Japan experts scrutinise Shinzo Abe at Chatham House Conference

This week I attended a lively conference about Japan at Chatham House in London. The speakers included experts on Japan from universities and institutions from the UK, the United States and Japan. Most of the discussion was about politics, economics and international relations. I heard a number of comments about Japan which surprised me and in this week’s blog, I am going to share what I heard. I do not agree with all the viewpoints. However, all the points below were made by people who study Japan carefully.

Here are some of the comments about Japan’s economic situation. I have summarised them into soundbites which contain very few numbers:

Abenomics has been a big experiment.

Abenomics is an intense, short-term policy. It is not designed to be long-lasting.

Abenomics is like the emergency treatment of a patient in intensive care. The aim is to stop the patient collapsing and dying.

Abenomics was a response to the economic crisis which followed the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.

More than 200,000 Japanese are still displaced from their homes because of the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Mr Abe promised to fire three arrows: monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and reform. However, the second arrow has not been fired because there has not been an increase in public spending.

There is not much evidence the third arrow of reform has been fired. So far, the only visible reforms have been in the electricity sector.

Abenomics is a response to an ageing population. When people are old they do not spend so much so Mr Abe’s goal is to stimulate domestic demand by convincing people to spend.

Abenomics is based on a false promise. It promises that Japan’s economy can grow but that growth cannot be achieved with an ageing population.

Abenomics has widened the gap between rich and poor. In the financial crisis, assets such as bonds and shares lost value. Action by the Bank of Japan has caused those assets to rise in value. This has benefitted those who held the assets in the first place – mainly rich people, who are now even wealthier.

Changes to employment law have led to companies to hire less full-time staff with a view to employing them for their whole lives. Instead, they hire more part-time and temporary workers. Their pay and benefits are worth less than those of their peers who are doing the same job. This has contributed to an income gap and inequality.

Inequality in Japan is not caused by rich people becoming richer but by the poorest people in society becoming poorer.

Perceived inequality has a social and political affect. People are more like to support extreme political parties or feel disassociated from the political process.

A quarter of Japan’s spending each year goes towards servicing its national debt. This money could go to social programmes, such as helping the elderly.

In Japan, the social safety net which provides for people in time of need has traditionally been provided by family and by companies. Gradually this is changing so that the government takes more responsibility.

Japan has a large population of people who have not married and do not have children so the government’s duty to care for these people when they become old will be expensive.

Here are some of the comments the delegates made about Mr Abe:

Mr Abe is likely to remain prime minister until 2018 so he will become Japan’s longest serving prime minister since the Second World War.

Mr Abe’s political popularity will probably increase provided he focusses on the economy. He is less popular with voters when he is discussing security and reform of the constitution.

Other prime ministers have tried to implement reform but have had less public support than Mr Abe. His strong political position puts him in a good position to push through change.

And here are some other comments speakers made about Japan which could be used as soundbites, not using numbers.

The percentage of people getting married in Japan is falling. The age at which people marry is getting older.

There are more opportunities for women at work than in previous generations. This encourages women to develop their careers before choosing to marry and start a family.

A very tiny number of children in Japan are born to parents who are not married.

Child care provision for working women has improved significantly in the recent years.

Japan is the largest user of fax machines in the world.

Japan has a population half the size of the United States all squeezed into a geographical area the size of the state of Montana.

Japan has for many years been the biggest investor in China.

Japan’s relationship with the US is like that of an adolescent child. Sometimes it gets resentful and tries to rebel against the adult but afterwards it apologises and asks for guidance and protection.

On the whole, the quality of the debate was very high and there was a good rapport between the speakers and the audience. The event was well organised. However, as I want people to improve their communication skills, I made a note when I heard phrases by speakers which I feel should not be used when giving presentations.

I am really sorry but I have got five minutes and that leaves only one and a half minutes for each of my points. I will try to squeeze them all in.

I could say so much more but I need to move on.

I am sorry, there is not time for my next point, so I will skip that one.

On the aeroplane on my way to this conference, I was thinking about what to say.

(Introducing himself) I am sorry I do not know much about the subject this panel is discussing.

I did not understand the meaning of the title of this session so I looked it up on the internet.

I am not an economist (said by a Professor of Economics.)

I am sorry I am using a lot of numbers (speaker used 60 numbers in a short presentation.)

(Chairman, when asked to sum up) I am unable to sum up what has been said in this session.

So, that is my summary of the event. I enjoyed listening and learning and I am very grateful to Chatham House for inviting me to attend. I hope I can join the conference next year in Tokyo and I would love to chair one of the panels.