[Kyoto] – Frustrated by a system that has trapped them in decades of low to no growth, an entirely new generation of Japanese may be working with the most precious of all resources – hope. They’re taking matters into their own hands and going around the traditional Japanese way of doing things.That’s good.
The so-called “Lost Decade” is now entering its 3rd lost decade following 8-10 separate bailout failures, depending on how you count the various initiatives over the years. Growth remains a paralyzed version of its former self with the nation’s GDP roughly the size it was in 1990.
Worse, many Japanese companies like Panasonic (NYSE:PC) and Sony (NYSE:SNE), once at the vanguard of innovation, now find themselves scrambling to keep up with clever rivals who have taken the lead and who now threaten to push them out of the global industries they once dominated for good.
Combined public, private and corporate debt now approaches 500% of GDP.
Roughly 35% of the working population here remains trapped in arubaito, or part- time work. That’s a far cry from the vision of lifetime employment that once dominated the corporate landscape.
Some, like Tadashi Yanai, who founded and heads the Japanese brand Uniqlo (pronounced yu-ni-klo), are deemed “young thinkers” bent on change through the sheer force of will and the economic means to bring it about. Yanai is actually 63 years old.
Speaking Truth to Power
Others are truly young, like Osaka’s controversial mayor, Toru Hashimoto. At 43, he’s as frank as they come in the staid world of Japanese politics where change is nearly impossible to come by.
To give you an example of what I am talking about, consider Hashimoto’s recent observation that the Japanese political system is “crap.” Not “difficult,” not “worth consideration,” not deserving of “careful thought,” as would be the traditional ways the hyper- polite Japanese have expressed their opinions — but “crap” as in the four- letter variety.
When I first came to Japan in the late 1980s, such remarks would be unthinkable and the person who made them immediately banished to the fringes of Japanese society. Yet, Hashimoto is the mayor of Japan’s third largest city. That, too, would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
What’s more, he’s gathering allies like Tokyo Mayor Ishihara Shintaro, who stunned Japan a few days ago by resigning immediately to form a new “true conservative” political party in the interest of reformation in the upcoming December elections.
The firebrand Ishihara wants to ally with Hashimoto and another maverick named Watanabe Yoshimi, who heads “Your Party.”
If you’re tempted to frame this in terms of Western political elections, which require years of lead up and campaigning, don’t. This is a very serious development and presents a real challenge to the status quo.
Imagine, for example, the Tea Party suddenly having one-third or more of the U.S. Electoral College votes two months before the presidential elections. That would truly be a game changer.
Or Ross Perot in his heyday teaming up with Ron Paul to play “outside the rules” by presenting a unified plan for smaller, decentralized government, fiscal responsibility, and newly revised international policies…and having a huge swath of the American voters immediately line up with them, leaving the Democrats and Republicans on the sidelines.
Here in Japan, third- party players can do something the long- dominant Liberal Democratic Party can’t — actually speak in clear, well-articulated terms. Effectively, they play the role of spoiler by forcing the major parties to come to them on their terms and prompt action for the same reason.
Like our own, traditional Japanese politicians are trapped in a morass of ineffective politics bent on ensuring survival rather than the benefit of its citizens.
If Hashimoto, Ishihara and Watanabe can reach an agreement, there could be a sea change here come December with newly localized policies, changes in centralized spending, reduced central government,and foreign policies that are probably very independent of the United States.
Hope and Change in Japan
Japanese of all ages I have talked with recently in my neighborhood sense that change won’t be immediate. But they are very excited by the fact that things have gotten so bad that there is actually change itself.
Younger Japanese like my niece, Natsuko, are willing to buck the system that would otherwise trap them were things not so challenging by pursuing careers with a decidedly international focus.
Today, there are tech incubators blossoming and the once overwhelming stigma of failure is falling by the wayside. My friends Masao and Hiro have both left traditional corporate Japan and are risking it all with their own ventures.
Independent thinking is being encouraged , even if only begrudgingly at the moment. Nails that stick up are no longer hammered down, to paraphrase a traditional Japanese saying that highlights the historical need to be like-minded.
Older executives like Yoshichika Teresawa, who recently retired from JETRO, Japan’s external trade resource organization, are seeing a new wave of entrepreneurship take hold outside Japan’s traditional corporate structure. He’s cautiously optimistic that the “young people” will be able to make change where “we couldn’t” politically.
I asked him what he meant by that, to which he replied, the “serious economic conditions we have lived with since the 1990s may finally be forcing change not only in the business community, but in the Japanese mind and political process, too.”
And what does he think about Hashimoto’s assessment that Japanese politics are “crap.” Ever the gentleman, he looked at me with a wry smile and added, “not unlike the United States, eh?”
Then he added, “Okashi-hito ni narimasu“ (meaning roughly, we Japanese need to become “strange” by embracing new thought and discarding the previously staid old practices that haven’t worked).
Indeed. Some things don’t need translation.