Economics a la Tokyo

Foreign concepts?

Many economies are in trouble, perhaps none more than Japan’s. It is the economy that Robert Rubin, U.S. secretary of the Treasury, loves to hector. While spearheading salvage operations in Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia, and Brazil with the seeming benevolence of a rich uncle, he scolds the Japanese for not pulling themselves out of the doldrums.

Of course, it is more than a curiosity that the miracle economy of the 1980s has fallen so low, and stayed low for so long. Even more puzzling: the Japanese people put up with it. They re-elect the same politicians, and corporate leaders seem immune from stockholder wrath. Explanations abound: corruption, interlocking directorships, too little consumerism, and too much fish-eating. Having once visited Tokyo and been mightily impressed with Japanese diligence, I would have thought that energy and hard work alone would have ended their recession.

But perhaps these qualities turn out to be part of the problem. Nicholas Kristof, who reports from Japan for the New York Times, has written two stories that point up the Japanese dilemma in dealing with their recession: their sense of social solidarity means that no one is allowed to sink in bad times. In a nation of small shops and small factories, businessmen and civic leaders consider themselves duty-bound to keep things going, even when they are losing money hand over fist.

What appears to...

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About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.