The Pointless Debate Over Japan's Decline
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The Pointless Debate Over Japan's Decline

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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.

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