Will the Real Japan Please Stand Up

Tom Plate (UCLA Media Centre)

For as long as I write this column on Asia – which enters its 10th year next month – I doubt I will ever witness anything as amusing or telling as the flare-up that took place at the close of the University of Southern California’s Asia Conference last month.
Until the very end, the conference on Japan’s new economy for foreign investors had gone swimmingly. Everyone on the panel had agreed that Japan’s economy was, indeed, a globalised flower garden opening up to outsiders faster than an overnight burst of spring. The consensus was seemingly harmonious until a single dissonant voice boomed out.
The consensus-breaker was a normally placid Thai businessman who, like a Buddhist monk, ordinarily kept his true thoughts to himself. But he just could not take it any more and lambasted the entire panel for being in denial about the reality of Japan.
And his view is not simply contrarian. Japan hardly seems to have made up its mind about which way to go. Like the French, the Japanese have a word or two for such a phenomenon. They use the term tatamae for the things people say out loud only because it seems to be the right thing to say. Then they use the term honne to refer to the real situation that often goes unsaid.
Take the question of the alleged Japanese economic recovery. The tatamae is that Japan grew at a remarkable 3.8 per cent annually from early 2002 to early this year. In fact, as The Oriental Economist, the authoritative New York-published monthly on Japan, reports in its issue this month, the growth rate was at best 2.6 per cent and perhaps barely 2.1 per cent. This honne is actually a slower growth rate. And now, a major investment bank in Japan is predicting growth next year of barely 0.5 per cent.
“You overemphasise Japan’s willingness to reform itself,” a long-time reader and former UCLA student said in a recent e-mail to me. “The Japanese don’t like change.”
That is just not true, assert many Japanese observers and west-coast-based David Matsumoto, a professor at California State University in San Francisco.
The truth, he says, is that Japan is a simmering caldron of change, fuelled by generational cleavage, a youth revolt and the unavoidable impact of globalisation. His deep-seated fear is not so much that Japan is unchangeable, but that unavoidable changes may catapult it into sudden social disorder, if not revolution.
Perhaps it is this insight that helps explain the seeming paradox of Junichiro Koizumi, the forward-looking prime minister who is trying to thaw the encrusted economy by, for example, privatising the vast postal service, yet who stubbornly trudges to those controversial war shrines and cemeteries that remind everyone else in Asia of the dangerously militaristic imperial Japan.
Mr Koizumi may contain within himself both the tatamae baloney that enrages Asians like our friend, the Thai businessman, and the honne honesty of Professor Matsumoto, the ultimate optimist.
Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network
Distributed by UCLA Media Centre – All Rights Reserved.

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