Friday, August 30, 2013

Beikoku and Eikoku.

This is a second in a series of posts, about where the State of California is headed.

The first is here. In that post, I took a look at the Nordic countries of Europe, and how their high quality governments arose out of a history of difficult geography and benign history.  I noted that California has a similarly difficult geography and benign history, and that California has dealt with those challenges through a series of "big projects," the ultimate example of which is California's Master Plan for Education. Yet while both the Nordics and California have enjoyed subsequent economic success, they have developed very different levels of trust in government.  To try to understand why California's culture has developed differently, I looked for a foil to California, a place with technical sophistication and high levels of education that is nonetheless suffering from economic stagnation -- a description that fits Japan.

"Cherry blossoms at Hirosaki Castle, Japan"
Pretty much anyone growing up in the 1980s who was interested in economics and history spent a good deal of time looking at Japan.  No-one considers Japan a model today; after 1989, Japan fell into a seemingly endless slump.  However, this may have recently changed, given that Shinzō Abe's government appears to be having some success.  

Most economic analysts agree that Japan's situation is different from Europe's (Japan is no Greece) -- despite a national debt that stands at close to 250% of GDP, the debt is nearly entirely held domestically, and interest rates remain near the zero lower bound

Instead, Japanese stagnation is attributed to culture.  For instance, Abe is Japan’s first leader to treat entrepreneurs as something more than "greedy hustlers." As the Economist notes, "Venture-capital firms have few big payoffs to look forward to, with the result that there is a limited pool of cash available for those who do want to have a go at starting a business." But then the editors looked at another factor entirely -- the cultural obstacles to creating startups -- a factor that made me do a double-take:
"Wives, mothers and mothers-in-law exert a strong influence on men not to join risky start-ups ... [t]he success of the big firms born in Japan’s great period of post-war entrepreneurialism ... discouraged graduates from joining newer ventures ... [as a result] [e]xperienced managers are seldom keen to leave large companies."
What? In California, wives, mothers and mothers-in-law run start-ups. In Japan, am I to believe that the influence of these same individuals is limited to advising sons and husbands concerning their careers, rather than participating themselves in the economy?  That cannot be correct. Educational statistics suggest Japanese women are some of the most educated in the world. Surely, that education gives them opportunities that they are motivated by the culture of their schools to deploy in the world at large.

"Gender Gap in Median Earnings, Full-Time Employees"
Gender Brief, OECD Social Policy Division, March 2010
available at
I was, of course, totally wrong.

Japan is nearly at the bottom of the rankings in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Report -- it was number 101 out of 135. Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Bangladesh all do better, for Japan is one of the industrialized world's least equal countries. Writing recently in the New York Times, Laura Tyson noted how comprehensively Japan's economy has been hobbled culturally:
"... [s]trong cultural norms value stay-at-home mothers. Tax distortions reinforce these norms and penalize two-worker households. Long working hours with overtime requirements make it difficult to balance work and family responsibilities. Child-care services are in acute short supply. There are long waiting lists for public child care, and a limited number of private providers because of burdensome regulations ... [w]omen are often caught in a Catch 22: they cannot secure a job until a child-care slot is available, and they are not eligible for such a slot until they have a job ...  about 70 percent of Japanese women leave the work force after their first child. Only about 33 percent of Japanese mothers with young children work, compared with 50 to 60 percent in the United States, Britain and Germany, and 75 percent in Sweden ... [m]ost of the Japanese women who quit work for family responsibilities want to rejoin the work force but have a hard time doing so and face serious penalties in future wages and promotions."
This failure (I don't know what else to call it) of Japanese culture to engage women in the workplace is all the more peculiar given Japan's well known devotion to hard work, and further, given the extraordinary flexibility demonstrated by Japanese culture over time.  From the end of Kaikin (Sakoku) with the arrival of the Kurofune, through the Meiji Restoration and into the Taishō period, Japan demonstrated exceptional cultural adaptability -- with this glaring exception.
"Black Ships and Samurai"
MIT Visualizing Cultures

There are any number of factors grounded in the Japanese cultural experience that can explain this issue, but there is an element of the Japanese view of the world, as expressed through language, that I find particularly interesting on this point. It comes down to two specific sets of kanji characters.

The first is 米国, or Beikoku. The character , as a noun, generally means "rice," while the character  means "country." Combined, in Japanese, they mean "The United States."

There are a lot of explanations offered for this, but one suggested by Bill Emmott in his book "20:21 Vision" is that the Japanese chose this name for America in 1853, at the time of the Perry Expedition, and that the name is meant by the Japanese quite literally.  Indeed, it is Emmott's view that America was (and was expected by the Japanese to continue to be) primarily a nation of farmers. (Yes, smart people can make serious mistakes.)

But the even more interesting piece of kanji is 英国, or Eikoku.  The character , as an adjective, generally means outstanding, fine, or bright, and the second character, as in Beikoku, means "country."

That is the Japanese name for "England."

The Palace of Westminster
Image available at

Emmott (whose credentials as a journalist on Japan are exceptional) argues the name was adopted in the late 19th century, when the Japanese thought that what is our modern day United Kingdom was the country to be (and, probably, to beat). When Japan sought to modernize, in many respects, its model was Anglophilic -- for example, in 1870, an Imperial decree determined that the Royal (British) Navy should be the model for Japanese naval development, and the British model became the foundation of naval officer training and education. To this day, Anglophilia remains common in Japan -- for instance, both Crown Prince Naruhito, and his wife, Princess Masako, did postgraduate work at Oxford.

However, it is not the industrial spirit of the UK that appears to hold a cultural attraction for Japan.  Instead, as one (rather popular) Japanese author, Nozomu Hayashi, has arguedthe Japanese are drawn mostly to England's traditional attractions. Roast beef. Country houses. Patchwork quilts.  The Japanese are not enamored of the England of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, but instead look to the England of Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey.

Jessica Brown Findley, Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery
"Downton Abbey to Return For Fourth Series"
The Daily Telegraph, November 23, 2012
Image available at
And this is one of the great peculiarities of the modern United Kingdom, and brings me to the end of this post, while pointing in the direction of the next.  For, while internationally, the romantic country life of England retains its appeal, the impact of that yearning in the UK itself, for an arcadian rural society, has been a source of intense debate and criticism. That ideal has been blamed for holding back the United Kingdom from fully realizing the benefits of modern society.  It is that ideal that has been held responsible for the preference by the commercial and industrial classes of the UK for sending their children to private schools where "the sons of businessmen were looked down upon and science was barely taught," that finds its start in the 1850s if not earlier. The ideal arguably reached its denouement with the collapse of James Callaghan's Labour government in 1979, and with the elevation to Prime Minister of a scientist -- a chemist, who specialized in x-ray crystallography -- with a prior portfolio as Secretary of State for Education and Science.

For it is to Margaret Thatcher and the UK that I turn to next. But again, a post for another day.