What’s the matter with Japan? According to today’s conventional wisdom—i.e., what we are told by the media and the syndicated pundits—almost everything. Its economy, the second largest in the world, is in a long-term crisis that affects on everyone else, most severely the United States, and it stubbornly refuses to do anything about it despite the friendly advice and frustrated pleas of its partners in the developed capitalist world.
What do they want Japan to do? Simple: they want Japan to “be like us.” Open its markets, deregulate its financial and trading systems, and then step on the economic accelerator—reduce taxes, especially on the higher incomes, and open wide the government-spending spigot. The consequence would presumably be that Japan would quickly become a bigger and better market for its stricken neighbors in Asia and its rich trading partners on the other side of the Pacific Rim.
This is of course the orthodox neoliberal cure for Japan’s crisis. Why does the Japanese government hold back, drag its feet, refuse to accept its “responsibilities” to the newly globalized capitalist economy? Until quite recently the answer to this question was to blame the ossified bureaucratic structure of the Tokyo government. The top bureaucrats, particularly in the Ministry of Finance, were seen as living in the past and being incapable of understanding the needs of the new situation. But this is not a very convincing story. The bureaucrats have been around for quite a while now, and during the great post-Second World War upsurge that catapulted Japan to the top level of the world economy, they gave a pretty good account of themselves. Why should we now believe that they have suddenly become a bunch of doddering incompetents?
In this situation, we have New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof to thank for a very different and much more satisfactory explanation of Japan’s recent performance, one that no one, at least in this country, seems to have had any intimation of. Kristof’s contribution is contained in a long dispatch under the headline “Shops Closing, Japan Still Asks ‘What Crisis?’” that takes up part of three columns on page one and almost all of an inside page (April 21, 1998).
Kristof’s thesis, reduced to its essentials, is that the Japanese as a whole are not feeling any crisis, that they are reasonably satisfied with things as they are, and that they have no interest in pumping up their economy to meet the demands of the Americans. In sum, “the lack of a crisis mentality means that Japan cannot summon the political will to lay off surplus workers, to extinguish insolvent banks, to snuff out the hopes of the kindly old ladies who run rice shops and futon stores. It means that there is little public pressure on prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to push for the sweeping deregulation and huge stimulus that the United States is urging.” As a further indication of Japanese opinion, Kristof cites Hironori Tatayama, a banker in a small town 200 miles southwest of Tokyo: “For people like Mr. Tatayama, the problem of economic restructuring is the price in fairness, equity, and civility. To foreigners, Japan often seems virtually socialist in mind set, profoundly believing in social equity and relying on the most progressive income tax system of any major country in the world—including a marginal rate of 65 percent on personal income taxes—to achieve the equality. After the Soviet Union collapsed, I [Mr. Tatayama] thought that socialism had failed and that capitalism was better…but when I visited Singapore one time, I saw skyscrapers and what looked like a slum next to them. I was surprised, and maybe that was because Japan is the only place where that kind of thing doesn’t happen, the only place where everyone thinks of themselves as middle class.&rdquo
As he approaches the end of his long dispatch from Japan, Kristof sounds a note that must be reassuringly welcome to his bosses at the Times in New York. Citing Yasuo Murata who runs a sawmill and has been hard hit by the opening of Japan’s economy: “Unless the Government changes its policy,” he said,
it’ll be impossible for me to survive here. The problem is the imports…. I want the Government to stop the imports of logs, but I know it can’t do that. Japan is selling high-tech products to other countries, and I understand that if the Government stops the log imports, then the other countries won’t buy Japanese cars or high-tech goods. I understand that the weak are eliminated. I’m really against deregulation, but ultimately I have to accept it. There is no other way.
According to Kristof there are a lot of people who think like Mr. Murata, and so far they have managed to resist caving in altogether. Perhaps this is because Japan is a much more egalitarian country than it is usually given credit for and the popular resistance to neoliberalism may be greater than those who rule Japan would like. If so, that is a piece of good news, coming at a time when good news is in sadly short supply.
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