'Japanization' needn't be an economic curse word

by Noriko Hama

Special To The Japan Times

Everybody walks in fear of Japanization these days. Everybody wants to avoid their version of the lost decade. They don’t want to see their economies become locked into a never-ending spiral of deflation, Japanese-style.

What will they do, they ask themselves, if their politicians become as impotent as their Japanese counterparts?

Europeans dread it. Americans suspect they already have it and hang their heads in dismay. The image on the cover of The Economist depicting Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in Japanese attire haunts positively everyone. Clearly, Japanization is now everyone’s worst nightmare.

This is a sad state of affairs, and yet there is more to Japanization than meets the fearful eye. More to the point, Japanization could well be interpreted as something entirely different from what people assume it means at the moment.

Japanization could be all about affluence, maturity, refinement and leisureliness. It could be all about being grown up. A grown-up economy that is the envy of the rest of the world. That could be Japan’s position in today’s scheme of things.

In that context, Japanization could come to mean people’s sweetest dream rather than their worst nightmare. If only Japan could see it that way.

As it is, we seem totally incapable of seeing things as they really are. We keep wanting to look into the mirror of desires, in which we are forever the way we once were. It is the picture of Dorian Grey in reverse. The real man matures steadily and surely in the way that he should. Meanwhile, the picture he cherishes always shows him what he wants to see rather than what he has actually become.

What Japan has now become is an economy of very large accumulated wealth. Indeed it is the richest nation in the world in terms of the scale of its net savings. What it now is not, is an economy of growth and expansion. It is because of all the growing and expanding we achieved in the past that we are where we are at present. And where we are at present, is a place of maturity, not youthfulness.

It seems to me that Japan of today suffers from what might be called the Faustian syndrome. Like Faust, it yearns for everlasting youth. It would very willingly sell its maturing soul in exchange for that youthful spring in its step, that suppleness of limb and those blooming cheeks. From a mindset that keeps harking back to all those things, the current state of the economy can indeed spell nothing but total doom.

All of this is really very silly. There is nothing at all woeful about slowing growth. It stands perfectly to reason that an economy that has reached cruising altitude should stop going upward. Keep doing that and there is nothing for us but to suffer the fate of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and got his wings melted down into nonexistence by the heat.

Rather than indulging ourselves is such folly, we should be thinking about how better to redistribute all that accumulated wealth. We should be looking toward a future where fairer and wider income distribution contributes to greater creativity and the emergence of a kinder society.

We should be dreaming the dreams of grown-up people. Preoccupation with yesterday’s dreams prevents us from dreaming about the new world. A new world in which Japanization is no longer an economic dirty word, but a word that symbolizes better things to come for people who are able to manage maturity in a refined way. There is hope yet.

Noriko Hama is an economist and professor of Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.