Thursday, January 1, 2009

Mr. Aso's unbearable optimism

In his book Totetsumonai Nihon (2007), Aso Taro outlined an approach to governing Japan that amounts to a pep talk for the dispirited Japanese people.

Time and time again, Mr. Aso suggests that the key to saving Japan is for its people to rediscover and celebrate their "latent power," to look cheerfully to the future, and to accentuate the positive.

The best example of this may be his chapter on aging society, in which he calls for a new respect for the aged and permitting those who want to work to continue to do so. As an aside, does Japan really have a problem of elderly would-be workers being denied their opportunity to do so? And does Japan really want to be forced to rely on elderly workers?

In any case, Mr. Aso has once again shown his boundless optimism, bordering on the delusional, in his New Year's message.

Mr. Aso opened his remarks by praising the Japanese people for overcoming the slump that followed the bursting of the bubble. If it weren't for the "what is said to be a once in a century global financial and economic crisis emanating from America," he suggests, Japan would not be facing a crisis once again. In response the global crisis, Mr. Aso promised that his government would do everything in its power to make Japan the fastest country in the world to escape the global recession. As Ken Worsley notes, Mr. Aso neglected to provide any specifics for how he intends to meet this goal.

This is the point at which optimism turns into self-delusion. I say self-delusion because I don't think the Japanese people are fooled by Mr. Aso's promises.

The Japanese people know better than their prime minister that they did not in fact accomplish the feat of overcoming the bubble economy — Japanese firms were spared by growth in the US and China, but Japanese consumers did not see enough of the windfall to provide the Japanese economy with a stable foundation to weather a crisis. Contrary to Japan's being dragged into a "once-in-a-century" (there's that phrase again) global crisis despite having escaped its earlier downturn, Japan's latest crisis is the direct consequence of having failed to fix the Japanese economy. Despite the "longest postwar boom" — another phrase commonly heard from government officials in recent years — it appears that the boom did not to put Japan on surer footing.

The Japanese people do not need to be told this. They're fully aware that something is rotten in Japan, or else they would have been spending more. The last thing they need is a pep talk from the prime minister. But that's what he gave them in this speech. After promising to be the first country to escape the recession, Mr. Aso proceeds to remind the public of Japan's successful responses to bakumatsu and the occupation, and urges his audience to believe in Japan's "latent power."

I understand that optimism sells, that no politician wants to be seen as simply a bearer of ill tidings. But there is surely a middle ground between selling optimism and hope and peddling delusions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, managed the trick. In his first inaugural address, he diagnosed the problem facing the United States in clear, stark terms, and offered a way forward in terms no less stark. He also had a message for Mr. Aso: "Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment."

Mr. Aso should focus a bit more on the dark realities of the moment — and offer some more precise proposals for how he intends to escape them — instead of simply encouraging the Japanese people to believe in themselves and work harder, while denying the underlying causes of the current crisis.

19 comments:

Noah said...

Well said, Mr. Harris.

I also think that a big part of what's wrong with Japan has to do not so much with how much money the country has - it's still a very rich first-world nation, after all - but what opportunities exist for turning that money into happiness. Women still can't get good jobs. Men still can't easily transfer their skills from one company to another. Fathers can't eat dinner with their families. People of all ages still can't live in comfortable apartments and houses for reasonable prices.

Even improving the Japanese economy's performance won't fix these structural, lifestyle-related economic issues.

Anonymous said...

"...instead of simply encouraging the Japanese people to believe in themselves and work harder,.."

This is some ways is a paraphrase of the American Dream.

But as Noah pointed out, albeit it from a western perspective, the opportunities to excel do not really exist, in the sense of copying the American Dream.

However, the "overcoming" of barriers for wealth and success in the western model of life do not exist in Japan as they do in the western model. Whether that is a good or bad thing is another issue. It is a cultural thing.

The model that Japan has of itself and nation is not sustainable in the 21st century. It needs to change, but the old guard refuse to pull their heads out of the sand...change brings social disorder and more unknowns, not to mention a view that ones culture is being watered down to the extent of being washed away. This is the foucs, not the opportunity and hope, that change brings.

Until this insular view is addressed, nowt will change, whilst Japan slowly and inexorably becomes less and less important as an economy. Since apart from the commodities that Japan produce, what influence does Japan has on the world stage? It is no more important than say Australia in the diplomatic circles as such. Being ostensibly a "non-intervention society", again, nowt will change until the mentality does.

As Noah sums ups, the cultural side is firmly linked to its economic success...Pandora's box has been open for years, (TV/Internet and not to mention the coveting of all things Western/American and immigrants, with their strange ways) does Japan have the balls to admit this and change, for the good of its citizens?

Ken said...

Does Japan really have a problem of elderly would-be workers being denied their opportunity to do so?

In a sense, there is a problem. Many firms still have mandatory retirement ages of 60 or 65 for full-time, salaried workers. This means that once one is above that age, the majority of options for work are part-time or contract work at much lower hourly rates.

Anonymous said...

What exactly is wrong with having a level of international clout par with Australia (or Canada, for example)?

Number one would be America, the most influential, but also the most reviled nation. Of democracies - UK, France, Germany, would likely be next. Throw in China and Russia - two countries who win their clout by virtue of security council seats and some bad behavior like the recent gas cutoff or helping out African dictatorships.... and maybe India (huge population and a legacy of clout from the "neutral" days) and perhaps Japan, Canada, and Australia are next. So the question is how can Japan increase its clout to the level of a UK, France, or Germany? It can't really as they are the dominant powers of the EU. So... no matter what Japan does it seems to be a comfortable lower top 10 with little potential for moving up, or reason to for that matter.

Anonymous said...

"Women still can't get good jobs."

Many don't want to. Polls reveal that housewives are the happiest people in Japan.

I'm not even sure that a statement like this is true regarding medicine, academia, and the bureaucracy. For business, nobody has presented real evidence that women are not continuing in business careers because of discrimination. It could very well be due to a desire to get out, have kids, and not come back. We can't say that that is objectively destructive to happiness.

"People of all ages still can't live in comfortable apartments and houses for reasonable prices."

Try living outside Tokyo. Even Tokyo has seen its floor space rise and rents fall below New York, Berlin, Sydney, and especially places like London. That argument may have held up in 1989, but I'm not buying it 20 years later.

Comfortable, of course, is also value dependent. My Japanese wife thinks that American houses are like barns and would rather a smaller Japanese apartment any day.

The impact of large house suburban living is also well documented - people don't walk anywhere so they get fat and out of shape which ruins quality of life and shaves years off life expectancy.

"Men still can't easily transfer their skills from one company to another."

Happiness?

Anonymous said...

Anon
"..What exactly is wrong with having a level of international clout par with Australia?.."

None at all. The problem is that Japan sees itself as a major player, on par with the EU/US. Only today/yesterday Aso echoed this by saying Japan is "one of the leading countries in the world.."

It is rather like a child wanting or maintaining it should be a member of the "grown ups club" because it satisfies all the criteria, but, through the child's eyes, not through the adults.

Anonymous said...

But Japan is "one of the leading countries in the world" - maybe one of the top 10. We can't tell what Aso means by "one of" just from the statement that you cite, but we can if we look at his larger body of writing.

In his book, Aso clearly states that Japan is behind the US and France in influence. He does not discuss Germany or the UK but from the tone of his discussion, we gather that he would likely see the writing on the wall there as well.

Not sure what Aso would have to say about Japan's influence relative to China, but once again, that type of influence is not something that Japan should be aiming for.

I think that you should refrain from hitting out at Aso for what you think that he means in statements like the one that you cite. God knows that enough of what he really says is silly enough....

As for your statement that "Japan thinks..." - Japanese people know the score - their country is "important" but lacks major league clout.

Anonymous said...

Noah
"...but what opportunities exist for turning that money into happiness..."

Well, there is the crux. This is not a traditional Asian/Japanese measure of happiness, money. I recall Vietnam being labled the "happiest country" recently.

The current "younger generation" are being sucked into the consumer culture. But this is somewhat of an anathema to Asian cultures.

The younger generations wants/needs are diametrically opposite their parents generation. Until the current younger generation become the "older" generation, the western views of unfair behaviour and opportunities etc, will never be addressed to implement any kind of "change". Which ultimately shall trickle down.
As for houses...hmmm..would be a start if 'they' build houses which last longer than my dinner and where a crappy McD is seen as better quality! Longevity and quality are not synonymous with Japanese houses

Anonymous said...

"grown ups club"

You should probably think about changing your terms of argument....

Noah said...

"Many don't want to. Polls reveal that housewives are the happiest people in Japan."

Income effect. Women who can afford to be housewives tend to be richer than women who have to work.

Also, the fact that housewives say they're happy doesn't mean women in general wouldn't be better off if they had more opportunities in the working world.

As for floor space, Anonymous, you're right that the situation has improved, and you're wrong to think suburban barns are the one and only alternative. I've seen plenty of suburbs far from Tokyo, and the apartments there are better than they used to be but not as good as what Europeans enjoy in regions of similar population density. Also, the suburbs are largely devoid of plant life, thanks to construction subsidies that paid LDP client companies to pave over the whole country...

Noah said...

"As Noah sums ups, the cultural side is firmly linked to its economic success...Pandora's box has been open for years, (TV/Internet and not to mention the coveting of all things Western/American and immigrants, with their strange ways) does Japan have the balls to admit this and change, for the good of its citizens?"

I agree that this is the essential question. But I also think it's important to realize that things like job mobility/specialization and working opportunities for women aren't fundamentally American or Western; they're features of every advanced industrial economy, including Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other non-Western rich countries. Governments that offer their citizens these and other "economic lifestyle options" will tend to get rewarded at the ballot box. The reason Japan has been a little behind in offering some of these opportunities to its citizens has nothing to do with Japanese culture - it's simple politics. The dominance of the LDP has kept the government unresponsive to the wishes of the people. When that dominance ends, and Japanese people get an economy that allows them more comfortable, fulfilling lives, it won't be the case that Japanese culture has fundamentally changed - it'll just be a case of Japan's national institutions remodeling themselves to be more effective in serving the nation.

Anonymous said...

Noah, I beg to differ.

My wife, for example, is surrounded by males at work. She cannot progress even though she is eminently more qualified than most around her. The reason, she is a woman. The "old men" in the office are uncomfortable having to take 'orders' from a woman, especially a younger one at that.

As you say "...they're features of every advanced industrial economy..". This only occurs once the culture of women being at home to raise children and the 'weaker' sex is eroded. But this represents a change, and not all welcome 'the change'..

Japan is not know for its matriarchal society! (I'm not suggetsing Europe is, but equally a patriarchal dominance does not first come to mind in Europe either, as it does here).

Once the culture of allowing women not just to work with men in the same environment, but also to take positions of equal to men, the opportunities soon follow. This has occurred all over western europe over the past decade and to an extent, slowly over centuries.

Men working in Europe do not blink an eye if their superior is a woman or indeed if their office, or wherever, is proliferated with women. Even though there are still small minorities who do not like the fact that woman earn as much if not more than them. The "burning of the bra" type western social/cultural revolution has yet to occur in Japan.


If you think the reason why women are not working is because of the wishes of the people, that is social/cultural not a bending of the ear of the LDP. Since who's wishes are these being ignored??..certainly not the Japanese male!

Anonymous said...

"Also, the suburbs are largely devoid of plant life, thanks to construction subsidies that paid LDP client companies to pave over the whole country..."

Wrong, 70%+ of Japan is coverd by trees. Easy access to hiking and the like from any area outside of Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya. Even in those areas - 30 minute train trip and you're in. Why exaggerate the situation just to make the LDP seem backward? They do enough actual silly stuff....

"but not as good as what Europeans enjoy in regions of similar population density."

I've heard Japanese describe these as dank, stinky, hard to clean. The suburban apartments that you describe within a stones throw of London or Sydney are the target of near universal grumbling there.

In any case, Japan has many reasonable rental prices and things that they like - baths that fill up at the touch of a button in the kitchen, balconies for hanging out clothes, bionic toilets, etc. Many look at the US or European flat and think - overpriced, poorly decorated, and inconvenient, no good public transport nearby, and why shouldn't they?

"Also, the fact that housewives say they're happy doesn't mean women in general wouldn't be better off if they had more opportunities in the working world."

No, but I don't think that Japanese women need you to tell them that working is the way to be happy. Also, why do we need comparisons with these magic other countries where things are supposed to be so great? 10% of high management positions in the EU are filled by women. 4% in Japan. A difference, yes. But both are strikingly low for something to pin "opportunities for turning money into happiness" on.

Why create these images of how "great" things are elsewhere (especially since differences are often marginal) to paint Japan as a place that "strucurally" defeats human happiness? That's going way beyond the bounds of reasoned political criticism.

Noah said...

Re: Women -

I'm not disagreeing with your assessment. Japan's corporate "culture" is certainly still a barrier to women's advancement. But that sexist corporate culture doesn't seem to be an essential or immutable feature of Japanese culture. Similar sexism seems to have existed in American and European corporations. It wasn't until the 80s that America really changed.

I'm not sure it requires a "bra-burning" revolution to significantly increase opportunities for women. Economics suggests that reduced government support for inefficient industries can force companies to hire qualified women. And if the Japanese media weren't so centralized under the control of conservative stalwarts like Tsuneo Watanabe, TV programs might begin to depict women in positions o corporate authority, which would alter people's expectations and norms.

A break in LDP control would probably reduce bureaucratic protection of inefficient Japanese companies (possibly replacing the corporate welfare state with a government welfare state), and would probably reduce the stability of Japan's media oligarchy. So in that sense, I think giving the LDP the boot will help Japanese women in the long-term.

And note that giving women opportunities in the job market also helps women who choose to be housewives. When women have the option of supporting themselves, they tend to have a more equal status within their marriages, even if they don't choose to go to work.

Noah said...

To Anonymous 2:

"No, but I don't think that Japanese women need you to tell them that working is the way to be happy."

Oh, I'm not telling them that! Some women would rather work, some would rather not work. I just think women should have maximum opportunity to have whichever kind of lifestyle they want.

And I also think, as I mentioned above, that having the opportunity to work can make housewives happier, for a number of reasons. It gives women more equality in marriages. And it can make housewives feel as if they chose their lifestyle of their own free will instead of being forced into it by society. In America, the self-rated happiness of housewives went way up in the 80s and 90s.

"Also, why do we need comparisons with these magic other countries where things are supposed to be so great?"

Every country has its own unique problems, and I think every country can learn from other countries. When I'm talking about American politics, I'll often say things like "Japan has good union-management relations, why can't we?" or "Japan protects its ancient forests, why can't we?" or "Japan has an efficient urban train system, why can't we?" or "Japan posts police officers on street corners, why can't we?", etc.

"10% of high management positions in the EU are filled by women. 4% in Japan. A difference, yes. But both are strikingly low for something to pin "opportunities for turning money into happiness" on."

You're completely right. A lot of European countries are just as bad as Japan, or worse, in this regard - Spain, Italy, and some Eastern European countries in particular. Britain isn't amazing either.

"Why create these images of how "great" things are elsewhere (especially since differences are often marginal) to paint Japan as a place that "strucurally" defeats human happiness?"

Every society has structural barriers to human happiness. It's because I care a lot about Japan and Japanese people that I want to identify and promote ways in which Japanese society could be improved. Don't get me wrong - Japan is a great place to live, especially compared to most other places on the planet. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be a lot better. Continuous improvement is as important for a society as it is for an iPod.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Noah said...

Sorry to do the unprecedented Third Comment in a Row, but...

To possibly bring the discussion full circle, I think what Tobias is saying is that Aso's "optimism" focuses only on what's right with Japan. But pep-talk politics of that kind is irresponsible, because someone who truly cares about their country will recognize both its strengths and its weaknesses.

That's what I was trying to do - identify some weaknesses in Japan's political/social structure. I could spend all day extolling Japan's strengths (and often do), but doing that is, in my opinion, never enough.

Anonymous said...

Noah
Far too many comments i could make from your posting, but is far better over a drink in a bar in real time rather than piecemeal via text.
However one i will highlight is your last..." I could spend all day extolling Japan's strengths .."

We can all extol a countries strength, all have them. It is far better to focus upon the weak areas and understand them to affect change for the good. Focusing purely on what is good ignores that which is wrong or bad; as 'progress' always continuous in said linear manner to the 'good' only, because it's cheap political points. I always focus on the negative (whether i agree with it or not), since why preach to the converted? What is 'wrong or bad' is much harder and takes courage to change, that is far more interesting than endlessly patting oneself on the back...

Anonymous said...

"But that doesn't mean it couldn't be a lot better."

Cheers. When I read your first post, it sounded a lot like the standard bale of criticims that were being directed at Japan in the late 1980s - women, housing, etc. Now I see that you are being more holistic in your criticisms and agree that the structural problems cause some problems but don't "ruin" the Japanese lifestyle.

I think that the alternative to Aso's brand of airhead "optimism" is not in being starkly critical, but rather in isolating successes and seeing how they can be spread as well as isolating failures and seeing how they can be fixed. Otherwise, we risk simply reacting to whatever nonsense the government is up to lately instead of painting a more nuanced picture, risk replacing empty optimism with an equally misleading total pessimism.

Noah said...

Anonymous 1:

"Far too many comments i could make from your posting, but is far better over a drink in a bar in real time rather than piecemeal via text."

Most definitely. Too bad I'm currently on extended sick leave, and forbidden from drinking alcohol (long story). But my email address is nquixote@gmail.com , if you'd like to drop me a line, and maybe when I get off drugs we can see about that drink!

Anonymous 2:

"Now I see that you are being more holistic in your criticisms and agree that the structural problems cause some problems but don't "ruin" the Japanese lifestyle."

Absolutely. In fact, I'm very excited about a lot of the good changes that are happening in Japan right now. Not just in the political arena, but in the media, the economy, society in general... a lot of the changes that began bubbling under the surface in the 90s are boiling over. It's an amazing time to be in Japan, I think.