Jan 24Liked by Noah Smith

I don't understand how you can be a correspondent somewhere without learning the language, it's like trying to be a sports commentator with a blindfold on. Yes I'm sure you can manage it with other people's help but surely you'd prefer someone who can see the field?

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Jan 24Liked by Noah Smith

"I admit that part of my determination to rebut charges of Japanese stasis is just personal pique — irritation at the cliched cultural essentialism that still defines Japan in the minds of too many Westerners."

As a person who spent the entirety of my career living in other countries on three continents, I deeply relate to this pique. Which isn't just reserved for the non-Western countries, btw: I have lived in Sweden for five years now. What other European country (besides maybe the UK and France) lives rent-free in the minds of American commentators, as an ever-useful foil for anything you wish to celebrate or criticize at home! The COVID period has been a whipsaw of Sweden essentialism, ironically swinging from stereotypes of Nanny State Socialism to Free Capitalist Individualism. As with Japan, fans and critics alike are basing their impressions on (then equally stereotypical) views of the country from a generation ago. And even when those commentators have more direct experience from traveling to or living here, it's bizarre how much that second-hand first impression overshadows the reality before your lying eyes! Sweden must continue to exist as a contingent entity for the purposes of Anglophere argumentation.

Is this a limitation in the medium of essay-writing and dispatches, which forces the author to give pithy takeaways and to collapse complex societies into simple parables? Even saying things like "Japan is good/bad at X" is fraught with ontological and epistemological peril, since to form that narrative we're generally universalizing an anecdote or some striking data to be representative to the experience of a population of 125 million people with significant variance among sub-samples and places. But then what's the alternative? Writing some drab, over-qualified paragraphs where the takeaway is "Well, it depends..."?

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As someone who lived in Japan from 2017-2022, I think the truth lies somewhere between Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and Noah Smith. Noah seems more than picqued, down right irritated with the BBC article and he throws a veritable barrage of statistics to show that Wingfield-Hayes was wrong. Both articles contribute to the truth.

I think that the economic statistics by themselves as provided by Noah do not reflect the nuance of Japan, for example female participation is usually in part time and lower salaried jobs, not those of the professions. The landscaping which he mentions as something Japan is successful at, is a matter of conjecture. With the exception of one major river, all the rivers in Japan have had concrete modifications at some point, likewise, there are a handful of natural beaches that do not have concrete in place somewhere, whether the infamous tetrapods, or some harbour for a half a dozen fishing boats in the middle of nowhere. The reality is that much of this concrete is pork barrel politics by the LDP and worryingly they are running out of things to concrete. Nature however, is something to be feared in Japan and therefore shaped, even controlled (and an understandable fear given the earthquakes, typhoons, etc he country experiences), however I don't think Japan has any great claim to landscaping. If you were to say something about the landscaping it would be an incredible attention to detail, with pruning within a millimetre of a plants life, what you are left with though is nothing natural. Plants and trees are shaped, just as Japanese culture shapes the people.

Likewise the building code is regularly updated to take into account earthquake proofing of building, however this is arguably as much about supporting the building industry and drives the incessant demand for building. What Noah misses is that because houses do not retain value, because it is difficult to own land on which to build, investment in insulation, advanced building techniques is very low. Passivehaus is almost unknown. Why invest in insulation and new building techniques when you will probably knock the house down in 40-50 years, much easier to shove in more air con! Don't get me wrong, I think the West obsession with housing values is a disaster, but I don't think it is as simple as Noah put.

Likewise the saving rates in Japan are admirable, in part though because of the provision in retirement. However, companies often do not return value to investors, they hoard cash, vast mountains of it much to the annoyance of the Japanese Government. Most investments are in the Japanese Post Office paying almost zero percent interest but allowing the Japanese Government to run massive deficits year after year. So Noah is statistically right about investment, but arguably wrong about the outcomes.

As for immigration, I would agree it has developed, you can see it in the staff just on a high street, however Noah misses the point, that the 5 years immigration visa introduced particularly with South Asians in mind, is just that, come for 5 years and go home. There is a wider cultural issue with acceptance of immigration, something Wingfield-Hayes pointed out, in asking whether he could live in a village. At the moment it takes 10 years before you can apply for residency, far longer than say the UK. There is no green card lottery like in the US. Japan continues to struggle with immigration, even if statistically it is better. Both writers are correct. Japan knows it needs people, but fears dilution of Japan (which is ironic given how many traditions Japan has assimilated as its own - for evidence of that look at the food culture).

As for the baby issue, while Noah is again right (he's often right) about Japan not being as bad as Korea or China, I'm not sure what benefit that is. So all of East Asia faces a demographic bomb, but Japan's demographic bomb is marginally better than Korea, etc. There are some much more interesting statistics which raise worrying underlying cultural trends in Japan, such as the lack of interest in marriage, lack of sexual experiences in people under 40, preference for female companionship or playing video games. I'm not comparing with other countries, however, it is fascinating to see some of the social trends which seem resistant to what ever government throws at them. Wasn't it Peter Drucker who famously said: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast"? You could say culture eats statistics for breakfast as well - certainly in Japan culture is the over riding dominant factor and it is one which is endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult if you are a gaijin.

I thought both Rupert Wingfield-Hayes article and Noah's really interesting. I think both contribute to the debate, I enjoyed reading them. Both are also lessons in the perils of generalisations, and I'd end with - I think - a quote from Satre: "I dislike all generalisations, including this one".

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TBF, the US thinks of itself largely in terms of the mid-20th century, notably in the idea that the US is a generous donor of foreign aid, something that was only true in the years of the Marshall Plan. And the UK is stuck in about 1940.

Australia isn't immune: our current PM is nostalgic for the "Australia that made things", which has been gone for a long time.

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Jan 24Liked by Noah Smith

"microprocessors, smartphones, semiconductor foundries, battery-powered cars" is an interesting list - in phones they famously charted their own path but had some technologies (phone payments springs to mind) far earlier than in the west; the Prius was the first major hybrid; and I think semiconductors is a complex story to say the least.

But more widely, Japan has changed a lot over the last ~20 years. Tokyo is unrecognisable (and unnavigatable). Rural depopulation has gone from something worried about, to a crisis, to some signs of experimental alternatives. And to me the country as a whole feels much more international and internationally connected than ever.

One question: my memory is that my old economics tutor argued that Japan's growth rate on a per-working person basis was actually fine. Is that right?

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Jan 24Liked by Noah Smith

This piece is a great example of why I love your Substack. I would never think to read up on the finer points of Japanese housing and economic trends. Appreciate you bringing us an eclectic mix of subjects to read and learn about.

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Jan 24Liked by Noah Smith

Thank you for this post — which I want to re-read carefully. As someone with a ton of (admittedly Tokyo-centric) Japan experience — but all since 2010 — I found the framing and tone of RWH’s article disorienting to say the least. Fackler at the Times was often worse — he used to give the impression that he hadn’t enjoyed Japan since 1989…. Not that Japan doesn’t have a lot of issues!

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Both articles treat housing costs as if the building is all there's to it. But housing costs also include land. In popular locations, the land costs as much or more than the building. Buildings depreciate fast in Japan, but land usually remains valuable (except when some economic or natural catastrophe strikes). Paying for the land is a significant investment in Japan too -- hard for the young to afford and a nest egg for the old.

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Jan 25·edited Jan 25

Nice counterpoints to Rupert's entry, Noah. Every coin has two sides. But I am baffled by the various comments critiquing and criticizing Rupert's lack of Nihongo skills. To those comments, I ask: where does Rupert says he didn't learn or can't speak Japanese?

Noah's entry points to ONE short tweet where Rupert writes - in Japanese - that his Japanese is not very good (私は日本語がかなり下手です); that is a very Japanese-like way of showing humility over one's skill set vs thumping one's chest and boasting how great their language ability is. Also, Rupert's LI profile states his Japanese level is at the "Professional working proficiency".

Did I miss somewhere Rupert stating that he didn't bother to study Japanese?

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I also like Rupert W-H, but on reflection, that might be his voice and familiarity.

He seems trustworthy.

There in lies the issue.

The BBC is stuffed full of polite, confident, people who like travelling and opining.

As I have come to realise, it doesnt mean that they know any truths...

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I have a crazy idea about Japan, which seems completely counterintuitive. But here goes anyway. Feel free to explain to me politely why it can’t be right.

Basically, I think Japan is trying to avoid being noticed too much by the rest of the world. I read somewhere that when Japan first conquered Okinawa, they didn’t want anyone to know they’d done it. Once a year the representative of the Chinese Emperor would visit the island, and the Japanese occupiers would hide for the duration of his visit.

In western democracies we’re used to the idea that, if your country is doing well, your politicians have to tell everyone else how awesomely well you’re doing. And if you’re not doing well yet, you still have to be positive, and flaunt whatever success you have: fake it till you make it. When he was President, Donald Trump took this boastful attitude and ramped it up to 11. In the UK we think of Harold Macmillan’s “you’ve never had it so good”, or Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia”. In the USA there was Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America”. But I’ve often thought the opposite approach might be better. Maybe a country would benefit from seeking to portray its economy as worse than it actually is, its military weaker than it actually is, and so on.

Why would Japan want to do this? I suspect there are deleterious forms of foreign investment. Wealthy foreigners buying houses they don’t intend to live in probably make things worse for the locals. I suspect there are other forms of “feeding frenzy” type foreign investment which are harmful to a country. Didn’t Japan suffer from some of these in the 1980s? Maybe they’ve learned that lesson.

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I much more agree with Noah than with Rupert. Rupert is stuck in the past and seems to have missed how things have changed here. The anecdote on the land owner refusing to decrease the price is just an anecdote and it does not reflect land price evolution at all.

I am not sure what "terrifying bureaucracy" means but no examples are actually given. The 4 employees taking care of a car at a petrol station ignores reality: almost 40% of petrol stations are now self-service, in particular in large cities and the percentage increases every year.

The story with the small village in the Boso peninsula completely ignores the movement of people moving out of Tokyo which has taken pace over the years.

Most large companies are completely different from what they were 20 or even 10 years ago. Tokyo is a completely different city than it was 10 years ago. The pace of change is incredible. Too bad for the BBC that this was all missed by this correspondent.

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Thanks for the rebuttal to the BBC article. I also agree it was a bit biased, off on facts and was this typical western old thought of Japan. I’m still

amazed at how many non fluent foreigners write articles and options about Japan. Especially Instagram and YouTube videos so on. Even if they know the Language not being born in Japan is a big difference. Growing up as a kid you just learn the way of things through observation, family and society. Japanese philosophies are different then the west so without understanding it’s roots one will perhaps overwrite their western ideologies onto it via their thinking process.

As far as this comment “Western ideas and opinions have the potential to change Japan for the better” Japan has always sent out representatives to other cultures to learn and adapt “what is useful” and use as their own. I also find this comment slightly arrogant. “The west “ has its own issue and problems especially right now, just look at the states or UK. Violence, drugs, massive growing mental illness, housing that is out of reach for many. If Japanese housing is not increasing in value 24/7 that means it’s cheaper to buy. I think the west should clean up it’s own house before lecturing other countries. The USA is a great place but it just needs some house cleaning especially in its government. It’s not flying off the rails but just needs to get back on track. Japan will figure it out for themselves.

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Andre Malraux envisaged eternity when he saw shrines there scrapped and build by every generation prior and to come, hence true equity.

He compared them with ever solid Western buildings - Different things, nonsense to judge which is superior.

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Jan 24·edited Jan 24

I've lived in Japan since 1999, and the changes the country has gone through since then are quite staggering, especially in the last 5-10 years in terms of immigration. It's noticeable almost everywhere, except perhaps extremely rural areas.

Japan is indeed going through great changes, and when the old people who run both the gov't and business filter/die out, I think we'll see more change come at an even quicker rate. We are already starting to see strong signs of the unsustainable processes breaking down in front of our eyes, and companies, cities, governments, universities, etc. scrambling to adjust.

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I'll probably have more to say on this later, but since you mentioned gerentocracy, my new word for the week last week was (drum roll):


Which refers to Aso Tarou, because of something stupid he said (essentially blaming women for the small number of kids they're having, which is insanely stupid because the economy is such that large numbers of people can't afford dating*, let alone getting married, and would be insane to have anywhere near the number of kids they actually want (the last I checked, raising kids was more expensive in Japan than in any other industrialized country).)

*: This is because of (a) the Koizumi policy of letting big companies hire part timers instead of regular employees (who would have had niceties like retirement policies and some amount of job security), and (b) the minium wage is something like US$6.00 per hour.

Oh, yes "rou" is "old age" and "gai" is "the harm therefrom". (And "king of" is in katakana.)

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