Japanese agonise over an endangered future

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The Independent Online
The pips began to squeak in Tokyo last week.

On Wednesday, as the yen spiralled to a historic high of 79.75 to the dollar, Japan's sweating export industries stood up and started shouting. The automobile manufacturers' association warned of an "economic crisis". Two thousand members of Rengo, the Japanese TUC, held an open-air "protest with anger" against the endaka - the high yen.

And Tadahiro Sekimoto, chairman of the NEC electronics group, waxed apocalyptic in denouncing the "money game played by fund managers and currency speculators simply for their own profit".

Immediate measures were needed to avert "a financial crisis on a global scale", he said. What he meant, of course, was an NEC crisis on a global scale. As the meeting of the Group of Seven finance ministers in Washington this week will surely confirm, it is only in Japan that the yen's surge - up more than 20 per cent since the beginning of this year - is viewed purely as a crisis.

A few of the rising Asian economies are beginning to worry about their large yen-denominated debts. But for the rest of the world, and especially the US, which has been struggling for years with its trade deficit, there are plenty of reasons to cheer the yen up and up.

It is this sense of isolation, almost as much the damage to Japan's export trade and the slowing of its fragile recovery, that is causing unease in Tokyo. Having transformed itself from a defeated pauper to the second- greatest economy of the world, Japan has never quite been able to believe its luck, and the notion of the country as a vulnerable, resource-poor nation on the edge of the world is deeply rooted in the collective psyche.

Since the abject failure of the government's stimulus package and the Bank of Japan's vain 0.75 per cent cut in discount interest rates, the government has repeatedly drawn attention to the difficulties of controlling currency fluctuations unilaterally. "We're facing real difficulties in co-ordinating policy," Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama admitted last week, "because of the difference between the pain felt in Japan and the pain felt by the US."

Japan, labouring under the burden of its mighty currency, feels out on its own. Nobody else in the G7 club seems to care.

Adding to this insecurity are worries about the long-term effects of endaka. From one point of view, what the yen's recent surge has shown, above all, is the strength and resilience of Japanese manufacturing: how many other export-based economies could survive a 40 per cent rise in the cost of their currency since the beginning of 1994 without dramatic job cuts and restructuring? The answer is that, since the onset of Japan's recession in 1989, a quiet revolution has begun in some industries.

Drastic streamlining of production methods, for example, has led car makers to concentrate on a reduced range of models assembled from the smallest possible number of different components. Toyota cut costs by 1.8 per cent last year, or $1.5bn, by a tenacious pursuit of more efficient production.

This has reduced the impact of the rising yen, but leaves the tightly belted car makers with the unpleasant feeling that there is no more slack to take in.

Which leaves the alternative: the large-scale transfer of manufacturing overseas. From Thailand to Tyneside, Japanese companies have taken advantage of favourable exchange rates and cheap foreign labour, often in collaboration with local partners. The Proton car, designed in Japan and made under licence in Malaysia, is a prime example.

This has so far been a controlled process, leaving plenty of time for companies to redeploy Japanese staff without the trauma of large-scale redundancies. The worry now is that this hollowing-out will become a necessity, with alarming local consequences.

A prospect presents itself of a future Japan as an offshore finance facility, an island command centre remote-controlling overseas manufacture, but with no primary industries of its own. Japan will be left with unemployment, social stresses, decreased tax revenue, and an increasingly aged and dependent society.

When Japanese business leaders speak of catastrophe, they are not really thinking of stock market crashes and currency meltdown.

What they fear most of all is a future Japan hollowed out, marginalised, and sapped of competitiveness by its own phenomenal currency.