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Monday, Sept. 6, 2004
By NORIKO HAMA
"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" (Jeremiah 8:22).
There was indeed quite a harvest for Japan this summer. For one, there were the Olympic Games, in which our crop of medals surpassed all expectations. Over and beyond the boost to the national ego the Olympics provided, it gave a boost to the national economy as well, by making people rush to the shops in search of the latest thing in flat-screen TVs.
And then there was the heat. At one point, recorded temperatures reached 40 degrees in the Kanto area. This translates into 104 degrees F -- not quite Fahrenheit 911, but high enough for beer sales to soar beyond the brewers' wildest hopes.
But that summer has now come to an end, and the question we must ask is whether we have been saved in the process.
The Bible says not, and obviously there is no arguing with biblical judgment. And indeed, it is not as if any of the problems the Japanese economy was laboring under before the summer have been resolved. They are all still there: We have the same pension problems, the same fears of prospective population decline, our economic recovery is still critically at the mercy of developments in China and the United States, the Bank of Japan is still seeking a way out of its zero-interest-rate policy, and the megabanks are still at each other's throats concerning who buys into whom and at what terms. We still do not know when -- or even if -- deflation is going to end. And of course, we still have the same politicians in place.
"But thy eternal summer shall not fade" (William Shakespeare, sonnet 18).
Comforting thoughts from the Bard. Would that they rang as true as those of the great prophet. But alas, a frank assessment of our current condition tends to suggest that the Bard's thoughts are not so much comforting as they are wishful. The very abrupt decline in our GDP growth rate points to our summer being far from eternal. In fact, it looks as though it is fading rather rapidly.
"Autumn arrives in the early morning. . ." (Elizabeth Bowen, "Death of the Heart," Part 2, Chapter 2).
Now this is most certainly true. As a person who commutes regularly between Tokyo and Kyoto, starting out from home at the most ridiculously early hours of the morning, I am already keenly aware of how much more slowly dawn breaks these days compared with just a couple of weeks ago. Is the early arrival of an economic autumn also in the offing? That could well be. Much depends on how much we can feed off the strength of the current Made in China recovery in a dynamic way.
Depending on how well we handle things and how flexible and imaginative Japanese economic management can become, it could well turn out that "there is a harmony in autumn, and a lustre in its sky, which through the summer is not heard or seen. . ." (Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"). That would be nice. But nice things are not easily attained. If in the afterglow of the summer just ended, we forget about the autumnal shades of darkness in the economic air, we would be in for trouble.
It is to be hoped that we don't end up having to cry out: "People who don't notice whether it's summer or winter are lucky!" (Anton Chekhov, "The Three Sisters," Act 4).
Hopefully, we will become the kind of people who can say with confidence: "How well I know what I mean to do, when the long dark autumn evenings come." (Robert Browning, "By the Fireside" St. 2 ) But who knows?
Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.