Japan from the inside out

Good news, bad news, and no news at all

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 2, 2011

HERE’S SOME good news: More South Koreans are ignoring their jingoist news media and taking the initiative to forge positive ties with Japan. The latest example is the Daejeon Development Research Institute, which signed a research exchange agreement with the Fukuoka Asia Urban Research Center in January. That’s not news for the Fukuoka center, however—it’s their third agreement with an institution from another country. Both cities are located on high-speed rail lines, and the institute in Daegeon wants to conduct joint studies of the use of high-speed rail to promote industry and urban development.

Speaking of high-speed rail, the Kyushu leg of the Shinkansen will be fully operational in a fortnight, and the Kyushuans are getting ready for an influx of tourists from both South Korea and China. Folks everywhere like the hot springs and the potential for year-round golf. The Nishinippon Shimbun of Fukuoka and the Tokyo Chizu Publishing Co. recently published a guidebook of Kyushu tourist destinations in Korean and Chinese for distribution at local airports and hotels throughout the region and at travel agencies overseas. The first print run was 100,000 copies each.

To make sure that those guidebooks get read, the mayors of Fukuoka City, Kagoshima City, and Kumamoto City visited Seoul last month to talk up their cities as tourist destinations. The three mayors spoke at a conference at which about 100 people in the Seoul travel industry attended.

Here’s more good news, if the premise is correct: Eamonn Fingleton uses his own site and borrows James Fallows’s blog space to claim that the conventional wisdom of Japan’s lost decades is a myth and to challenge 10 public intellectuals pushing the stagnant Japan line to debate that subject. While Mr. Fingleton’s posts offer a couple of dubious assertions to go with some excellent points, it’s always good news to see someone challenge conventional wisdom, especially since wisdom is seldom present when the Western bien pensants hold forth on Japan.

What he says that people need to know:

* “(M)uch of what is reported (about Japan) in America’s major newspapers — and even more so on American television — is appalling.”

Repeat play city! If what you know about Japan you learned from the English-language media, then everything you know is wrong.

* “Japan’s surplus is up more than five-fold since 1990, and the Japanese yen has actually boasted the strongest rise of any major currency in the last two decades.”

* “Since the 1980s…the Japanese people have enjoyed one of the biggest improvements in living standards of any major First World nation in the interim.”

* “A story of extraordinary progress by Japanese manufacturing”:

“The reason you don’t hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them have moved from making consumer goods to concentrate on so-called producers’ goods — items that though invisible to the consumer happen to be critical to the world economy. Such goods include the highly miniaturized components, advanced materials, and super-precise machines that less sophisticated nations such as China need to make final consumer goods. The label on everything from cell phones to laptop computers may say “Made in China” but actually, via producers’ goods, highly capital-intensive and knowhow-intensive manufacturers in Japan have quietly done much of the most technologically demanding work.

“America’s current account deficit multiplied five-fold in the 20 years to 2010 and the reason in large measure is because American corporations have exited the producers’ goods business.”

He doesn’t mention that Americans have also abandoned the robotics sector, while the Japanese are one of the world’s leaders, if not the world’s leader in that industry. The only thing most Americans know about Japan and robots is that the Japanese love ‘em and Japanese robot stories provide snicker filler for their newspapers and blogs.

Mr. Fingleton shouldn’t be holding his breath waiting for the Japan hands to accept the challenge of a debate. For one thing, they’re Somebodies and he’s not. For another, having to defend themselves in a debate would expose their ignorance on the subject.

Still, give the man credit for treating them with deference. For example, on his own site he writes:

“I appeal to you — in the interests…of your own reputation for intellectual honesty…”

One of the men he’s calling out is Paul Krugman. The suggestion that Krugman retains any intellectual honesty should result in thick mucous dripping from computer monitors worldwide after the explosion of derisive snorts.

Mr. Fingleton’s post has begotten more good news. Economics professor Mark Perry has two posts with charts on his blog. In one, he notes:

“(W)ith economic growth in Germany and Italy and many other European countries that is comparable to Japan’s growth, we never hear about the “lost decades” in Germany or Italy or the U.K.”

In the other, he writes:

“Compared to 1980, Japan’s real GDP per capita in 2010 was nearly 70% higher, vs. a 66% increase for US real GDP per capita over the last 30 years. Japan had higher economic growth than the U.S. during the 1980s, slightly lower growth during the 1990s, about the same growth during the 2000s, and slightly higher overall growth during the entire 30-year period from 1980 to 2010.”

And here’s some late-breaking good news from the United States:

Consumer Reports has named Honda Motor Co., Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. (Subaru) and Toyota Motors Corp. as the best all-around automakers for the third year in a row in its annual auto issue…Chrysler Group LLC had the worst ranking. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and General Motors were also near the bottom…Toyota, which has dealt with massive safety recalls, fared well in the magazine’s top picks for 2011 across 10 different vehicle segments. Toyota had the most with three picks (the RAV4 small sport utility vehicle, Sienna minivan and Prius hybrid).

Chrysler and GM at the bottom, and Toyota near the top? If you can’t lick ’em, slime ’em in the media and sit on government reports absolving them of any blame.

Be that as it may, Mr. Fingleton should be careful about treading on thin ice himself. First, he tends to talk about “Japan” as if it were a monolithic entity. While that’s unavoidable to a certain extent, it only works if one is discussing international diplomacy. In every other context, however, this thing people call “Japan” doesn’t exist. That’s too facile a formulation for the breadth of diversity on these islands, and someone who’s been here as long as he has should know that.

More serious, however is his suggestion that the Japanese government is deliberately underestimating national economic growth to avoid foreign retribution for their trade surpluses. Worse, he offers no concrete evidence—it’s just a feeling he has.

If his assertion is true, it means that everyone in the Japanese government and media are party to history’s largest conspiratorial deception. Not only have they fooled overseas governments—whose experts can analyze economic and production statistics as well as Prof. Perry—they’ve also fooled the rest of the Japanese nation. The entire range of public debate among government officials, the political class, and the commentariat inside media and out is based on the premise of lost decades of low growth. His idea contains echoes of the Western conspiracists of the 80s and 90s who warned that the samurai Japanese businessmen were going to wreak economic revenge on the world for having been defeated in the war.

Speaking of what passes for reporting on Japan and East Asia, Michael Turton at The View from Taiwan takes the AFP news agency to task for its “ethnocentric crap”.

Superstition Still Widespread Across High-tech Asia, AFP reported today in article appearing in the Taipei Times. This tiresome feature reporting has been around ever since westerners first reported on Asia”:

(Quoting the article)
The services of witch doctors remain popular in multicultural Malaysia, while in hi-tech Japan, Shinto priests hold purification rites for new bullet trains and many entrepreneurs are said to seek the advice of palm readers and star gazers.

“Why is this a load of ethnocentric crap? Because you will never ever see a piece from AFP that writes about the west in a vein similar to the paragraph above:

The services of Christian faith healers remain popular in multicultural America, while in hi-tech Britain, Anglican priests bless new stadiums and many movie stars and politicians in both countries are said to seek the advice of astrologers.”

Mr. Turton’s observation is on the mark, but I’ll take it one step further. The F in AFP stands for France, where the news agency is headquartered. We’ll never see the AFP, or any other Western news outlet for that matter, write with such casual disparagement about the beliefs of the Muslims in that country, including the Shari’a punishments for theft, homosexuality, and (for the victim and not the offenders) for rape. Those media outlets won’t even say that Muslims are responsible for what has become an annual automotive auto-da-fe in France. They’ll only go so far as to call the perpetrators “youths”.

Now for the bad news—Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji held forth in Tokyo for some institutional investors, and everything that came out of his mouth should have stayed inside it.

According to the Kyodo report:

“Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara vowed Monday that Japan will carry out fundamental agricultural reforms modeled after the European system of direct payments to farmers to help strengthen the local farm sector’s competitiveness and promote trade liberalization.”

What is this use of the word “reform” to describe pork (or a wealth redistribution scheme) for farmers? Were he serious about improving competitiveness and promoting trade liberalization, he would instead encourage agribusiness to replace the country’s dwindling number of people who farm exclusively for a living.

But then he couldn’t do that—when the LDP took a step in that direction with the Koizumi/Abe reforms, Mr. Maehara’s DPJ used as an election weapon the excessive representation given to rural areas in the Diet by promising to repeal those measures and provide subsidies to individual farming households instead.

What will he propose next—subsidies for every exporting manufacturer in the country to facilitate the import of competing overseas products?

“He pointed out that the direct payment system in the 27-nation regional bloc has “succeeded in achieving two goals at once: bringing benefits to the consumer by reducing high tariffs and making producers more competitive.””

Ben Franklin should have added a third certainty in life to go with death and taxes—a perpetual stream of drivel from politicos. Farm subsidies make farmers less competitive, not more. That system allows farmers to stay in business, but at the cost of reducing the purchasing power of every non-farming taxpayer, which is most of us. Imported agricultural products may be cheaper, but lavishing public funds on farmers means the city consumers will be able to buy fewer of them. As we’ve seen before, the companies in Japan who would operate agribusinesses believe they can be competitive internationally.

“Maehara said Japan needs to study accepting more foreign nurses and caregivers under free trade agreements.

More than a thousand Indonesian and Filipino nurses and caregivers have come to Japan since 2008 under bilateral FTAs, but only a few of them have passed the Japanese national qualification examinations to continue working beyond the initially set length of stay.”

Mr. Maehara seems to think Japan needs healthcare personnel incapable of effective communication with either physicians or the patients in their care, in places where the patients’ lives or quality of life are at stake.

As for a nursing shortage, that isn’t a problem in “Japan”, but rather in a few big cities in Japan. That’s the claim of my family physician, who should know. He’s the chairman of the prefectural medical association this year.

If Mr. Maehara is so concerned about a nursing shortage in the cities and so anxious to use public funds to fix it, he might take a hint from the ROTC program in the United States. The American government foots the bill for the university education of qualified high school students if they spend four years as a military officer after graduation.

Other than a lack of common sense, what’s to prevent the Japanese government from offering free rides to Japanese high school graduates for nursing school on the condition that they work for a certain number of years in medical institutions after finishing school? Everybody wins, and no one has to worry about the language barrier causing a medical accident.

The worst part of the news story is the implication that Mr. Maehara is presenting himself as a future prime minister. That won’t be news to the Japanese: He’s a failed former president of the DPJ, and the failed former Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito is thought to be grooming him for the job to succeed the failed Prime Minister Kan Naoto. If the party continues to mimic the worst aspects of the old LDP without its redeeming qualities and has Mr. Maehara replace Mr. Kan without an election, it would represent another failure of the DPJ to bring about the change in the conduct of politics they promised.

It also isn’t news that a political party which is doing its damndest to turn itself into a fictional entity would install another lightweight in the Kantei doomed to failure as prime minister.

More bad news: Japan’s lower house passed the FY 2011 budget this morning, albeit with a few defections from the ruling party. That makes two years in power, two record-high budgets for the DPJ.

What happened to all those journos who kept telling us that Mr. Kan was a “fiscal hawk”?

Speaking of Mr. Kan, it will be no news to people who pay attention that he loosed on the public yet another absurdity that calls into question his daytime sobriety. This time he said he’d always doubted the feasibility of what passes for his party’s signature accomplishment—the removal of tax deductions for families with children from 0-15 and their replacement with direct cash subsidies from the government.

After all, a month or so ago he claimed that the adoption of the same policy was “epochal”. A year or so ago, Mr. Fiscal Hawk argued in the Diet as Finance Minister for the inclusion of that budget buster—JPY 5.5 trillion this year alone–in what was then Japan’s highest-ever budget. It was obvious to everyone they couldn’t find the money to pay for it when they stole the idea from New Komeito, and that finally seems to have dawned on even them. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya on the 28th said the allowance, which expires at the end of the current fiscal year, wasn’t permanent, and that the party might give it up altogether.

Now that’s good news.

Finally, here’s the best news of all: I’ve gotten a handle on a post that I’ve been working on for two weeks. Look for it soon!

This might be good news for beginning and intermediate students of Japanese. I received a note asking that I bring to your attention a website presenting Japanese-language study aids, as well as other observations. Here it is.

There’s no better way to celebrate the circulation of all this good news than by putting the party in the hands of Chico Trujillo, Mr. Popular Music of Chile. Who knew that horn band cumbia and surf guitar would go together as well as green tea and ice cream? Chico knew!

And just wait until you see the man dance!

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8 Responses to “Good news, bad news, and no news at all”

  1. level3 said

    Really looking for more than anecdotes to get a handle on whether there is a nursing shortage in Japan or not.
    I can certainly counter with anecdotes myself from exhausted nurses who say they want to quit, or the unemployed friend who was offered free training *with pay* by Hello Work leading to a full-time job as a caregiver/medical aide (a miracle for someone finding herself unemployed in Japan at 40 with no marketable skills) and she STILL refused it. Nursing and the like is just too 3K.

    As an aside, I’ve always assumed that the real agenda of the foriegn nurse program is to just import a bunch of fully-qualified (and non-unionized and cheaper) nurses to handle the less popular grunt work of spoon-feeding seniors and changing diapers, making life a bit easier for the Japanese nurses. (And I don’t have a problem if that is the goal, just realize that openly saying it would be so non-PC.)
    You don’t need JLPT1 Japanese to clean bedpans. And since they’re already doing on the job training, there must be already be protocols such that a semi-literate gaijin nurse will be supervised to avoid language problems. If it’s already been worked out, then the “gaijin nurse reads the pill bottle wrong and kills a patient” hypothetical is just fearmongering. (As if medical mistakes are never made by native speakers, especially if they’re working to exhaustion because there aren’t enough nurses!)
    If it’s a choice between a Filipina nurse giving me a sponge bath today, or not getting a sponge bath at all, then viva la difference!
    So, what are the numbers on nursing? Short or not? Projections? Getting better or worse with the aging society?
    I’ve assumed that something must be up for the Japanese government to even start this gaijin nurse program. Or is it just some pervy doctors who want curvier staff from the tropics on medium-term visas to avoid long-term entanglements? 😉

    A nursing ROTC program couldn’t hurt, but do you think there will be many takers? Part of the promise of ROTC is you can serve in the military to get a degree in engineering or medicine or business that will lead to a nice job afterwards. You spend 4-8 years stamping orders to scrub toilets or killing people, and look forward to NOT stamping orders to scrub toilets or killing people when you finish. That’s what brings most people in, the promise of something better after the tough years in the service.
    A nursing ROTC program would just lead to finishing your commitment at 26 or 30 with…
    a nursing license.
    Which leads where? Especially in a culture which is nowhere near as flexible to mid-life career changes as others and age-discrimination against job-seekers is entrenched.
    Sounds like ROTC with a lifetime service requirement.
    A lifetime commitment to a 3K field.
    Don’t see how that will get many new 3K-phobic youth to join up.
    L3: Thanks for the note.

    Really looking for more than anecdotes to get a handle on whether there is a nursing shortage in Japan or not.

    A definitive statement by the head of a prefectural doctors’ association is more informed opinion of the kind one would see in a news interview than anecdote, I would think.

    You don’t need JLPT1 Japanese to clean bedpans.

    You don’t have to graduate from nursing school, either. Or to spoon-feed the elderly.

    As if medical mistakes are never made by native speakers

    Want to bet which group is more likely to make medical mistakes?

    A nursing ROTC program couldn’t hurt, but do you think there will be many takers?

    Free education with a semi-guaranteed job on graduation? Yes, and I think parents and educators would get behind that, too.

    – A.

  2. Terry Fellner said

    B. I would that your family doctor is correct in the number but faulty of reasoning. First, say there is a nursing shortage in a few large cities i.e., Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, and Fukuoka then you still have a serious nursing shortage problem in Japan. By just a rough count, these “few” largest cities means about 20 million people live in communities with too few nurses.

    Of course it would be better if we knew how many nurses we are actually short both nation wide and area wide.

    Another thing. In places where there isn’t a nursing shortage – the smaller cities and countryside – it is doubtful that the surplus nurses can be moved. I am guessing that most of the currently non-working nurses quit when they had kids or had to take care of parents or in-laws. They may be extra in number only as their mobility is severely limited because of family commitments. They just can’t be picked up and moved.

    The ROTC thing might work, but it would have to be flexible for working mom’s. It isn’t the 23 year olds with 1 year experience quitting, it is the 28 -33 year olds with 6 – 11 years experience and who are now starting a family that are quitting. Finding a way to make them stay in the job near their husbands and kids is the trick. Unless you can figure out a way of doing that I think we are stuck with the no. of foreign nurses increasing.
    T: Again, instead of thinking “family doctor”, you should be thinking “head of the prefecture doctors’ association”. More than that, he had a national reputation as a heart surgeon in Tokyo until he semi-retired here (he says that performing serious heart surgery is difficult for people over 40). He is familiar with conditions throughout the country.

    Are places like Fukuoka and Sapporo included? We don’t know, because the media reporting here, like elsewhere, thinks Tokyo equals the whole country.

    As for young working mothers, his clinic employs quite a few, both as nurses and receptionists. It is by no means certain nowadays that they will quit to devote themselves to fulltime housekeeping.

    Nor is the nursing field limited only to women. I’ve been in Japanese care facilities for the aged. The job of emptying bed pans/spoon-feeding the elderly is also performed by young men.

    As for scholarships for nursing, there is also an occupation in Japan known as “public health nurse”, which is more advanced, though I’m not clear on all the details. (My wife’s niece is one.) There would undoubtedly be young people willing to accept a scholarship for that training too, and public health nurses seem to stay on the job longer.


  3. Terry Fellner said

    And great stuff on today’s topic. It is hard to believe how inept this gov’t is but I find it somewhat ironic that Mr. Kan’s immediate predecessor still makes Kan look…..slightly less inept. That is an Olympian feat in itself.

  4. Andrew In Ezo said

    Anecdotal, but many of my students (high school) here in Sapporo are entering 4 year nursing college- they know they can get a well-paying job upon graduation, especially in a regional economy such as here in Hokkaido, which is poor in regular office jobs for well-educated, career-track (four year college) graduates.

    In regards to Korean/Japanese amity, saw a TV program recently where Korean nursing home operators are going to Japan, and specifically Fukuoka, to learn about the latest techniques in taking care of elderly, especially those with dementia, an area where Japan is a leader given the aging population here.

  5. Andrew In Ezo said

    “…unemployed friend who was offered free training *with pay* by Hello Work leading to a full-time job as a caregiver/medical aide (a miracle for someone finding herself unemployed in Japan at 40 with no marketable skills) and she STILL refused it. Nursing and the like is just too 3K.”

    Apparently your friend prefers unemployment over admittedly tough, but potentially rewarding carrer. That’s her choice, but I have little sympathy for her.

  6. PaxAmericana said

    re: “Other than a lack of common sense, what’s to prevent the Japanese government from offering free rides to Japanese high school graduates for nursing school on the condition that they work for a certain number of years in medical institutions after finishing school? Everybody wins, and no one has to worry about the language barrier causing a medical accident.”

    Well, there is the issue of creating a precedent. Nursing is not the only profession that doesn’t want to pay enough to get workers. My knowledge may be seriously out-of-date, but the salaries 15 years ago seemed inadequate to keep someone working who had other choices. Also, I thought you didn’t like the government picking favorites, which this would seem to do. The US ROTC seems to have a fairly large number of specialties, or at least it used to.
    P: Thanks for the comment.

    Please note the wording, which I used on purpose–if he is so anxious to use public funds. It was meant as a suggestion as how public funds might be more profitably used. It doesn’t pick favorites, by the way. It only gives money to those people who voluntarily choose to participate, unlike a subsidy to individual farmers.

    – A.

  7. PaxAmericana said


    Many of us would argue that paying for nursing school but not, say, car mechanic school is picking favorites. Let the market decide, and all that. The fact that it’s voluntary for those who enter is not the point.

  8. bender said

    Can also argue that farmers are voluntarily choosing to farm because of the subsidies.

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