Peter Tasker in Foreign Policy Magazine: “Japan will rebuild, but not how you think”. Takes opportunity of Japan’s worst postwar disaster to re-advance outmoded Chrysanthemum Club-ism.


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Hi Blog.  To take us through the holiday weekend (and shortly before I vacation this blog for the summer), let’s have a discussion about this article by Peter Tasker which achieved a prominent spot in a prominent policymakers’ magazine.

The article offers hope that Japan will rebuild.  But it also cherry-picks economic statistics to show that Japan isn’t as bad economically as all that (he even dismisses the “Lost Decade(s)”; does Mr. Tasker get out of Tokyo much?).  And, more oddly, he takes the opportunity of Japan’s worst postwar disaster to swipe at the “Revisionists” (the contrapose to the “Chrysanthemum Club”), particularly the late Chalmers Johnson.  The C-Club, a group of scholars with great sway in US-Japan Relations for just about the entire Postwar Era, generally tends to explain away most of Japan’s disinclination to follow international rules and norms by citing their own conjured-up sacerdotal cultural oddities and esoterica (or, less charitably, “intellectual chicanery” and “uncritical apolog[ism] for Japan”).  It preys on the fact that it knows more Japanese words and concepts than most Western readers do, and cites them even if they aren’t grounded in much.  And woe betide any competing point of view to come in and spoil the US-Japan Relationship love-in.

True to form, in the best rewarmed Reishauer, Mr. Tasker acclaims the country’s “extraordinary social cohesion and stoicism” in the name of “social stability” and “national self-respect”, thanks to “mutual respect, not victory in competition”, and of course, “gaman” and “shimaguni konjo“.  This overseas school of thought once again portrays poor, poor Japan as perpetually misunderstood by the West, not as a corporatist state that serves its citizenry at times pretty poorly and seeks little consent from its governed.  As Japan’s per capita incomes keep dropping, people (particularly new employment market entrants) find themselves less able to advance or improve their lives, while the flaws of the state have come ever more into stark relief thanks to Fukushima.

For this time, Fukushima’s increasing radiation exposure is not something that can wait like a regular disaster (such as the slow recovery efforts after the Kobe Earthquake of 1995).  Meanwhile, the ineffectual state keeps covering up information, shifting safety standards for radioactivity, and exposing more people and the international food chain to accumulating toxin.  Yet it’s this much-vaunted public “stoicism” (as opposed to feelings of powerlessness and futility) that is precisely what will do people in.  Mr. Tasker’s citing of the alleged common belief that “the janitor in your apartment building is not a representative of ‘the other’. He is you.” may be something the Japanese are being told to tell themselves (although I can’t find any sources for that), but I don’t believe this attitude is going to be a constructive source for recovery this time.  Fukushima will, however, eventually become a source of “grand-mal victimization”, as a substitute for solution and revolution, as the malcontents who might do something will give up and/or just flee.  We will quite possibly see an exodus (if there isn’t an unreported one going on already) of Japanese (which has happened periodically before during the other times Japan’s economic system broke down; hence the immigrant Japanese communities in places like South America, Hawaii, and California) from this system which quite simply cannot fix itself, and the people feel powerless to demand better even as they get slowly poisoned.

The difference this time is that the breakdown in the state is spreading toxins beyond its own borders, unabated four months later, with no end in sight.  I wonder if Mr. Tasker would offer any revisions to his article now.  But I doubt it.  His politics come through pretty clearly below.

Finally, in contrapose to the media’s much vaunted “Japanese earthquake without looting” canard, I enclose at the very bottom two articles for the record substantiating ATM machine and convenience store theft in the earthquake areas.  A friend also noted a Kyodo wire entitled “684 million yen stolen from ATMs in hardest-hit prefectures” that made the July 16 Japan Times but he says can’t be found archived anywhere.  “Stoicism and social cohesion”?  People are people.  Shit happens and people react.  Let’s not obfuscate this with cultural canards aiming at advancing the outdated politics and analytical rubric of the Chrysanthemum Club.  Arudou Debito


The Island Nation
Japan will rebuild, but not how you think. And 20 years of misread history holds the clues.

BY PETER TASKER | Foreign Policy MARCH 24, 2011

“When my mother was 10, she was evacuated to Sendai and saw the whole town get bombed flat. My father experienced the big air-raids on Yokohama. Their generation started out when there was nothing left of Japan but smoking ruins. Don’t worry about us — we’ll definitely recover this time too.”

So read an email I received a few days ago from a family friend, a professor of literature at a prestigious Japanese university. It served as further confirmation that the earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 may have shifted the land mass of the main island by six feet, but the country’s extraordinary social cohesion and stoicism haven’t budged an inch.

In a sense, Japan has been waiting for a crisis just such as this to show its inherent strengths. The foreign media have been hyperventilating over the question of whether Japan can rebuild (and improve upon) its economy. This misconceived idea stems from the frenzy of the 1980s, when foreign writers and academics lauded and feared Japanese industrial might. But when the Japanese economy stagnated, the praise and warnings turned to lectures and self-congratulation, as the West patted itself on the back for having bested the Japanese threat. But this analysis of the rise and fall of Japan’s economy misses the point. In my three decades of residence here, Japan’s underlying reality has changed a lot less than volatile foreign perceptions.

The Japanese economic miracle had nothing to do with competitiveness or the supposed omniscience of Tokyo’s elite bureaucrats; it had everything to do with the resilience of ordinary Japanese people and the country’s deep reservoir of social capital. And when Japan’s economy faltered during the “lost decades,” this likewise had nothing to do with a stodgy growth model or Tokyo’s elite bureaucrats having dug their heads into the sand. Japan was urged to make radical economic reforms by many foreign observers, who were then disappointed by Tokyo’s glacial progress in making them. But economic efficiency was never the end goal, whether Japan’s economy was rising or falling. It was social stability. And this foundation has survived two tough decades and is now a national insurance policy being paid out in the aftermath of the recent disaster.

Japan will rebuild its economy, probably with impressive speed. But don’t expect to see a plethora of Japanese billionaires emerging, along the U.S. or Chinese model, or the adoption of hostile takeovers, Reagan-Thatcher-style supply-side reforms, and the rest of the neoliberal agenda. Instead Japan will dig deep into its own values to forge a 21st-century version of the “rise from the smoking ruins.”

If modern Japan has a common ethic, it’s based on mutual respect, not victory in competition. The most potent symbols of this Japanese sense of social cohesion are the dowdy blue overalls worn by Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his ministers at news conferences and other public appearances since the earthquake. The idea is to express solidarity with the workers at the front line and reduce the sense of separation between rulers and ruled. This was a strategy also employed by the legendary business leaders of Japan’s 1960s golden era. Soichiro Honda, for example, attended meetings with bankers in his overalls.

Indeed, the Japanese public looks back on the 1960s not primarily as a time of rapid growth, but as one of shared purpose and real equality. The 1980s, on the other hand, when Japan became a huge player on the world stage, is viewed with ambivalence. Justifiably so, as it led to the inflation of the “bubble economy,” a period of manic speculation that makes America’s subprime housing disaster look tame by comparison. Japan does gaman (endurance) superbly. It copes with the challenges of success less well.

This point was deeply misunderstood in the 1980s, when Japan inspired a mixture of respect and dread on the global stage, particularly in the United States. A group of academics and writers, most prominently the late Chalmers Johnson of the University of California, came up with the idea that the Japanese industrial challenge was so formidable that it required “containment,” just as Soviet communism had.

Almost everything these experts said turned out to be spectacularly wrong. They had misread the causes of Japan’s postwar success. The supposedly farsighted technocrats praised by Johnson in his 1982 book, MITI and the Japanese Miracle, were the same people who tried to stop Honda from getting into the auto market, poured public money into sunset industries, and built nuclear power plants on a tsunami-prone coast at sea level.

The biggest mistake was to overlook the Japanese social consensus that interpreted international economic competitiveness not as an end in itself, but as an indication of national self-respect.

The generation of Japanese brought up amid the postwar devastation was driven by a hunger to reconstruct everything — their lives, their society, their country’s standing in the world. Once Japan was strong enough to be left alone, the target had been achieved.

After the collapse of the bubble economy in 1990, Japan did indeed descend into stagnation and banking crisis. At the time it seemed as if Japan’s policymakers and bankers were uniquely incompetent in their fumbling attempts to tackle the problems. With the hindsight offered by the global financial crisis, it is clear that there are no easy fixes to the damage caused by the implosion of a large-scale bubble. And the United States is not one to judge: Washington has refused to make Wall Street take the harsh medicine it urged on Japan a decade earlier.

By the early years of this century, however, Japan had largely worked through its post-bubble malaise, and its economic performance started to improve. The Japanese corporate sector returned to record margins. The percentage of Japanese exports going to the emerging world soared to much higher levels than those from the United States and Europe. And corporate Japan’s spending on research and development was 50 percent higher (as a percentage of sales) than U.S. and European competitors.

There are two reasons that this went largely unremarked. First, economists usually discuss GDP without reference to currency markets, but this can obscure what’s really going on. Japan’s tight monetary policy has caused the yen to strengthen significantly against the dollar and dollar-linked currencies — which raises the global purchasing power of Japanese households and corporations. In comparison, U.S. growth looks impressive when denominated in dollars, but not so much when taking into account the weak dollar policy followed by Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke. If denominated in Japanese yen, U.S. GDP has been stagnant for the past 10 years.

Second, Japanese economic output per worker actually ran ahead of U.S. levels in the 2003-2008 period. Sure, U.S. GDP growth has been boosted — but largely by the rising total number of workers, itself a result of population increase, mainly caused by immigration. This obscures what’s really happening to living standards. If the well-being of the mass of citizens is the goal of policy, Japan’s performance this century does not justify the “lost decade” sound bite.

Foreign observers often see mass immigration as a cure-all for Japan’s demographic problem. It hasn’t happened and it isn’t likely to: In the Japanese hierarchy of needs, social cohesion ranks higher than top-line growth. Japanese opinion tends to focus on the potential downsides of large-scale immigration: Inequality would probably rise; the wages of low-earning native workers would likely be deflated by the new competition, while the upper-middle class would benefit from the services of inexpensive cleaners, handymen, and baby sitters. The Japanese also fear a dilution of shimaguni konjo, the “island nation spirit” that has helped them cope with a series of disasters of apocalyptic proportions.

The quiet strength of today’s Japan is that the janitor in your apartment building is not a representative of “the other.” He is you. In fact, there are thousands of janitors in apartment buildings across Japan who cut the same rumpled figure as Kan in his blue overalls. It is this Japanese narrative of a shared suffering and renewal against all odds that will drive Japan’s post-quake development. We may wish the Japanese to become more like us, but that isn’t going to happen. As they set about the task of recovery, they will become more like themselves.

Peter Tasker is a Tokyo-based investor and commentator.


700 M. Yen Stolen from ATMs in 3 Prefs Hardest Hit by March Disaster

Tokyo, July 14 (Jiji Press)–Some 684.4 million yen in total was stolen from automated teller machines between March 11, the day of the major earthquake and tsunami, and the end of June in three prefectures hardest hit by the disaster, Japan’s National Police Agency reported Thursday.

The number of thefts targeting ATMs at financial institutions and convenience stores reached 56, while the number of attempted such thefts stood at seven in the northeastern Japan prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the agency said.

Fukushima Prefecture accounted for 60 pct of the number of cases and the amount stolen, with the impact of the nuclear crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant being blamed for the high figure.

No similar cases were reported in March-June 2010. ATM thefts rose sharply after the disaster, but the situation in the prefecture is now under control, the police said.

Some 750 police officers are patrolling areas around the nuclear power plant.

No. of crimes in 1st half down for 9th straight year

TOKYO (Kyodo) — The number of criminal cases reported to or detected by police in Japan in the January-June period fell 7.1 percent from a year earlier to 711,837, the ninth straight year of decline for the first half of the year, the National Police Agency said Thursday.

The number of crimes for which suspects were questioned totaled 223,662, down 7.2 percent, involving 146,585 suspects, down 5.2 percent. The ratio of the number of crimes in which suspects were questioned remained unchanged at 31.4 percent.

In the wake of the March 11 earthquake-tsunami and nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, many thefts and property crimes were reported in the hardest hit Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the NPA said.

Some 684 million yen was stolen from March to June at convenience stores and automated teller machines in evacuated areas.

The number of burglaries also increased, jumping 109.1 percent to 481 cases in Fukushima Prefecture alone. Burglaries at empty stores rose 35.7 percent to 19 cases in Iwate, by 75.8 percent to 225 cases in Miyagi, and by 57.4 percent to 107 cases in Fukushima.

However, the overall number of offenses violating the Penal Code in the three prefectures dropped in the March-June period. Overall the number dropped by 16.3 percent to 6,895 in Miyagi, by 15.1 percent to 2,135 in Iwate and by 21.4 percent to 5,058 in Fukushima.

Throughout Japan, a total of 51 cases of fraud and criminal business scams involving donations for the March disaster victims were also registered, with damage amounting to about 12.6 million yen, the police said.

(Mainichi Japan) July 15, 2011


5 comments on “Peter Tasker in Foreign Policy Magazine: “Japan will rebuild, but not how you think”. Takes opportunity of Japan’s worst postwar disaster to re-advance outmoded Chrysanthemum Club-ism.

  • What a load of facile old bromides from this person Tasker.
    Does he get paid to trot out these cliches?
    Most Japanese people I talk to don’t even believe this horseshit. It seems to come direct from some sort of
    MOFA-written guidance for gaijin who want to make money telling the world what NHK would like the world to believe Japan is.

    He’s an investment whizz, yes, does this Oxford educated fool ever get out of Tokyo and understand the lives of ordinary Japanese people?

    My family was living in Gunma recently and we noticed just how behind the main corporate shopping complexes local communities are aging and dying: how many rotting and collapsing shotengai and communities are there out there in Japan now.

    Does he ever get out of Tokyo at all?

    What a lot of BS!

  • Sounds like Mr. Tasker and the C-club are apart of the westerner buffers employed by japan to improve their image. Is Mr. Tasker on the take? Maybe someone should investigate where he gets his funding for his so called research.

  • The most disturbing thing about the Foreign Policy piece is the last couple paragraphs, which basically push racism as good national policy. Basically he’s saying, “if the janitor is your race, you care about the janitor, and the janitor will identify with the politicians”. So, I guess if the janitor is Phillipino or Black I should not care? What about the burakumin and the zainichi, who are often visually inseperable from everyone else in Japan, but still get the boot in the face?

    It also brings up certain things about foreign labor that are part of the problem – when and why did it become acceptable that foreign labor would get paid less, and treated as an underclass? Sure, it happens across the world (Mexican tomato pickers in Florida, for example), but rather than talking about immigration as the problem, perhaps the problem is exploitation. If you’re forced into the underclass as a foreigner, will you feel much love for your new home? If you’re on a visa that only lets you live in a place for a year or two while you do this crappy job, what do you gain?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Mr. Tasker is a classic case of a NJ whom having lived in Japan for some years, thinks he understands it (whilst having never actually made Japanese Studies his major at university). There are many NJ like this, and they are mostly apologists because of lack of understanding. Self-appointed experts.

    — Need a source if you’re bringing up credentials.

  • Debito, how do you rate this Tasker character? Seems to me he is viewing Japan through rose coloured lenses.

    He forgets to mention that even though the Yen is strengthening via the dollar et all.. allowing Japanese businesses to import materials more cheaply, the flip side is that now exports cost more. At the beginning of the 2000’s the dollar/yen exchange was as high as 1US = 135 yen(this is back in Feb 2002) which would make it much cheaper to export goods to the “emerging” world, which I would assume most peg their currency against the US dollar. As of today, the exchange stands at 1us = 79 yen, so I would like to see Tasker’s comments on exports given this new rate.

    And his idea (or comment/point) of valuing US GDP numbers in yen is ludicrous. As noted above, if this was valued in 2002 then the US numbers would look even better if valued in yen. Today, not so much since the exchange rate has changed so drastically.

    In order to give GDP numbers any sort of meaning they have to be denominated into one currency and it just so happens that at the moment, the US dollar is preferred choice of this method, which economists at the IMF and the World Bank do use. I agree that it may not paint a true picture of actual GDP.. a country’s growth can increase from year 1 to year 2, but if denominated against a currency thats not a 1 to 1 exchange, then the numbers may look skewed and could actually show a decrease if said currency weakened. One could argue that Japanese GDP in US dollar terms has increased dramatically due to the fact that the exchange is 79 yen to the dollar all else being equal.

    and one last point/comment, lets not forget that the Japanese economic miracle was helped along by the US through billions of dollars of aid and materials, after being systematically bombed to hell and taken apart during World War 2. Tasker seems to omit this in the article and paints everything down to social resilience.


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