Japan has found a separate reality—a separate peace if you will—from the globalization paradigm that has dominated the West since World War II. The country’s experience over the past quarter-century raises the question: How open does a modern nation need to be in order to be “successful”? That should prompt us to ask, in turn, whether we in the West have been overstating the benefits of openness and globalization, and underestimating the virtues of social cohesion and stability.
All this warrants a fresh look at the long-tainted “Japan model.” At least as viewed by the West, Japan has spent the past quarter-century under a cloud. After the Japanese asset price bubble popped in 1989, the once-and-future “Pacific Superpower” (recall all those headlines from the 1980s, declaring things like “Your Next Boss May be Japanese”) no longer interested investors, pundits and the media. “Japanese” traits such as lifetime employment, so recently lauded, were quickly reinterpreted as rigidity, risk averseness, and a general inability to deal with a new era of innovation that valued the individual over the group. In particular, it became an article of faith in the West to decry Japan’s insularity, whether economic or socio-cultural. Japanese society, ethnically monolithic and anti-immigration, was derided as fatally parochial in the new, modern borderless world.
Yet the era of Western superiority proved fleeting. The West’s vacation from history in the 1990s ended with 9/11. The crash of 2008 had the West scrambling to avoid economic collapse, and neither the American nor European economies have recovered anything like their buoyant growth of the 1990s. Fifteen years after 9/11, the fear of terrorism and the intrusive steps taken to counter it are a depressing overlay to daily life, yet the scourge of the Islamic State continues to grow and has now reached into Western societies. Meanwhile, despite the advantages of globalization, its costs and the socioeconomic damage done by the massive displacement of old jobs—especially middle-class industrial jobs—have been badly understated. Government approval rates in America remain at historic lows, and a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened in recent years. The West’s complacency of the early 1990s has been displaced by a host of troubles.
Japan’s contrasting history during approximately the same time period—since the collapse of its bubble circa 1990—forces us to consider how open borders need to be, and to judge the trade-offs societies are willing to accept between growth and opportunity. Can a country be “globalized” and “modern” yet not “open”? Japan offers the example of a society that is willing to be less engaged with the world and to maintain certain socioeconomic barriers, thereby trading some growth for physical security and economic and social stability at home.
Similarly, to identify the sources of Japan’s physical security is not to embrace an anti-immigrant polemic. The history of the United States and even Europe is inseparable from immigration, but to welcome legal immigration is not the same thing as to call for open borders or to deny the importance of ensuring that a common culture and civil society is maintained and passed down to future generations. To acknowledge such cultural, social and economic questions is instead to demand a politics that is responsive to reality and not to the utopias of either the left or the right. It is to question how freedom and equality must be balanced against security and opportunity in an imperfect world.
What has been lost in the West is the understanding that openness and globalization are only a means, not an end. Japan’s different approach to both ideas goes back to its profoundly different view of modernity. In the West, ever since the American and French revolutions, modernity has been identified with the beginning of a new world, and the discarding of tradition. Since then, Western modernity increasingly became identified with the concept of openness to the world, moving from the realm of ideas and political philosophy to the field of economic competition, and more slowly to the opening up of the country to large-scale immigration. As the belief in openness sank deep roots, it defined both national identity and government policy, particularly in America, evolving into the idea that greater diversity, achieved through ever-increasing openness, result in greater national strength.
The concept of openness soon transcended national boundaries and evolved from a concern solely with the internal workings of a society to the idea of an integrated and united globe.
In Japan, by contrast, modernity has always been restrained by a tradition of social stability that goes back to the centuries of a feudal system headed by shoguns and emperors. Thus the Japanese have always viewed modernity more warily.
Japan really is different from the rest of the modern world, and while it is an almost heretical thought, perhaps it is time to consider whether Japan has made better national choices since the 1990s than we have given it credit for. It has succeeded in providing a stable and secure life for its people, despite significant economic challenges and statistical stagnation. It has done so in part by maintaining cohesion at home and certain barriers against the world. By comparison, America and Europe appear increasingly confounded by their failures to ensure sociocultural integration, keep their economies growing equally for all, and provide security in the heart of their great cities. When historians look back on global history from the 1990s into the first decades of the 21st century, how will they judge which nations were successful, and which failed to provide a good life for their people?
Yet compared with the problems that both the West and many of its neighbors face, Japan’s relative strength and stability should at the least cause us to rethink our assumptions about social and economic policy. The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Schlesinger argues that, for two decades after the popping of the bubble, Japan’s leadership consciously chose a deflationary course for the economy, seeking stability and the minimization of social risk that would accompany radical economic restructuring. Only the return of Shinzo Abe to the premiership in 2012 reversed this long trend, as he actively sought to inflate the economy, privileging economic expansion over stability. The difference might be thought of as “value” policy versus “growth” policy, similar to stocks or mutual funds. The careful, moderate reforms of what is called “Abenomics” indicate that even the current government is seeking a mix of value and growth, again prioritizing social stability.
Despite decades of officially slow or stagnant macro growth, the real economic picture of Japan is better than many Westerners think. Writing in the Financial Times, Matthew C. Klein showed that, in the decade from 2005 to 2014, real GDP per person grew more in Japan than in the United States, Great Britain and the Eurozone. In the nearly quarter-century from 1990 to 2013, in other words, nearly the entire post-bubble era, real household consumption in Japan also grew more than the Eurozone, and behind only Great Britain, the United States and Sweden.
What the author dare not raise, and only whispers, is that the entire Japanese political and social model of stability uber alles, which he extols, is entirely the results of a "xenophobic" immigration system that has been the de-facto bipartisan consensus of its leading political parties (both LDP and DPJ) since after WW2. If the author really wanted to tackle the vices and virtues of the Japanese system, he should have concentrated on their immigration policies and start from there instead of rehashing a handful of platitudes over and over in this article
Economic data tell only part of the national story. Other measures show a picture of social strength. To give just a few examples, Americans are 16 times more likely to be murdered than their Japanese counterparts, according to the United Nations. Japan, with approximately 40 percent the population of the United States, recorded just 443 cases of intentional homicide in 2011, a rate of 0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants; while in America, 14,661 persons were murdered intentionally, a rate of 4.7 per 100,000. While gun control advocates point out that Japan has far more stringent gun laws than the United States, crimes of all kinds, especially violent crimes, occur far less frequently in Japan than in America. Japan is a more peaceful society because of factors other than regulation of guns. There are few debates over what it means to be “Japanese,” and different segments of society rarely seem to be at one another’s throats.
Japan remains a male-dominated society, yet Japanese women are among the most highly educated in the world, and they traditionally have controlled household budgets and family decisions. Moreover, as the Financial Times’ Klein notes, more than half the growth in Japanese workers since 2003 has come from women entering the labor force, even as the overall population has shrunk. Prime Minister Abe’s “womenomics” policy seeks to increase this number even more, as well as to break the glass ceiling in executive suites.
In education, Japanese students once again scored at the top of the global math, reading, and science rankings by the OECD in 2012. Americans, by contrast, scored significantly lower, 27th in math and 17th in reading, despite spending close to 30 percent more per student than Japan. Meanwhile, Japan’s unemployment rate is below 3.5 percent, which partly represents demographic decline, but also the strong work ethic and expectation that able-bodied citizens will be in the labor force. Sixty-six percent of Japanese aged 15-74 were employed, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, while 63 percent of Americans aged 16 or older held a job, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a number that has been dropping steadily since 2007. Japan is also far healthier than America and most European countries, ranking as the least obese developed country according to the OECD, while America is No. 1. Moreover, the number of suicides in Japan has fallen for six straight years, since 2009, and is down by a third from its peak in 2003.
Again, such statistics of social strength tell only part of a far more complex story. Yet they can be adduced to support an argument that Japan has more successfully dealt with its myriad problems over the past quarter-century than most observers have recognized.