Lessons from the Lost Decades
The author is a rotating correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I had changed the delivery date for a television in three countries — Korea, Japan and the United States. The first time was in Korea. The representative who answered the phone was not very friendly. But the answer was clear. “Yes, your delivery has been changed,” he said. The next was in Japan. “I am very sorry, but it is not allowed in your contract. I am truly sorry,” the representative said. I am not sure if he was kind yet firm, or firm yet kind. But shifting the delivery date was not possible. In America, my call did not go through.
When I was posted as a Tokyo correspondent 18 years ago, Japan’s adherence to principles seemed like an advantage. But watching Japan after all these years, it was not the case. It is hard to find the will to make impossible possible and to see vitality lead changes. In the age of 6G and AI, it is still impossible to do administrative tasks without a fax and it takes a month or two to get a credit card. Japan was the only country in the world where I had to make a seal with “KIM” and register it. When you have a headache, you can’t come up with new ideas. Tokyu Hands — where I gladly spent two to three hours watching all the quirky new products — has become an old-fashioned showcase. When I turn on the television, I could only find programs that are 10 to 20 years old, offering no fun or information. With little formatting change, the “Top 100 masterpieces of the Showa period,” which ended in 1988, is airing over and over, and repeatedly says those were the good times. Things have stopped for 30 years.
Just as a rich family can go on for three generations even after it perished, Japan is holding out with solid basic science and kind personalities. But it’s like watching ice cream melting. Until the 1980s, Japan was the vaccine power contributing the chicken pox and Japanese encephalitis vaccine technologies to the United States. So, when Covid-19 broke out, I thought Japan would be among the first to make vaccines.
But I found out that after the state and pharmaceutical companies lost in a lawsuit over the measles vaccine in 1992 and another one in 1996, the private sector is reluctant to invest and the government has stopped assistance. As a result, Korea and Japan have swapped positions. The same goes for the Covid-19 response system. Japan gave up tracing close contacts due to a lack of administrative capability. More than 20,000 people are testing positive daily, more than 4 to 5 times the rate of Korea considering the population size. But the entire country has accepted it in despair. The crisis response system was revealed in the evacuation operation from Afghanistan, where Korea brought back 390 Afghans while Japan brought only one. It is a decline of overall national strength.
In the end, everything boils down to politics and the media. Japan’s education system does not nurture leaders, and the politics is “stagnant water.” A whopping 26 percent of the parliament members have inherited the positions within the families and 40 percent of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are hereditary politicians. It is significantly higher than Korea’s 5 percent, Britain’s 3 percent, and 6 percent in the United States. It’s understandable if they are competent. But the problem is that voters do not — and cannot — change them even when they are substandard. The Suga administration’s approval rating is 26 percent, the lowest in the last four years, but the lawmakers are only blankly staring at the heads of their factions.
Negligent “good press” is a bigger issue. After the Lockheed scandal in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka vehemently denied allegations, Japanese media’s watchdog role rapidly shrunk. As politics tame the media, Japanese media is passive and refrain from reporting unless the person involved acknowledges allegations. Of course, false reports have decreased. But vitality and dynamics of politics and society have also disappeared as much, or even more.
A person knowledgeable in Korean and Japanese media pointed out, “Most Korean reporters became journalists, and most Japanese reporters became messengers.” He has a point. Also, Korean reporters — who often get confused about the boundaries of reporting and claims and cross the line from time to time — should repent. However, is it really fair for reporters to remain mere messengers? Is it right for the government to force it on them?
Japan’s halted 30 years show a clear answer to the questions.