Japan’s path to a graceful descent
I am currently immersed in “The Gate of Youth” by Japanese writer Hiroyuki Itsuki. The seven-volume series chronicles the turbulent life of Ibuki Shinsuke, who was born in a mining village in Kyushu in imperial Japan.
Itsuki’s latest essay, “Thoughts on Descent,” is a hit in Japan today. It became a bestseller immediately after it was published in late 2011, selling over 200,000 copies so far. The author notes that Japan has been pushed out of the position of the second largest economy in the world, acknowledging the fact that Japan is descending now. He points out that the Japanese are denying the reality of their descent just as the imperialists who refused to admit defeat even when U.S. forces landed in Okinawa in the last days of the Pacific War. He advises his country to wake up and choose a safe path for landing.
Since Japan was struck by the earthquake in March 2011, some Japanese scholars have been advocating post-growth theories. Noriko Hama, a professor of economics at Doshisha University in Tokyo, wrote that “for a mature Japan, economic growth is no longer necessary.” She argues that Japan is already a mature nation as the largest creditor in the world with an advanced infrastructure and therefore does not need to be obsessed with growth. If Japan continues to pursue growth as the strength of the yen continues, workers will suffer low wages in order to compete against emerging economies in exports. As a result, domestic demand will fall and the economic slump will continue. Her perspective is similar to Itsuki’s idea that the Japanese are increasingly unhappy because of the conventional mindset to pursue growth, with over 30,000 people killing themselves every year.
The champions of growth object to the theory of “descent.” Waseda University Professor Yukiko Fukagawa claims that Japan needs to find a path that leads to a new course uphill. She warns that if Japan gives up on growth, it will be impossible to maintain the current situation and the economic and social infrastructure will collapse. The young generation that has never tasted the fruits of growth sneer at the “descent” argument, calling it a luxury of an older generation that has benefitted from better days.
As perspectives change after a life-altering shock, it is not surprising that the descent theory is garnering support. Of course, they don’t want to stop growing altogether. But Japan may want to slow down the pace of growth so that it doesn’t teeter off a cliff on the way down.
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok