid surprises. Not surprisingly, it’s proven brittle. If having wise technocrats in charge of things was going to work sustainably anywhere, it was going to be homogeneous, educated, rule-loving, diligent Japan. But the collective smarts of the grads of the University of Tokyo Faculty of Laws have not proved a match for a dynamic world market. And a risk-shunning citizenry turns out to be a serious liability when, as Fackler notes at the end of his piece before discreetly concluding it, creative destruction is the only way forward. The best that can be said about both these articles is that they’re consistent with their subject matter: Fackler and Harlan are as unable to break with fruitless established patterns (in their case, of plying American audiences with cliches about Deeply Conflicted Post-Bubble Japan) as Japan has been.

    11 Responses to “Old ワイン in new ボトル”

    1. Marzo says:

      I happened to read the WaPo one and wondered what you’d have to say about it… As could be expected, what you had to say is incomparably better.

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    2. Julie says:

      I had been wondering if you had read and would comment on the column James Fallows wrote for The Atlantic a while ago.


    3. Mark Alger says:

      I think there are two mistakes that people make over and over. First, on arriving at a pleasing place, they assume that conditions there have always been so and therefor always should be so. Second, on perceiving a trend, they assume it will continue indefinitely.

      Neither can be demonstrated to any degree of reliability. I would, as a matter of personal policy, gainsay either unless presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

      A condition which lasts a hundred years is STILL not permanent. It just encompasses more than a human lifetime, and for those whose lifespans fall within that century, it might as well be permanent. But to assume that in all cases is sheer folly.


    4. Sean says:

      Oh, uh, I never answered anyone here, did I? Sorry—my computer’s been seriously ill-tempered lately.

      Thanks. Flattery will get you everywhere. :) It should be noted, though, that pretty much all Westerners who’ve spent a while in Japan say these sorts of things about the press coverage in their native countries. I’m far from the only one to notice.

      Yes, I’d seen Fallows’s piece, and I actually agree with a lot of it. Sensationalism sells, and it’s much more exciting to cast Japan’s post-war history as some sort of econ Jacqueline Susann novel: dirt poverty at the beginning of the Occupation, followed by Rock-Center-and-van Gogh-buying hubristical excess, followed by punishing collapse. It really is stupid of commentators to imply that Japan is somehow on the verge of going under; its basic resiliency should be pretty well established by this point, two decades after the bubbles burst.

      However, what went on the in the ’80s was equally stupid. Westerners in love with corporate Japan for its collectivism and bureaucratic Japan for its control-freak planning were constantly telling us that we sucked, that Japan was going to surpass us, that Japan was going to take us over, that we had everything to learn from Japan and it had nothing to learn from us, and blah blah blah. It is disingenuous in the extreme for them to repackage themselves now as the voices of consistent sobriety and reason, as they seem to want to do.

      Yes. Just, yes.

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