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December 25, 2011

The Myth of Japan's 'Lost Decades'

The Atlantic - It is commonly believed that Japan was the economic juggernaut of world trade of the late 1980s, which, we are told, has been mired in stagnation ever since. The argument is made that Japan is technological know how behind the made in China boom.

Question 1: Given that Japan's current account surplus (the widest and most meaningful measure of its trade) totaled $36 billion in 1990, what was it in 2010: (a) $18 billion; (b) $41 billion; or (c) $194 billion?

the Answer is C $194 billion.

Question 2: How has the yen fared on balance against the dollar in the 20 years up to 2010: (a) fallen 11 percent; (b) risen 24 percent; (c) risen 65 percent?

The answers are C - the yen has increased 65% against the US dollar.




Certainly anyone who visits Japan these days is struck by the obvious affluence even among average citizens. The cars on the roads, for instance, are generally much larger and better equipped than in the 1980s (indeed state of the art navigation devices, for instance, are more or less standard on many models). Overseas vacation travel has more than doubled since the 1980s. The Japanese boast the world's most advanced cell phones, and the biggest and best high-definition television screens. Japan's already long life expectancy has increased by nearly two years. Its Internet connections are some of the world's fastest -- something like ten times faster on average than American speeds.

True, not all of Japan's indicators are equally impressive. The Tokyo stock market, for instance, has never recovered from its 1990s slump. Neither has the real estate market.

On the negative side, there is also the fact that Japan's economic growth rate, as least as calculated officially, has averaged little more than 1 percent a year in the last two decades. For those who propound the "stagnation" story, this is their strongest card. But it does not accord with the common observation -- undeniable to those who have known the country since the 1980s -- that the Japanese people have enjoyed one of the biggest improvements in living standards of any major First World nation in the interim.

If we believe the evidence of our eyes, we necessarily must look again at those economic growth figures. Preposterous though it may seem to an unacclimatized Western observer, it appears that Japanese officials have been deliberately understating the nation's growth. But why would they do such a thing? For those who know Japanese history, a clue lies in trade policy. The fact is that, constantly since the 1870s (with the exception of a brief interlude in the late 1930s and early 1940s), Japan's pre-eminent policy objective has been to keep ramping up exports. That policy came very close to derailment in the late 1980s as a groundswell of opposition built up in the West. By the early 1990s, however, the opposition had largely evaporated as news of the crash led Western policymakers to pity rather than fear the "humbled juggernaut." It is a short jump from this to the conclusion that Japanese officials have decided to put a negative spin on much of the economic news ever since.

At the heart of my analysis is a story of extraordinary progress by Japanese manufacturing. The reason you don't hear much about Japanese manufacturers these days is that the best of them have moved from making consumer goods to concentrate on so-called producers' goods -- items that though invisible to the consumer happen to be critical to the world economy. Such goods include the highly miniaturized components, advanced materials, and super-precise machines that less sophisticated nations such as China need to make final consumer goods. The label on everything from cell phones to laptop computers may say "Made in China" but actually, via producers' goods, highly capital-intensive and knowhow-intensive manufacturers in Japan have quietly done much of the most technologically demanding work.


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