The captain of a sinking cruise ship was trying to persuade his male passengers to let women and children board the lifeboats first. But he quickly learned he’d have to customize his pitch according to the nationalities on board. The Englishmen were easy; the captain simply appealed to their sense of honor. The French weren’t so difficult, either; he just told them (though it wasn’t true) that the Americans were insisting that men go first. The Germans were also a snap: the captain yelled, “Women and children first. That’s the rule.” And they all fell into line. The Americans went along, of course, a second after he asked them if they’d like to be heroes and save the world.

But the captain had to reach far down for a subtler argument in order to motivate the Japanese men to do the right thing. ‘Women and children will go first,” he declared finally, “because that is the ship-wide consensus.”

This classic illustration of Japan’s political nature has been told at conferences — and by Japanese tour guides — the world over. At the annual gargantuan Milken Institute Global Economic Conference — a deep-thought-talkathon held last week in Beverly Hills, Calif. — it surfaced at the conclusion of a major panel on Japan’s future. The joke, warhorse that it is, contains an essential truth about Japan and its unfolding economic tragedy: The Japanese do not move forward until they are “one,” in purpose, direction and sense of urgency.

The time for Japan to get its consensus together is fast approaching. For the last 10 years, Japan’s economy has exhibited little or no growth. The Japanese stock market continues to falter, dragged down to a 16-year low by the recent bloodbath on Wall Street. The government is nearly broke, its debt higher than that of any other major industrialized country. The nation’s banks are in deep trouble, as well, suffocating from bad loans far greater in size, proportionately, than those held by American banks during the notorious savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s. The value of Tokyo real estate is now about a third what it was a decade ago; the mortgage on one in four Japanese homes is higher than its current market value. Population growth rate is stagnant and threatening to shrink.

So how much longer will it take for that magic action-consensus to emerge? Don’t hold your breath. The wilting U.S. economy is forcing Japanese companies to cut back spending on their own investments and employment. Households are buying less, and as a result, prices continue to drop because of plummeting demand. Japan’s reported unemployment rate hovers at 5 percent, an historically high level. This is an ominous development for a culture that depends on full employment for social stability.

So where is Japan’s captain who’ll announce that there’s a consensus? People are so turned off by politicians that even the approval rating of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, symbol of the political establishment, is less than 10 percent. Before long, Japan will announce its 11th prime minister in the last 12 years.

Yet Japan still has more going for it than most nations. It has more cash on hand than any other country. The technological quality of its manufacturing sector is second to none. Where is there a better-educated, better-trained labor force? And how many international corporations do you prefer over, say, Toyota or Sony?

True, the Japanese are hard to read and no one knows how to convince them to respond properly in this emergency. The Clinton administration literally shouted out its economic reform prescriptions across the Pacific. The Japanese political establishment, dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, seemed mainly to turn a deaf ear. Will the Bush team have greater influence? It could try. For more and more experts are agreeing with Haruo Shimada, an economics professor at Keio University who offered a gloomy prophesy at the Milken conference. “If Japan should fail to change soon,” he said, “it could fall into long-term decline.”

How much more time will the Japanese “passengers” need to achieve their consensus? “We in Japan have not one consensus problem, but two,” a businessman from Tokyo at the Milken conference told me, “We need consensus that the problem is very big. And then we need consensus about how to go about solving the problem.” The Japanese have reached a consensus on the first statement, he explained, but not the second.

But with each passing week, don’t these “passengers” see that their ship is taking on more and more water?

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