Daniel Gross On Mellowing Japan

Edward is already plugging this article by Daniel Gross over at Demography.Matters but I think it is important enough to deserve circulation here at Alpha.Sources too. Basically, Daniel gets to the heart of the matter in terms of Japan when he argues that one of the principal reasons that Japan is not rising is that it has failed to do the homework in the human capital department or as Gross phrases it; while Japan is still leading in engineering, this is not the case with respect to social engineering.

Japan still retains its lead in engineering. A showroom at Panasonic's headquarters displayed a heated, multifunction toilet seat that conserves energy. (Wouldn't leaving the seat cold conserve even more?) The sleek Shinkansen bullet trains roll up to their appointed spots on time. TKX, an 87-year-old Osaka-based company that makes abrasives, has adapted its expertise to cutting silicon ingots into wafers for solar panels.

But social engineering is proving more challenging. Japan's population peaked in 2004 at about 127.8 million and is projected to fall to 89.9 million by 2055. The ratio of working-age to elderly Japanese fell from 8-to-1 in 1975 to 3.3-to-1 in 2005 and may shrivel to 1.3-to-1 in 2055. "In 2055, people will come to work when they have time off from long-term care," said Kiyoaki Fujiwara, director of economic policy at the Japan Business Federation.

Such a decline is cataclysmic for an indebted country that values infrastructure and personal service. (Who is going to maintain the trains, pay for social benefits, slice sushi at the Tsukiji fish market?) The obvious answers—encourage immigration and a higher birthrate—have proved difficult, even impossible, for this conservative society. In the United States, foreign-born workers make up 15 percent of the work force; in Japan, it's 1 percent. And, official protestations to the contrary, they're not particularly welcome. One columnist I met compared the standard Japanese attitude toward immigrants to that of French right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the 1990s, descendants of Japanese who had emigrated to South America early in the 20th century returned to replace retiring factory workers. Now that unemployment is on the rise, Japan is offering to pay the airfare for those who wish to return home.

Japan doesn't particularly want to import new citizens, but it doesn't seem to want to manufacture them, either. It's become harder to support a family on a single income, and young people are living at home for longer. And Japan isn't particularly friendly to working mothers—pre-K day care is not widely available, and the phrase work-life balance doesn't seem to have a Japanese translation. (The directory of the Japanese Business Federation, a showcase of old guys in suits, makes the Republican Senate caucus look like a Benetton ad.) The upshot: a chronically low birthrate. Too often, demographic change was described to me as a zero-sum game—rather than being seen as potential job creators, women and immigrants are often seen as taking jobs from men.

As Gross goes on to argue, Japan seems awfully passive about this and while there is certainly merit in discussing whether the size of the Japanese population is moving in the right direction it is the composition which really matters here. You only need to move back one entry here at this space get some kind of indication of the outlook for Japan's population composition. There is really no need to get into the whole discussion about whether economic growth is a goal in itself or whether Japan shouldn't have the right to conduct the policies it wants. Evidently, it has. However, for all those who believe that aggressive population management is desirable either be it through deliberate policies (a la China) or by simply allowing the demographic transition to run its course (i.e. Germany, Japan etc) they should also provide an answer towards the question of what to do with the market economy defined, as it were, by a social contract between generations, some form of paygo pension system, as well as a wide batch of centrally provided goods.

Gross' analysis is not far from the view presented in a recent article by me and Edward published in the summer edition of JapanInc. In this article, we argue that Japan is dependent on exports and that this dependence is a function of its age structure.

We also emphasise that Japan, for all intent and purposes, may be stuck in so far as providing a strong response towards the challenge of ageing;

While it is certainly true that the Japanese economy is currently struggling, it is not entirely true that there is no line of defense. Japan still has both monetary policy and fiscal policy tools at its disposal. The problem is that having spent a decade and a half attempting to fight the twin problems of deficient internal demand and ongoing deflation, the force of these tools has been steadily ground down. Interest rate adjustments, after many years when Bank of Japan (BoJ) rates have been held near zero levels, have little additional push to offer, while less conventional tools (like simply printing even more money via quantitative easing) or strong fiscal stimulus face clear limits in a country where gross debt to GDP is forecast by the OECD to hit 193 percent in 2009. So what can Japan do? Well besides simply grinning and bearing it, the tragedy is that there is not a lot that can be done in the short term. Evidently the Japanese government should give what support it can through highly targeted spending programs. The Bank of Japan, meanwhile, should be moving ahead with an aggressive policy of quantitative easing to provide as much relief as possible to Japan’s struggling households and corporates. But the only real way forward here is to try to slow the rate of population aging, and that means a change in national discourse and priorities, giving more support to those Japanese women who want to have children and radically changing the mindset about the extent to which Japan needs to promote an active immigration policy.

However, if we can all agree that the situation is difficult, it is hardly an excuse for not moving forward on the issues which ultimately will need to be adressed. Japan will need to foster a more conductive policy for increasing fertility as well as a substantial changed is discourse is needed with respect to immigration.