The Pointless Debate Over Japan's Decline
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Pointless Debate Over Japan's Decline


Is Japan in decline? Frankly I don’t think that spending a lot of time trying to answer that question is worth the effort.

Japan is declining in some respects and in other important ways it is not declining at all. It is well known that Japan’s relative standing in the hierarchy of the world’s economies has declined. Japan as number two has given way to a Japan that is number three. But would you prefer to live in the number two economy China or the number three economy Japan? If you think about living standards and the quality of the air you breathe, the water you drink and the food you eat, the health care and other social services you receive, and the number of years you can expect to live, the answer is obvious: better to live in a “declining” Japan than in a rising China.

More pertinent to the decline issue, is Japan’s diminished stature as an economic superpower really a matter of decline or the consequence of the ability of other countries to grow richer? The share of global GNP occupied by both the United States and Japan has declined thanks to the ability of other countries to emerge from abject poverty. That is good news not only for the people of those countries but for the United States and Japan as well, who have access to inexpensively priced goods and new markets for their exports.

The declinist narrative exaggerates Japan’s economic so-called decline because it fails to take into account the one indisputable aspect of Japan’s decline which is the decline of the number of Japanese. Has Japan’s economy performed notably worse than other advanced economies over the past twenty years? No, especially if you compare GDP growth per capita or per employee. Over two decades of “stagnation” Japan has grown, living standards have continued to increase and unemployment has been kept low. While inequality has increased, the gross disparities that we see in the United States have no parallel in Japan. Japan is not as economically prosperous as it might have been if it had chosen a different mix of economic policies but now that the rest of the industrialized world is contending with high unemployment, huge budget deficits, intense pressures to cut back on welfare state programs, and the risk of deflation, Japan does not look so bad. If it is in decline it is not alone.

What about something we might call the nation’s social health. In terms of social cohesion, sense of community, and general civility, the Tohoku disaster showed the world how strong Japan is. Whatever political problems were revealed by the government response to the Tohoku tragedy, they pale by comparison with the self-discipline, restraint, outpouring of goodwill, and cooperation that Japanese people showed each other—and the welcoming attitude with which they greeted foreign assistance. And it is not only in rural areas like the Tohoku disaster zone in which these social bonds are strong. In urban Japan as well, cleanliness, low crime rates, and basic good manners still make Japanese cities like Tokyo some of the world’s most comfortable, civilized places to live.

March 26, 2013 at 00:15

Unless the middle-eastern people learn to be independent and start working harder they wont taste the success Japanese people enjoy.

January 19, 2013 at 20:46

As others have astutely noted, this article hides the inconvenient truth of Japan's irreversible decline, it's  runaway debt.  Japan's debt problem was caused by its incapacity to write off the failures of its bubble economy of the decades past, which allows failed companies and government policies to survive to this day as zombies since they are allowed access to unlimited governmental capital, which piles on even more to its national debt.  The Japanese government has attempted to stimulate it's moribund economy with one failed spending stimulus after another, but such efforts have had the effect of competing directly against private investment.  Why would a private investor build a mall when the government will happily build one for free? When stagnation and uncapped national debt becomes the norm, Japan's decline will continue until it suffers the same fate as the Weimar Republic, an abrupt and catastrophic currency devaluation. 

January 19, 2013 at 19:57

Greece is a brand.  They don't make obsolete cars or Walkmans.  Their debt is manageable but Japanese debt is not.  

December 10, 2012 at 05:54

You must not have been to Japan nor a Muslim state… The youth in the Muslim states are causing political instability for their inept governments which no one really knows the long term outcomes ..and what about the ingenuity and productivity of a Japanese worker? This is also very important

April 10, 2014 at 11:31

What ingenuity are you talking about? All japan does is steal western technology. Anime originated from disney cartoons. Cars were invented in the west. Robotics were invented in the west. Cellphones were invented in the west. Computers were invented in the west. Anti-biotics were invented in the west. Satellites were invented in the west.

What has Japan contributed? Nothing. The japanese always boast about their technology, but what do they have for show? Did the japanese invent the internet? Nope. All the japanese are good at innovating, is pushing the frontier on violent and disgusting pornography.

Japan is a declining economy, and unlike the west who is able to innovate and boost the economy by creating technologically advanced products, the japanese mindset of tradition, obedience, and ritual cannot compete.

Japan will be forgotten as it declines, it has no competitive advantage in the world. China is huge and has cheap labour. Africa has resources. The Middle East has Oil. The west has technology. What does the japanese have? Nothing.

On the topic of racism. If you are not white and want to experience true racism. Go visit japan, you will be surprised how racist japanese people are towards non-white and non-japanese people. Japan still likes to hang on to its fascist past.

December 8, 2012 at 22:49

 "Japan is the most heavily armed nation in Asia."

By what metric is Japan more heavily armed than the PRC or North Korea? 

John Chan
December 5, 2012 at 11:01

Japan is an unapologetic war criminal; it is a cold blooded butchering manic. No even the American will turn an eye away from this war criminal and that’s why the USA keeps it on the short leash; American does not station largest armed forces on Japan for no reasons.
It is wrong for you to say “Japan is POTENTIALLY rearming” itself; Japan is the most heavily armed nation in Asia. Japan arming itself dangerously is because it is an unapologetic war criminal, its imperial Fascist nature, and the American shields its Class-A war criminals from being prosecuted by the victims of its atrocities.

December 5, 2012 at 03:26

OK, but then at least part of the reputation was based on deceit. Take, the rigging of the LIBOR rates, efficiency and transparency were the image and the rhetoric, grounded though in corruption and greed. I think in a non-superpower world, no one is expecting much of the west in terms of leadership anymore, neither financially nor politically, and not ethically either. Everyone is as much a leader as a follower. No special treatment for anyone anymore.

John Chan
December 5, 2012 at 00:53

You are bashing China using Straw man fallacy. China is over populated; it is paying high cost to put its population under manageable size. Its effort not only didn’t win world praise, it is slandered non-stop by the West for its one-child policy.
Letting in mass immigration of foreign nationals to ruin China’s hard effort of controlling its population at the decades of high human cost? You must be out of your mind.

December 4, 2012 at 14:15

@John Chan
Very true. I assume you mean immigration? Yes that is a clear solution to Japan's problems of aging. If they opened their doors to immigration I imagine many people would love to go and live in Japan. After all it is a nice place to live.
However at the moment that seems not possible as the public appears to not like the idea. I find Chinese culture to be very similar as well that the Chinese would not allow mass immigration of foreign nationals who could then become Chinese citizens.
Most Asian countries have this weird reverse racism thing going on. Explains why China is 90% Han because it seems the Han don't like to mix with others. Same goes for most Asian nations its a massive massive case of racism that goes largely unreported.

December 4, 2012 at 06:33

Obviously no system is perfect and even the western capital markets have some problems which definitely need to be addressed. That being said,  if you can name me a larger, more transparent, more widespread and more efficient capital market other than those in North America and the EU then I would be quite surprised. Actually there is no market in the world that even comes close to half the size and scope of those markets.

John Hildebrand
December 4, 2012 at 00:51

Agreed, I always enjoy articles that blend all the aspects of life to get a more full picture. I think the author did a solid job of broadly discussing the finer points of Japanese society as a whole. Having traveled briefly in both a "rising" China and a "declining" Japan, I'm equally comfortable in both, but, while I think living in China may be more interesting, living in Japan would be safer in the sense that I would live longer (very likely).

Agreed on the point about Japan needing reform. I've said this a couple times to a number of folks. When I look at the BRICS and the Swing nations, and then look at Japan, I do not see the level of flexibility and evolution in national thinking that makes them adaptable to the changing environment.

Very few Japanese that I interacted with on a more daily basis spoke English with any level of competency. Thankfully I speak enough Japanese to manage.

I believe that the title of this article is wrong though. The debate is not "pointless", in fact, its constructive. It gets the community talking about the finer points of what makes a nation strong. It also brings up the lesser discussed aspects of society, beyond just political, military and economic concepts.

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