Japan in the News: Editorial from the Toronto Star about Japan Today

Today’s Toronto Star features an editorial written by Haroon Siddiqui describing Japan as a country that is muddling along economically but keeping its traditions and cultures intact.  This is a pretty good article describing Japan today.

Economic strain and political drift but a certain style

Toronto Star published on October 10, 2010 written by Haroon Siddiqui.

A woman wearing a kimono holds an umbrella as she walks down a shopping district in Tokyo October 1, 2010. Japan's core consumer prices marked their 18th straight month of annual declines in August, as deflation grips an economy struggling with a rising yen, slowing exports and a surprise decline in production. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon (JAPAN - Tags: BUSINESS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Picture above by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Canadian author Graeme Gibson, the husband of novelist Margaret Atwood, forgot his wallet in a taxi here the other day. He had no way of tracking the driver, having got out in a hurry without taking the metered receipt given every passenger. His Japanese friends told him not to fret. Sure enough, his office in Toronto emailed that Foreign Affairs in Ottawa had called to say the cab company had contacted the Canadian embassy here.  The wallet was delivered to his hotel, intact.

Another key Japanese cultural trait: No tipping.  People do their job, however lowly, to the best of their ability.  To offer a tip is to insult the person.  He or she is not your servant.  The transaction is between equals. It follows that everyone receives an equal level of service — with the utmost courtesy.  On the bullet train to Kyoto, the conductor turns around and bows to the passengers before proceeding to the next car. (Imagine a TTC or a VIA employee doing that!)

Dedication to duty can also be seen in the famous gardens of Japan. A tree pruner teasing budding branches this way and that is an artist at work. Every food tray is a piece of art.

Such service is undergirded by the economic principle that every worker be paid a living wage, in a stable job — the antithesis of North America, where many employers pay the bare minimum and count on the customers to make it up to the exploited worker.  The Japanese model, however, faces an uncertain future. 

The economy, stagnating for two decades, has shattered the post-World War II social contract. Working hard was a patriotic duty, in return for a lifetime job with benefits.  Unemployment has hit a historic high of 5 per cent. Nearly a third of the workers are part-time or on short-term contracts. Many are juggling two, three jobs. Salaries are down 12 per cent over the last decade. Suicides are up, to a record 26,000 last year.

Gender equity is taking a hit, eroding the gains of the 1980s.  “Companies are not hiring women or they are hiring them disproportionately for part-time work,” says Yuko Matsumoto, author of women-centric novels and essays. “Girls are becoming more conservative. All they seem to want is to get married.”

There aren’t enough workers to support an aging population. There will be fewer in the future. The average age of marriage is 29 for men, 28 for women. On average, a couple has 1.1 children.

There is little or no immigration, nor refugees, in this homogenous society. When 18 refugees from Myanmar arrived recently as part of a government plan to take 90 over three years under a UN settlement program, the daily Asahi Shimbun said:

“At the heart of the refugee issue is the lack of a national strategy for making Japanese society more open to outsiders.”

Economic uncertainty has spawned an ultra-nationalist group of unemployed or underemployed youth, protesting against Korean, Chinese and other ethnic workers, as well as Christians. (“Christians, get out of Japan.”)

Emperor Akihito, having visited Canada last year, talks admiringly of our peaceful pluralism. But he does so in private. It’s not his job to lead a much-needed national dialogue on where Japan should be headed, socially and economically.  The nation is waiting for a Pierre Elliott Trudeau or a Barack Obama for a vision.

There have been five prime ministers in the last four years — “sushi on conveyer belts,” as one politician put it. None has broken through the entrenched system of serving special interests.  Prime Minister Naoto Kan, armed with a fresh election mandate, got mauled — by China. When a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel off a disputed island in the East China Sea, Japan arrested the captain and its crew. Beijing retaliated by cutting off essential exports and tourists to Japan.

Kan talked tough first but caved in, releasing the Chinese crew. He didn’t have a choice. China, which recently overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy, is Japan’s largest trading partner. And it has been flexing its naval muscle to assert control over both the East China Sea and the South China Sea, with their important shipping lanes and potential reserves of oil and gas.  The fracas with Japan may have been China’s way of sending a signal to Obama about its geopolitical intentions.

Still, do not write off Japan.  The third biggest economy in the world with a population of 127 million is nothing to sniff at. The much talked-about high national debt of $7 trillion is financed not by foreigners, as in the U.S., but internally from a huge pool of household savings.

Trade is diversified, away from the ailing economies of the U.S. and Europe. Fifty per cent or more is within the region. Japan provides the high-tech parts for products made in China and Southeast Asia. The Asia-wide supply chain ensures easy access to the expanding markets of China and India. (Canada-Japan trade is $20 billion a year, and Japanese companies are heavily invested in the Alberta tarsands and also B.C. gas fields.)

Japan remains a leading innovator, filing the second highest number of patents in the world. Panasonic is still the largest filer of new patents.  Overall, Japan is muddling along but it is doing so in style, keeping its traditions and culture intact, so far.

Haroon Siddiqui is the Star’s editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday. hsiddiqui@thestar.ca

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