Turning Japanese

dd3db5ab0a9354fa966d0ac6117bf977_1831x1144What can Scotland learn from Japan in creating a de-growth economy? Could we reclaim our derided ‘thrift’ as a version of Japan’s jishuku?

I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, mostly Tokyo and New York and a few other American cities, several times a year. The contrast is jarring. Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure creaky, and basic services like ground transportation chaotic and unreliable.

I steel myself before landing, my mind tallying variables and unknowns: will my luggage land with me and emerge on the dingy carousel? Will the taxi service I booked online in advance arrive on time, at the right terminal, or at all? Will traffic be an impediment to my destination?

And then there’s the view. Whether it’s the outskirts of Queens on the way from New York’s JFK airport, or the fringes of the Los Angeles highway off-ramps by LAX, everything seems a bit run down and decrepit.

Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled merely minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading upon touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration, and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of, and nothing is broken.

As I ease into town, usually via the limousine bus service, the sidewalks outside are teeming with well-dressed urbanites heading home from work or out to restaurants, everyone in motion with purpose and meaning. But that’s not what the papers say. Japan has seen over two decades of a stagnant-to-recessionary economy since its 1989-90 juggernaut bubble burst. It has become the world’s economic whipping boy, described repeatedly as ‘the sick man of Asia’, incapable of revival, doddering off into the sunset.

Reports of Japan’s societal stagnation are no prettier. Stories about the country’s ageing population and plummeting birth rate abound – with the latter hitting a record low last year amid dire predictions of a disappearing Japan. At current rates, demographers estimate that the overall population will drop 30 million by 2050.

Japan’s 2014 fertility rate is low – 1.4 births per woman – but David Pilling, former Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Times, notes that South Korea’s is lower; and that those of other developed countries, from Taiwan and Singapore to Germany and Italy, are similarly low.

“Much of the world is going Japan’s way,” says Pilling. “If Japan is doomed, so are many others.”

However, Pilling adds, the alternative isn’t necessarily better. “Can we really only conceive of a successful economy as one where the population increases year after year? By this measure Pakistan and many African countries should be screaming success stories. They’re not.”

Japanese men and women, meanwhile, are tagged as ‘sexless’, caught up in a celibacy syndrome (sekkusu shinai shōkōgun) that has both the married and the single declaring their lack of interest in sexual relations.

Japan’s young shut-ins (hikikomori) are socially withdrawn digital hermits, self-confined to their bedrooms, video games and online chats. The so-called herbivore/grass-feeding men (soushoku danshi) avoid competition in any arena, romantic or professional. Their female counterparts greet them with a shrug, collect their paycheques and dine out with their girlfriends.

Intuitively, this entropic, shrinking, even disappearing Japan shouldn’t look and feel as good as it does. To visitors, expats and residents alike, Japan is still one of the richest, most civilised and convenient countries in the world. There should be potholes in its streets and pickpockets in its alleys. Shops, restaurants, bars and factories should be darkened and idle. Its trains should be late, the passengers poorly dressed and busking for change.

The 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual ranking of the safest major cities in the world put Tokyo on top, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, at number three. While smaller and mid-sized Japanese cities betray some of the conventional signs of economic hardship (boarded-up storefronts and sparsely populated shopping malls ), in a world beset by rising fanatical violence and rancorous racism and inequality, safety is nothing to sneeze at.

In his 2014 book, Bending Adversity, Pilling grapples with the cognitive dissonance at the heart of 21st-century Japan: is it a harbinger of global stagnation? Or is it a model of global sustainability? In the book’s most-quoted passage, a British MP, upon arriving in Tokyo in the early 2000s and surveying its lively environs, is reported to have said: “If this is a recession, I want one.”

I caught up with Pilling, now based in Hong Kong but a frequent Tokyo returnee, to ask if he’d had a change of heart about the resilient, sustainable Japan he outlines in his book. He remains deeply sceptical of the knee-jerk pejoratives associated with stagnancy.

“Do rich societies really need to get richer and richer indefinitely?” he asks. “A lot of improvements in standard of living come not through what we normally consider as growth, but through technological improvements.”

In fact, Pilling sees Japan’s globally stagnant years as a time of dramatic domestic growth, if not the kind associated with standard economic measurements like GDP. “Many would agree that the standard of living, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, has improved significantly in the so-called lost decades. The city’s skyline has been transformed, the quality of restaurants and services improved greatly. Despite the real stresses and strains and some genuine hardship, society has held together reasonably well. If this is what stagnation looks like, humanity could do a lot worse.”

What makes one society hold together ‘reasonably well’, while others fail? You only have to look to the language for insight. Common words like ganbaru (to slog on tenaciously through tough times), gaman (endure with patience, dignity and respect), and jishuku (restrain yourself according to others’ needs) convey a culture rooted in pragmatism and perseverance.

After the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, the international media was awash with stories about the dignity and superhuman patience of survivors, many of whom peacefully waited hours in single-file lines for relief supplies, only to be turned away in the frigid weather, asked to try again the next day. No one rushed to the front; no one rioted. In shelters, meagre foodstuffs like rice balls were split in half or in quarters to make sure everyone had something to eat.

Nearly everyone was on the same proverbial page: Japan’s population is 98.5 per cent Japanese, as defined by citizenry. While ethnic diversity has its strengths (and some academics point out that, when you analyse the population’s regional roots, Japan is quite diverse), a set of common cultural values, instilled from birth, may strengthen resilience in the face of crisis and adversity.

Journalist Kaori Shoji tells me that having few resources and learning to make the most of them is essential to the Japanese character. “The Japanese temperament is suited to dealing with poverty, scarcity and extremely limited resources. If [American Commodore Matthew Perry’s] black ships didn’t show up [to open Japan to Western trade] in the 19th century, we’d still be scratching our heads over the workings of the washing machine or the dynamics of a cheeseburger. On the other hand, with four centuries of frugality behind us, we have learned to be creative. Frugality doesn’t have to mean drab stoicism and surviving on fish heads.”

Japan’s stagnancy, pilloried by economists and analysts in the west, may turn out to be the catalyst for its greatest strengths: resiliency, reinvention and quiet endurance.
Until a couple of years ago, I lectured Japan’s best and brightest at the University of Tokyo. My Japanese students were polite to a fault. They handed their essays to me and my teaching assistant with two hands affixed to the paper, like sacred artefacts. They nodded affirmatively when I asked if they understood what I’d said, even when they didn’t . They were never late to class, and they never left early.

But when I pressed them on their future plans, they expressed a kind of blissful ambivalence. “I’d like to help improve Japan’s legal system,” Kazuki, a smart and trilingual student from Kyushu told me. “But if that doesn’t work out, I just want to be a good father.”

Sayaka, a literature major from Hokkaido, asked me if I understood her generation’s dilemma. “We grew up very comfortable,” she said. “We learned not to take risks.”
No risk-taking – anathema to today’s ‘fail-fast’, Silicon Valley culture – would seem to indicate stagnation writ large. But what if it’s a more futuristic model for all of us, even superior to Japan’s sleek, sci-fi bubble-era iconography: all hi-tech and flashy yen, but no soul?

Waseda University professor Norihiro Kato, Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, sees a radical example in Japanese culture that he describes as a model of ‘de-growth’, of returning to other measures of growth that transcend stagnancy, focused instead on quality of life.

“The shape of wisdom as well as self-worth has drastically changed,” he tells me at his office in Takadanobaba, north west Tokyo. “We can point to periods of change, the late 80s with Chernobyl, or early 90s with the end of the USSR and communism [the end of history, according to Francis Fukuyama], or the early 00s with September 11. And finally the early the early 10s, with March 11 and Fukushima Daiichi.”

Kato sees our world as one of fundamental transition, from dreams of the infinite to realities of the finite – a transformation Japan grasps better than most of us. “I consider younger Japanese floating, shifting into a new qualified power, which can do and undo as well: can enjoy doing and not doing equally.”
I ask him if Japan’s model – stagnancy as strength – can inform the rest of the world, educate us in the possibilities of impoverishment?

“Imagine creating a robot that has the strength and delicacy to handle an egg,” he says. “That robot has to have the skills to understand and not destroy that egg. This is the key concept for growing our ideas about growth into our managing of de-growth.”

Handling that egg is tricky. A spike in youth volunteerism in Japan post 3/11 suggests that young Japanese, despite the global hand-wringing over their futures, are bypassing the old pathways to corporate success in favour of more humble participation.

In 2005, University of Tokyo graduate Mitsuru Izumo, who had a cosy law firm gig in his lap, left to found a startup: Euglena.jp: a way of feeding the world’s poorest via algae hybrids. A Keio University graduate is now selling stitched bags from Ethiopia. Haruka Mera of startup Ready, For? is thriving on global kickstarter campaigns for Japanese startups.

Mariko Furukawa, researcher for Japanese giant advertising firm Hakuhodo, reckons the think-small mentality of young Japanese is turning stagnancy into sustainability. She cites the proliferation of agri-related startups – peopled by young Japanese who are leaving the cities for rural environs, despite the low returns, and who don’t seem to care about globalisation.

“These small techs should really add up to something, and we may be able to replace [stagnation] with new innovation, not necessarily new technology,” Furakawa says. “I think (the) Japanese ability to innovate in such things is very strong. And so, because these city planners and urban designers are talking about downsizing the cities, wrapping up into smaller furoshikis (Japanese rucksacks), so to speak, the awareness is there, they know what needs to be done. In this sense, we may be at the forefront of developed economies.”

Furukawa notes that many European nations facing similar dilemmas don’t have the same tools to address them. “Europe has been suffering from low growth. But I don’t know if they are that innovative at new ways of living.”

Japan’s Blade Runner image of yesteryear, a futuristic amalgamation of high-tech efficiency coursing through neon-lit, noirish alleyways in sexy, 24-hour cities, is really a blip in the nation’s 4,000-year-old history. Today the country is more about quality of life than quantities of stuff. In its combination of restraint, frugality, and civility, Japan may serve as one of our best societal models of sustenance for the future.

Comments (17)

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  1. Joe Heffernan says:

    I like this article. I believe that we need to more strongly consider quality of life issues and policies in our political sphere. I think that too often our politics is restricted to only considering GDP. I’ve only read the news concerning last Friday’s report from the UK government about productivity improvement in the UK but I have to say that they have chosen a poor goal for 2030 for the UK. My understanding is that the goal is to make Britain the richest large economy by then. I would have considered it to be a better goal to make Britain the best place to live by having a good society following sustainable social, economic and environmental policies. I know that may sound a bit wooly and hard to measure but it inspires me more than just becoming richer.

  2. colin says:

    The Japanese have one huge advantage in as much as they are a homogeneous society that is largely self supporting with little conflicting vested interests, for example the government there could ban the building of Mosques without offending anyone, they could also make it compulsory for girls to take swimming or dancing at school without millions of people protesting that “it’s against their Religion and culture.

    They are also a disciplined society much more willing to obey the rules than in other, more liberal countries…rightly or wrongly they believes that these rules are there for the protection of society as a whole and not necessarily to benefit the elite or the elite of other countries.

    In short they are cohesive and working together for the greater good…with those values, they cannot lose.

    By the way, a low birthrate is a good thing, you only have to visit Manila to see what a disaster breeding like bunnies has on that country.

    1. This is true Colin, a point acknowledged in the article.

  3. Hugh MacLeod says:

    Wonderful food for thought. Thanks.

    When people ask me over here in the States about Scottish Independence, I tell them, a lot of it is because the Scots want their country to be more like the Scandinavians, less like New York and London. At least the Nats do…

    What the author wrote of Tokyo, I have similar thoughts every time I go to Scandinavia, hence my point.


  4. dunderheid says:

    Greece Debt to GDP 161%
    Japan Debt to GDP 226%

    The reason Japan is not engulfed in a massive Greek style fiscal crisis is that historically its debt has been offset by huge amounts of private savings. In other words Japanese government debt has been in effect through domestic banks been bought by private savers.

    However when the demographic crisis hits as the dependant (non saving) population increases to 40%, those savings will disappear quickly and the Japanese (and the world) will face a fiscal crisis that no amount of jishuku will overcome

  5. Darien says:

    A strong national culture is clearly important and not something to be readily thrown away, as Scotland does with continual MSM and BBC-Anglicism cultural violence imposed on us.

    In the 1990’s the Japanese investigated the British/USA strategies on private-finance-initiative, and quite rightly said ‘naw’, no fir us. Scotland didnae have the option, and still disnae. Our essential public monopoly utilities were mostly given to the bankers, like Lord Deutsche Bank Smith and his ilk.

    Essentially the Japanese are a fairer society than many and more respectful of each other. Two attributes most Scots have, I would say. Anglicisation diminishes us in more ways than we imagine.

  6. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I have seen little reported about Japan for several years, since their economy went into recession with negative inflation. Maybe they have now got it right. A society that cares for all of its members and shares its resources is something we should all aspire to.

    Our politicians tell us that we are the fastest growing economy with greater numbers in employment than ever before. These statements may be true based on the measurements made by our statistical office but the truth is that a very large proportion of the population are on the breadline. There is widespread suffering and the income gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The latest budget will make things even worse for those at the bottom on minimum wage or zero hours contracts. Yes the minimum wage it to be slightly increased but not by enough and not till next year while welfare payments that keep the people at the bottoms are slashed.

    There is a disaster coming over the hill in the next year or so when world interest rates begin to rise, led by actions in the USA. When that happens and we are forced to follow all those people with mortgages that are hanging on by their fingernails will be financially ruined. Many survive now because of the availability of very low mortgage rates but do not have the wherewithal to cope with a significant increase in their mortgage outgoings.

    When that happens we will hear of another housing bubble crash, negative equity and many people made homeless by the foreclosure of their mortgages. It will not affect the bankers as they will take the assets and sell them off for what they can get then pursue the defaulters for the difference ; all the while trying to encourage the next housing bubble number 3 or is it 4.

    In particular more poor people will be shipped out of London as their housing costs are deemed unaffordable by the state and the arising availability of houses will be used to encourage more of those with wealth to fill the gap, continuing the “giant suction machine” effect as described by Vince Cable.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a rant but we really need to get away from the Metrocentric society that treats the poor as pariahs and rewards the mendacity and greed of the ruling elite. Roll on #Indyref2

    1. C Rober says:

      Been talking about the same , housing bubble , arguing that the snp are liars on Affordable housing , affordable housing needs to be 3x net median salary means 60k

      Currently affordable housing is the same as the average house price in Scotland circa 120k.

      If the mortgage rates become unaffordable for this “unaffordable housing paraded as affordable” through higher interest rates ….. pop. If this 7x salary is becoming the norm above even affordable pricing , its the new subprime , again pop.

      Can the banking sector afford another pop in the bubble , with the likes of mortgages applicants being so stretched , I doubt it without balancing the books on savings rates , negating spending therefore gdp.You can only print so much money in QE before devaluation works against itself.

      Japan for its people , good model , for fiscal not so much if their d2gdpr is so high.

      For energy looking for cheap to manufacture goods , not importing fuel to generate leccy , meant nuclear…. and then what happened. You pay dearly and for a long time with nuclear , hardly the savings expected.

  7. Cheers!!! says:

    Hey Peeps…it’s all fine. UK came top of an international survey for ‘soft power’ everyone loves Britain…c’mon stop standing outside, time to joint the party!

  8. Calum Craig says:

    I lived there from 2002 to 2009 and, being married to a lovely Japanese lady, go back as often as funds allow.

    When I was there I kept hearing about “the recession” and wondered what the hell the Japanese were talking about – everyone seemed very comfortable and Louis Vitton merchandise was everywhere….

    The Japanese do pride themselves on living in a society where “everyone is middle class” and while this is clearly not true, it is far more egalitarian than our “Western” culture – the gap between CEOs’ salaries and that of their companies’ regular workers is nothing like the gulf we see in Europe and N America, for example.

    One thing I did really like about Japan is that there is no social stigma whatsoever about renting your home. Off the top of my head, not knowing the figures, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still more renters than owners – especially in urban areas (out in the sticks like my in laws, there are far more actual houses).

    There are many wonderful things about Japan but, like any country on the planet, there are many not so great things which I won’t get into but really interesting article, thanks.

  9. dunderheid says:

    Another general point about Japan’s economic situation is that the prolonged anemic growth and impending demographic crisis has meant that Japanese parents are having to tell their children that the best they can hope for is that their lives won’t be any worse economically than their own. One can argue, perhaps with reason, that this is “sustainable” but it is also uninspiring and depressing.

  10. Kevin Williamson says:

    Great article. Visited Japan in May and was continually surprised how genuinely helpful and polite Japanese people were. I’d thought this would be a bit lame but quickly appreciated how infinitely better it was than in Scotland where people are in your face every day of the week. Tokyo though which I loved was also my worst nightmare. A city of some 34 million people that goes on forever. The scale of it was depressing. As were the rigid social hierarchies and the way women were (subtly but insistently) subordinate to the social expectations of male society. Wandering around Japanese supermarkets marvelling ar the range and cheapness of fish it was also apparent which nation is systematically scraping the seas empty of life. Much to admire in Japan yes. But my superficial impression as a first time visitor was that this was all unsustainable. Also heard how younger people were leaving the food growing countryside areas thereby jeopardising future food production. Fascinating place though and lovely people. Maybe they do have the social cohesion to cope with de-growth and avoid the sort of social disintegration that is a feature of every Scottish city. Still wouldnt want to live there though.

  11. kailyard rules says:

    Heard it in the Sixties. Less is more, stemming from a perspective of limits to growth. The so called “hippies” were definitely not sekkusu shinai shokogun or hikikomori in any way, but theirs was a kind of selective drop-out de-growth within mainstream growth. Many got rich with alternative lifestyles linked to creative survival devoid of “red tape”. Growth from de-growth.

  12. John Craig says:

    I brought this up in Austerity on the Edge of Europe. The Japanese/ South Korean situation is to some extent admirable, but not necessarily desirable. Historically, these countries have been held in a militaristic feudal system until very recent times. This has provided the ant-hill mentality which serves them well at this time.
    Scotland however, has a history of bloody clan infighting, sectarian divides, political and class partitions and rule by England to ensure that cohesive spirit will be hard to inspire. In general terms, we may be willing to cut our cape to suit our cloth, but it’s a simple fact of life, that the moral high ground is usually occupied by those with the biggest wallets and they will be only too willing to resist any levelling of societies playing fields.

  13. arthur thomson says:

    Thank you for this post. I found it refreshing and interesting. By contrast, I found a number of the comments thoroughly depressing.

    By being independently minded, reasonably hardworking and not being materialistic I have successfully negotiated my way through life on average to below average earnings. The ‘more and bigger is best’ attitude of the greed culture in UKOK is the pits. Sounds like we could learn a few things from the Japanese. Then again the myopic perspective of the rule Britania brigade precludes the possibility of respecting, valuing and learning from other cultures. Oh that Scotland was more like Japan and less like the last place on earth.

    Thank you Bella for widening the range of subjects being covered.

    1. Dunderheid says:

      Well perhaps we should have learned from the Japanese not to be too greedy about house and/or share prices given that their current prolonged economic malaise derives ultimately from the bursting of a massive real estate and stock bubble in the 90’s

      1. C Rober says:

        And the rise of China as the worlds manufacturer of electronics.

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