This week, I was asked whether I’m too optimistic about Japan.
Podcast host Ziv Nakajima Magen has been reading through my recent blog posts on Japan Story and noticed that they are often upbeat.
Quite reasonably, he asked me: “Where do you get this optimism? Is it 100% authentic, or are you maybe just playing devil’s advocate a little bit to the sensationalist, over-dramatic tendency of international media, as far as it comes to Japan and some of the issues it faces?”
I told Ziv that I sometimes feel it’s my duty to highlight the positive aspects of Japan as the media, quite understandably, tends to concentrate on the bad news. But I also said that as a journalist, I try to keep an open mind. I reminded him that I’m entirely independent – I’m not paid by anyone in Japan to sing the country’s praises in a blog.
Sunrise in Tokyo
Apparently, I’m not alone in keeping an eye out for the good news.
This week, I read a very optimistic analysis of Japan in the Economist magazine. It was in the Finance and Economics section under the byline Buttonwood, which suggests it was written by Philip Coggan. The headline was “Sunrise in Tokyo.”
The piece praised Japan’s “healthy” economy and was positive in its view of the Abenomics programme of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It said: “Deflation has ended. Nominal GDP has been growing steadily. And the job market is buoyant. Unemployment has fallen to 2.3%. The ratio of vacancies on job seekers is the highest since the early 1970s.”
It also looked at the policy of Womenomics, designed to bring more women into positions of senior responsibility. That usually provokes a sceptical response in the international press.
For example, the New York Times magazine recently asked “Why does Japan make it so hard for working women to succeed?” The author of that piece, Brook Larmer, said Japan “has remained stubbornly regressive”. He wrote: “Japanese women, to a degree that is striking even by the lamentable standards of the United States and much of the rest of the world, have been kept on the margins of business and politics.”
Yet the Economist article states that: “More women than ever are in the workforce. The female participation rate is higher than in America and above average for the OECD.”
Japan is often said to have an inefficient working culture. For example, Reuters said this week that it has “the lowest productivity among Group of Seven countries.”
The article in the Economist does not challenge that claim directly but it counters that: “Output per hour has recently grown faster in Japan than in other G7 country, according to the Conference board, a research group.”
The Economist does not ignore the challenges facing Japan, such as its shortage of labour and its ageing population. But it says that companies are responding to these issues by expanding into foreign markets and improving their productivity.
The Economist loves to hand out advice, telling governments and business leaders what to do. Yet on this occasion, it is quite restrained, apart from its implied praise for Abenomics. The piece suggests that Japan is quietly solving its problems by itself.
So, my optimistic view of Japan is not quite as esoteric as it sometimes seems. Others see it as a land of opportunity, too.