The lucid and ferocious R. Taggart Murphy has published a pair of fine articles on the Japan-U.S. relationship and the current fiscal and currency situation that dispell a lot of the doom and gloom currently being peddled on these subjects.
I do not disagree with most of the points Murphy raises in his essays. Nevertheless, I find it hard to reconcile the one essay's view with the other. I cannot fully share Murphy's optimism:
The world does indeed underestimate the human capital and immense creativity to be found in the least corner of this blessed land...and yes, the political situation has grown more responsive and less cynical.
Of course Japan faces formidable problems, but the world has been underestimating the place for 150 years now and really shows no sign of learning from this history. Yes, many of Japan's savings have been wasted, yes, the birth strike by Japanese women is both understandable and worrisome, yes, we're in for some rough years particularly for an economy that has long relied on exports as its primary engine of growth. Those exports are unlikely to recover any time soon. But the levels of human capital here and the immense creativity of the population are still enviable. To be sure, the country has been poorly served by its leaders, but perhaps even that is changing.
At the same time, the United States has been the consumer of last resort for Japan's products, whether as direct exports, as components assembled in other Asian countries or as Japanese machine tools and equipment for assembly and production lines set up in other Asian economies. The collapse in the buying power of the U.S. consumer brought on by the U.S. housing crisis and economic slump poses a fundamental conundrum to Japan's economic planners. To date, they have not been up to providing a solution. The growing Chinese market is not a perfect substitute for the damaged American one. Having been hit hard by the global economic crisis and forced to undergo structural change right in the midst of it, Japan may have suffered one blow too many.
From what I see from the windows as wander the backcountry byways, I find myself asking whether or not the damage to the finances and collective psyche have been too great. Everywhere I see the signs of a gathering stasis -- the grass growing over collapsed houses; the commercial zones all shuttered on a Sunday afternoons; the silent factories, their corrugated metal walls peeling; great age of those working in the vegetable patches and rice paddies; the silent playgrounds...and I find myself all at once hearing the plaintive first few bars of U2's "Running to Stand Still" as the background track to the emptying landscape.
In part this is a natural progression for a country such as Japan.
However, even in the great cities the edges are less sharp. The trains seem to drift imperceptably off their schedules; the cracks and wrinkles appear more pronounced. Even as we are witnessing the flowering of a new revolutionary order, the thrill of August fades. There is a growing quiet outside, with local administration and social life growing more and more desperate, and an increasing doubt that the rescue mission has come in time.
* "Koke no musu made" is the final verse of the national anthem. Translated, it means "Until the moss covers it."
Image: Grimacing jizo statue. Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. September 3, 2006. Image credit: MTC.