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Monday, April 18, 2005

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Of mobile landings and staircases: Japan in the global school of wizardry


"Poised on the landing" is the way people have taken to talking about the Japanese economy lately. The English-language way of referring to the same thing is to call it "going through a soft patch."

The landing metaphor is altogether more elegant. It is also more accurate. For the expression "going through a soft patch" presupposes there is firmer ground farther up ahead. The idea is that things may be going slightly wrong at the moment, but they are bound to get better once the temporary hitch is out of the way.

Not so with a landing on a flight of stairs. You can be poised on a landing just as much on your way down, as when you are climbing your way up.

Moreover, as any diligent follower of the Harry Potter saga will know only too well, things become even more complicated if those landings and staircases happen to be in a school of magic.

In the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to which Harry Potter belongs, stairs and landings tend to shift positions from day to day. The landing you are poised on may actually connect to a flight of stairs that lead in a totally alien direction, both up as well as down, from that you had assumed would lie ahead.

The global school of econo-political magic and sorcery seems to present much the same sort of problem. You never know when those landings and staircases are going to shift positions.

The Japanese economy may or may not have made it out of the deflationary quagmire. The United States may or may not be on the verge of an inflationary outbreak. The Americans and the Europeans may or may not have patched up their differences over foreign policy. And just when Asia looked as though it was about to take some decisive steps forward toward greater integration, anti-Japanese sentiment flares up among the Chinese and the South Koreans.

The foreign-exchange market seems somewhat comatose of late, but you never know when a rude awakening will hit it once more.

To compound the uncertainty, there has been yet another Hogwartian twist in the current state of global affairs. It is that you need a password to get through the door at the top of those ever-mobile landings and staircases.

Utter the wrong words, and you will not get through. More frighteningly, you will go through the wrong door to a place you do not want to get to. Demand a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council for no apparent reason and no convincing legitimacy, and you walk into a minefield of anger and resentment. You would deserve no better.

Once upon a time stairs and landings were immobile fixtures, and you needed no such thing as a password to proceed to the next stage in the world's affairs. But in a global world where no one nation or economy can claim single-handed leadership, everything is as mobile as it is elusive. All the more reason to be alert, sensitive and responsive to whatever magical shifts that may occur in the stair and landing configuration.

Regrettably, Japan's recent handling of its affairs, both political as well as economic, have been none of the above. We remain marooned on the mysterious landing, devoid of any foresight regarding the flight of stairs to which we are about to be connected.

The hope is that we won't say the wrong thing and go through the wrong door. The one leading toward further antagonism of our important Asian neighbors, for instance. It is a dangerous landing on which we are poised at the moment.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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