Interesting (changing?) Japan

Born and raised in the US, I still had numerous opportunities to visit, live and get educated in Japan. Whether it was spending time in Japan during the long summer and winter school vacations or the dozens of times I came here on business trips to work with our Japanese customers, I had a lot of interactions with Japanese at many levels. I am very glad to be able to not only speak the language (almost) like a native but to understand the culture, mindset and background of the Japanese people (or so I think). Now that I live here, I can pass as a native Japanese and feel comfortable doing so. Nevertheless, I’ve recently had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences (and hope I can talk about it here some day) where I wish I had studied more.

Knowing enough to be dangerous, I still find many things in Japan that surprise me, blow me away or just leave me flabbergasted. I thought I’d share some of these thoughts with my non-Japanese friends around the world. Perhaps they can also share their perspectives of Japan from another country’s viewpoint.

To start off with, if you ever wanted to know some specific statistics about Japan, I found this interesting site that explains Japan in 12 minutes. Unfortunately, the creator of the video took down the English version (the voice over was done very well) due to comments of racism (oh, brother …). I still think the graphics are fairly understandable and educational. Likewise, here is an acknowledgment to the power of Manga (kanji: 漫画; hiragana: まんが; katakana: マンガ) in Japan found in an advertisement that Microsoft created for Windows 7.

On a more serious note, Japan is going through some tremendous changes. Examples of this are in the news everyday, such as: the once innovative Sony losing its consumer gadget edge to Apple; companies like Toyota and Honda recalling close to a million vehicles worldwide on some pretty lame issues; the national flag carrier, Japan Airlines, filing for bankruptcy. It is worth noting that just yesterday, Toyota teamed up with Tesla motors and Sony teamed up with Google in an attempt to leapfrog the competition. This is in light of the fact that the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Samsung Electronics’ operating profit of $3.14 billion is TWICE as large as the combined operating profit of nine of Japan’s largest consumer electronic companies. To put things into further perspective, the GDP of Japan has not grown at all in the last 20 years while China’s has grown over 14 times and is about to surpass Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Furthermore, in a recent IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook ranking, Japan’s competitiveness fell to 27th in the world and stated:

The largest “old” industrialized nations – from Japan to the UK – will all suffer a debt curse, in the worst case lasting until 2084. Nowadays, budget deficits are soaring and it is estimated that the average debt of the G20 nations, for example, will climb from 76% of their combined GDP in 2007 to 106% in 2010. Although the “great recession” is over, the consequences of the crisis will continue to be felt for quite some time.

As this report points out, Japan has one of the highest government-debt-to-GDP ratio in the developed world. While people complain about the spending in the U.S., with a debt ratio around 200%, the Japanese government is twice as irresponsible. The Japanese population is both declining and aging rapidly with no real immigration reform on the horizon to help it allow more foreigners to live in Japan and to create a younger economic support base. On top of this, contrary to popular belief, the household and national savings rates are declining at a very fast rate. Up until recently, with all the trade surplus that Japanese companies were generating, the government financed the deficit out of those savings. Unfortunately, with the aging population, the household saving has declined from around 20% to less than ten and still declining. Putting this all together, with both deflation and deficit spending, the Japanese government soon may not be able to make its interest payments, causing a sudden and uncontrollable jump in inflation – making today’s problems look cute.

With all this bad news, it’s probably easy to see why suicides are a common occurance here in Japan. In fact, I feel that the rate of suicide is steadily increasing since I personally feel it everyday through the increased delays in the train system when someone commits suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming train. In the past, this used to be rare, since it was something that caused a lot of shame and inconvenience to the parents of the suicide victim, because the bill for clean-up and delay were sent to them. Whether this was true or not, I heard that this penalty is now often being waved. It is incredible to think that almost 90 people take their own lives EVERY day.

Perhaps knowing both cultures and languages doesn’t matter here, but it’s pretty frightening to know it from the cultural perspective and see that many regular Japanese people either don’t know it, don’t want to believe it or aren’t really worried about it. Here are some past blog entries (1, 2) and a column by my friend Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa that talks about different aspects of this disturbing trend. When coming to Japan as often as I did in my youth, I was very proud to be Japanese. How things have changed so quickly in 30 years – from Japan “bashing,” “passing” and now “missing.” I just hope it can fix itself and come back just as quickly.

Your comments are always welcome.

Posted by whsaito

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William H. Saito