Good points about Sweden which Japan should learn to love

 

 

 

 

When I was flying back from Stockholm this week, I noticed a book on sale at Arlanda airport called Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works And What We Can Learn From It.

I didn’t buy it but I would like to read it. After all, on the surface Sweden seems wonderful – although it’s rather cold.

The parts of Stockholm I visited were clean, with lots of public art and smooth transportation. I was particularly impressed by the university. The service in the shops and restaurants was great. And a guided tour of the City Hall emphasised how much Swedes cherish democracy.

During my trip I learned that Sweden has the first feminist government in the world. The government’s website explains that this means: “Women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice.”

I wonder if anyone has ever considered writing a book about Japan called Almost Kanpeki (Perfect). As a society, Japan works well. Like Sweden, it has good public transport, great customer service and sophisticated education. It’s a democracy and gender equality is enshrined in Clause 24 of the Japanese constitution.

Yet I doubt any publisher would welcome a book which only sings Japan’s praises and overlooks all its problems. After all, the media have been reporting that the country is on the way towards another severe recession.

“The future of the Japanese economy is gloomy and efforts to deal with the low birthrate and rapidly aging society haven’t worked,” says Akira Nagae, a 62-year-old former magazine editor and author from Hokkaido.

I used to like bookstores

I was struck by the title of Mr Nagae’s new book: “I used to like bookstores: Behind the scenes of the flood of hate books.” It was published last November by Tarojiro Editas.

In an interview, Mr Nagae explained that the “hate books” he sees flooding the Japanese stores are normally focussed on two other countries: China and South Korea. He thinks some writers are deflecting their own anxiety about Japan’s problems and turning into unfounded criticism of those nations.

“In 2019, the relationship between Japan and South Korea was the worst it has ever been,” Mr Nagae told Nikkan Gendai. “Around this time, I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of so-called hate books. Set up in corners of the bookstores, stacks of such books using discriminatory words about South Korea were displayed to catch the notice of many customers.

“In my book, I try to clarify the backdrop of why bookstores in Japan are circulating hate books and what occurred to cause this to happen.”

Learn from the Swedes

I believe the Japanese can learn something from the people of Sweden. I can see from the Twitter feed of the author of the Almost Perfekt book, David Crouch, that he doesn’t regard Sweden as paradise. He acknowledges that it has economic and social problems, some of which are very similar to those in Japan.

But in highlighting the good points about Sweden, he tries to suggest ways other societies could implement ideas which work well. I doubt that his book praising Sweden will lead any reader to start hating its neighbours, such as Denmark, Norway and Finland. After all, why should praise for one country lead us to dwell on the shortcomings of its rivals?

Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns have been enemies in the past. But they now co-operate in facing many modern challenges.

Japan and its East Asian neighbours are also deeply interlinked. For that reason, I support Mr Nagae’s campaign to get the hateful books taken off the shelves.

And if we can all manage to be a bit more positive, I am sure that our Swedish friends would give us an encouraging smile.

Olympics under pressure as Japan prepares for recession

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 was declared a global health emergency, the International Olympic Committee has been faced with the arduous task to decide if the Tokyo Olympic Games should go ahead this July.
The principle concern is that during a huge sports gathering, the virus could spread further.

China is planning to send more than 600 athletes to the Olympics, along with a large contingent of supporters.

In response to heated speculation in the press and on social media, the head of the coordinating commission of the International Olympic Committee, John Coats, denied that the games are in jeopardy. He told reporters in Tokyo: “The advice we have received from the World Health Organisation is that there is no case for a contingency plan to move or cancel the Games.”

Economic cost

Unlikely as a cancellation would be, it would not be without precedent. The Olympics have been cancelled five times in the past, including during two world wars.

There was also debate about the viability of the Rio Olympics four years ago because of a mysterious virus called Zika, which was blamed for causing birth defects.

At the press briefing in Tokyo, John Coats promised that lessons would be learned from Rio. “The World Health Organisation pointed out the likelihood of Zika being a problem at the time of the Games was very low,” he said.

“But we did lose some athletes and we didn’t communicate the information well enough.”

Rory Green, the China and North Asia Economist at TS Lombard said that if the Olympic Games were to be cancelled, this would have a very serious impact on the Japanese economy.

“There has been an expectation that the Games will spark an increase in domestic demand in Japan. There’s been a lot of government investment already in infrastructure and also investment by the private sector, for example in increasing room capacity in hotels,” said Mr Green.

“The Olympic Games are also a branding campaign for Japan Inc and an attempt to restore the national image of the country, as well as to give a shot in the arm to the whole economy,” he added.

Threat of recession

The problems facing Japan’s economy were clear in data released this week which suggested that the country is heading for another recession.

The economy shrank at an annualised rate of 6.3 percent in the final quarter of 2019. This figure was described in the Financial Times as “very weak, dismal and shockingly bad” by the chief economist of UBS, Masamichi Adachi.

In an interview with FujiSankei Business, the governor of the Bank of Japan Haruhiko Kuroda, said that coronavirus was “the biggest source of uncertainty for Japan’s economy” but insisted there was little chance of growth in 2020 falling far below 2019.

Mr Kuroda also said that the central bank would launch further monetary easing “without hesitation” should it prove necessary.

However, with overnight interest rates already at minus 0.1 percent, the options open to the Bank of Japan are limited. What seems to be required is an approach which is consistent with other parts of Asia, including South Korea and China.

Rory Green predicts a more or less simultaneous response. “Because the virus is spreading throughout the region, we expect all the Asian countries to take similar initiatives at around the same time,” he told me.
Japan is used to desperate struggles against recession.

Yet this is far from the optimistic messages sent by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at election time.
He promised a miraculous recovery. Unfortunately, the economy appears to be suffering from a chronic condition, with no immediate prospect of a cure.

Parasite and Shoplifters – Brilliant shocking stories from Asia

In winning an Oscar, the makers of the South Korean film Parasite have drawn attention to some serious social problems facing their country.

Parasite’s story focuses on inequality between rich and poor families. It shows the dreadful living conditions which are endured by some people in Seoul.

This dark tale is reminiscent of Japanese films which I have seen, which also used family stories to examine social issues. Sometimes, after watching one of those movies, I have left the cinema feeling uneasy but I was pleased to gain a fresh perspective on Japan.

Critics’ choice

For example, Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (above) took an unflinching look at child poverty and social exclusion. Like Parasite, it’s a deeply moving film and it had a fantastic cast – especially the child actors.

Critics have developed a taste for intense dramas from Asia and Shoplifters won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

I expect more movies of this type will be commissioned both in South Korea and Japan. However in China, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to raise funding for films which expose the dark side of life.

Samsung’s riches

South Koreans often complain about inequality.

It’s therefore fitting that a film from that country exposes the gap between privileged people and those on the margins of society.

For example, the Chairman of Samsung Group, Lee Kun-hee, is due to receive 470 billion won – US $400 million – in share dividends for last year.

That’s despite the fact that Samsung’s profits were down sharply because of a slump in computer chip sales.

Sometimes, politicians in South Korea attempt to challenge the vested interests of chaebol conglomerates, such as Samsung. But it’s not easy to change a system which is so ingrained into the economy.

Stereotypes

Inevitably, there are stereotypes in the press about South Korea, just as there about Japan.

The journalist David Fickling recently set out to challenge some of them.

In a piece for Bloomberg Opinion, he analysed numbers from the World Bank and concluded that “South Korea is east Asia’s most egalitarian society.”

Those who have seen Parasite will be surprised by that claim. But Fickling argues his case well, based on extensive research.

Common challenges

Aside from inequality, South Korea, Japan and China share other challenges.

They all have ageing populations. Their cities are straining because of urbanisation. And they have had disasters linked to extreme weather and climate change.

They also, unfortunately, now all face a common threat from the coronavirus.

Films such as Parasite and Shoplifters have been rightly lauded for the skill of their casts and directors. They deserve attention and prizes.

For international viewers, they bring to the screen the struggles of life on the margins in East Asia. We are fortunate these stories are being told.

“Lands apart, shared sky” – Japan’s response to coronavirus

One of the leading experts on infectious diseases told me this week that he is encouraged that there has so far been no major spread of the coronavirus outside of China.

Professor David Heymann explained that it’s inappropriate to describe the situation as a pandemic, even though the disease has been recorded in about 25  countries and has led to deaths in two places outside of China.

High alert

Japan is on high alert.

According to the Japan Times, twenty cases of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus have been reported, four of which occurred in Tokyo.

Dr Heymann, who’s a distinguished fellow of the global health programme at Chatham House in London, told reporters that “outside of China, it seems as though there has been great success in controlling the disease.”

I was somewhat reassured by his words, which were in contrast to the alarming stories which have been appearing in the media.

Alarm in the press

Beijing’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman has complained about a global panic and has accused reporters of spreading fear.

At Chatham House, Dr Heymann said that some journalists are basing their stories about the dangers of coronavirus on speculation.

“We don’t have enough information to know if it’s a pandemic and I don’t like to make predictions,” he said.

Experimental measures

He also said actions such as banning people from flying, preventing them from leaving cities such as Wuhan, or trying to control crowds are “experimental measures.”

This is significant for Japan, where the authorities are trying to quarantine thousands of people on board a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, which is docked in Yokohama.

Japanese TV has shown footage of medical officials on board the boat, checking the guests’ temperatures.

Lands apart, shared sky

Many Japanese are sympathetic to the problems facing people from China and their concern is appreciated.

Quartz reports that users of social media in China have widely shared a post showing boxes of face masks donated by Japan for people in Wuhan.

The picture apparently includes a message written in Chinese: 山川异域 风月同天 (shan chuan yi yu, feng yue tong tian), which roughly translates as “lands apart, shared sky.”

Limited protection

Unfortunately, from a medical perspective, the masks are of limited value.

Dr Heymann told the meeting at Chatham House that although masks are useful in preventing someone from spreading the virus when they sneeze or cough, they don’t prevent a person from catching a disease.

He warned that people will be at risk from infection if they take off the mask to eat, or if it’s not fitted properly, or if it gets wet.

He also said that a vaccine for the coronavirus remains a long way off and “there will probably not be a vaccine in time for this outbreak.”