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Modern Japan

So Sorry, We Don’t Make Change
JT Brown on contemporary Japan

ant to make some easy money? I know a foolproof way. First, you need some fools. Here’s how it goes: Too many times over the last decade or so, financial experts from James K. Glassman (in the US, he’s guests on almost all news programs) to such multinational money managing mavens as Morgan Stanley, or Lehman Brothers, have exhorted investors to send their money to Japan.*1
Hmmm. Let’s have a look at this. The Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei 225 average finished off the 1980’s at 38,915 on December 29, 1989. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but as of this writing the Nikkei stands at a remarkable 10,475 (Sept 22nd)

Prime Minister Koizumi bent on change in Japan?

Whoops. That’s a depreciation of close to three quarters in value. Yep. And those believing investors who have thrown their good money in after the bad over the past decade plus, have lost more and more of their principal as the Japanese markets have continued their plummet.

BUT, if every time the clarion call announcing "now is the time to get into the Japanese market" had sounded, you had actually shorted those highly touted recommendations, just fantasize about how and where you might now be spending your early retirement. Bill Gates would be doing your gate duty. Warren Buffett would be buffing your shoes.

So that’s it. In a nutshell, bet against the ‘conventional wisdom’ and get rich on Japan. It’s not to late, either. The Nikkei recently had a little tease of a run-up; people banking on recovery in the US leading to recovery here. Only a few months ago the Nikkei was as low as 7603. The above reference to Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers comes from just this month. Even as you read this, people are sending in new money to Japan. Hurry! If they want to part with their money so bad, you might as well help them out.

Facetiousness aside, bad financial advice can inflict pain on small, unwitting investors. Pathologically bad investment direction can unlease disaster on entire countries and regions, a la the Asian financial meltdown of 1997. It is beyond me just how some people ever get to be regarded as ‘experts’ in the financial world.

Similarly, I have a beef with lazy and lousy reporting on Japan. As I touched on in a dispatch this past summer, western reporters that come to Japan, purport to inform their readers back home about this country, but instead merely perpetuate myths and misunderstandings, really bust my chopsticks. *2

Of course, almost everyone that passes through Japan, myself no exception, can’t seem to resist the temptation to deconstruct what they find here. Some, myself an emphatic exception, also seek to mystify or uphold the existing mystification of what they find. After all is said and done, a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation about Japan gets disseminated. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. I am most definitely not one to censor any voice. But I do believe in challenging wrong ideas with right ideas. And one persistently wrong idea out there, in circulation for some time, I will now take on, along with all those who misguidedly believe it.

Without further ado, I’m talking about the notion that the Japanese are ‘changing’. Supposedly, the younger Japanese generation in particular has become liberated; we know this to be so because…..they now they dye their hair. Some kind of intergenerational dialectic has taken place. The youth have thrown off their shackles. Creative dynamism, blossoming individuality, and a changing of the guard are all underfoot. All of this, to which I say, BUNK.

What we are really witnessing is just one manifestation of a society that has lost its purpose and is becoming slovenly. Moreover, Japanese society of last half a century had always been a bit overrated. Yes, you just read that correctly.

I intend to demonstrate these points and more. But before plunging into all that, I wish to first explain that starting with this essay, and continuing with the next few essays and reports I submit, I will directly address the good, the bad, but foremostly, the relevant, of Japan, going forward.
I say ‘directly’, because I actually had been working piecemeal on this project all along. But recent discussions I have had, along with events in my personal life, have convinced me that there’s no time like the present to produce a concise series of essays for all see and ruminate. I hereby humbly entitle this endeavor,
‘JT’s Unified Theory of Japan’s Place in the Cosmos’.

Japan and N Korea still friends?
I say ‘the relevant’, because it has always been my goal to stick to writing about that which is useful: to provide even someone who never has, nor ever will, set foot in Japan -someone who at best has no more interest in Japan than he or she has in, say, Spain, or perhaps the Czech Republic - with information and accounts of this country that at least are fascinating, but preferably ‘relevant’ to his or her own world. To the world we share around us. Just to recall two examples, in March, when certain voices started to call for the nuclear arming of Japan to counter the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, I did an exposé on Japan’s civilian nuclear power industry, arguing that entrusting Japan with nuclear weapons was a bad idea. In June, I passed along my firsthand observations on how Japan handles public daycare very well, and that many other countries, most notably mine –the US, could definitely learn by example.

I don’t have much use for ‘Japan-bashing; it’s not very helpful. The Japanese usually outwait their foreign critics’ attention span anyway. Ultimately, it’s the Japanese themselves who have to decide what kind of society they want. They’ve played a mercantilistic game for decades, and now the chickens are coming home to roost in the form of a inflexible, moribund economy and nation. Most of the time, people DO get the government and society they deserve. If the Japanese don’t want to make the effort to reform, that’s really up to them.

But how Japan acts when it engages with the rest of the world most definitely is the rest of the world’s business. So broadly speaking, what Japan is thinking and where Japan is going, is relevant to all of us. In describing that which I see, I will not pull punches. I will ‘call it as I see it’. That’s not Japan-bashing. That’s saving unwitting investors from bad advice.

Now then, I was calling Japan ‘slovenly’ and ‘overrated’. Also, I carded those who would label this country as a ‘changing’ nation. If not a red card, a yellow card at least is deserved. Because compared with the rest of the advanced world, Japan stands still. Maybe the Japanese aren’t quite a tribe of rain forest Indians just waiting around to become extinct. But let’s put things in proper perspective.

Wherever it is that you sit as you read this, look around and think about just how much has changed over the last ten years -in how we work, play, and interact -both with friends, and with strangers, from all around the world. is an excellent example. Ten years ago, I, for one, did not yet even have a personal computer. Let alone did I ever dream that one day I would be published electronically for anyone, anywhere on the planet, to be able to read.

For better or worse, the last decade in the West has been blur of transformation. Ours has rapidly become a world of discount mega-stores,, the latest in Hollywood special effects that improve with the season, health care professionals that speak to us with foreign accents, and little pills that cure erectile dysfunction.

The ‘time compression’ taking place is amazing. Take the often discussed news cycle. It’s down to 24 hours or less. Anybody can now find out the latest from the war zone, the stock market, or the Ben & Jen split just as soon as it happens. Product life? DVD’s are killing off videos. Music downloads are doing the same to CD’s. Soon, Windows 98 will be relegated to the dust bin of history, along side Windows 95 and DOS (for those of you who even remember DOS and its command prompts, still in use in the early 90’s). And how many of you out there have either lost or voluntarily changed your career in the last few years? I’ve changed mine. I bet a lot of Hacks’ readers (and writers) have.

Some resist it, some lament it, but change is a way of life in the west. And by in large we handle it well. We prefer to be in charge of our own destiny, as opposed to allowing destiny to be in charge of us.
But not in Japan.

Here, people and life muddle along. When I think back to the Japan I saw when I first came here in 1985, the only changes that I do in fact now notice are largely those that have occurred in spite of –or sometimes DUE TO- Japanese inaction. I’m talking about the tumbling of prices here which is caused by the bad economy. That, and globalization. Globalization, of course, marches on, with or without Japan on board. The are a handful of other differences between 1985 and now. One might be the increase in leisure time. But that too, is just a function of the slowing economy.

As for other indications of change, yes, the Japanese, say, have DVD players too. They may even say "Sanyo" on them. But the technology and all the energy for change is coming from the west. Japan just belatedly follows. A strategy that was good in the 1960’s, perhaps. But it’s woefully passe and inadequate in the era of ‘internet time’. And those Sanyo DVD players aren’t even made in Japan anymore. They’re made in Malaysia or China.
Nothing though, could better epitomize the malaise, the lost ground, and the creeping slovenliness of Japan, than the "changes" seen in Japanese youth.

Now I’m no enemy of Japan’s ‘generation Y’ and their dyed hair –the latter just a rite, and right, of passage shared with teens everywhere. I happen to believe, as a matter of fact, that this generation of Japanese youth has been screwed over. Screwed over by their parent’s generation, the luckiest, richest, most spoiled and self-indulgent generation in history.

The parents of today’s Japanese teenagers, Japan’s baby boomers, have never known war, poverty, want, uncertainty about their future or their self-worth. They grew up in go-go years when the escalator was lifting everybody. Tomorrow would always be better than today, there was a place for everyone, and their own parents took care of everything for them.

The outside view that workaday world in Japan was a high-stress, strenuous hell was baloney (another example of lousy reporting). You talk to ‘salarymen’ who lived through those times –they loved it. They had structure and meaning to their lives. They could palpably see the fruits of their work as every company and every employee in Japan was always being lifted by that escalator. Japan always led the world with the highest life expectancy rates coupled with very low suicide rates. (Now, however, it is with the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world that Japan leads. *3)

Generation Y has also been coddled with everything and has never known hardship. But neither have they known discipline. Nor have they been given much direction, or any kind of nurturing. Their parents at least grew up with goals for the future and a sense that society needed them. Generation Y has been fobbed off with money and material things, but no attention from their self-absorbed, spoiled parents. Fathers that are never home, mothers that nag but don’t really communicate or pay attention.

And that escalator is now out of order. Companies aren’t hiring in Japan, as not only is the economy broken, but Japanese industry is being hollowed out and transplanted to China. To hold on to power by prolonging the status quo for as long as possible, Japan’s present generation of leadership has mortgaged Gen Y’s future by building up massive debt, both public and private, unequaled anywhere in the world. The Japanese financial system is a house of cards that conceivably could implode on a scale that would make Argentina’s collapse look like just a little scar left over from an old pimple.

The youth of today’s Japan face a very uncertain future, and one for which they haven’t been prepared.
So what has Gen Y done? They’ve gone delinquent. There are three particular symtoms of the problems associated with Japanese youth which I will delve into more deeply in following essays. But to enumerate them now, they are: 1) the birth of a sub-generation that won’t work or go to school -dubbed ‘parasite singles’ by the Japanese media, 2) the dramatic rise in the crime rate driven by youths, and 3) the incredible-to-believe phenomenon of legions of high school and junior high school girls becoming amateur prostitutes to fuel their materialistic lifestyles.

This emergence of middle-class girls who already have everything but sleep with strangers so they can get the very latest Chanel handbag that all the rest of their friends have, I suppose counts as ‘change’ in Japan. But it’s hardly the change that Japan needs to be confronting. (See enjo kosai)

Change can be exciting and can be emancipating. At the same time it can be intimidating and unwanted. It takes an effort accept change. It takes a flexibility of mind to embrace and prosper in harmony with change. Japan, the supposed culture of harmony, the nation of flexibility, in reality is neither. Don’t let people kid you. Japan is too busy disintegrating and ducking serious change, to be going anywhere for some time to come.
© J T Brown
September 23rd, 2003

(As promised, a further discussion of the issues raised above will follow in upcoming essays. Please stay tuned. In addition, links to all previous articles on Japan by JT Brown can be found at

See also Parasite Singles

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