FLAT EARTH

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.

Disorientation

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".

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