The Pointless Debate Over Japan’s Decline

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

The Pointless Debate Over Japan’s Decline

Talk of Japanese decline sheds little light on the strengths and weaknesses of the country– or how its problems can be solved.

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.

Some people talk of Japan’s increasing inward focus, especially among young people, suggesting that there has been a decline in cosmopolitan attitudes. For someone who has been around Japan for as long as I have this is an especially puzzling observation. Has the number of Japanese who are fluent in English declined? No, quite to the contrary, there are more people comfortable in English and comfortable in non-Japanese settings today than ever before. Are young people becoming more inward looking? There is little evidence to support such a supposition. The number of Japanese who go abroad to study has not declined as a percentage of their age group. What gives the impression of inward lookingness is that the total number of people, including especially young people, has declined and that fewer of those who do venture abroad come to the United States. They are going to China and South Korea and to English speaking countries where tuition and living costs are lower than in the United States and where the competition to get into a university is not as intense. Japan’s problem is that too many people in the older generations remain inward looking, robbing young people of the incentives to take risks and do unconventional things.

What about Japan’s international role? The declinist debate does not shed much light on the Japanese situation. Has Japan’s ability to contribute militarily to its own defense and to regional security declined? Its defense budget has gone down every year for the past eleven but the roles and missions of the Self-Defense Forces has grown as has their ability to carry them out.

Economically Japan is still one of the world’s great trading and investing nations. Globalization and a strong yen have led Japanese companies to move more and more of their production out of Japan and hire more foreign nationals to help run their companies. Does Japan have economic problems? Of course. The once fabled Japanese electronics industry, to cite just one example, is on the ropes: just look at the problems that beset Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic. Japanese industry and government no doubt need to make some bold policy changes. What country does not need to make bold policy changes?

Demography may be robbing Japan of some of its vitality. Japan seems tired which should not be so surprising seeing that it is becoming more and more a country of older people; alas, elderly people tend to get tired. But this too is hardly a uniquely Japanese problem. Immigration brings vitality to the United States but most countries in Europe as well as South Korea, China, and many others face a demographic reality similar to Japan’s.

The declinist debate is a diversion. What can we conclude from deciding that Japan, or the United States, is or is not in decline? Does a conclusion that the United States is not in decline mean that it can accomplish whatever it sets out to achieve? Certainly not. Washington could not win the Korean or Vietnam Wars when it had unparalleled power nor could it consolidate the unipolar moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union to form a new stable basis for managing the international system. Japan is not alone in having lots of problems to contend with. It is probably a good idea to focus on what these are, how they might be resolved, and what the strengths the society has to bring to bear in grappling with them, and put the declinist debate to rest.

Gerald L. Curtis is the Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University, director of the Toyota Research Program at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and senior research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. This piece originally appeared on the Council of Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound.