Their recession

beats our recovery

TO JAPAN, where the mood seems a lot less confident than on my previous visit, in 1990. The "bubble economy" had not yet burst then: people were taking out 100-year "three-generation" mortgages to buy a home, stockbrokers were dreaming up ever more implausible reasons why share prices should continue rising - nobody knew whether to believe them, but the market kept on going up anyway - and French Impressionists were migrating eastwards in flocks.

Now the most commonly-heard words are endaka (the rise of the yen) and "hollowing out", the transfer of industrial production to less expensive sites abroad. Despite the hopeful forecasts of fund managers that 1996 might be the year to invest in Japan, the Nikkei Average is going nowhere.

Unemployment has reached what is considered the excruciating level of 3 per cent, and would be considerably higher if Japan were not a country which still has legions of door-openers and saluters in public buildings, guards on subway platforms who do little more than check doors and wave flags, and helpers who leap forward at petrol stations to wipe your windscreen. If the economy stays becalmed, one fears for them.

And yet, to a visitor from a country supposedly well into recovery, Japan in the depths of recession, supposedly, still looks extremely prosperous - so much so that the sight of a tramp outside Tokyo's main station is a shock. Like his Western counterparts, his overcoat is tied up with string and his possessions are in plastic bags, but his filthy appearance makes a much starker contrast with the impeccable salarymen and office ladies swerving round him than it would in London. But then the line between indigence and fashionable dishevelment is much finer here.

Trust gone bust

LESS confidence too among Japanese officialdom, whose role - much more powerful than the politicians, let alone their British counterparts - is under attack following a series of scandals. These include the failure to prevent the marketing of HIV-contaminated blood, despite numerous warnings, and Ministry of Finance officials turning a blind eye to huge losses run up by a rogue Daiwa bank trader in New York. The Japanese public once tended to believe that "the gentleman in Kasumigaseki (Tokyo's equivalent of Whitehall) knows best". Now there is a lot more cynicism.

In the course of several encounters, I discovered that Japanese bureaucrats have all learned to talk of the need for greater transparency and accountability, but become vague when asked how this should apply in reality. One agreed that there should be more political oversight, only to add: "Of course, the politicians would have to prove themselves worthy first."

This is not quite as astoundingly arrogant as it might seem: ordinary Japanese trust officials far more than they do politicians. But the result is that the public finds it hard to get at the people who take the decisions.

Inside out

NEARLY every Japanese encountering a foreigner will speak politely of the need for the nation to become more engaged with the international community. The word "globalisation" is much used. But it seems to be accompanied by a sense of complication and difficulty; one suspects a display of tatemae - the Japanese word for the appearance one presents in public - rather than honnae (inner feelings).

A light dawned when a middle-aged woman spoke of Japan's Edo period as if it were yesterday. In fact it ended in 1853, when the US navy arrived in Tokyo Bay to demand trade with a nation which had been almost completely cut off from the world for more than two centuries. "We were at peace then," the woman sighed.

It was a rare glimpse of honnae, and explains a lot about Japanese attitudes. If everything that has happened in the past 143 years is seen as a departure from the previous idyll, it is not surprising that many Japanese subconsciously regard contact with the rest of the world as bringing nothing but grief.


MY hotel room in Fukuoka, unofficial capital of Kyushu, Japan's westernmost island, contained a sound system offering hundreds of channels. As much ingenuity had gone into devising material to fill them all as into the electronics. Apart from dozens of radio channels, you could choose folk music from central Africa to Polynesia, teach yourself salesmanship or any one of 20 languages, sing to a karaoke backing or be lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea washing on the shore.

Flipping through the options, I came across Virgin Radio, crystal-clear on a satellite feed. Somehow it was much more disorientating (in every sense) to be hearing about five-car pileups in Essex and police swoops in Southampton than to be watch-ing the much more serious news of the latest IRA atrocity on CNN. To get back any sense of where I was, it was necessary to tune in "Japanese waterwheel sounds, with koto stringed accompaniment".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

C# .Net Developer

£23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

Electronics Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor