Japan - So Many Nuggets10 Jan 2020
I spent a bit of the holiday season in Japan visiting friends and riding the Shinkansen (bullet train). There is a lot to like. From clean, sprawling, dense, and affordable cites, to strangers offering to help an oftentimes extremely lost Gaijin (foreigner).
Yet, I leave the Land of the Rising Sun with more conflicted thoughts than I have for my own home. Things are so familiar and so different. There is so much peace and so much chaos. There is so much hope and so much despair.
I am also accumulating quotes about things far faster than I am writing about them so I thought I’d grab ones about Japan and smoosh them all together in the hope I can simulate the same conflict I feel as I depart.
The Economist recently published a special on housing in the west. One of the articles details how housing policies have increasingly caused wealth to be transferred from the poor, young, and members of ethnic minorities to those who are richer, older, and in the ethnic majority but calls out Japan for largely escaping this trap.
In Japan, zoning limitations (height, “setbacks” from other properties, density, etc) are much less restrictive than in the United States and other Western nations. Building projects (often at a massive scale) continue with limited challenge1, and though Japanese culture is generally more communitarian which probably explains some of the permissiveness, Japan also lacks the explosive growth in property values see in centers of the West’s housing crisis such as the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Nikkei closed 2019 at 23,566.72, ~40% below 1989’s all-time high. It has been 31 years since 1989.
Japanese equities often swing wildly from year to year. This is surprising given that Japan is the world’s third largest economy (and second largest stock market), the index is dominated by large multinationals who don’t seem to be facing much local disruption, and the country has a strong institutions, rule of law, and general stability.
|Percent Change in Index
The government has tried many things to encourage the economy to grow, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” efforts with quantitative easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms to make the country more competitive abroad have been a key push that started in 2012.
Capital staying within a large developed economy makes plenty of sense but Japan still exports a far greater share of its goods than the United States2 and has remained consistently competitive in the automotive, electronics, electrical machinery, and medical device spaces.
Japan builds particularly good cars, and the gap between Japan and the rest of the world was even wider in the 80s. Things were so bad at GM’s Fremont plant they shut it down until they started working with Toyota on their “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc” (NUMMI) joint venture.3
With relations between labor and management portrayed so positively, I wasn’t super surprised to hear that in the 50 years of the Shinkansen bullet train’s operation, none of the network’s 10+ billion passengers have died in a train accident. All of this in a system whose average delay was 0.9 minutes which include delays caused by the earthquakes and typhoons which often strike Japan. While the dueling mandate of safety and punctuality hasn’t resulted in a tragedy on the Shinkansen, a speed related derailment of a commuter line outside of Osaka in 2005 brought scrutiny to the punctuality standards enforced upon train drivers.
A similar severity is brought in the criminal justice system. After the 1995 sarin-gassing of the Tokyo Subway by a doomsday cult, the response was more severe than the United States’ response to the Boston Marathon Bombing 18 years later.
At the same time, institutions like the police are almost always remarkably personable in everyday interactions.
Wherever I travel somewhere, I ask myself if I would live there, and if I would raise children there.4 Here too I struggle to make a decision. One of my favorite bloggers — Patrick McKenzie — lives in Japan and offers this anecdote:
There are so many things I like about Japan. The streets are clean and safe, public transit is often faster than a car, employees take pride in their work and are extremely helpful. At the same time, I struggle to think about what it would mean to live in an economy that doesn’t really grow, and with a social structure much more rigid than the one I am used to.
Since I am still young and trying to grow and learn as much as possible, I worry how these things might change and limit me. But, as a place to live with a family unit — especially with young children - I think Japan offers most of the world stiff competition.
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2: 16.1% vs 11.9% — though both are far below the world average of 28.5%
3: (This American Life)[https://www.thisamericanlife.org/403/nummi-2010] did a story about the plant when it was closed in 2010. It later sold to Tesla — becoming that company’s first factory.
4: I ignore a good deal of practical things (language, proximity to family, mostly what I would do for work) and be somewhat flexible with my (Western) values when I think about this. I try to make asking myself if I would live somewhere a more micro than macro question about the livability of a place and the way I feel about it. Asking yourself if you’d raise kids somewhere is much more of a macro and culture question since environment will define a big part of who a kid becomes (though I’d also assume they would be in an international school…)
This is honestly just more quotes about Japan with some interjected thoughts that has less flow than above :/
Everyone loves cross laminated timber!
It has been interesting to contrast Japan with much more familiar Germany. Japanese War Crimes during the Second World War were exhaustive and the country has responded very differently from Germany and continues to be a sore point with its neighbors.
Denial and revisionist accounts of the Nanjing Massacre where 50,000 to 300,000 people were murdered by Japanese troops at the start of the Second World War is a “staple of Japanese Nationalism.” The Chinese took to calling their invaders “Japanese Devils” during the war and the phrase seems to still see occational use.
Similar issues with Korea where Japan ruled from effectively 1895 when assassins snuck into the palace, killed the empress and burned her body.
In 2017, Japan recalled its ambassador from South Korea in protest of a statue to honor the “comfort women” sex slaves taken by the Japanese army across from the embassy. Tensions have even run high in the United States when San Francisco approved a statue of a comfort woman and the mayor of Osaka (Japan’s second largest city) threatened to dissolve the “sister city” relationship the two cities had shared for over 50 years. Unfortunately it does’t seem like this will be figured out anytime soon.
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