Japan – from Hawk to Pheasant

14.12.14 Publication:

If we know foreign countries at all, we tend to know them by their capital cities, their politics and, yes of course, by their sports stars. So this week in Japan it has been refreshing to spend my time in a small, provincial city in the west of the country, called Okayama, which has a rather mediocre soccer team, albeit with an Italian name: Fagiano.

Meanwhile, up in the capital city of Tokyo, and all around the country, Japan has been experiencing a general election campaign, called suddenly by the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, in November, with the vote today, December 14th. A sudden election ought to be an exciting experience. Yet most Japanese cannot work out why they are having this election.

Their economy is in a recession, and the country is passing through a kind of identity crisis, arguing about history, wondering about how best to relate to China. Despite both of those points, all the predictions are that Mr Abe’s government will win the election easily, possibly even increasing its parliamentary majority. Exactly why this is all happening is, however, a little mysterious.

It is also a little mysterious why Okayama’s soccer team is called Fagiano. The name apparently relates to a pheasant that appears in a famous local folk story, about a supernatural child hero called Momotaro, or “peach boy”. The pheasant was one of Momotaro’s companions.

So far this makes sense. But why should a Japanese team use the bird’s Italian name? Nobody seems to know. It just sounds good to use an exotic foreign name. Or perhaps it is because Japanese associate Italians with winning at soccer.

To me, this is quite symbolic of the way in which Japan relates to globalization and to identity. In Europe, whether we like it or not, we feel that globalization is part of our daily lives. That is not true in Japan, at least not willingly.

We Europeans think of Japan has having been at the heart of globalization, especially when during the 1970s and 1980s Japanese car, motorcycle and electronics companies were beating our own in global competition. But to Japanese, globalization feels like something unnatural, even unreal, something outside daily life. It is something from folk stories.

So foreign words can be used as mere decorations, without meaning. That is the reason why Fagiano is the name of the soccer team. But it also is why the students to whom I have been lecturing, at a small university here, look so puzzled and worried not just about globalization but also about their futures.

If they have invited an Englishman to be their visiting professor, they must want to be connected to the world. The small private university at which I have been lecturing is trying to make its students learn English, and to think hard about the outside world. But the students clearly find it a bit of a struggle.

A main reason why it is a struggle is that although every Japanese, and certainly every Japanese policymaker, knows that being connected to the world is essential, they also have more immediate worries, all of which are local. For the young students, the big worry is what kind of job they will be able to secure. They don’t think being globalized is likely to help them.

Students always are worried about their future careers. And in Japan today, the official rate of unemployment is very low, at 3.5%, far below Italy’s rate of 13%. So why should they worry more now? The reason is that under Japan’s labour laws, most of these students expect to be precari, to get jobs only on short-term contracts.

The proportion of Japan’s labour force on temporary and part-time contracts has doubled over the past 20 years to nearly 40%. That level is itself very high compared with even most of the troubled economies of the Eurozone. It has meant that average wages in Japan have fallen continuously, which means that household consumption has also been weak.

This has also meant that the human capital that is built up in young Japanese in their excellent education system is then dissipated when they take up precarious jobs. Companies no longer invest in training. Employees don’t think it is very worthwhile to build up skills either.

Prime Minister Abe, thanks to his good luck in having a short, easy to pronounce name, has been able to brand his economic policy as “Abenomics”. Like the best soccer coaches, he has talked a good game.

His theory has been that by using very aggressively expansionary monetary policy, and by twisting the arms of big business, he will start a virtuous cycle of rising prices, rising confidence, rising wages and rising corporate investment. He also promises to bring in structural reforms, liberalizing markets and professions to increase competition and encourage growth.

The trouble is that so far it hasn’t happened. He implemented a cross-party plan inherited from the previous government to raise the consumption tax in order to start reducing Japan’s huge public debt. But it caused an immediate recession. And he has shied away from doing any real liberalization.

This should not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the job prospects of my young students, and the falling wages of the precarious workers. Twisting the arms of big business doesn’t work any more. They compete in a global market, and they want their labour costs as low as possible. So they have been failing to raise wages. And powerful interest groups, among farmers, trade unions, professions, doctors and others, all resist liberalization.

Perhaps this explains why Mr Abe called a sudden election. He realizes that with every month that passes, he is going to become less popular. So he had better win a new mandate now.

Down in Okayama, the businessmen I have spoken to seem realistic about global competition. Instead of trying to reassure the students about what wonderful careers they will have if they join big companies, as they would have done 20 years ago, they seem to have adopted a new approach: they try to persuade the students to become entrepreneurs, starting their own companies or thinking more creatively about their careers.

It is good advice. Japan, like Italy, badly needs a new generation of entrepreneurs. Like Italy, it clearly has the potential to create such a new generation. Probably, if my students are to become such a new generation, they need to go abroad and get inspiration in Asia, Europe or America, and bring those ideas back to Japan.

But will they? They seem reluctant, more reluctant than is true of equivalent students in Italy. Their reluctance arises both from the economic situation and from Japan’s own national identity crisis.

Alongside Abenomics, Prime Minister Abe is also encouraging fear and a revival of nationalism. His right-wing supporters are trying to promote a fresh interpretation of Japan’s wartime history of the 1930s and 1940s, as a way, they say, to rebuild patriotism and self-confidence.

They are succeeding, and may even drive one the great liberal, left-wing newspapers, the Asahi, out of business thanks to evidence that the Asahi published some stories about Japan’s wartime history that were faked. The Asahi is the Japanese equivalent, very roughly, of La Repubblica.

The particular fate of one newspaper should not concern us. But Japan’s struggle with both globalization and its own history should be of concern. We are at some risk of following a similar path.

Our own anxiety about our economic prospects, and our worry about powerful neighbours—in our case Germany, in Japan’s case, China—is leading many European countries to vote for somewhat nostalgic, backward looking political parties. The UK Independence Party fosters a view of Britain from the 1950s. The Front National arguably promotes a view of France from the 1930s.

My students in Okayama know little of UKIP or of Marine Le Pen. But they seem both intrigued and surprised when told that many of our problems and concerns are shared. In the election, many will vote for Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party because they see no real alternative.

But their best hope is really to look outwards, out to the rest of the world for their inspiration. Turning inward, seeking old sources of patriotism, is unlikely to be a solution. Their Fagiano needs to fly out, and look at the world from the sky. And to avoid being shot.