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Monday, Feb. 27, 2006

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Of winter sports and economic fortunes: What's the connection?


The Winter Olympics were last held in Japan in 1998. The stage was Nagano, and on that stage, the Japanese athletes performed brilliantly. They won no less than five gold medals, one silver and four bronzes. Many of the winning athletes sported auburn, if not blonde-tinted hair. Some even went for eyebrows with faux tattoos painted over them. They looked carefree. They were skiing, skating, jumping and somersaulting for their own enjoyment. The pressure to win did not seem to bother them.

Fast forward to: this year's Olympic Games in Turin, where the Japanese athletes have performed miserably. Medals kept eluding them, apart from the one dazzling exception in the women's figure skating event. Disqualifications, tripping over themselves, last-minute illness: you name it, they went down with it. Their hair was no longer dyed brown or red, let alone blonde. Eyebrows were left untouched. The participants looked scared stiff. And they kept apologizing for not living up to expectations.

In 1998, when we excelled in winter sports, the economy was in the doldrums. Banks groaned under the weight of massive nonperforming loans. The Bank of Japan became quite alarmed at the severity of deflationary pressures and the fragility of the financial system. So much so that it adopted the zero-interest-rate policy the following year. In 2006, while we wallow in misery at our incompetence in the Olympics, the economy looks better than it has been for very many years. Corporate profits are booming. People are spending. Banks' nonperforming loans are history. The Bank of Japan is keen to end its quantitative easing policy and to allow interest rates to start moving normally again.

Thus, it is apparent that when we are economically distressed, we do well at sports. When our economic performance improves, we become terrible. Is this coincidence or is there a connection? It is difficult to say. No doubt one should not read too much into things like this.

Yet there is one more curious thing. When we were down there in the depth of deflation, people actually seemed to grow rather relaxed, somehow more at ease with themselves. There was talk of slow food and slow life. Haru-Urara, the perpetually losing racehorse became a national icon. Failure became respectable. People no longer felt driven. The creative arts became more interesting.

Now however, a lot of that more leisured pace of life seems to be disappearing. Speed is returning to Japanese life. People are bustling about again. They flock to the stock market. They are in pursuit of instant riches. Greed is becoming respectable. Failure is once again frowned upon. The pressure is on to outperform others. Life has become more competitive. Performance standards are driving people toward uniform behavior. Once more, people are beginning to look harassed and grim. A certain feel-good factor that had entered life in the days of a slower economy seems to be on the wane.

All this cannot be good for excelling at sports competitions. You need to be relaxed and able to enjoy yourself if you want to do well at such events. A regimented and driven mentality does not help you. So maybe there is a connection. Maybe people need a bit of failure to make them more self-confident and more originally minded.

It is obviously ludicrous to say we should go back down into the valleys of deflation in order to perform well in the Winter Olympics again. Still, it seems a pity to lose the sense of freedom people gained during the days of slow life. The greater tolerance that seemed to permeate Japanese society as everything slowed down was rather heartening. So what happens now? Somehow, one is a little frightened to think through the answers.

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


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