Europeans see the human face of Japan's economic malaise
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
On 9 October, the BBC News Online featured an article that captured a more human face to Japan's economic malaise. It was a piece that analyzed Japan's economic situation from eight perspectives: that of the married couple, the student, the sales manager, the foreigner, the house wife, the working woman, the academic and the consultant. What the article served to communicate to its primarily European audience were real concerns held by the average person in Japan who is living through what the BBC called, "Japan's golden recession".
However, things didn't look so golden for the married couple. According to Emma Clark, who wrote the article, the couple was concerned about saving money for their and their children's future. They had resigned to the fact that the, "stupid government" wouldn't be able to afford pensions when they got old. Saddled with a big loan after having bought a house and with their investments inherently unstable amidst rumors that insurance companies would collapse, they admitted to feeling increasingly insecure each and every day.
Surprisingly the student was more optimistic. One of those interviewed essentially laughed at the idea of an economic slump. Kiichiro Kanai's remarks were that they have, "no money for travelling to Hawaii? No money to buy gadgets? No money to go to Karaoke? [But] if you go to Japan, it doesn't look different at all, it still looks super-modern". His attitude was that Japanese simply take things too seriously, that they are "perfectionists" and can't face changes. The argument put forward was that the quality of life essentially remained the same, things could be worse and that while there were fewer jobs at large companies there were many in mid-sized ones.
The sales manager demonstrated his tough work ethic by admitting that business was bad but stressed that he was trying not to let it bother him. His mind was set on continuing to work through things until they got better.
The foreigner was critical of Japan's resistance to change. He lamented about the fact that Japanese didn't like unconventional ways of doing things, were not prepared to take risks and refused to spend their savings. Steve Koya remarked that, "Japanese have so much money saved up, that it [the recession] hasn't affected them at all. It's like a perpetual safety blanket. Until it starts hurting, they won't do anything".
As an unpaid house maker, the housewife emphasized her family's dependence on her husband's income and expressed worries that he might be laid off. In order to hedge themselves they had put their saving overseas and had bought a house, however, there were no guarantees that they would be protected from the seemingly never-ending economic downturn.
The working woman complained about her stagnant salary and was concerned about the future, when she got old and sick. She had already grown disillusioned with Prime Minister Koizumi and pointed to the emerging gap between the rich and the poor noting that things were simply getting worse for the majority.
The academic was the one who fashioned the term "the golden recession". The significance of which alluded to the idea that Japan's recession had no visible impact. However, having said that he did point to heightening rates of unemployment and the difficulty being experienced by students in finding jobs. He also highlighted the trendy place to be these days: the 50 yen shop, the 100 yen shop was too expensive.
The consultant offered his usual bag of advice insisting that what Japan needed was a strong leadership that was willing to make tough decisions. In his mind the LDP was too old fashioned and Koizumi too powerless to exact change in Japan. As an initiative this consultant suggested a shift in Japan's immigration policy, "maybe we should start accepting immigrants" said Kazuhiko Yamashita, in order to deal with Japan's lagging birth rate.
While the sentiments reflected in this article were by no means uplifting it was a pleasant surprise to encounter a story that was not dominated by corporate sagas and government excuses. At the end of the day, recessions affect human lives. They are often shared struggles that many, regardless of their location, can relate to and yet towards which opinions vary. Japan remains distant from Europe, their culture difficult to understand and their language completely foreign. However, stories such as this one by Emma Clark give readers the ability to leap frog traditional barriers and enter into the daily lives of people who are trying to live amidst increasing insecurity. This is what brings people, countries and continents together.
- Emma Clark, "Tales from Japan's 'golden recession'", BBC, 9 October, 2002