Last week, the New York Times published a story called “The Myth of Japan’s Failure” about how people (especially in the West) tend to view Japan’s economy. Even though Japan has the third largest economy in the world, Japan somehow is still
the laughingstock of the business pages.
I thought that the article did a good job of talking about Japan’s “myth of failure,” but I also thought that it painted kind of an incomplete picture. Here’s what the author said, and how I would have clarified:
If you’ve studied Japan’s history, then you probably know at least a little bit about the Japanese economic powerhouse of the 20th century. If not, let me give you a super quick rundown.
After WWII, Japan’s economy really went into overdrive and eventually became one of the fastest-growing, most powerful economies in the world. Japan revolutionized the way people did business, changed how people viewed management, and was one of the first big, non-western economies. Business people across the world learned Japanese to be able to do business with this rising power. Japan was even sometimes called “Japan Inc.” because of its enormous economic might.
But by the end of the 80s, Japan’s economy hiccuped and has never since returned to the levels of economic prosperity it once had. Since then, Japan’s economy has become the butt of many jokes in the west.
What Japan Does Right
By many measures, the Japanese economy has done very well during the so-called lost decades…By some of the most important measures, it has done a lot better than the United States.
Despite not having the fastest-growing, most awesome economy ever anymore, Japan’s doing pretty good by a lot of measurements. It’s infamous for having one of the best life expectancies in the world and hell, even Japanese dogs live insanely long.
Japan’s unemployment is pretty low, its infrastructure is pretty modern, the yen is strong, its healthcare system is great, and has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world.
So everything’s great in Japan, right? Well, not exactly.
What Japan Does Wrong
While I definitely agree with the NYT article that things in Japan aren’t as bad as people sometimes make it out to be, that’s not to say that things are all sunshine and rainbows in Japan; it definitely has its share of problems too. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side.
And it’s not like these problems aren’t acknowledged or known about. One of the biggest recent books about Japan, Dogs and Demons, talks exclusively about what’s wrong with Japan. Although I personally didn’t like the book a whole lot (mostly the writing style), it definitely highlights some cultural, governmental, and societal problems in Japan right now.
Japan’s unemployment numbers might seem pretty good, but the official numbers don’t always reflect the reality of the situation. Employment figures might not count those who might only be working part time, those who don’t report their unemployment, or those who have just given up altogether.
Some people talk about the strong yen as a sign of Japan’s success, but a strong currency doesn’t always necessarily work in a country’s favor. If anything, a strong yen discourages other countries from buying goods from Japan because they’re so expensive.
Also, some of the ways the author measured success in the Times article seemed kind of shallow. He says that since Japan has so many expensive clothes, luxury cars, and some of the tallest buildings in the world (like the upcoming Tokyo Sky Tree), it must be doing great:
The Japanese are dressed better than Americans. They have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models. I have never seen so many spoiled pets.
That sort of line of thinking doesn’t really make sense to me. These are really materialistic, shallow markers of economic success. Sure, there’s a correlation between material wealth and economic success, but think of it this way: the celebrities you see on MTV’s “Cribs” have lavish homes, expensive cars, and the latest gadgets, but they’re far and away from the richest, most successful people in the world.
But the biggest failing of this article is that it really glosses over important social issues like the changing culture of love and marriage. Japan’s economy doesn’t exist in a vacuum outside of Japan’s culture and society, and the explanation the author gives to Japan’s declining birthrate – food security – is pretty unsatisfactory.
Putting It All Together
Japan should be held up as a model, not an admonition.
Japan and its economy haven’t failed, I definitely agree with the Times article about that much. Reports of Japan’s death are greatly exaggerated.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to be critical. I think that the author largely presents a false dichotomy – either Japan is a failure, or it’s a resounding success. In reality, the situation is a lot more complicated than that. Look beyond what the author shows us.