Friday, November 20, 2009

Koke no Musu Made*

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:

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.

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.

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.


Jan Moren said...

Hmm. Two points, of whatever value:

* US, the irrepressible fount of future optimism, has whole cities (Baltimore, Detroit and others) with large areas effectively reverting to wilderness via increasingly desperate slums.

Decay is as much a sign of societal change as of loss.

* I can not off the top of my head recall a single large society that actually, really, collapsed due simply to some lack of optimism or people or a lack of willpower.

Japan might even in the worst case have half the population a century from now, and become half as wealthy per capita. That's still plenty of people and still a moderately wealthy society - still one of the richest societies in the region. It would in fact partly match Japan in the early 1960's.

The sometimes completely reality-challenged optimism you can find among, say, Americans or Chinese can be incredibly grating. But so can the utterly doom-and-gloom fantasies of some Japanese observers be. I'm very sorry, but no matter how down on its luck the Japanese society may become, it's never going to be a Mad Max-like depopulated waste with roving bands of senior citizens fighting for the last batch of Viagra with home-built Mecha robots.

Hm, might make a decent RPG scenario, though.

owenandbenjamin said...

I am not sure if Japan will recover. What I do know however is that America's housing problem WILL recover and already is in some areas and American consumers will recover as well.

RMilner said...

American consumerism of the past few decades has been powered to a significant degree by the easy availability of foreign credit made possible by the US$'s roe as no.1 reserve currency in the world.

That role is fading, partly because of market realities and also because the Chinese are pushing.

Any sound, long-term recovery of US spending will have to be created by the efforts of the workers to generate exportable goods and services.

Katie said...

To be honest, I've seen the "Loser Town" effect happen throughout the US, UK, and Europe (these are the countries within my daily perspective). But no country I've known has really abandoned them forever.

In the UK especially, certain areas really are so decrepit and often so ripe for vandalism/crime, they are best torn down to wait for an (inevitable) city council re-plan. Japan and Britain are similar in that they do not have the liveable space (even with the birthrate crisis in Japan) to have unused property lying around. They may not turn around for a few years, but they always do over here.

I don't know how applicable that is to Japan - I'm just drawing on similarities pointed out by others.

I have to throw in the simplistic line, mainly because I can't help thinking it's true: hasn't Japan been through far worse lows than this? I'm not saying Hatoyama/the DPJ is any more a bastion of change than Obama and the Democrats are to the US - but the people of both countries have seen worse and are always the reason the nation as a whole pulls through.

Anyway, I'm not a big believer in politics as even the second highest motive for social change so my perspective slants a bit.