The May 2013 Japan Society lectures by Japanese Ambassadors on economics and international affairs, spurred recollections of the society in the late 70’s. On this occasion, however, despite the careful and detailed presentations, and the genial joking by the Ambassadors, the general sense was that Japan had indeed lost a lot of ground and will still have a considerable way to go in order to regain its former prominence.
As a foreign press member at these talks, I was struck by the fact that the press was not vocal. And the audience was about half capacity. Also, the people who had come to hear Amb. Sasae’s speech were largely young to middle-age corporate Japanese, mostly male, and only a few Americans. Amb. Nishida’s audience by contrast was almost entirely of middle-aged Americans. And although the audiences were small they were vociferous (although both speakers were very adept at politely side steeping issues.)
From my point of view, the visit of the two Japanese Ambassadors to the US and the UN reified the word “diplomatic.” Although both men were occasionally forthright on a topic which stirred them – the depredations, kidnappings and torture in the Republic of Korea, for example, which Ambassador Nishida enlarged upon in the very first page of his speech- they spoke very gingerly about the events in Japan that have terrified the rest of the world. That is to say, 3/11- the triple disasters of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
Amb. Sasae’s speech was cautiously optimistic, but included some striking evidence of Japan’s turnaround, spearheaded by Prime Ministers Abe. Sasae indicated that he anticipated Japanese women would begin to enter the workforce, and that it would be possible to give the elderly a chance to do likewise through modern technology. But it will take work. Amb. Sasae spoke frankly about the last 30 years in Japan, during which there wasn’t enough economic growth. He stressed that Prime Minister Abe is determined to bring the economy back to life.
Regarding nuclear energy, Sasae commented that discussion of the domestic nuclear crisis was quite “sensitive.” Nevertheless, he stated that Japan “would restart nuclear power plants once their safety is assured.” He said that this was “a difficult decision because many people are still cautious of nuclear power after the 3.11 accident.” An understatement, in light of the demonstrations that have characterized the last two years in Japan.
Sasae, on Abe and “Abenomics,” he made three points. Monetary policy. The Bank of Japan has purchased over $70 billion of Japanese government bonds per month, a fundamental policy change. Fiscal stimulus including a $100 billion supplementary budget combined with deficit control that includes an increase in the consumption tax next year if economic conditions improve. This tactic seems to be working. Real GDP growth grew by 3.5 percent at annual rate in the first quarter of this year. Growth strategy: stable energy supply, regulatory and tax reform, and measures to become more competitive and innovative.”
Sasae says that he sees Abe’s vision as “turnaround,” and the challenges for Japan. Decreasing birthrate and aging society. Energy and environmental issues. Labor cost and inflexibility. As Sasae explained, the country has scarce natural resources. Its greatest resource is its people and technology. “Abe’s growth strategy is to turn around these constraints into growth factors though mobilizing all resources- people, science and technology, competition and innovation.” Sasae also said that the free trade of people, goods and money across borders is necessary for growth.
Sasae at this point uttered a shocking and wonderful opinion: “Women are one of Japan’s hidden resources. We have an abundance of highly educated women whose talents are significantly underutilized. Unleashing this power would be a psychological as well as an economic breakthrough. I believe it would help open Japan to new approaches and ideas.” What more, Sasae recognized that in order to enable more women to enter into the workforce, there would have to be constructed a number of child care facilities. This is an enlightened opinion rarely to be found.
However, sad to say many eminent Japanese (and American) officials have pointed out the need to allow more Japanese women into the workforce, generally during the officials’ trips to the US where this opinion is well received, in fact during lectures at Japan Society, but nothing has come of their declaration. If Sasae is serious and if others agree to implementation, this would have a dramatic effect on Japan as a whole. Thousands of years of tradition and behavior would be overturned. It is an exciting prospect. But is it real?
Sasae pointed out that another “resource” which could be better utilized is the increasing population of elderly people. He said that Japan, a great technological nation, might make this possible. For example, the elderly are often hindered by physical limitations. However, the University of Tsukuba has developed a “walking assistance” robot named HAL, essentially an Iron Man suit which would “sense bioelectrical signals when the user intends to move his legs. Then the robot moves its joints in sync with the user’s movements…More than 300 HAL suits are already in use at over 150 facilities.”
In addition, Japan has strengths in the field of regenerative medicine. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, of Kyoto University, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine last year for this study of iPS cells. Sasae commented that to support research and development in medicine it would be necessary to set up a Japanese version of the NIH. Sasae ended on a very high note: “Growth is possible in Japan. Japan again can become an engine of global prosperity as it once was. And it is my hope and my belief that we are beginning to hear the sounds of that engine coming to life.” The applause was fervent.