Wednesday, January 11, 2012

If this is failure, more of us ought to fail

About a year ago, I wrote about how sources outside Japan describing a country in decline clash jarringly with the reality of life in the country. Writing about this myth is becoming more prevalent, in part because Americans are fearful of a "lost decade" of minimal economic growth of their own, and partly because people with knowledge of the situation are eager to tell the truth. I find the story interesting because it shows that it's possible for us to live well and prove it in ways that aren't growth in GDP.

The reason is very simple: what if life is just good? Expecting the good life and happiness to come from growth, and to refer to the absence of growth as decline or stagnation, is to hold that life isn't all that great right now. Naturally, we want the economy to grow since populations almost invariably grow, but if you were living well five years ago, you're probably living well right now if everything has stayed the same, and in Japan it has stayed the same at the very least.

Eamonn Fingleton moved to Tokyo a quarter century ago, but anyone who spends even an hour in central Tokyo or Osaka could figure out that Japan isn't exactly a country you need to pity. Fingleton in fact goes on to write: "In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story."

Life in Japan is not only great, but it has improved since before the stock market crash of the early '90s. However, Fingleton asks, "how do you express this in G.D.P. terms?" He gives countless examples, of which the most interesting are:

- From 1989 to 2009, despite a worsening diet, Japan's life expectancy improved by 4.2 years.

- Of the 50 cities in the world with the fastest Internet, 38 are in Japan. The fastest Internet service in the world is apparently in Daegu.

- Tokyo has 16 fancy restaurants according to the Michelin Guide compared to 10 for Paris.

- Cell phones, infrastructure, and fashion also show Japan doing as well as anywhere else in the world.

- Even the idea of Japan's stagnant growth is not entirely true. Japan's GDP per capita grew at just 1 percent annually in the last two decades, but then, America grew at about 1.4%.

All this points to the limitations of GDP as an indicator of well-being. It's a good indicator, to be sure, as any American could have told you when the economy was shrinking, but there's a lot more to living well than just money. What that actually entails can often be nebulous, but thinking about the answer is a good start in and of itself.

Japan is not without its problems. It has a horrendously inefficient political system that in many ways does not deserve to be called a democracy, but then, we could say that about America, Korea and many if not most other democracies. It is something of a odd-man out when considering technology, with a great deal of triplicate paperwork and stamping going on. None of this, of course, even mentions the favourite by-the-numbers issue of outsiders, the low birth rate.

All in all, if you were going to choose to live in a developed country, you could do far worse than Japan. It's clean, the streets are safe, the landscape is beautiful, and the cities are exciting and vibrant. Going to Japan would certainly disabuse anyone from writing the sort of depressing article I see constantly in the press, so I wonder if many of the people who write about Japan in English have ever actually been there. For those who live there, well, anybody can sound depressed about the place where they live.

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