The time is nigh when we can expect a rash of newspaper articles and radio and television programmes posing the question Is Japan Finished? As always, the question over-states the case Japan is going to be the dominant economic, and – by default the dominant political power in the Pacific region for many more decades […]
The time is nigh when we can expect a rash of newspaper articles and radio and television programmes posing the question Is Japan Finished? As always, the question over-states the case Japan is going to be the dominant economic, and – by default the dominant political power in the Pacific region for many more decades yet. But there is rapidly growing evidence to suggest that the confident assertion by hubristic Japanese that the twenty-first century will be the Nipponese century will not in practice be borne out. The immediate outlook is not encouraging: the Japanese stock market is hovering just above a level at which the banks would have to dump stocks in a desperate manner to avoid breaching capital adequacy regulations, and the possibility has the government so worried that it has called in the big brokers to try to rig the market and get the Nikkei Dow Jones Index moving up and away from the danger zone. A characteristic Japanese solution to an embarrassing problem, but not one that will go down well in the wider world where at least lip-service is paid to the idea of protecting the interests of the small shareholder rather than deliberately rigging the market to his – or in the case of Japan, her, detriment. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is riddled with so many bribery scandals that there is scarcely a major politician that is not deep-ly implicated to the point where he would likely face a gaol sentence in New York or London, and the government, sidetracked by constant rumours of new scandals about to burst, finds it ever harder to get the other elements making up the corporate state to do its bidding.
And the system did nothing to endear itself to the outside world when the one Prime Minister of recent years who has been relatively untouched by scandal, Toshiki Kaifu, was ousted because he did not belong to any of the dominant factions in the Liberal Democratic Party. Kaifu may not have had much substance – within Japan, the title is little more than ceremonial anyway – but he was also one of the few that was actually popular with the mass of the Japanese people, and was often unexpectedly effective in his international dealings. Nor is there any effective opposition to keep the excesses of the ruling politicians in check, all of which tends to limit the prospects of Japan becoming the dominant political power in the region in the immediate future. Japan is also handicapped in any bid to become the dominant power by the fact that most of its culture does not travel well: karaoke, yes, but the songs sung around the modern equivalent of the piano in the parlour remain American or British songs. Sony Corp and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co may own the channels of delivery of popular culture in the former CBS Records, Columbia Pictures and MCA Inc, but none of those companies has succeeded in selling the rest of the world much Japanese culture – it is Western music, Western movies that they peddle – to Japan as much as to the rest of the world. It is suggested that the reason that Japanese culture has not been spread outside Japan by the current generation in power is that the generation that was born in the 1920s and 1930s – having had the values of their youth shot to pieces by the defeat of Japan and the cultural superiority of the US, they concentrated on the struggle to regain some control over their economic lives, with the result that they have had little real Japanese culture to pass onto their children now in their 20s and 30s.
Another difficulty the Japanese face is that most people in the West value at least some things that are old and have stood the test of time, whereas while ancient ideas and traditions are revered in Japan, when it comes to the physical world, the Japanese psyche demands constant renewal – sacred temples rebuilt anew exactly as they were every 21 years, the endlessly shifting cityscape of Tokyo where buildings only a few years old are torn down and replaced with something new, the endless quest for the latest in consumer goods, with last year’s pe
rfectly sound model not sold second-hand but thrown away. An acceptance and welcoming of impermanence is understandable in a country that is regularly ravaged by earthquakes, but it faces a brick wall in an age when conservation and a commitment to recycling to the point of absurdity is the order in much of the outside world. Japan has taught the world how to manufacture super-efficiently, but it is increasingly becoming too expensive for its companies to manufacture at home: and it is not only in countries they wish to target that they are siting plants: all over South-East Asia, Japanese factories are sprouting. Coming much closer to home and the computer industry, there is a sense of bewilderment at companies like Fujitsu Ltd, Hitachi Ltd and NEC Corp that just as their mainframe and their supercomputer technology surpasses anything in the US, they are told that the days of the corporate mainframe are numbered, and that the monolithic supercomputer is going the same way, supplanted by much cheaper massively parallel processors. A research study and survey of Japanese manufacturers, requested by the Swiss government and conducted by Marcom International in Tokyo, suggests that a paradigm shift in high technology may be swinging back to the US. The researchers say that Japanese companies do not have the leading-edge technology that the rest of the world assumes they have in the areas of computer networking, pen-based computer technology, and microcontamination control for semiconductor production; that in recent years, Japanese companies have cut back their product development efforts and now must look outside Japan for key technologies needed to produce advanced integrated circuits, flat panel displays and other new products; and that most Japanese companies presumed to have leadership positions in these markets are eager to enter into alliances, agreements or joint ventures with non-Japanese companies having the right technology. Japan remains much better than the US or Europe at putting quirky new technology to productive use – while fuzzy logic is still a term that raises eyebrows in the US, in Japan, it makes the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner work more effectively, and where virtual reality is a still treated as a toy in Britain and America, it is being harnessed to useful applications in Japan. Nevertheless, there are early signs that there may come a day when the ICL Plc tail comes to be seen to be wagging the Fujitsu dog.
It has long been obvious to most of us that the system whereby in consumer and professional electronics, all the major Japanese companies come out with new models every six months or less in order to obsolete the current ones is untenably extravagant, even if it is necessary to keep Japanese consumers throwing away and buying new, and keep up the manufacturers’ profits. Now the game could be up – and with it a painful slice of manufacturers’ profits as they have to pursue expensive sales abroad to make up for lost cheap sales at home. According to Reuter, the Ministry of International Trade & Industry has asked manufacturers of electronic goods to reduce the number of times they redesign their products, saying that the custom does not benefit consumers, uses up scarce resources and lengthens working hours – adding that consumers have to buy new products because they often can’t get spare parts to fix broken ones. In a remarkable article in Bungei Shinju magazine, Sony chairman Akio Morita, one of the canniest of Japanese managers, writes that Japanese workers are overworked, underpaid and get too few holidays to enjoy the fruits of their labours. The decline from a dominant zenith is often imperceptibly slow: historians date the decline of Britain as an industrial power not from the 1960s or the 1950s, but from way back in the late nineteenth century, at a time when it appeared to be at the height of its powers and destined to dominate the globe forever. None of which is to say that there is not a great deal that is admirable in modern Japan – but then there was much that wa
s admirable in late nineteenth century Britain. A dominant feature of the twentieth century has been acceleration of change, epitomised by Andy Warhol’s suggestion that everybody should be famous for 15 minutes; Japan’s pre-eminence may be briefer than anyone suspects.