Fahrenheit 451

From preschool to present, I have always been told I was a unique child.

As an eight year old, this puzzled me. I wore the same, red-blazered uniform to school every day. I carried my books and pastel-coloured Japanese stationery in the same, foam-padded Digimon backpack as the kid who, despite the teacher’s best efforts, could not stop depositing nose gold underneath his desk. I took the same bus home as everyone else, and ate the same Singaporean curry box meal – you guessed it – like everyone else (and like most Singapore International School kids, conveniently forgetting my lunch coupon at home three days a week). My friends and I lived in similar flats that, while five times the price of an average, single-family Canadian home, were no bigger than a rabbit hutch. When we got home, we all began practising for the next Chinese dictation test by writing in the same boxed notebooks. To my eight year old self, I was the same as everyone else. And I had no problem with that at all.

By middle school, I began to see identification with the concept of being unique through attempts at differentiation among my peers. Classmates began participating in clubs that peaked their interests. Friends began dressing uniquely, and many bought the then newly-released iPhone to stand out in a crowd of Motorola RAZRs and Sony Ericssons. And I was no exception to the rule. Every day, I would wake up at 5 to spike my hair until I had an orange porcupine sitting on my scalp. In Grade 9, my French teacher said I looked like a Korean pop star (this pleased me very much). Individuality was prized, and if done properly, would win the approval of your immediate social group. And in high school, that took precedence over all.

When I began university a year ago, I had fully expected a complete realisation of this transformation process into a unique, adult being. My family friend said it would happen. My uncle said so too. And so I went starry-eyed into university, fully expecting to see a tidal wave of individuality on campus.

It might be the nature of my programme. It might have even been the university. But like many things in life, things were not as I had expected.

While it prides itself on many things, individuality seems to be one thing that Queen’s lacks sorely in. Despite the Apple mantra of thinking different, everyone has a 13-inch Macbook Air. Every commerce student has a quarter-zip and wants to break into consulting or investment banking in New York (see last post). Every arts student wants to become Mike Ross. And in the winter, every girl dons a pair of Uggs, a Canada Goose jacket, and black tights that, despite their protestations, seems to provide as much protection against the elements as a bikini from Victoria’s Secret. Project emphasis is often an exercise of “what does the prof want, so we can get a better grade”, rather than finding a better solution to the problem. It’s almost like I have come full circle, and am back in elementary school where everyone did everything in the exact same way, for the exact same purpose.

Of course, this may not be university-specific. I have no idea. But living within a culture that emphasises individual expression and how every person is unique, you would think that they would be a little more introspective in practising what they preach. But self-criticism is hard, so critics lambast others instead despite doing exactly the same thing (see: Japan).

I always see articles on how innovative North America is in comparison to its peers, and how our ideas set us apart from the rest of the world. We may have more forward thinking people than any other region. But from what I’ve seen, it’s certainly not a product of our education system or the culture within it.

Jon Heese, Peter Schiff, and Japan

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Two days ago, I had the opportunity of finally meeting Jon Heese.

As some of you may remember, Jon is a city councillor in the city of Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture. He was also one of the first people I interviewed when I began this blog two years ago, and along with Mike “In Tokyo” Rogers, a mentor from whom I have learned much about not only Japan, but about life in general. Jon had come by Toronto to visit his siblings residing here and thought that it would be a great opportunity to finally meet up.

Although we talked over Japanese food, beer, and two rounds of coffee for close to four and a half hours, it felt closer to one.  Jon had a wealth of experiences to share, and I, like a sponge, internalised what he had to say as much as I could.

One of the main things Jon said that impacted me greatly was his point of finding opportunity where most people found doom and gloom. The point preceding this was my concern of being able to find a job in Japan, as a foreigner, having studied at a foreign university, with intermediate Japanese skills, in a field where most firms are pulling back staff and positions (finance). Certainly a difficult position to be in, but not impossible to succeed in. In other words, akirame ga warui: never give up.

Unfortunately, my initial attitude of scepticism seems to, after twenty years of stagnation, be the dominant attitude in Japan for many individuals. The only way to change the way things areand to change this pessimism is to change the way the system is run. And it seems no one, save the emergence of maverick Toru Hashimoto (who does not have enough popular support), is willing to change the system, preferring short-term comfort at the expense of long-term pain. Nonetheless, one can only take opiates for so long before the underlying disease begins to lay waste to the body and, if left unremedied, may lead to an individual’s death.

Some wonder what changes have to be effected before the body can be cured. The answer is simple: small government. How it works is all described in Peter Schiff’s book “The Real Crash”, which I am currently reading and highly recommend for anyone looking for an alternative solution to problems conventional means simply cannot fix.

Although the book speaks in relation to problems currently faced by the American economy, I find many of his proposals to be particularly applicable to the Japanese economy. It is true that the general consensus view his solutions to be of the “hack and slash” variety, and it certainly doesn’t help that he sometimes fails to articulate his solutions well enough on television. But in full flesh, when he is able to fully explain his proposals, you can see the sense in Schiff’s argument for governments around the world.

Unsurprisingly, the path Schiff and other libertarians support is the path of greatest resistance. Reduction of government will meet opposition from almost every part of society. Opposition parties will hate it because their jobs are at stake. Lobby groups will hate it because of reduction or elimination of funding from certain causes or groups. The general public will oppose it under the perception of reduced government as a reduction of social services.

There is, however, no real alternative. Japan is beginning to recognise that with the growing popularity of Hashimoto (notwithstanding his tie-up with Ishihara) after twenty years of trying everything under the sun. And other governments will begin to realise the same only when all other options have been exhausted.

We can only pray that the changes be implemented sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the challenges continue to grow, and the task at hand becomes more and more daunting.

The Case for Toru Hashimoto

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Every so often in politics, the proverbial pot is stirred. Japan’s last ladle came in the form of Junichiro Koizumi. Fast forward six years, and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is shaping up to be the next.

Young, charismatic and belligerent, Hashimoto is the antithesis of a typical Japanese politician in both personality and policy. The 43-year old maverick has proposed sweeping change in the municipal public sector, including the implementation of performance-based benchmarks on grade and secondary school faculty; the privatisation of the Osaka Municipal Subway; spending cuts to the fine arts; and a near fifty percent reduction of the municipal government workforce. On the national front, Hashimoto has called for abolition of nuclear power; the elimination of the upper parliamentary house; and strongly supports upping national defence. Substantial views, from a politician with no real political experience on the federal stage.

Substance, however, is what the public seems to want from a national government that – in recent recollection – has had anything but. A survey conducted by American think-tank Pew Research Centre notes that dissatisfaction with the federal government hovers at eighty percent. Movement on Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreements has been slow, if not wholly nonexistent. The only result yielded by Japan’s continued spat with China over the Senkaku Islands has been damaged economic relations. It does not come as any surprise to those even vaguely familiar with East Asian politics how poorly the Japanese government currently sits in the view of its people.

It is easy to see the sway Hashimoto holds in light of the above; more than ever, change is needed in a country that, for all its hustle and bustle, seems to be at a standstill. In the eyes of many, his brand of politics is certainly preferential to that of the old guard. Change is needed, and Hashimoto has promised to deliver change.

How effective Hashimoto will be in delivering this change, however, is an entirely different matter. Pointing the metaphoric gun and shooting everything on site may not bode well in a system that has largely been run by mutual backscratching. Farmers and rural dwellers, who hold a disproportionate amount of power in Japanese government, are staunchly opposed to his plan of joining the TPP. While popular in Osaka, recognition of the political firebrand dips as one ventures farther from Kansai region. The internal power struggle between him and ex-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara following the merger of his party with Ishihara’s certainly lends no favour to his cause. Although surmountable, the challenges facing Hashimoto in his quest to the top are not insignificant.

Nonetheless, Hashimoto’s existence in the oft-opaque world of Japanese politics will spark inevitable change. Whether that change is for the better or worse is a matter that can only be told through the passage of time.

Mission Statement

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お久しぶりです。It has been a while since my last blog entry. Many readers wondered whether I had given up on the Japanese economy, writing emails urging me to consider otherwise. Rest assured, I have not, and will not. Not with the current state it is in.

In order to cure a patient, you have to study medicine and become a doctor first. That is exactly what I have been doing since beginning my undergraduate studies at the Queen’s School of Business 4 months ago. As dry as the material in the mandatory commerce courses is, I am wholly convinced mastering these concepts is essential in forming the foundation from which greater endeavours emerge – endeavours that include rectifying everything the stifling bureaucracy at Nagatacho has not been able to do. Herculean? Perhaps. But in the words of the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “Change is inevitable. Change is constant.” My raison d’etre is, of course, to push that change along.

Much has changed in Japan since my last post. I have the sinking feeling few of these changes have been for the better. The next prime minister will either be an indecisive loach, or the Japanese equivalent of Dick Cheney. The private sector has been hanged, drawn and quartered, not least because of ex-governor Shintaro ishihara’s decision to “buy” the Senkaku Islands. I do not know, nor do I want to know, what being asphyxiated feels like. But from looking on hopelessly as the nation continues to crumble, I have a pretty accurate guess.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, the sun is setting. It is a natural and unstoppable phenomenon. There is nothing anyone can do to reverse the aging population or stem the growing competitiveness of developing countries in this cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world. Attempting to compete by imitation will only result in disaster. The important thing to do now is to get used to the new environment. Build houses that shield against sharp winds. Buy a furnace to endure the bitter cold. Adapt, and survive.

I reaffirm my objective of facilitating Japan’s adaptation to the new environment to ensure its continued survival. By no means will it be easy. But most things in life worth doing are not.

これは私の約束です。

From Blog to Movement: The Future of Saving Japan

“Make a difference”. A phrase oftentimes used by motivational speakers at leadership conferences to pump up its guests, “making a difference” is something that we all want to do. We all want our actions to count for something. Many of us want to leave a positive footprint when we die, leaving the world a better place at our departure. We are all called to a higher purpose; “making a difference” is simply the verbalization of this mantra into a concept that the majority (if not all) find easy to grasp.

It is easy to say that you want to make a difference. What isn’t so easy,however, is the path through which you can get there.

This is particularly applicable in my case. Since I was little, I have always felt a draw towards Japan – a magnetic pull that has become stronger and stronger as the years went by. By Grade 10, I had figured out what I wanted to do: save the Japan economy from ruin through future participation in the Japanese sociopolitical spectrum – a goal many consider to be ambitious, to say the least.

What I still haven’t figured out is how I’m going to get to that stage. When it comes to politics, Japan remains one of the most insular, opaque “democracies” in the world filled with coercion, backroom deals, mutual back scratching and industry money. The problem is not limited to a segment of the public sector either; it’s prevalent throughout the entire government and oftentimes works in collaboration with private industry (see: TEPCO or Ichiro Ozawa). Individual opposition usually results in demotions, firings, or in extreme cases, death to eliminate the annoyance for the establishment. As qualified as a man might be, he alone will not be able to accomplish anything fighting against the tides of both government and giant, multinational corporations flush with cash. Singapore-style, autocratic Lee Kuan Yew-esque leadership does not apply in Japan; a gung-ho solo affair will only result in deportation.

It is for this reason that I have entertained the possibility of founding some sort of a movement in university under the Japan club and later expanding on this movement in Japan while studying to complete my graduate degree. A man is not an island. He needs to find like-minded people with whom he is able to share his goals and work towards a common objective. It is in this context that I am looking to transition Saving Japan from a blog to a movement that will be able to change Japan for the better; be it in the next five, ten, even twenty years.History has always been changed by protest. The French Revolution. The American Revolution. The Protestant Reformation. The Civil Rights Movement. It’s about time that Japan has its own Japanese Revival, and I will be helping to spearhead the cause, for the sake of Japan and for the sake of the global economy.

Of course, no movement can be built on ignorance. I plan to finish a bachelor’s in accounting and financial management before moving on to pursue graduate studies in public policy at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, or at a major Japanese university. Perhaps a PhD from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard if things turn to my favour. All while studying Japanese, and nurturing a budding movement that will hopefully change the face of Japan for the better by the time I’m long gone.

Japan is at a critical turning point. Its finances are in a state of ruin. Its demographics are equally bad, and it is running the risk of becoming the 21st century Argentina (see here). I don’t want that to happen, and neither does the majority of the 128 million-strong nation of Japan. With the individuals currently in power, standing by and letting things run their course will only lead to permanent decline. I won’t let that happen.

Making a difference starts with an idea. This is mine.

[Video Gallery] The Impending Japanese Crisis

I Feel Like Chicken Little: Nobody is Paying Any Attention to Japan

The future of Japan.

I started this blog for one reason, and for one reason only: to bring awareness to the macroeconomic problems facing Japan and the consequences if these concerns are not addressed promptly, if not immediately.

I have clearly failed in this respect.

You see, it doesn’t take much to realize how much of a pickle Japan is in. Record trade deficits. Record debt. Record tax rates. The oldest population in the world. Highly restrictive immigration. With fewer people to pay for a growing amount of debt, compounded with greater expense incurred by taxes spearheaded by the Noda administration, the conditions for Japan’s fall from grace are in place, ready to be triggered be the smallest sign of economic uncertainty.

Remember, this is not itsy-bitsy Greece that we’re talking about. This is Japan – the world’s third largest economy. The only reason that it is still breathing is because of how tiny Japanese government bond yields are.

With its current account deficit being the way it is, Japan will have to look outside its borders to finance its debt. That’s when the house of cards will start to collapse. Interest rates will skyrocket in an attempt to attract foreign investors. Increased consumption taxes, combined with flat wages,  will push the savings rate through the roof. Consumption will, in turn, fall flat on its face, and investment into Japan will dip as a result of little to no growth prospects. The combined result of all of this? Default.

Despite the horrifying prospect of the world’s third largest economy tanking, nobody seems to be paying attention. The politicians are too focused on attacking each other to do anything else. Some Japanese businesses are toying with the concept of given up on Japan. Many people in Japan remain pessimistic or apathetic about future prospects, while the international community is still pumping money into Greece and counting the number of hairs on Newt Gingrich’s hair.

What gives? Am I, a Hong Kong-born, Canadian secondary school student with an interest in economics and the culture of Japan, the only one who cares about what will happen to the economy of one of the richest nations on Earth? Look at what happened back in 2008 when the US economy hiccuped. Now imagine a full scale, Fukushima-style meltdown of the Japanese economy. Don’t think for a second that you won’t be affected if you’re not living in Japan. We’re looking at a tank greater than the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire. No exaggeration.

I want to do more about the situation than write about it. I really, honestly do. But by the time I come of age and get the necessary experience and education to be remotely useful to Japan, I fear it may be far too late.

“Japan is falling!” the little Asian boy cried. But no one heeded a word and the earth soon stood still.

[Weekend Short] My Personal Inspiration: Richard Koo

Today’s entry is short, but one that hits rather close to home.

Do you recognize this man?

No idea? Little suprise; after all, he’s fairly unknown outside the corporate world. His name is Richard Koo. I want to follow in his footsteps.

For the unenlightened, Richard Koo is a Taiwanese-American (sounds familiar yet?) and the incumbent chief economist for the Nomura Research Institute. He has served as an economic advisor for a number of Japanese prime ministers. He is completely bilingual in Japanese and English, and is a graduate from UC Berkeley and John Hopkins University.

What’s more, Koo’s book, The Holy Grail of Macroeconomics – Lessons from Japan’s Great Recession, is one that I highly recommend, as it contains some interesting insights on monetary and fiscal policies.

This is the type of man that I aspire to be. An educated individual working in Japan for a Japanese organization, for the sake of Japan’s economic future. The facts that he is of a similar background to mine, speaks business-level Japanese fluently, writes proficiently and is a graduate from two top-tier American universities are just icing on top of the cake.

Some people quote athletes as people he/she aspires to be. Others make note of billionaires and entrepreneurs who have made it big in the corporate world.

Me? I quote Richard Koo, and simply laugh at the blank stares that follow.

“I Want to be German!” – Japan

Photocredits to carsensoredge.net

You don’t have to be the biggest petrolhead to know that the vast majority consider German cars to be the pinnacle of the automotive world. Daimler. BMW. Volkswagen. Cars from the German trifecta are exported daily to every corner of the world, delivered to customers ready to pay top dollar for what they consider to be the best the auto industry has to offer to them.

What these customers consider to be “the best”, however, is largely a subjective affair. German cars are not very reliable. Nor are they reasonably priced. The stories I hear are consistent with the figures: after getting his masters degree and landing a decently comfy job, an acquaintance of mine decided to reward himself with a 4.5 million yen Mercedes-Benz. “It wasn’t cheap,” he boasted on Facebook, “But I felt that it was a solid buy.”

As it turns out, the transmission on his car went kaput after 3 months and he had to take it in for repair.

So why exactly do people buy German cars? For many, the answer is one and the same: prestige. Many people want to show that they have succeeded. And to show success, they buy the best their money can get them to show the world that “Hey, I made it to the top!”. Not because they feel more solid than a Toyota, or because they have more high tech goodies than a Chevrolet. Most individuals buy German cars to show off.

To me, that’s perfectly fine. Germany has the braggart niche (a relatively large one at that) covered better than any other automaker. As long as the brand image remains, people will continue to buy Bimmers, Benzes and Audis no matter how unreliable or expensive they might be. The head honchos in Stuttgart are laughing all the way to the bank. Keep the reputation intact, lock down on the niche, and money will only continue to roll in.

If only the same could be said for Japanese electronics corporations. Sony is losing money, badly. Panasonic is sustaining equally heavy financial damage. Nintendo is  nearing game over, and the only thing sharp about Sharp is its losses. The consumer electronics arm of Japan Inc. is being bled dry.

The root cause of the problem? Japan Inc. thinks that it is German. Or would like to think so, anyway. Many electronic products offered by Japanese corporations are oftentimes more expensive than the competition with no noticeable advantages over the same competitors. I was looking to replace my ancient CRT television with a new LCD model and shopped around online to see what I could find. To my surprise, I discovered that many LCD TVs offered by Samsung and LG were not only cheaper, but  were superior to the Japanese televisions spec-wise as well!

Japan’s specialty laid in selling cheap, common electronic items that were better than the competition. The electronics arm of today’s Japan Inc. fulfills neither condition. Without the brand equity level of a German automaker, which brings back customers regardless of how bad the product actually is, Japanese electronics manufacturers are losing market share to the South Koreans, who are not doing much more than doing what Japan has failed to continue with.

In our world today, electronics are considered to be commodities. People don’t care where it’s made, and there’s no cache associated with owning a Panasonic over owning a Samsung. People will only buy something if it does something better than the competition or, at the very least, priced better than the rest. With products from Japanese electronics corporations being neither of these things, there should be little wonder as to why electronics companies from Japan are continuing to lose money.

Sony is not Volkswagen. Charging more for a mediocre product just doesn’t work when it comes to consumer electronics.

2011.03.11

March 11th, 2011 was supposed to be a joyous day. It was the day before my much-anticipated March break. It also happened to be the birthday of one of my best friends. I had looked forward to the coming of March 11th for a very long time, and woke up earlier than usual in eager anticipation.

Then I saw my parents up earlier than usual. They were standing in the middle of the living room watching TV with an expression of blank disbelief on their face. “That’s odd,” I thought, “They’re usually up earlier than I am, but certainly not at 4:45 in the morning.” I said good morning. They didn’t reply.

Confused, I stumbled down the flight of stairs leading to my living room and turned to face the TV.

I looked for a second. Then I started to cry.

“8.8M earthquake and tsunami hits northeastern Japan”, the heading on CNN blared. Waves of water pummeled towns and countrysides into bits and pieces. The live feed showed people attempting to run away by car and by other forms of motorized transport. Very few managed to get away.

I called all of my friends and acquaintances in northeastern Japan to make sure that they were alright. It didn’t work. The receiving lines were dead. I sent emails and hoped that they were all safe. At the time, there was little else that I could really do.

It was a couple of days later that I found out that they all escaped unscathed. Many of their kinsmen weren’t so lucky. The earthquake and tsunami took away a total of more than 15 000 lives and left tens, if not hundreds of thousands of others without homes. Radiation leaked by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was of significant worry; many fled their homes, leaving some towns deserted and overwhelming nearby municipalities with refugees.

To make matters worse, the government screwed up. You would think that they would have learned from the painful lessons taught by the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. They didn’t. They withheld information about the nuclear power plant from the public. They did not anticipate the risk of tsunami damage sufficiently and worked on mistaken assumptions. People who would not have otherwise died became casualties of the disaster.

Nonetheless, there was an immense outpouring of sympathy for the Japanese. Fundraisers were started to help raise money for the relief efforts. Videos on YouTube expressing support for Japan (not unlike that in the previous post) were uploaded. Some even took the initiative to go to Japan and help with the cleanup physically. In the wake of disaster and calamity, the world stopped fighting and started to work together.

That was one year ago today. The cleanup efforts are still ongoing. People are still destitute and without homes. The Fukushima Daiichi power plant and the area surrounding it are still being contained. For many, the disaster is still not over.

Despite this, many across the globe who had been so sympathetic one year ago don’t remember a thing about March 11th. The video created in the earlier post was composed of people who remembered what happened. There were literally hundreds of others at my school who did not.

Are fifteen thousand lives really that insignificant? Are the lives of survivors really not worth even a thought?

For individuals in Japan and those abroad, it is important to remember those who died. What is even more important, however, is to continue to support individuals who were affected. This is a pledge that we should all make on this one year anniversary – a pledge that shows a true commitment to supporting a movement rather than simply a knee-jerk reaction to a global catastrophe. To never forget not only the deceased, but to support those who are continuing to struggle to piece together a semblance of their former lives. To continue to fight against bureaucratic inaction and call for transparency in government on the behalf of those whose voices continue to go unheard.

Never forget March 11, 2011.

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