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June 7, 2005

Japan's Paradox of Wealth

Takamitsu SAWA (Professor, Kyoto University)

On his first visit to Japan in 1995, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard came up with a paradoxical hypothesis that Japan was affluent because Japanese were poor. Acknowledging that he was not an expert on Japanese affairs, Baudrillard made the suggestion in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun after a wide-ranging tour of the country.

In 1987 Japan surpassed the United States in per capita gross domestic product, placing fourth after Switzerland, Luxembourg and Iceland. It was a dream come true for Japanese who had striven to catch up with and exceed the West after their defeat in World War II.

Most Westerners are likely to have an impression that the quality of life is poor in Japan, where long commutes in crowded trains, unpaid overtime on the job, cramped homes, few hours for families to spend together, and "examination hell" for students hoping to enter a prestige universities are commonly accepted norms.

Yet it is due to these relatively poor living standards for many Japanese that Japan has become one of the richest nations in terms of per capita GNP. Noting that Western-style idealism requires that, for a nation to become rich, its citizens must become rich first, Baudrillard wondered whether Japan had a different model from the Western system. He said Japanese society looked as though it was based on feudalism, with citizens becoming cells of the nation and avoiding open dissent.

In a reversal of Western idealism, Japanese commonly believe that individual citizens become rich only after the nation becomes rich. If the Western model were true, Japanese would have little chance of achieving real affluence.

Just as Japan achieved its GDP goal of catching up with the West in 1987, the nation was about to enter a new phase -- the bubble economy. Drunk with joy for having realized a major goal, Japanese were at a loss to define the next goal. Suffering from a sense of despair, they wasted the next decade and have yet to fully recover from the economic slump.

In the decade, the mammonism acquired during the bubble economy spread, denying the Japanese values of hard work, industriousness, seriousness and integrity -- virtues that were at the heart of the "catch up with the West" era.

Susan Strange wrote in her 1986 book "Casino Capitalism" that in such a system "sheer luck begins to take over and to determine more and more of what happens to people." As a result, she said, skills, hard work, creativity, decisiveness and diligence are less appreciated, and the ethical values upon which a free, democratic society is built are less respected.

Will we be able to find the next goal? The first aim should be for individuals to become rich. This cannot be accomplished by a nation as an organization; we should all strive for our own affluence as individuals, based on the freedom of choice.

Affluence cannot be measured merely by income or consumption levels. Each individual is free to choose the optimum levels of affluence in multidimensional space. I wonder whether those Japanese who have yet to adapt to individualism, freedom and democracy will be able to transcend the group-oriented model of affluence.

The 20th century was marked by utopian quests. Until the mid-1970s, utopia for many people was a socialist society. Utopia after the 1980s was based purely on the market economy. When realized, both systems produced various distortions that betrayed idealistic expectations. That's the fate of utopia. The 21st century will pass without utopia.

Moreover, the 21st century is said to be the century of the environment. We will be forced to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, the symbol of the 20th century's industrial civilization, which was characterized by mass production, consumption and scrapping.

In my opinion, our next goal should be to transform Japan from a rich nation with poor living standards into an affluent nation with a high quality of life.

(This article appeared in the May 30, 2005 issue of The Japan Times)

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