Go past Koizumi's reforms to restore the Meiji spirit

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — “Japan has lost its place in world, no longer serious economic power.”

So read the subhead of a recent article by a Japanese professor and former journalist in a reputable Japanese economic journal. The professor declared that “this stark reality, which many Japanese appear not to have noticed, is the consequence of two lost decades.”

If this statement is designed to provoke self-reflection and reform, well and good, but I cannot agree that Japan is no longer a serious economic power.

Japanese technology companies remain outstanding and Japan continues to export high-technology items despite the strong yen. Some Japanese makers of electronics, cars and consumer products are household names. Despite some recent setbacks the reputation for quality of Japanese goods remains high.

Japanese banks and finance houses managed to avoid the worst excesses of the financial crisis and remain active players in world financial centers.

Japan continues to be a member of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations and the Group of Twenty. It plays an influential role at the United Nations, and even though Japanese aid has been subject to cuts, Japan continues to be a major international aid donor. Britain attaches importance to cooperating with Japan on all major international issues.

Japanese science, especially in particle physics, is outstanding. Japan holds second place in the world in scientific publications. Japan spends 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product on research. Japan’s science and technology white paper for 2009 noted that the nation had a total of 13 Nobel Prize laureates in natural science. Japanese academics have increased their collaboration with Japanese industry.

Japanese arts feature prominently in major museums and galleries throughout the world. Japanese literature is now widely available in English translation. Japanese films have achieved cult status in Europe, while Japanese animated films are regarded by many in the West as superior to those of any other country.

Japanese cuisine is widely appreciated and no longer considered exotic. Sushi, though not up to the best Japanese standards — can be bought in sandwich bars and other take-away outlets in Britain. Japanese restaurants can be found in all large British cities.

Japan has much to be proud of and need not despair about its future, but like every other country — including Britain — it faces serious challenges. It’s important that the right answers are found.

The Japanese economy continues to need major restructuring. The economic reforms and liberalization of the Koizumi years did not go far enough. The road and post office lobbies exercise far too much influence and waste resources.

The amount of Japanese domestic savings invested in Japanese government bonds currently ensures that Japan will not default. But as the Japanese population ages, savings will be drawn down while the cost of servicing the debt will rise and could eventually threaten Japan’s national credit rating.

Japanese taxes, especially the corporation tax, deter foreign investment. The Japanese consumption tax will have to rise to help meet the costs of an aging population.

Japan is behind in the use of computers. The BBC, recently reporting on Japan’s two-tier economy under the headline “Revealing Japan’s low-tech belly,” noted that Japanese international companies were tech-savvy but that “the second much larger, and over-subsidized economy, comprises overstaffed family-run firms that are decidedly low-tech and high-priced.” It asserted that Japanese offices are staffed with three times the number of employees they really need “because they must do every process once on paper again on the computer.”

A Japanese blogger is quoted as referring to Japan’s “Galapagos” status. “Like the plants and creatures of those islands, Japanese standards and business practices have developed a unique character incompatible with anything beyond its borders.” Is this a fair assessment?

Japanese educational standards have slipped and very few Japanese universities are among the world’s top universities. University education in Japan, writes a Japanese scholar in a British scholarly journal, “must adapt to meet the new challenges of creating appropriate skills for the global knowledge economy.” Japanese universities are too insular and Japanese education fails to encourage independence of mind and initiative.

Conformity and harmony can benefit society, but Japan needs individuals with initiative and enthusiasm to act as leaders. The old adage about the nail that sticks out should be relegated to the back of the dictionary.

Since Junichiro Koizumi resigned as prime minister, Japan has been led by men who have failed to make a favorable impact abroad. Indeed, most people in Western countries, if asked who the Japanese prime minister is, would probably reply that they haven’t the foggiest idea. Perhaps this would not matter if there were outstanding world class Japanese leaders in industry, commerce and culture. But where and who are these leaders?

Sadly, the Japanese government often seems to shoot itself in the foot. It tends to ignore rather than tackle head-on instances of ultranationalism, such as that manifested in visits to Yasukuni Shrine. It has failed to modernize Japanese isolationist immigration policies or promote human rights.

Moreover, the Japanese government does very little to foster a better image of Japan abroad. For example, Japan Echo, which provided English translations of important articles in Japanese journals, was recently abolished. I protested to the Japanese ambassador in London over this shortsighted decision. Meanwhile, the latest issue of the journal Nippon sent to me by the Japanese Embassy — and presumably supported by government funds — was devoted totally to manga. It boasted that Japan is manga headquarters.

I don’t wish to denigrate manga, but the article reminded me of the Blair government’s misguided attempt to promote Britain as “cool” by emphasizing popular rather than traditional culture.

Japan like Britain needs to get its priorities right and concentrate on making better known the cultural riches that Japan can offer to the world rather than try to draw a populist image.

As the writer of the article who inspired me to write this piece wrote, “It will not be easy “to restore the ambitious minds and challenging spirits” of the Meiji Era, but the effort needs to be made.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.