Sorry, We Dont Make Change
JT Brown on contemporary Japan
to make some easy money? I know a foolproof way. First, you need
some fools. Heres how it goes: Too many times over the last
decade or so, financial experts from James K. Glassman (in the US,
hes guests on almost all news programs) to such multinational
money managing mavens as Morgan Stanley, or Lehman Brothers, have
exhorted investors to send their money to Japan.*1
Hmmm. Lets have a look at this. The Tokyo Stock Exchanges
Nikkei 225 average finished off the 1980s at 38,915 on December
29, 1989. Its been a rollercoaster ride, but as of this writing
the Nikkei stands at a remarkable 10,475 (Sept 22nd)
Prime Minister Koizumi bent on change in Japan?
a depreciation of close to three quarters in value. Yep. And those believing
investors who have thrown their good money in after the bad over the
past decade plus, have lost more and more of their principal as the
Japanese markets have continued their plummet.
BUT, if every time the clarion call announcing "now is the time
to get into the Japanese market" had sounded, you had actually
shorted those highly touted recommendations, just fantasize about how
and where you might now be spending your early retirement. Bill Gates
would be doing your gate duty. Warren Buffett would be buffing your
So thats it. In a nutshell, bet against the conventional
wisdom and get rich on Japan. Its not to late, either. The
Nikkei recently had a little tease of a run-up; people banking on recovery
in the US leading to recovery here. Only a few months ago the Nikkei
was as low as 7603. The above reference to Morgan Stanley and Lehman
Brothers comes from just this month. Even as you read this, people are
sending in new money to Japan. Hurry! If they want to part with their
money so bad, you might as well help them out.
Facetiousness aside, bad financial advice can inflict pain on small,
unwitting investors. Pathologically bad investment direction can unlease
disaster on entire countries and regions, a la the Asian financial meltdown
of 1997. It is beyond me just how some people ever get to be regarded
as experts in the financial world.
Similarly, I have a beef with lazy and lousy reporting on Japan. As
I touched on in a dispatch this past summer, western reporters that
come to Japan, purport to inform their readers back home about this
country, but instead merely perpetuate myths and misunderstandings,
really bust my chopsticks. *2
Of course, almost everyone that passes through Japan, myself no exception,
cant seem to resist the temptation to deconstruct what they find
here. Some, myself an emphatic exception, also seek to mystify or uphold
the existing mystification of what they find. After all is said and
done, a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation about Japan gets
disseminated. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. I am most
definitely not one to censor any voice. But I do believe in challenging
wrong ideas with right ideas. And one persistently wrong idea out there,
in circulation for some time, I will now take on, along with all those
who misguidedly believe it.
further ado, Im talking about the notion that the Japanese
are changing. Supposedly, the younger Japanese generation
in particular has become liberated; we know this to be so because
now they dye their hair. Some kind of intergenerational dialectic
has taken place. The youth have thrown off their shackles. Creative
dynamism, blossoming individuality, and a changing of the guard
are all underfoot. All of this, to which I say, BUNK.
What we are really witnessing is just one manifestation of a society
that has lost its purpose and is becoming slovenly. Moreover, Japanese
society of last half a century had always been a bit overrated.
Yes, you just read that correctly.
intend to demonstrate these points and more. But before plunging into
all that, I wish to first explain that starting with this essay, and
continuing with the next few essays and reports I submit, I will directly
address the good, the bad, but foremostly, the relevant, of Japan, going
I say directly, because I actually had been working piecemeal
on this project all along. But recent discussions I have had, along
with events in my personal life, have convinced me that theres
no time like the present to produce a concise series of essays for all
see and ruminate. I hereby humbly entitle this endeavor,
JTs Unified Theory of Japans Place
in the Cosmos.
Japan and N Korea still friends?
say the relevant, because it has always been my goal
to stick to writing about that which is useful: to provide even
someone who never has, nor ever will, set foot in Japan -someone
who at best has no more interest in Japan than he or she has in,
say, Spain, or perhaps the Czech Republic - with information and
accounts of this country that at least are fascinating, but preferably
relevant to his or her own world. To the world we share
around us. Just to recall two examples, in March, when certain voices
started to call for the nuclear arming of Japan to counter the growing
nuclear threat from North Korea, I did an exposé on Japans
civilian nuclear power industry, arguing that entrusting Japan with
nuclear weapons was a bad idea. In June, I passed along my firsthand
observations on how Japan handles public daycare very well, and
that many other countries, most notably mine the US, could
definitely learn by example.
have much use for Japan-bashing; its not very helpful. The
Japanese usually outwait their foreign critics attention span
anyway. Ultimately, its the Japanese themselves who have to decide
what kind of society they want. Theyve played a mercantilistic
game for decades, and now the chickens are coming home to roost in the
form of a inflexible, moribund economy and nation. Most of the time,
people DO get the government and society they deserve. If the Japanese
dont want to make the effort to reform, thats really up
But how Japan acts when it engages with the rest of the world most definitely
is the rest of the worlds business. So broadly speaking, what
Japan is thinking and where Japan is going, is relevant to all of us.
In describing that which I see, I will not pull punches. I will call
it as I see it. Thats not Japan-bashing. Thats saving
unwitting investors from bad advice.
Now then, I was
calling Japan slovenly and overrated. Also,
I carded those who would label this country as a changing
nation. If not a red card, a yellow card at least is deserved. Because
compared with the rest of the advanced world, Japan stands still. Maybe
the Japanese arent quite a tribe of rain forest Indians just waiting
around to become extinct. But lets put things in proper perspective.
Wherever it is that you sit as you read this, look around and think
about just how much has changed over the last ten years -in how we work,
play, and interact -both with friends, and with strangers, from all
around the world. Hackwriters.com is an excellent example. Ten years
ago, I, for one, did not yet even have a personal computer. Let alone
did I ever dream that one day I would be published electronically for
anyone, anywhere on the planet, to be able to read.
For better or worse, the last decade in the West has been blur of transformation.
Ours has rapidly become a world of discount mega-stores, Amazon.com,
the latest in Hollywood special effects that improve with the season,
health care professionals that speak to us with foreign accents, and
little pills that cure erectile dysfunction.
The time compression taking place is amazing. Take the often
discussed news cycle. Its down to 24 hours or less. Anybody can
now find out the latest from the war zone, the stock market, or the
Ben & Jen split just as soon as it happens. Product life? DVDs
are killing off videos. Music downloads are doing the same to CDs.
Soon, Windows 98 will be relegated to the dust bin of history, along
side Windows 95 and DOS (for those of you who even remember DOS and
its command prompts, still in use in the early 90s). And how many
of you out there have either lost or voluntarily changed your career
in the last few years? Ive changed mine. I bet a lot of Hacks
readers (and writers) have.
Some resist it, some lament it, but change is a way of life in the west.
And by in large we handle it well. We prefer to be in charge of our
own destiny, as opposed to allowing destiny to be in charge of us.
But not in Japan.
Here, people and life muddle along. When I think back to the Japan I
saw when I first came here in 1985, the only changes that I do in fact
now notice are largely those that have occurred in spite of or
sometimes DUE TO- Japanese inaction. Im talking about the tumbling
of prices here which is caused by the bad economy. That, and globalization.
Globalization, of course, marches on, with or without Japan on board.
The are a handful of other differences between 1985 and now. One might
be the increase in leisure time. But that too, is just a function of
the slowing economy.
As for other indications of change, yes, the Japanese, say, have DVD
players too. They may even say "Sanyo" on them. But the technology
and all the energy for change is coming from the west. Japan just belatedly
follows. A strategy that was good in the 1960s, perhaps. But its
woefully passe and inadequate in the era of internet time.
And those Sanyo DVD players arent even made in Japan anymore.
Theyre made in Malaysia or China.
Nothing though, could better epitomize the malaise, the lost ground,
and the creeping slovenliness of Japan, than the "changes"
seen in Japanese youth.
Im no enemy of Japans generation Y and their
dyed hair the latter just a rite, and right, of passage shared
with teens everywhere. I happen to believe, as a matter of fact,
that this generation of Japanese youth has been screwed over. Screwed
over by their parents generation, the luckiest, richest, most
spoiled and self-indulgent generation in history.
The parents of todays
Japanese teenagers, Japans baby boomers, have never known war,
poverty, want, uncertainty about their future or their self-worth. They
grew up in go-go years when the escalator was lifting everybody. Tomorrow
would always be better than today, there was a place for everyone, and
their own parents took care of everything for them.
The outside view that workaday world in Japan was a high-stress, strenuous
hell was baloney (another example of lousy reporting). You talk to salarymen
who lived through those times they loved it. They had structure
and meaning to their lives. They could palpably see the fruits of their
work as every company and every employee in Japan was always being lifted
by that escalator. Japan always led the world with the highest life
expectancy rates coupled with very low suicide rates. (Now, however,
it is with the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world that
Japan leads. *3)
Generation Y has also been coddled with everything and has never known
hardship. But neither have they known discipline. Nor have they been
given much direction, or any kind of nurturing. Their parents at least
grew up with goals for the future and a sense that society needed them.
Generation Y has been fobbed off with money and material things, but
no attention from their self-absorbed, spoiled parents. Fathers that
are never home, mothers that nag but dont really communicate or
And that escalator is now out of order. Companies arent hiring
in Japan, as not only is the economy broken, but Japanese industry is
being hollowed out and transplanted to China. To hold on to power by
prolonging the status quo for as long as possible, Japans present
generation of leadership has mortgaged Gen Ys future by building
up massive debt, both public and private, unequaled anywhere in the
world. The Japanese financial system is a house of cards that conceivably
could implode on a scale that would make Argentinas collapse look
like just a little scar left over from an old pimple.
The youth of todays Japan face a very uncertain future, and one
for which they havent been prepared.
So what has Gen Y done? Theyve gone delinquent. There are three
particular symtoms of the problems associated with Japanese youth which
I will delve into more deeply in following essays. But to enumerate
them now, they are: 1) the birth of a sub-generation that wont
work or go to school -dubbed parasite singles by the Japanese
media, 2) the dramatic rise in the crime rate driven by youths, and
3) the incredible-to-believe phenomenon of legions of high school and
junior high school girls becoming amateur prostitutes to fuel their
This emergence of middle-class girls who already have everything but
sleep with strangers so they can get the very latest Chanel handbag
that all the rest of their friends have, I suppose counts as change
in Japan. But its hardly the change that Japan needs to be confronting.
(See enjo kosai)
Change can be exciting and can be emancipating. At the same time it
can be intimidating and unwanted. It takes an effort accept change.
It takes a flexibility of mind to embrace and prosper in harmony with
change. Japan, the supposed culture of harmony, the nation of flexibility,
in reality is neither. Dont let people kid you. Japan is too busy
disintegrating and ducking serious change, to be going anywhere for
some time to come.
© J T Brown
September 23rd, 2003
(As promised, a further discussion of the issues raised above will follow
in upcoming essays. Please stay tuned. In addition, links to all previous
articles on Japan by JT Brown can be found at
See also Parasite
all rights reserved