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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013

SUNDAY TIMEOUT

What Japan needs to do


By EDAN CORKILL and TOMOKO OTAKE
Staff writers

With its economy spluttering, large parts of its northeastern region still devastated by the effects of the mammoth Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 — and releases of radioactive materials that followed — its population shrinking and aging at unprecedented rates and its citizens despairing of dysfunctional politics, Japan's entry into a new Year of the Snake appears unlikely to yield much of the steady progress that these years traditionally herald.

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ILLUSTRATION BY IAN DODDS

Indeed, the country's myriad problems — including fundamental divisions over such crucial issues as energy, defense and trade policies — can appear so deep-seated as to make it difficult to know even how to begin to set things right. In an effort to cast some light into this darkness, The Japan Times has enlisted a range of especially talented individuals to respond to a simple question: What are the three most important things that Japan must do in 2013?

Comprising business people, artists, academics and politicians, our 10 respondents offer a stimulating and diverse array of suggestions to help this country reset its course for the better before 2014's Year of the Horse gallops in with all its supposed symbolism of nobility, class, speed and perseverance ...

Yoshiharu Fukuhara

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Yoshiharu Fukuhara

A grandson of Arinobu Fukuhara, who founded today's Shiseido Co. Ltd. as Shiseido Pharmacy in 1872, Yoshiharu Fukuhara devoted his career to the family firm, leading it for more than a decade through 2001 and overseeing its rise to become one of the world's largest cosmetics companies. Long active as an advocate for cultural policy reform, he has been Director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography since 2000.

Once again this year, Japan — particularly in the fields of politics and the economy — will probably remain more or less at a standstill. But we can't just complain and hold our heads low; we must think deeply about the kind of country we want to leave for the next generation and act positively to create that. To do that, we should:

1) Develop the ability to see the unseeable: We can't just rush to embrace whatever simplistic buzzwords politicians and the media throw at us. We must voice our responses to them clearly — yes or no — and, in addition, we must develop the ability to see the truth that lies hidden behind the data we are shown. The key lies in improving education, in a broad sense.

2) Value diversity: In the name of specialization, modern life has tended to divide human beings into narrow categories. But the fact is that there is no such thing as an economics person, a cultural person or a consumer; each person not only works, but makes, consumes and plays. We have to think about the world as we would about individuals — with myriad components.

3) Reappraise the world along the often undervalued axis of culture: Culture is something that is born from humans' desire to live a better life. If each and every one of us creates his or her own idea of richness, and expresses that to the world in their own way, then it will contribute to Japan's strength as a nation, and we will be able to create a country that has a clear role — and a clear value in and to the world.

Noriko Hama

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Noriko Hama

An economics professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business in Kyoto, Noriko Hama is also a Japan Times columnist.

I believe that the three things Japan should do in 2013 are raise wages, raise interest rates — and cut the crap.

The deflationary spiral refuses to budge because people's wages do not go up. People whose earnings are stagnating are justifiably cautious about spending. To the extent that people remain cautious about spending, domestic demand in Japan will never reach levels satisfactory enough to make the economy go round in an acceptable way.

The same goes for interest rates. A zero rate of interest may be a blessing to borrowers, but it is anathema to people who depend on income from their assets for a living. Retired senior citizens who looked forward to a leisurely life on the strength of such income have had their hopes shattered. You cannot bully people into spending their money when they have much less of it at their disposal than they had assumed would be the case.

The crap that needs cutting is the notion that growth is the cure-all and rising prices would resolve all our problems.

Growth is, of course, nice when you can get it. But if you are a fully grown being it is only logical to assume that you will not be doing that much growing anymore. Indeed, if wages and interest rates are allowed to go up and people's spending levels also go up accordingly, that may result in a reasonable rate of overall economic growth after all. It will be nothing spectacular, but it doesn't need to be in a mature economy such as ours.

As for prices, the worst possible situation is one in which prices go up but wages do not. That could indeed be the straw that breaks the camel's back — even the back of such a very large camel as the Japanese economy.

Yusuke Iseya

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Yusuke Iseya ©KAZUMI KURIGAMI

Yusuke Iseya is a popular actor, with film credits that include "Sukiyaki Western Django" (2007) and "Thirteen Assassins" (2010). He also founded, and currently directs, the Rebirth Project, a grassroots project for recycling.

1) Have an appreciation of the long-term changes affecting mankind and the environment. The first step would be for people who are alive today to reappraise their way of life. That is essential for sustainable life on this planet.

2) Understand and actually formulate and act on proposals to implement a new kind of Internet-enabled democracy — so-called Crowd Government, or Gov 2.0.

Whether at the level of nation states or individuals, problems can be understood and shared through their presentation on the Internet. Through online discourse, people are able to become conscious of problems as being their own, and thus be more inclined to actually find solutions. That process itself will lead to their own personal maturing. Too often, Japanese people view the future as something that someone else will determine. However, it is something one must create oneself.

3) Understand "education" for what it really is: the way to make the future. The thoughts and actions of adults, and way that those are passed on to children — this is the process by which the future is made.

Toyo Ito

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Toyo Ito

Toyo Ito is one of Japan's best-known contemporary architects. His buildings include the Sendai Mediatheque in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture (2001), the Italian luxury footwear retailer TOD's Omotesando Building in Tokyo (2004) and the 55,000- capacity, multipurpose National Stadium in Kaohsiung, southwestern Taiwan (2009).

1) Reconstruction planning that is genuinely suited to local conditions: At present, reconstruction efforts in areas of the Tohoku region affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011 are being led by the central bureaucracy, and they are being applied across the board without regard to local conditions. A new approach should be adopted immediately — one that takes into account the unique history and culture of that region and that is led by the residents themselves. If we don't move now on this, the towns there will come to resemble the kind of bland urban sprawl that currently surrounds Japan's large cities. This should not be seen as an opportunity to "modernize" the area. In Japan's rush to "modernize" after the war, that part of the country was left behind, and for this very reason it now has the potential to become a model for the kind of society and environment that should come next.

2) Shift to a kind of lifestyle that is open to nature: There is much in the lifestyle of those people from the northeast — their relationship with nature, the importance they place on social communication — that those in Japan's lonely cities can learn from. In the cities, people are severed entirely from the natural environment; their homogenous, artificial surroundings make them lose their innate animal sensibilities. By restoring the kind of lifestyle that Japanese people used to have — a lifestyle that was open to nature — the nation's people and towns could become greatly enlivened.

3) Create a uniquely Japanese model of an energy-efficient society: The kind of lifestyle suggested above will also make possible the development of a uniquely Japanese energy-efficient society. The Western model of closing a building off from the natural environment and trying to improve thermal insulation is ultimately incompatible with the traditional Japanese relationship with nature. Now is the time to reconsider the modernization carried out in the 20th century — when we simply imported Western culture wholesale — and instead create a lifestyle model that adopts instead of denies Japan's traditional culture.

Lin Kobayashi

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Lin Kobayashi

A former student at a Canadian boarding high school, and graduate of both the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California, Lin Kobayashi is now Executive Director, Foundation for International School of Asia, Karuizawa, which is set to open in 2014 in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, as Japan's first residential international high school.

We're told that the population of Japan will decrease by about 30 million by 2050. For Japan to be able to sustain economic growth, the key task it faces is to improve its rate of workforce participation. To do that, I think three things are necessary: 1) Measures to stem the decline in the number of children being born; 2) Activation of women in the workforce; and 3) Immigration.

Addressing the decline in the number of children being born would be the most basic way to deal with the problem, but any improvement there will only have an impact on the working population in 20 years' time. I think what we have to do immediately is provide the female population with diverse work options, improve graduation rates across the board and positively accept, educate and enable the activation in the workplace of immigrants.

As a corollary to that, we have to create a society capable of accepting that diversity, and to do so we have to change education. At our school, which will provide education at the high school level, we will accept students with diverse backgrounds from around the world and, as a boarding school, we will nurture tolerance of diversity. It is just one small experiment, but hopefully we can be a catalyst for further change throughout the entire Japanese education system.

 
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