One hardly expects wit from an economist, so it is really fun to read Nobel Prize-winning writer Paul Krugman’s articles and essays. He has so much to say about the current economy and current events, and his writing is so engaging that even dire news comes across as lively. The nonprofit Truthout published a recent article that he wrote, “Lost In Stagnation: Japan’s Dismal Tale.” This was a twist on the title of a movie of several years back, “Lost In Translation,” which took place in Japan. Such a provocative title has to jump out and grab one’s interest.
He quotes another economist, Charles Hugh Smith, on Japan: “In many ways, Japan’s social conventions are fraying under the relentless pressure of an economy in seemingly permanent decline.” Krugman then goes on to write, “that young workers, having endured so many layoffs and seen their opportunities diminish over the past two decades, have become less competitive. Many perceive as pointless the years of schooling and hard work needed to compete for a dwindling number of elite, well-paying jobs.”
We know about the phenomenon known as “hikikomori” in Japan, which refers to the young people who have decided that they don’t want to participate in society. They would rather drop out almost entirely, spending their lives holed up in their rooms. There have been estimates of a million such individuals in Japan. They have withdrawn into a small world where computers and gadgets occupy their time and minds. Many have limited their contact with their parents to taking in meals left outside their doors.
It seems to be the result of a mix of problems and culture in Japan, this turning inward. Krugman says that Japan is caught in a deflationary trap. He goes on to describe Japan’s monetary base as a percentage of GDP, and he loses me here, because I don’t really know what “conventional monetary policy” and such terminology means, but I do understand some of the other things that he mentions. There is an entire generation that has grown up with no memory of a thriving economy and this is forcing change on Japanese society and culture. Many young men have given up on what we think of as growing up, namely, doing things like completing an education, getting a job and marrying. Japanese families don’t know how to deal with this situation, are unable to cope with it, and so the parents put up with this behavior.
Even those who find jobs get stuck in low-paying temporary work, contributing to a growing income gap between older workers and the young.
What makes this of importance to us is that some economists are warning of the increased possibility of a “Japan-style” period of deflation in our country, a downward spiral of low prices that can be difficult to reverse once it starts.
This paints a gloomy and depressing picture of Japan, this once vibrant country that was considered a miracle economy, the very epitome of free enterprise and democracy. What happened? Why is Japan now being regarded as a case study of decline and despair? Is life really so bleak in Japan?
According to Norihiro Kato, a professor in Tokyo, things are not so bad. In a recent New York Times commentary entitled “Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging,” he sees these changes in a more positive light. Many of his students, he says, are living simpler lives, don’t have cars, don’t go to splashy clubs and social events. “We’re O.K. with small. It is, perhaps, a sort of maturity.”
We don’t have to have so much, and maybe other things are more important. They are adjusting to the current conditions.
Maybe that’s the way our country is heading, and maybe it’s a good thing, not that I advocate that some of us hole up in our rooms. But living with less may be the way to go. Maybe we should be concerned with enjoying other things in life.
Chizu Omori is the co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She writes from San Francisco, and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.