Western University, Department of Communication & Public Affairs
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Japan lands on its feet after bubble burst
I'm in the news business -- in Japan.
Japan where, I'm sure you've heard almost every day since the Nikkei 225 began its plummet from an intraday 38,957.44 on Dec. 29, 1989 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 these days, the apocalypse is now.
The news is bad.
The IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, The New York Times, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Paul Krugman and just about any economist, anywhere, will tell you 2011 will mean those of us living here are well into our second, "our second consecutive," Lost Decade.
The spectre of deflation has routed the spectre of inflation.
The economy is depressed.
The bosses are depressed.
The workers are depressed.
The moms, the dads, the kids are depressed.
Gone are 1980s' heady, bubble-filled days of champagne and fois gras, Gauguin and van Gogh, the Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures.
Gone are days when bankers barely out of short-pants lugged the yen equivalent of about $4 million in a satchel to a friend's house not too far from the Imperial Palace grounds in brave Saturday morning hope of getting him to pledge his tiny plot of Tokyo real estate as collateral on a loan, maybe even bigger than the $4 million they had in the valise, once all the paperwork could be finished on Monday.
Gone too are the lunches of gold-leaf-covered sushi and dinners lubed with vintage Petrus and even older Cheval Blanc.
The real estate bubble, and this was a doozy that by some calculations had just a chunk of Tokyo valued at about the same as all of California, burst.
But the bad-loan bubble ballooned.
Real estate companies reeled, stockbrokers went broke and banks bleated for bailouts.
The Japanese economy has, since those dark days of the early 1990s, struggled along, largely written off by all and sundry who dabble in such things.
And there is no denying Japan in 2011 is a much different place than the Japan after the Plaza Accord of 1986 sent the yen soaring and the world cringing as a supposedly unstoppable Japanese juggernaut bought trophy companies and buildings, iron ore and coal, oil and gas around the world.
But, I would argue, Japan in 2011 for very, very many who live here is a much better place than the headlines might lead one to believe.
And in many, many ways, it is a much more equitable place than it was when those with land could turn dirt and concrete into Ferraris and French Impressionists, seemingly at will, while the un-landed faced two-generation, 100-year mortgages to get a 90-square-meter condo in the suburbs.
Sure the debt to GDP ratio is high, but interest rates are at historic lows, condos sprout like mushrooms and mortgages can be paid off in decades, not in tens of decades.
As I look out from one of the newsrooms in our 35-floor headquarters, built during one of the Lost Decades, I see what was a nearly abandoned railroad yard 15 years ago is now a virtual forest of 20- to 50-storey buildings where more than 60,000 people a day now work.
A decade ago, these were just holes in the ground.
Two decades ago, they were corporate dreams.
In the distance, Tokyo Sky Tree, destined to be one of the tallest structures in the world, already pierces the heavens.
The Ginza department stores just down the road from the office are sprucing up an already glitzy city centre.
Around our condo in Yokohama, shopping malls, offices, condominiums and single-family housing have been popping up nearly every day of the last two decades.
Those years may be the Lost Decades, but they have not been the Do-nothing Decades.
My company has maintained at least 43 foreign news bureaus through all those years.
And while Japan's recent economic growth statistics may pale when compared to China's, the quality of life does not.
Thirty years ago, when my wife and I lived about two hours outside Tokyo next to a "small town" of about 600,000, we had to go to one of only a handful of shops in Tokyo to buy a piece of decent cheese.
Now, cheese is nearly ubiquitous, and half the price it was 30 years ago.
The strong yen, so much the bane of exporters, is the domestic consumer's friend.
Imported cars, food, clothing, even energy and raw materials for industry all cost less now than 20 years.
A nice bottle of Italian wine that sells for about $15 in Tokyo carried a price tag of $41.95 in Vancouver during the Olympics last year.
Restaurants now offer the finest foods the world has to offer at prices most can afford.
Hotels prices are again reasonable, train fares are affordable and airfares, particularly for overseas travel, are barely unrecognizable from those in the days it took nearly a month's salary to fly to Toronto and back.
And this is now a kinder, gentler place.
Companies have gone bankrupt, banks have gone under and stockbrokers have had tears in their eyes when their securities houses collapsed, but in most of Japan's businesses, failing or thriving, the bosses, who never did make 100 times what their employees did, have not resorted to wholesale layoffs without feeling pain themselves.
There is still national health insurance and pensions and politicians and business leaders are not continuously railing on the middle and lower classes to accept job losses and salary cuts.
The biggest business lobbies do want the corporate tax rate lowered, but the requests are measured and most managers are more likely to feel shame and failure if they reduce employment than any kind of success.
They are also unlikely to give themselves bonuses for making layoffs.
There are no "Tea Parties," and in most places non-Japanese are treated as well as they ever were, even if that is not as well as might be ideal.
Women still struggle in the workplace, but there many more of them with good jobs now than during the bubble days when "tea lady" was a more common calling than doctor or journalist.
As to the kids, Brenda Bushell (BPhEd 76, BEd 78), who has taught at several Japanese universities and is now a professor at Seishin University in Tokyo, says her students over the years have become more focused and more interested in "living" than was often the case before.
The annual job-hunting ritual for third and fourth-year students is tough in the extreme these days, but jobs were never a given and many who 25 years ago may have been among those who took a "job-for-life" with whatever "famous" company offered them a position, now seek employment where they feel they will make a difference, Bushell says.
She has run projects for the past decade in which Japanese students spend 10 days or so each spring doing environmental research in Nepal and Nepali students come to Japan for a similar stint in the summer.
Two of her Japanese graduates have since joined the Japanese equivalent of CUSO/CIDA to work in Nepal and many other students now chose entrepreneurship, smaller companies and "interesting" work instead of the life of the stereotypic "salaryman."
And their parents, many of whom are of the generation that marched almost blindly from school to salary, support and even applaud their offspring's new focus on more rewarding work and less conspicuous consumption.
There are, of course, plenty of downsides in today's Japan, but it is not, despite some analysts' dire descriptions of a dark and depressed land, all bad.
In fact, I, my wife Brenda Bushell and several
of our colleagues are all convinced it is a much better place to live now than
it was before the decades were "lost."
Darryl Gibson is an Asia Editor at Kyodo News, Japan's largest international news agency, handling coverage from correspondents in 22 bureaus across Asia. He was a foreign correspondent for Canadian Press, National Public Radio and for newspapers, radio and TV from Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and Africa. His journalism career began with a chance stop at The Gazette in 1967, ending his parents' hope for a doctor in the family, but vaulting Gibson into a now 43-year career that owes much to Western. Ian MacDougall, BA’72, was instrumental in bringing Gibson and his wife Brenda Bushell to Japan in 1979; Bruce Barnett, BA’68, then press chief at the Canadian Embassy, suggested Gibson give CP a call in 1981; Barry Steers, BA’51, LLD’89, then ambassador, and many other UWO grads in Japan in the foreign service and business all helped. And all remain valued friends and sources to this day. Bushell is a professor at Seishin University in Tokyo. Gibson and Bushell remain amazed at what a February whim in 1979 and those few years at Western have meant to their lives.
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