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Japanese workers fare well despite ‘crisis’


There is an excellent German word, schadenfreude, which means taking secret pleasure in the misfortune of others. Most of us are guilty of this vice at one time or another, but the people who are enjoying it most right now are the pundits who daily point to what they call the “collapse” or the “mess” of the Japanese economy.

These folks can’t forgive Japan for beating our brains out in the manufacture of steel, autos, cameras, textiles, radios, TVs, VCRs and machine tools (partial list), thereby stealing millions of our best jobs. They point, with ill-disguised glee, to a fall in the value of the yen against the dollar -- forgetting that when the value of the dollar fell against the yen and other currencies, they rejoiced because it meant U.S. manufacturers could sell more of their products abroad. But what was good for us can’t be good for Japan. They are upset mainly because a stronger dollar means it will be more difficult to sell abroad.

There have been real problems in Japan over bad loans made by the banks, some resulting bank failures, bad investments in real estate and instability in the stock market. Some of the Japanese rich have suffered, but does anyone remember our own savings and loan scandal? In fact, bad investments, bank failures, bankruptcies and stock market losses occur here every day.

What is most ridiculous, however, about the current overdose of schadenfreude is the assumption that there is widespread suffering among the Japanese because of a severe recession. You even see the word depression being used. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unemployment in Japan, which has averaged the incredible figure of 2.3 percent over the 25 years between 1973 and 1998, has increased, it is true, but at 4.3 percent it is still lower than U.S. unemployment, which the pundits proudly remind us is the lowest in 25 years -- failing to note that it can rise to 20 or 30 percent among black youth in the ghettos. Most of the large Japanese companies still provide lifetime employment to their workers, a practice that has become almost extinct here as downsizing has swept through our industrial landscape, leaving devastation in its wake but fat profits for stockholders and management.

CEO compensation here in large companies is now about 200 times that of the average factory worker, according to Business Week, whereas in Japan it is “rarely more than 25-to-1.” Last time I looked, factory wages in Japan were 17.7 percent higher than in the United States, and their inflation rate was lower than ours. Their health and welfare provisions are superior, their educational system infinitely superior.

But the most telling comparison of all is the quality of life enjoyed, or suffered, by the children in these two countries. In Japan 2 percent of the children live in poverty. In the United States the national figure is 21 percent. Among black children it is 51 percent. There is schadenfreude over double digit unemployment in Germany, but the percentage of poor children there is only 4 percent. In Canada it is 9 percent, well below our disgraceful figure.

I have found one pundit who agrees that “Japan’s problems have been grossly exaggerated.” Ezra Vogel, director of Harvard’s Asia Center and author of Japan as Number One, recently noted that Japan is still “the biggest holder of foreign reserves in the world, with $224 billion,” and “most citizens are happy with their quality of life, which includes a low crime rate, low unemployment and excellent schools.”

In short, some collapse! Almost everything that affects workers, consumers and the poor is superior to conditions in the United States, not just yesterday but today, right now. The conclusion is clear: The pundits are evaluating our comparative economies, not on the basis of what concerns the mass of the population, but what concerns investors and the stock market -- which means mainly the rich and those who aspire to be rich.

John C. Cort is the author of Christian Socialism and a longtime contributor to Catholic publications.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998