Tenth place and falling

Japan ranks 10th in the world on the Human Development Index (HDI), an annual report from the U.N. Development Program that uses three main factors, health, knowledge and standard of living. Tenth would be a laudable position except that Japan’s ranking is buoyed by one single factor, the longevity of its citizens. In the two other factors, knowledge and standard of living, Japan ranks much lower and is in decline.

Overall, Japan has stagnated. The country’s HDI has risen a negligible 0.29 percent over the last 30 years. In 1980 and 1990, Japan was fifth in the world. What that means is that Japan has become less capable of turning its gross domestic product into improved standards of living and better education.

On the other side of the cycle, the education and income that many Japanese have obtained has not translated into an overall better standard of living. In other words, the interaction between economic level and human development in Japan remains inefficient and static.

Japan certainly should be proud of its life expectancy, 82.7 years, the highest in the world. That is a testament to the overall quality of the health system and the generally healthy lifestyle, despite ongoing problems. Remarkably, Japan also spends less of its GDP on health than most developed countries. That great success on longevity, though, contrasts sharply with its ranking on education, 42nd, and standard of living, 26th. In more specific areas, such as gender equality and independence of the elderly, Japan is lower than every other developed country.

The third component of the HDI, standard of living, is calculated with per capita GDP. This is a rather approximate measure, but one that allows a clear comparison across countries. Japan certainly offers a decent standard of living for many of its citizens, but not nearly as decent as the high GDP should create. The mismatch between Japan’s GDP, which is after all only a number, and the standard of living, which is a daily human experience, is higher than in the majority of developed countries.

In other related measures, such as the ratio of income earned by women to that earned by men, Japan fares even worse. Women earn a shocking 45 percent of what men do. The Global Gender Gap report released in 2008 placed Japan 91st in the world, largely on that basis. The ratio of the HDI to the gender-related development index, a measure of achievement between men and women, places Japan 108th out of 155 countries. In another words, things are good, but not as good for women. The HDI report locates the source of that inequality in politics, where Japan’s women are rare, and in education.

Overall, Japan is ranked 42nd in the world in educational level. This ranking is measured by two factors, adult literacy, which is high, and gross enrollment ratio. The latter is a measure of how many students are actually enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary levels compared to how many could be. This ratio is surprisingly low, at 86.6 percent.

Put simply, educational opportunities are not being taken. That connects in part to Japan’s relatively low expenditure on education. Japan spends only 9.5 percent of its total government expenditure on education — once again lower than almost every developed country.

Looking to the future, the situation in Japan is likely to get worse, particularly because of the decreasing population. One in every five countries, including Germany, Japan, Korea and Russia, are expected to shrink, while one in six countries, all of them developing and most in Africa, will more than double their populations within the next 40 years. Because of a rapidly decreasing population, improving the components of the HDI will become increasingly difficult for all shrinking countries, but especially for Japan, whose citizens do not want to augment the population with immigrants. Japanese response to allowing greater immigration was among the lowest in the world, as revealed in the report’s section on international migration issues.

The HDI report will reach its 20th anniversary in 2010. The comparison is not a game of competition, but an important way to understand the workings of countries in view of other countries and the world in general. The index is only a rough way of understanding how countries are doing, but it is one important way for rethinking priorities and planning for a better future.

Japan received a very mixed review on this latest report. Let’s hope that, like a good student admonished for not working up to his or her potential, that the new leaders will learn from this report and take action in the areas needed.