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Monday, July 3, 2006

Regaining the spirit to build


I had thought that Japan's Internet mogul Takafumi Horie, arrested Jan. 23 by public prosecutors for allegedly violating the securities and exchange law, was likely to be the last person to "pay the price" for the excesses associated with the nation's bubble economy from 1987 to 1990.

In my March 6 article, "A 'livable' society has rules," I wrote that I did feel a measure of sympathy for Livedoor Co.'s former president, who alone seemed to have been forced to take the blame for problems created by many potential wrongdoers.

Horie was not the last person to pay the price after all. In June, public prosecutors arrested Yoshiaki Murakami, the founder of a high-flying investment fund who had been considered a different breed of investor from Horie due to his elite background, including a stint as a career bureaucrat.

Ironically, Murakami was arrested on suspicion of insider trading on the basis of confessions made by Horie and his associates to prosecutors.

For a long time, Japanese have prided themselves on working by the sweat of their brow. Traditionally, they have valued manufacturing skills. Nonmanufacturing industry workers used to be despised as de facto "parasites" of the economy. The class system in the feudal Edo Period comprised samurai, farmers, artisans and tradesmen in that order, reflecting the Japanese emphasis on the art of doing something with one's hands.

At least through the mid-1980s, many high school students with excellent scholastic records went on to college to major in science and technology.

The 1968 Japanese movie "Kurobe no Taiyo (A Tunnel in the Sun)," costarring Toshiro Mifune and Yujiro Ishihara, depicted the real-life activities of civil engineers building a hydroelectric dam for Kansai Electric Power Co. on the upper reaches of the Kurobe River in central Japan. Those engineers were heroes engaged in dangerous work to build infrastructure for power generation that would benefit the public.

On the other hand, polite, suit-clad bank clerks deftly counting banknotes behind a counter appeared ugly to me. In Japan, money-related jobs were traditionally considered somewhat despicable.

Perceptions of jobs change with the times. Development of the postindustrial society in Japan made engineering jobs less attractive. Financial industry workers, clicking the screens of personal computers with a mouse to move large sums of money, earned more income and became more attractive than engineers.

For years, the number of applicants for science and technology majors at universities has been falling, while the number of science and technology graduates who shun manufacturing jobs has been steadily increasing.

The financial industry has been hiring more science and technology graduates and putting their skills to use in financial engineering, which is based on stochastic differential equations developed by people such as Kiyoshi Ito, professor emeritus at Kyoto University.

Horie, now 33, was in his late teens during the bubble economy while Murakami, now 47, was about 30. Most of their contemporaries are likely to have lost the old-fashioned value of working by the sweat of their brow and for the good of society. Many people now in their 30s and 40s have become slaves of Mammon, oblivious to the traditional diligence that made Japan affluent. A comment by Murakami at a news conference before his arrest is characteristic: "Is there anything wrong with making money?"

I became disgusted when a high school student acquaintance said: "I love science and technology, so I hope to major in that field. But I do want to be somebody like Mr. Murakami someday."

During the bubble economy, economics was the most popular major among university students. As the Heisei recession started, finding employment became increasingly difficult, so students increasingly turned to law because, by passing the bar examination, one could qualify to become a judge, public prosecutor or lawyer, and enjoy a lifetime of high income.

For several years before the arrests of Horie, Murakami and their associates, the "Roppongi Hills tribe," named after the Tokyo office-residential complex where they lived and worked, began to draw increasing media attention amid signs that economics was again becoming the preferred major for many students. As an anti-Mammonist, I deplored the trend, though I admit that students hoping to major in law or medicine also seek a high-income job in the future.

Murakami was widely hailed as a "genius of finance." In my opinion, no such genius exists. The world of financing is nothing more or less than casino capitalism in which luck and chances decide nearly everything.

It is a world where Max Weber's "Protestant ethics" -- true hard work, diligence and ability -- can never be rewarded. To produce high yields of 400 billion yen for his investors, Murakami had to resort to illegal insider trading, and this justifies my belief that there are no geniuses in financing.

I hope the series of financial scandals implicating Horie, Murakami and their ilk will provide a good opportunity to remove the negative legacies of the bubble economy. I also hope that young people who will become responsible for Japan's economic future will regain the traditional Japanese values of hard work, industriousness, seriousness and integrity -- and what Max Weber called the "spirit of capitalism."

Takamitsu Sawa, a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science, is a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.


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