井の中の蛙

12/17/2010

When desperate to stabilize the currency

Filed under: — sayaka @ 9:06 am Print

I encountered these pages when I was flipping through a thick, unsorted bunch of materials regarding the industrial campaigns that the youth associations conducted in the immediate postwar period. Apparently this is a song promoted by the headquarters for the currency stabilization (通貨安定対策本部).  You can tell how desperate they were to persuade people to make savings in banks during the flaring inflation. The lyrics go (sorry for the rough translation):

What does that girl wait for at the counter of the bank? What are the bundles of bills that flow out every day doing? With whom are they now? Why are they coming home so late?

Bank Girl is alone, worried.

What does that girl look at during the lunch break? The bundles of cash that flooded into the city raise the price of what she wants. A shadow is cast over the shop window.

Bank Girl is alone and sad.

What does that girl do at the counter? The more cash flows out, the deeper the value goes down. Why do you not deposit that cash? The calculation does not make sense.

Bank Girl is alone, concerned.

Who does she wait for at the counter? The gentleman who always comes to deposit money. He is truly reliable — I wonder if he is single. I would love to see his bank statement.

Bank Girl is alone, longing for him.

12/29/2009

America’s “Lost Decade”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:41 am Print

Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he argued that the last decade in the US has been a waste of time, economically speaking:

But from an economic point of view, I’d suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. …
It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. …
It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early …
… it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. …
So here’s what Mr. Summers — and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time — believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

My mother sent me the column, and I wrote back the following comparison:

It’s almost like we had the same Lost Decade that the Japanese had in the 90s, but in a much more dramatic fashion. They had the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks; we had 9/11. They had the Hanshin Earthquake, we had Katrina; both triggered a discussion about emergency preparedness and civil society. They had a bubble burst and zero growth; we had several bubbles burst and, ultimately, zero growth.

Unfortunately, it’s very clear that Japanese leaders and citizens didn’t learn very much from the experience: it took almost another decade before a major change in leadership, and their economy remains extremely weak. Not a happy comparison.

8/7/2009

Adjusting to the new narrative

My China-side colleague, Alan Baumler, noted that China seems to have supplanted Japan as the go-to model for economic development. This has, he says, required him to alter his own attitude towards Chinese history, which never really had much of a triumphal arc before. He says, though

Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can.

My response was

Actually, Japan’s gone 180 degrees and has become a negative example for demographic, financial and rights development. Between the “aging Japan”, “Lost Decade” and rising tide of neo-nationalism….. we need a new narrative, too.

The last few times I’ve taught my Japan course that comes up to the present, I’ve used Bumiller’s book, but that one comes just at the beginning of the economic stagnation, and is now approaching 20 years old. I haven’t seen much that I’d like to use to replace it, either literature or ethnography. There’s Japan After Japan, but it seems like the kind of stuff I’d have to spend more time explaining and excusing than making good use of. I’m tempted to shift in the direction of global diaspora or something on the globalization of Japanese culture, but both of those seem a bit like avoiding the question.

What’s the new narrative? Have the economic slowdown, normalization, and globalization affected the way you present the post-war arc, or are the last two decades a distinct period?

6/3/2009

The (Ongoing) Economic Crisis

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 4:49 pm Print

One of my students is doing a summer research project on the Japanese financial crisis of the 1990s and we just looked at Jon Woronoff’s book The Japanese Economic Crisis (1992) which was originally published as Japan, the Coming Economic Crisis (1979). Woronoff, who was at one point a correspondent for the journal “Asian Business” and still writes about East Asian economies, was apparently widely panned at the time for being a Japanophobe or maybe just a hater in general, but I was very struck by how many of the issues he raises–banking problems, too much reliance on exports and protectionism, widening social inequalities, insecurity for the elderly, the massive generation gap of the late 20th century, collapse of the company loyalty ethic–became widely acknowledged and commented-upon social and economic problems after the collapse of the bubble. Didn’t he turn out to be right about a lot of things? Has he gotten any credit? This is not my field. My understanding of postwar economic issues is thin (Is MITI a college at M.I.T?). But the many ways in which Japan’s response to its crisis of two decades ago resonate with both the global and Japanese situation today make this feel worth revisiting.

1/31/2009

When translating, leave currency in the original units

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:00 pm Print

Money hiding Swords I’m using Ivan Morris’ translation of Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman and other Writings this semester1, but one thing which is bugging me right off the bat is his habit of translating money into Pounds Sterling by converting the Tokugawa money to rice and then converting the rice to yen and the Yen to Pounds at the 1963 rate.2 Needless to say, neither I nor my students have any intutitive sense how much £16.70 in 1963 is worth today, but that’s what he says one gold Ryo is. According to the first historical currency calculator I could find, that’s about US$335.24 now. But that’s assuming that the original gold-rice/rice-yen calculation is worth anything….

I’d much rather have had a discussion about relative purchasing power, but here’s my best (quick) guess:

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  1. Thanks, Alan! []
  2. Appendix II, “Money in Saikaku’s Time” []

3/5/2008

Macroeconomics never gives you more than an overview

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:58 pm Print

Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia has an op-ed in the New York Times (UPDATE: reprinted in Japan Focus) arguing that Japan’s post-bubble recession and fifteen year stagnation may well be what the US economy is facing now. I think he’s right about some of the dangers, but I think he’s leaving out some critical components. Macroeconomics never gives you more than an overview, and I think the situation in the US is much worse.

Roach writes:
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11/22/2005

A Welcome Find

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:24 am Print

One of the very interesting things I discovered doing my dissertation was the relatively meager state of scholarship on Meiji era financial institutions, particularly on the ways in which Japanese used (and avoided) new systems of savings, transfers/remittances, loans, etc. I ended up being quite impressed by the financial sophistication of supposedly unsophisticated peasant migrant laborers, and considerably more sympathetic to the assumptions of economic history as a result.

My advisor even tried to steer me in that direction: I had to do some background reading on the Yokohama Specie Bank, which played a role in early Hawai’i-Japan remittances (by establishing one of Japan’s first overseas bank branches!), and he was disappointed that the bank itself did not sufficiently fire my historical curiousity that I might take it up as a topic in itself. It is true, though, that there remain questions which I can’t answer to my own satisfaction because I don’t know enough about Meiji banking.

Well, Sharon Howard forwarded me a link to Michael Schlitz’s Histor¥ which is described both as a “weblog about Meiji financial reforms” and (quite tantalizingly) an “opensource project on Japanese financial history 1850-1917.” I’m thrilled to see this topic getting the attention it deserves and available on-line, to boot! Now, I just need time to read through his archives and make notes….

9/12/2005

Open Thread: Election Results

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:25 pm Print

Lots of folks are pretty sure that the success of Koizumi’s rejuvenated LDP in yesterday’s elections [here's a good summary] means something. What? It seems to me impossible to know what it means in a policy sense, but it clearly marks a step in the evolution of party politics and campaigning… a step away from past verities, but not necessarily towards anything easily recognizable or categorizable.

For myself, the privatization of the Postal Savings and Insurance system would mark the end of something historically interesting. The Postal Savings system was a fundamental institution in the Meiji modernization, enabling reliable low-cost long-distance transactions (including remittances from overseas, which is where my research comes in) and accumulating small deposits into a pool of capital that was agressively used for investment in railroads and other heavy industrial development. The great success of what is now the largest financial institution in the world is part of what forced me to recognize that the “rational actor” theory of economics which I had disdained for so long did in fact have its moments: the speed with which Japanese peasants adopted newer and more reliable banking institutions (and avoided less reliable ones) was a remarkable demonstration of fiscal sophistication and self-interest at work.

8/11/2005

The Price of Historical Accuracy

Filed under: — tak @ 2:58 am Print

Recently I received an email from a novelist out on the West Coast who is working on a historical novel set in 1946 Japan. She wanted to know how much things cost at that time. Being an anthropologist and not a historian, I really had no idea where to look, other than to say that in 1946 prices must have been really unstable because of inflation, SCAP’s attempt to engineer the market while at the same time implement labor-friendly policies, and the proliferation of the black market. A great description of the social landscape at that time is in John Dower’s superb Embracing Defeat, especially the first section where he takes you right to the streets of postwar Tokyo so that you can smell the cheap kasutori liquor and see the pan-pan girls hanging onto U.S. servicemen. (Another book I have read that deals with this same time period is Chalmers Johnson’s gripping Conspiracy at Matsukawa).

But I asked around to see if there are easier ways of finding out other than combing through long passages, and sure enough our ever resourceful Jonathan Dresner recommended two reference books: Estimates of Long Term Economic Statistics of Japan since 1868 (bilingual) and the Historical Statistics of Japan.

He also had a brilliant suggestion of looking at microfilms of newspapers at that time and picking off prices of products through ads. I would never have thought of that!

(For those wishing to have questions answered, a more helpful place to ask might be over at H-Japan, a resourceful user group that focuses on Japanese history. They cast a much wider net of scholars there, so you might get more in-depth responses.)

I have to say, its nice to see fiction writers taking the time to do some historical research for their writing. When films like The Last Samurai mutilate history, it really is a travesty because a little veracity would have made the film truly powerful (my opinion). Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is also that much more convincing to the reader. So perhaps it’s worth paying the price of meticulous research to push for historical accuracy.

But then, I also think that if you’re writing a novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Pale View of Hills, then accuracy doesn’t really matter because it is all about how memories from one moment of your life become all confused with things that happened in other moments. (This is not to say that Ishiguro’s novel contained historical inaccuracies.)

4/14/2005

Nationalistic Internationalism

Prehistory: You could almost write Japan’s entire modern history as the drive for respect from the rest of the world. Starting with the unequal treaties of the mid 19th century, and the Meiji era drive to modernize and industrialize — fukoku kyōhei [Rich Country, Strong Military] was the equation — culminating in Japan’s evolution into a regional power and full-bore Imperialist state. Japan was a member of the Allies in WWI and participated in the Versailles conferences, which allowed them to shut out Korean and Chinese representatives, and then became an active participant in the Wilsonian diplomacy — known as “Shidehara Diplomacy” in Japan, after the man who served as Foreign minister and Ambassador to the US for most of that period — of the 1920s, signing several arms control treaties and the Kellog-Briand Pact and participating in the League of Nations.

Though Japan was a respected regional power, some in Japan felt that the arms control treaties were intended at least partially to contain Japan’s power at the second-tier. This was compounded to some degree by growing American anti-Asian sentiment and legislation, which reinforced the sense that Japan needed to be stronger and more respected in order to be treated fairly in the world. This, along with a myriad of other factors, led Japan into Manchurian occupation, an attempt at brute force nationbuilding which caused more problems than it solved. Among other things, the condemnation of the Manchukuo puppet regime by the League of Nations led Japan to leave the League and join up with other expansionist pariah states — Italy and Germany — which were on the outs with Wilsonianism. Japanese rhetoric in response to the League’s condemnation was harsh — and correct — when it pointed out that Western nations had long histories of conquest and atrocities, but that was OK because they were White.

Present: Japan’s attempt to unify Asia against Western Imperialism, in support of Japanese wealth and power, under the rubric of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere still resonates in Asia today. Whether it’s protests over Japan’s textbooks (Note: China’s current riots need to be seen in the light of two trends: official support and consent for anti-Japanese historicism; rising rates of domestic disorder in China, mostly ethnic and economic) or official visits to the enshrined war dead (and pro-war museum) at Yasukuni, court decisions against former sexual conscription victims, or just reluctance to sign on to “Yen Bloc” plans, Japan’s leadership in Asia has been undercut since the war. Nowhere else in the world is historiography so central to political and international affairs: nobody denies Japan’s economic power, but nearly all of Asia believes that Japan’s ongoing official refusal to acknowledge past atrocities means that Japan lacks the capacity for moral leadership.

Japan’s role in the world continues to be limited by WWII in other ways. In the aftermath of the war, Japan was disarmed not just literally, but figuratively: the US-written constitution includes the famous Article IX, repudiating war and weaponry as tools of international problem-solving. Japanese leaders, particularly PM YOSHIDA Shigeru, premised post-war Japan’s national policy on non-militarization, non-entanglement, economic growth policies. Among other things, it makes it very difficult for Japanese troops to participate in UN peacekeeping missions; though they do regularly join relief aid (Africa, Iraq) and monitoring groups (Golan Heights), they go very lightly armed and rely on other UN forces and their own post-war reputation for non-violent generosity for protection.

That hasn’t stopped Japan from being an actor on the world stage. Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, and has been sharing the wealth with underdeveloped nations for several decades now, making Japan the world’s largest development donor in absolute terms. The US nearly got caught flatfooted, for example, when Japan’s government announced a post-Tsunami Indonesian aid package a full order of magnitude larger than our own. And Japan gave the US so much money in support of the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in Kuwait — because they couldn’t send military forces — that we nearly turned a profit. Of course, Japan’s economic strength means that economic decisions made in Japan echo around the developed world as well. And in a less official capacity, being members of the only nation to experience atomic bombs as a weapon of war has given Japanese peace activists a status in the world second to none. One of Japan’s few Nobel Prizes was the Peace award to Prime Minister SATO Eisaku, for his anti-Nuclear “Three Principles”: that Japan will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, or allow them in Japanese controlled territory.

Nor has it stopped Japan from being a significant force in Asian and Pacific affairs. On the plus side is cultural and economic influence in South Korea, economic aid to North Korea, investment and education in China, development assistance in the South Pacific; still, all of that, it could be argued, rebounds to Japan’s benefit at least as much as it costs. There are territorial disputes as well, mostly over worthless-looking rock islands of immense strategic and economic importance — Sakhalin and Kuriles (Russia, with whom Japan still does not have an official post-WWII treaty of peace); Tokdo/Takeshima (Korea); Senkaku/Daiyou (China, Korea, Vietnam, etc. I’ve long argued that this was the most likely — after North Korea — flash point for a regional conflict) — disputes which seem to be heating up significantly in recent weeks in no small part because of Japanese actions.

Roots of the Future: The present campaign to get Japan on the UN Security Council is the culmination of two decades of diplomatic efforts, going back to the groundbreaking work of PM NAKASONE Yasuhiro, who turned Yoshida’s non-entanglement policies on their head. Nakasone’s kokusaika [internationalization] campaign seemed unfocused to some, but it really consisted of three crucial components: national pride in economic and cultural achievements, present and past (Nakasone was the first post-war PM to visit Yasukuni); international action both economic and political (Nakasone was an aggressive negotiator and worked hard to present distinctively Japanese views at meetings like G-7 and in the UN, plus his relationship with Reagan, Thatcher, etc); expanding Japan’s capacity to understand and influence the world through expanded foreign language and overseas study (this aspect always seemed kind of squishy and multiculturalist, but it was really integral to an expansion of Japanese power in the world). The campaign has been largely independent, though at times there were coordinated efforts with Germany, and has consisted in no small part of leveraging Japan’s ODA in places like Africa into UN support.

The present campaign is a very clever one: by including India and Brazil as Security Council candidates, it looks less like a resurgence of the reformed Axis Powers and more like a “Southernization” (to abuse a term), a legitimation of the success of 20th century decolonization and economic globalization. Moreover, including India makes it harder for China to maintain its traditional rejection of Japanese power. Article IX is still a sticky point: maintaining it makes it easier for Japan’s former and present competitors to deal with Japan without fear (not entirely without fear: Japan has one of the best-equipped militaries in the world, though it lacks significant force projection capacity), while it hobbles Japan’s ability to play a security role (which, since they’re looking for a seat on the Security Council, is significant); moreover, the majority of the Japanese population supports retaining the article as is (a bare majority now, whereas before Gulf War I it was an overwhelming one) and Japanese political leadership have been able to slip in more and more militarized activity under UN rubrics over the last decade (it’s highly unlikely that the Japanese courts would step in, being very, very conservative with regard to challenging legislative action).

Japan has been a peaceful, responsible, democratic society for over a half-century, and it is an economic superpower. But it has significant historical and ongoing tensions with its neighbors, one of which already sits on the Security Council and has a pretty good claim to being the natural representative of East Asia. On the other hand, it has good relations with the rest of the Security Council membership, and the example of the 1920s-30s suggests to some that trying to “keep Japan in its place” could well produce a nationalistic backlash in Japan that would exacerbate tensions.

[Thanks, Sepoy for suggesting this! Crossposted to Cliopatria]

Addendum: Konrad Lawson has compiled a very impressive list — with texts and commentaries — of Japan’s leaders attempts to apologize to Korea without entirely losing the support of Japan’s nationalistic elements. It complicates somewhat the question of how comprehensive “apology” and “historical recognition” needs to be to satisfy Japan’s critics.

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