A different take on Japan

What’s your view on Japan? A highly successful economy gone badly wrong. A nation hit by a devastating earthquake followed by a terrible tsunami, struggling to return to normal. A long-suffering people shattered by their decline in the world and lamenting their fall from power.

By Phillip Knightley

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Published: Sun 26 Jun 2011, 9:07 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:50 AM

This is certainly a general view in the West. The ‘Financial Times’ of London headlined a recent article “How China could yet fail like Japan”, with the assumption that the failure of the Japanese was a fact.

But suddenly Western commentators are waking up to the possibility that this view might be skewed and that the real Japan might be still be a power to reckon with. On measures that matter to Japanese leaders, Japan has continued to power ahead even after the Tokyo stock market crash on the early 1990’s.

While the attention of Western observers has been elsewhere, Japan’s exporters have not been asleep. As Eamonn Fingleton, writing in the June issue of the “American Conservative” notes: “Rather, they have performed so strongly that Japan multiplied its current account surplus more than fivefold between 1990 and 2010. In the same period American’s current account balance also multiplied five-fold—its current account deficit, that is. Japan has money left over; the United States has gone into debt.

Japan’s key strategy has been to acquire ‘chokepoints’ or monopolies in countless producers’ goods, often highly-advanced goods, in which the United States was formerly the world’s leading or only source, writes Fingleton. The result, as is now very belatedly becoming clear in Washington, is that Japanese manufacturers have achieved a sort of global supply chain dominance enjoyed by American manufacturers at the height of American power in the 1960s. “Though these producers’ goods are invisible to the consumer, they are vital to the global economy, so vital indeed that without them the modern world literally would not exist.”

Some Americans have realised this. Clyde Prestowitz, one-time adviser to the Reagan administration, says “It’s time to realise that the US never really beat Japan and it’s unlikely to win against China without a new strategy. Chanting tired ideological mantras didn’t save us in the late 1980s and it won’t save us now.”

Mistaken perceptions of Japan are not restricted to the economy. Warren Reed, an Australian who speaks fluent Japanese and studied law at Tokyo University in the 1970s, says they are common in the reporting of the multiple disasters that struck Japan earlier this year.

Western media coverage of the earthquake and tsunami that followed gave the impression of a nation struggling to cope. Actually, says Reed, the emergency system had notable successes.

Foreign reporting focused on the “scary swaying of skyscrapers in Tokyo”, without explaining that this was precisely what they were designed to do. Most importantly, none of them collapsed.

Lost in the coverage of the tsunami was a major achievement of Japanese engineering: the construction of an elaborate system of seabed breakwaters offshore from ports, harbours and towns along the tsunami-prone coastline.

Each of these giant underwater structures was positioned to disrupt the three or four “pre-waves” before the tsunami itself struck, the aim being to generate significant water turbulence to mitigate the momentum of the giant wave itself.

Local communities were briefed and it was explained that no structure could save their homes from destruction but the breakwaters would buy extra time for residents to flee to higher ground. This was exactly what happened on March 11 with valuable minutes helping people reach safety. Western media needs to take a closer look at how it covers Japan.

The full story is much more interesting and important than the stereotyped view that we are getting at the moment.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based journalist and commentator

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