from Asia Unbound

Akio Takahara: Undervaluing Ourselves

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009

December 10, 2012

Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Buildings are silhouetted against the setting sun in front of Mount Fuji in Tokyo December 2, 2009
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This blog post is part of a series entitled Is Japan in Decline?, in which leading experts analyze Japan’s economy, politics, and society and give their assessment of Japan’s future.

When I was president of the Japan Association for Asian Studies last year, I was approached by the German Association for Asian Studies to hold a joint workshop on contemporary China. This initiative bore fruit as the International Symposium on China’s Role in Asia: Research Approaches in Germany and Japan, which was held at the International House of Japan in Tokyo in July this year. Several German scholars came over and seemed generally impressed by the quality of China studies in Japan, and the German side has recently invited us to their biennial convention to be held next year in Berlin.

That’s fine. What was interesting to me was not the impression that the Germans got about our China studies, but rather their impression on Japan. One scholar, who had never visited Japan before, told me how much she was surprised to find that the Japanese people were not poor, and that Japanese society did not seem to be depressed. I asked her why she had such an impression, and the answer was that she had read many times in the press about Japan’s decline.

Those of you familiar with Japan may share my impression that Japan tends to be underestimated in the overseas press, which could be in contrast to its overestimation in the 1980s. Certainly, Japan is aging, its population has started to decrease, the economy hardly grows, and government debt is rather heavy.

Moreover, it is a national hobby for us Japanese to be critical about ourselves. You often come across articles in the weekly or monthly magazines deploring that nothing goes well in Japan! I am not sure how much we really mean it, but perhaps it cannot be denied that we tend to undervalue ourselves more than, say, the Koreans or the Chinese.

My expertise is in China, and as far as the Chinese are concerned, they tend to see a mirror image of themselves in Japan. That is, most Chinese think that if the Japanese say their economy is in trouble, then Japan must be in deep trouble, because the Chinese would only admit to this it if the situation was really bad. That could have contributed to the way the Chinese are now fighting an “economic war” with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. Apparently the boycotting of Japanese products and the cancellation of group tourism to Japan has been implemented on the judgement that by such measures the Japanese would feel greater pain than the Chinese would.

But the Japanese economy and society are extremely stable—and by the way Japan has a population larger than the United Kingdom and France put together—while the Chinese economy and society are of course larger but rather fragile. Thus, commentaries have recently started to emerge in the Chinese press that reassesses and appreciates the resilience of the Japanese economy.

It is true, though, that part of Japanese self-criticism stems from the rise of China and the success of Samsung, which seem to eclipse Japan and Japanese firms. In a way many Japanese feel nostalgic for the days when they strove to catch up with the West in economic terms without any doubt about the value of doing so. Japan was in the midst of staggering economic growth, and I remember television commercials in the 1960s of a boy looking down on a smaller car owned by his neighbor, or people singing, “It’s a good thing to be big!”

We eventually faced serious pollution and pollution-triggered diseases, and we also met with the oil crises in the 1970s. Being a resource-less nation, the Japanese quickly learned that “small is beautiful,” which was the title of a 1973 book by Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, a Germany-born, British economist.

China is in the midst of modernization now, and what prevails there is the value of “enriching the country and strengthening the nation.” Japanese hope that China swiftly will move on to the post-modern stage, but it may take a long time for a large nation to change its values. However, unlike the days of Japan’s military rise and aggression in the 1930s, this is the 21st century and there are many Chinese who very well understand the importance of sustainability. Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University once wrote that, in terms of a conventional understanding of national power, perhaps the United States, China, and Japan can be listed in that order. However, if you take up another standard and gauge national power in terms of the country’s ability to achieve sustainable development, then the order is Japan, the United States, and China.

The world is becoming smaller day by day and sooner or later we will all be sharing the same problems of aging, resource shortages, and populist politics. Many in the United States roundly criticized the way Japan handled its economic crisis in the early 1990s. Yet today, after having faced their own financial crisis in 2008, some Americans are beginning to view Japanese decision-making in a new light.

I do not think that Japan is declining. Rather, as Professor Komiyama, former president of the University of Tokyo, argues, Japan is a forerunner in solving problems that all of us will be facing in the future.

Akio Takahara is professor of contemporary Chinese politics at the Graduate School of Law and Politics, University of Tokyo.

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