IT is a small thing, but it says a lot about the country. At Tokyo’s Narita airport, when you take off your shoes at the security screening check, the guard hands you a pair of leather slippers. The message is obvious: this airport cares for your wellbeing and recognises your need.
In Japan, taxi doors swing open automatically; toilet seats are electronically warmed and cleaned; and the extraordinary variety of food is presented exquisitely. There is a passion for satiating every imaginable human want and a joy in embracing the science, technology and innovation that might help deliver just that.
For 40 years, between 1950 and 1990, this passion was a key ingredient driving one of the most remarkable periods of growth in economic history. But for the past 20 years, Japan has been stricken by stagnation. In the late 1980s–90s, it suffered a financial crisis nearly as severe as our own. The economic model – the International Trade and Industry Ministry guiding Japanese companies; the keiretsu networks of loosely conglomerated firms and associated banks; the great global brands – suffered an implosion.
Yet this remains a US$5 trillion economy, the third largest on the planet. The Japanese themselves are desperate to recover the elixir of growth, and understand that economic conservatism – in Japan just as in Britain – leads to disappointment and heartbreak.
In 2009, the Democratic party of Japan was elected by a landslide, pledging a root and branch reform of every bureaucratic, corporatist and anti-democratic element in Japan’s broken system. It also pledged to recast economic policy to serve the people. Despite some epic mistakes, notably its handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it still holds an opinion poll lead over its rival, the Liberal Democratic party (LDP).
However, forces within the government are very much open to pondering where it should go next. Ten days ago, I was invited by the DPJ government to go to Tokyo to contribute to this ongoing conversation.
Cabinet members wanted to discuss what a 21st-century social contract might look like, respecting both necessary labour market flexibility and security. They wanted to understand the contribution that open innovation ecosystems and an entrepreneurial state can play in driving forward innovation and investment.
Reinventing stakeholder capitalism
Above all, they asked: how could Japan reinvent its stakeholder capitalism of the second half of the 20th century so that it was more democratic? And they thought there might be something in my ideas rehearsed in the books The State We’re In and Them and Us. In short, how could Japan do good capitalism?
It is the question – not only in Japan but, I would argue, in Britain. In Japan the devastating earthquake in Tohoku 12 months ago has made it even more acute. Three hundred and forty thousand people are still without homes. At least 19,000 died. And the nuclear power station at Fukushima very nearly suffered a meltdown.
At the time of the crisis, Japan hoped that, with the DPJ in power, there would be a decisive change from the way such matters had been handled in the past – obfuscation, delay, inactivity and anxiety to protect corporate interests. Yet the new government bounced off the secrecy of Tokyo Electric Power Co, the bureaucratic ministries, a muzzled media and the enveloping tentacles of the employers’ organisation, the Keidanren, as if nothing had changed.
Prime Minster Kan became party to delivering inadequate and late information via the impenetrable state and corporate networks; many Japanese became devotees of BBC World News as the only purveyor of truth. Kan was forced to resign last summer.
But the Japanese electorate is not ready to return to the status quo. They know they need nuclear power which just 12 months ago provided more than a third of their electricity needs; but as power stations are being closed down for safety inspections local communities are vetoing their reopening. In May, the last nuclear power station operating will also be mothballed.
The terms for their restarting are tough. Local communities, fired up by a new citizen activism, want effective oversight, transparency of information and commitments to meet international safety standards. It is Japanese good capitalism, driven by citizen demands from below.
Faced with this new phenomenon, the LDP is at a loss, while the DPJ itself seems to be re-gathering its conviction that its reform agenda is the only way forward. At an open meeting in the Japanese parliament, I was struck by the interest DPJ MPs showed in discussing innovative ways of kickstarting credit flows – as anathema to the Bank of Japan and Finance Ministry as they are to the Bank of England and Treasury.
The Bank of Japan has just expanded a version of the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme; but abstains from the activism it used to show in the great days of Japan’s growth. The conclusions are obvious. Japan’s financial system is broken; an activist state has to restart bank lending by assuming some of the risk – just as it must in Britain.
If Japan could reset its macroeconomic policy, there is an enormous pool of dynamic high-tech medium-sized firms that could immediately grow very fast. Consultant Gerhard Fasol argues that in areas like LED lighting or mobile phone payment systems, Japan is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. The Fujitsus and Toshibas of tomorrow are in the wings.
What Japan needs is for the increasingly sclerotic giants to be challenged by these many insurgents, who need new institutions to support their ambitions to go global. A new entrepreneurial, accountable state could drive a second phase of powerful Japanese growth.
These debates are foreign to our primitive business culture, which undervalues service and innovation and scarcely thinks about a more productive capitalism. There is a long list of British companies that have tried to break into Japan’s market and failed. Observers say the common theme is wholesale insensitivity to the need for service and innovation, the precondition for any success in Japan.
Britain and Japan are two island economies, both mired in private debt with stricken financial systems. Although Japan has a long way to go, it is becoming obvious, confirmed by last week’s British budget, which of the two countries is most likely to create the 21st-century framework for growth and prosperity.
The Asian story of the next decade will be Japan’s renaissance and China’s relapse. — Guardian
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