French economist Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was the surprise bestseller of 2014 in the United States, and it has also become a hit in Japan.
Piketty’s book was written for an academic readership, but because of his timely theme — how financial inequality is exacerbated by policies that favor the accumulation of wealth — laypeople have sought it for a more detailed explanation of why the world economy is in the shape it’s in. And since the U.S. is the center of that economy, his theories resonate more profoundly with Americans. In the original French, “Capital” sold “well for a scholarly book,” according to the New Republic, but when it was published in English it took off. It has been translated into 30 languages, and a million-and-a-half copies have been sold worldwide.
You would assume that Japanese publishers fought a bidding war for the book, but local rights were already secured even before Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman brought it to the general public’s attention. An imprint called Misuzu Shobo bought the Japanese rights several years ago, after an editor saw it mentioned in a French catalog for upcoming releases and thought it sounded interesting. The With News website explains that Misuzu is known in the publishing trade for handling dense works by Japanese academics and translations of philosophy tracts by the likes of Hannah Arendt and Claude Levi-Strauss. Few retailers keep Misuzu’s books in stock because of their specialized subject matter and high price. In Japan’s closely regulated book trade, publishers do not buy back unsold copies and due to legal restrictions on resales (saihan seido), retailers cannot discount them. When you want a book from Misuzu, you usually have to order it.
But thanks to the publicity surrounding “Capital” overseas and Piketty’s recent tour of Japan, it has become as coveted as the latest Haruki Murakami novel. First released in December, the Japanese translation is already on its ninth printing, with 130,000 hardcover copies in circulation. In addition, the Piketty boom has engendered a sub-category of books purporting to explain “Capital” to the average person.
Or even to experts. Seiji Adachi, a researcher for Marusan Securities, admitted in the online edition of Gendai Business magazine that he bought the English version last July and stopped reading it halfway through (“I still haven’t finished”). Apparently, all the facts and figures were too much to digest, even for a number-cruncher like Adachi, so he read an analysis by a Canadian economist. He says most of the writers who belong to this cottage industry are self-serving, in that they are interested more in advancing personal theories than in explicating Piketty’s, and what most nonexperts want is either a jargon-free summary that eliminates the need to shell out ¥6,000 for 700 pages they’re not going to comprehend, or a companion volume that helps them get through the hairier passages of the source text.
It seems like a lot of work, especially since the major media did a thorough job of explaining the book’s treatise by interrogating the author when he was here. There’s no need to read the thing unless you want to pick apart the theory, which is hardly radical, or mine it for specific statistics.
So who is reading it? Tokyo Shimbun quotes book wholesaler Nippon Shuppan as saying that most of the Japanese who bought the book so far are men in their 50s and 60s. Adachi imagines them as people who romanticized socialist thought and read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” while in university. They were compelled by the lexical overlap of the two books’ titles. The term shihonron (theory of capital), the title of Marx’s book in Japanese, was originally used for Piketty’s, but the translators changed it to the simpler shihon — “capital” — to avoid confusion since, despite American conservative assertions, Piketty is no Marxist. For one thing, “Das Kapital” was sociological in nature, while Piketty’s book is utilitarian: He wants to show how financial inequality harms growth, hardly a left-wing pronouncement.
By the same token, the local media expected Piketty to take a shot at “Abenomics,” and while he isn’t a fan of quantitative easing, he thinks mild inflation is important. His main bugbear is the lopsided taxation system, a view that apparently confused Katsuya Okada, who, as one of the leaders of the main opposition party, sought Piketty’s counsel since he believed he could ride on the coattails of the Frenchman’s popularity. But it was Okada’s Democratic Party of Japan that first proposed the consumption tax hike, which Piketty strongly derided while he was here.
University of Tokyo professor emeritus Takeshi Sasaki, writing in the Tokyo Shimbun, said the local media overlooked the book’s most significant message for Japan. Piketty posits that the era of high global growth in the mid-20th century was an anomaly, and any attempts to recreate the conditions that led to that growth are futile. The Japanese government’s faith in the policies of the good old days is a useless fantasy.
Nevertheless, the difference between the haves and have-nots in Japan, while still a problem, isn’t as pronounced as it is in the States. Japanese reporters use the term economic “gap” (kakusa) instead of “inequality” (fubyōdo) when discussing Piketty, thus blunting the distinction that’s central to his theory and which likely appeals to the repressed socialists Adachi was talking about. They may be disappointed: Though it explains the inherent problems of the “rentier class” system, the theory takes capitalism for granted.
Adachi sardonically concludes that Japanese boomers are buying “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” for the same reason they are purchasing expensive acoustic guitars: They’re not interested in understanding the current economic crisis; they just want to reclaim their idealized youth.
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