Saturday, August 21, 2010

Keeping faith with Japan

The orthodoxy is Japan has had its day in the sun. The recent GDP figures have annointed China as the only game in town. But from my humble home on the outskirts of Tokyo, I would just like to offer a tiny voice of dissent.

There have been a rash of China-rising stories recently and if the world remembers anything from yesterday's soundbites it's that China has overtaken Japan to be the number two economy. From this assumption it's not hard to make two more: that Japan has given up the ghost; and Pax Americana is maxed out so it's only a matter of time before Uncle Sam must beg brother China to spare a dime.

And time has run out, according to The Economist's August 19th Watching China whizz by. It offers us the insight that Japan has lost its way and China is pursuing its manifest destiny of ever-onward expansion. If only Japan could learn to be more entrepreneurial, less tradition-bound and more rewarding of change, things might be different, so the free-market-mantra goes. There's even a nice Economist graph to prove it:

It's all believable enough, but this reader's doubts set in when a significant reason for Japan's malaise was put forward that the Japanese corporate warrior salaryman and international diplomat had been usurped by the soshoku danshi "herbivore" wimp. In this school of thought, Japan is failing because employees are suddenly too wimpy to take foreign postings and only 14 percent are manly enough to want to be self-employed.

An alternative reading of this trend would be that far from being wimpy, the Japanese salaryman - and diplomat even - is standing up to the boss and saying "no" to a three-year posting to a third world backwater where there is no Japanese language or international school for his children, "no" to blindly following the company's diktat and "yes" to what's best for his famiIy. Is this not an example of the Japanese acting as individual rather rather than the corporate "zombie" that the Economist bemoans? The Japanese salaryman has never been keen on being posted to the cement factory in Pakistan for years on end, but is still as keen as ever on that North America transfer to the New York office. And, in this economic climate, is it so strange that most would prefer a guaranteed well-paying job for life than being self-employed?

To be sure, Japan is hardly sin-free. While more women are entering the workplace, scandalously few are in positions of authority, deference to seniority over merit often borders on the absurd... and then there's the bureaucrats.

But is China so much better?

Perhaps because I'm no economist, I look at that graph and I don't see Japan failing and the inexorable rise of China, I see a suspiciously perfect upward trajectory probably based on lies, that even if true, is completely unsustainable, and a Japan that has survived the wilderness years and is picking up the pieces.

Take the two biggest events of recent years concerning the Asian powers. Japan overthrew the center-right party that had been running the country since the war. China united behind the Beijing Olympics. Which one is the tradion-bound nation unable to cope with change?

Patrick Sherriff
Editor at large of The Point

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