Monday, 31 August 2009

28 August 2009

TOKYO -- So I suppose you might want to know why I’m in Japan. Here are some answers:

Think back to 1997 – if at the UK general election, the Tories had been in power not for 18 years but for more than a half a century, would the Labour victory have been a big story?

If the world’s second biggest economy is about to fall into the hands of a left-of-centre government headed by a party that has never before held office, might that be interesting?

If the country that brought you the world’s biggest seller of cars (Toyota), some of the biggest names in electronics (Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic), the country that is America’s closest ally in Asia and a major provider of aid to Africa – if that country were about to embark on a journey into the political unknown, might it be of interest?

That’s why I’m in Japan. All the signs are that the opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, is about to win a landslide victory in Sunday’s general election. If it does, it’ll be the first time – with the exception of a few months in 1993-4 when hardly anyone noticed – that the Liberal Democratic Party has been out of power. It will be a watershed moment.

(Interesting little nugget: the man on course to be the next Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is the grandson of the man who replaced the grandfather of the current Prime Minister, Taro Aso. They like to keep politics in the family here.)

Japan is a country in transition. And like all transitions, this one is breeding uncertainty and instability. Remember the “salarymen”, the Japanese workers who had jobs for life in companies that took care of them and their families virtually from cradle to grave? They’re a disappearing breed, replaced increasingly by workers on short-term contracts with little job security.

Remember how Japan used to have a reputation as a country with one of the narrowest wealth gaps in the developed world? Not any more … it now has the second highest rate of relative poverty in any of the major economies (the US comes first).

Remember the Sony Walkman, which brought the joys of music on the move to a generation of music fans in the 1980s, developed and produced here in Japan? Now, the Walkman has been replaced by the iPod, developed not in Japan but in the US.

So is Japan falling behind in this fast-moving digital age? Yesterday I visited a company where they make the chemicals that coat the metals that conduct the data in your PC, mobile phone and TV set. They employ a mere 50 people. Do they want to expand? Not really, they like it the way they are. That’s not how Bill Gates built Microsoft, but it’s one reason why most Japanese companies are failing to develop a global presence.

I also visited Panasonic, where they are working to develop a whole range of environmentally-friendly technologies that have little to do with your flat-screen TV or your digital camera. They showed me an eco-washing machine and an eco-microwave in an eco-house which can generate all its own power almost entirely from renewable sources. This, they believe, is the future.

And I met a man who runs a second-hand shop, which he calls the epicentre of his anti-capitalist revolution. We must learn to live with less money, he told me, which isn’t a message you’ll hear from the thousands of Japanese workers still scared of losing their jobs even as the economy seems to be climbing back out of recession.

So is Japan interesting? It is. Is it important? Ditto. I’ll be reporting from Tokyo in tonight’s programme, and again on Monday and through next week after the results of the election are known. I do hope you’ll try to tune in.

And by the way, if you’re very attentive, you may have noticed that this is the 200th in this series of newsletters. If you’ve read every one of them since I started writing them more than four years ago, congratulations and thank you for your loyalty. Here’s to the 300th!

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