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The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
In-depth critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific...and the world.

Can Anyone Compete with China? Lessons from Japan

By Eamonn Fingleton



[This article by Eamonn Fingleton exemplifies the "Japan as Number One"
genre, a type that has become such a rara avis in recent years that it seemed
virtually extinct. The conventional wisdom among international economists
as well as Japanese neoliberals, is that Japan is washed up and has to learn
from America. Using Japan’s trade with China as an example, Fingleton
raises compelling questions about the failures of American industrial and
trade policy.

Even though the idea that America is the "global standard" is now rarely
voiced explicitly in Japan and by globetrotting boosters in business
management elsewhere, the belief that what are deemed to be American
ways of doing things have simply proved far better than Japan's still
underlies much thinking on how Japan should reform its economy. So an
article that goes so deliberately against the grain is worthy of notice in part
for scarcity value alone.

We cannot confirm whether Fingleton is correct in claiming that Japan is
deliberately and skillfully leveraging surplus Chinese labour by transferring
low-tech production there and upskilling at home. Certainly Japan's trade
surplus is as high as he says it is at a time when the U.S. is awash in debt,
and it is also true that Japan runs a trade surplus with China that is the envy
of Washington. But if the author has the evidence to show that these results
are in large part due to a business and bureaucratic elite that still effectively
manages industrial policy, one that puts the needs of the country as a whole
over the short-term economic rationality of a given business, it would be
important to present it. It seems difficult, though, to square that image of
effective government-led cooperation with credible reports that the old
MITI (now METI) is searching for a role in the wake of losing most of its
clout. Fingleton relies too much on a thesis of subterfuge to explain why
what appears to be the case is actually virtually the reverse.

Moreover, if Japan is in fact handily using China's cheap and abundant labour
while upskilling its own, then one wonders why there is still high unemployment
as well as growing numbers of part-time workers and a widening income gap.
Since Japan’s population seems already to be entering a period of contraction,
and is undeniably producing fewer and fewer young workers, one wonders why
the demand for labour isn't strong, in fact white hot. We should not see
diverging incomes and declining skills among large numbers of workers in Japan
nor should Japanese intellectuals be telling us that much of the Japanese
corporate sector is cutting costs by deskilling production and retrenching on
lifetime employment. These observations in rebuttal do not, of course, prove that
Fingleton's argument is simply wrong or even greatly exaggerated. But they do
suggest that we need to look for evidence that Fingleton did not supply as well
as consider contrary hypotheses that he chose not to challenge. Japan Focus
]

Americans believe that the United States is in good company in being hollowed
out by China. After all Japan is also suffering badly from Chinese industrial
competition -- or so the American press reports. Actually Japan's trade strategy
sacrifices neither workers nor high-tech leadership. For more than a decade now
we have been told that the world's most advanced economies face a common fate
in this era of Chinese economic expansion: massive layoffs in manufacturing and
ever-rising trade deficits. Indeed, if American press reports are to be believed,
Japan has even more to fear from the Chinese economic threat than the U.S.
Supposedly, key Japanese industries such as electronics are being rapidly
eviscerated by low-wage Chinese competition. Such reports, suggesting that
there is something inevitable and inexorable about the decline of manufacturing
in advanced nations, have served powerfully to tranquilize American public
opinion at a time when America's trade deficits have gone from merely
horrendous to truly disastrous.

It is past time these reports were exposed for the propaganda they are. No
nation's trade position has suffered as much from China's rise as the United
States. Quite the reverse. Many of America's key economic competitors have, on
balance, strongly benefited from China's industrialization. Of these the most
notable example is, oddly enough, Japan.

Consider this little publicized fact: Japan's current-account surplus last year
totaled $181 billion. This was a record for any nation in world history. It was
more than 2.5 times China's 2004 current-account surplus. More to the point, it
was three times Japan's surplus of 1989, the peak year of American concern about
Japan's "juggernaut" trade policies.

The truth is that Japan has closely co-operated with China's desire for
export-led growth yet it has found ways of doing so that also boost its own
exports. Hence another rather significant unpublicized fact: Japan exports more
to China than it imports. Its surplus with China in 2004 ran to nearly $14
billion, up 17 percent from 2003.

Just as in the case of the United States, outsourcing to China has played a
major role in corporate Japan's production arrangements in recent years. There
the similarity ends. Unlike the United States, Japan believes in managing its
trade. Although Japanese officials recognize that consumers can benefit from
trade, they also recognize that people need jobs and incomes before they can
consume. Thus where imports might pose a significant threat to Japanese jobs,
the Japanese government works to minimize the damage.

Besides influencing the pace of outsourcing, Japanese policymakers ensure the
trend does not entail the leakage abroad of the nation's key production
technologies. Thus individual corporations are not permitted unilaterally to
transfer advanced technologies to foreign operations.

If this seems impossibly complicated to administer, it isn't. Much of the
control stems semi-automatically from Japan's distinctive labor regulation. In
principle, employers are foresworn from making layoffs. This principle is
applied flexibly: exceptions are permitted in the case of struggling small firms
as well as corporate dinosaurs in near-terminal financial difficulties. But as a
practical matter, layoffs are not an option for any healthy mainstream Japanese
corporation.

Whereas American chief executives are much concerned with pandering to the
whims of securities analysts, a typical Japanese chief executive is necessarily
focused on long-term production planning. His principal concern is to create new
and ever more productive work for his Japanese colleagues at every level, not
least the newest recruits who can be expected to be on the payroll 30 years
hence. To this end, he will make sure that, among other things, the corporation
spends heavily on research and development.

He will also probably try to focus this spending mainly on developing efficient
new production technologies, which provide a much more lasting benefit in terms
of secure long-term jobs than, say, designing new products.

All this means that a Japanese chief executive's attitude to outsourcing will
almost automatically be closely aligned with the Japanese national interest.
Because he cannot easily shed labor at home, he will move production activities
abroad only after he has lined up new and better work -- either more capital
intensive or more know-how intensive or both -- for his domestic workers.
By way of example, a Japanese television manufacturer might move assembly
operations to China only after redeploying its domestic assembly workers to make
liquid crystal displays. This latter activity can be at least 10 times as
capital intensive as assembling television sets.

As a practical matter, in the early stages of the trend for American
corporations to outsource to China, Japanese corporations held back. But lately
they have caught up and now outsource almost all routine assembly work. For both
Japan and China, this is win-win. In a textbook illustration of the principle of
comparative advantage, Japan does the capital-intensive work supplying high-tech
components to China's low-wage assembly plants. The net effect has been a huge
increase in global output of everything from mobile phones to game machines --
with a resulting benefit to the world's consumers in ever lower prices and ever
greater functionality.

In geopolitical terms, the result is that Japan is now far more securely in the
lead in advanced manufacturing than it ever was in the late 1980s. This does not
show up in American trade statistics because much of what Japan sells to the
United States these days comes via final assembly plants in China and thus is
counted for American statistical purposes as "Made in China."

While Japan is the most spectacular example of a nation that has secretly
leveraged Chinese industrialization to the advantage of its export industries,
it is hardly alone. This should be obvious from the fact that China's surplus
with the United States exceeds its surplus with the world as a whole. In other
words, while China is a huge net exporter to the United States, it is actually a
major net importer from the rest of the world.

It is fair to say that, in common with Japan, many of the world's other advanced
manufacturing nations are using China as an export pipeline through which to
sell to the United States. It is also fair to say that, not for the first time,
Uncle Sam is being treated as the world trading system's ultimate patsy.
Why isn't all this better understood? A key factor is the Washington trade
lobby. So skilled has it become in spinning the story that it has succeeded in
pulling the wool over the eyes of countless analysts at supposedly independent
think tanks.

Another factor is the perennial naivety of American foreign correspondents. The
problem is particularly acute in Tokyo, where the local English-language press
functions shamelessly as the Japanese Foreign Ministry's propaganda arm. The
message in recent years has been that Japanese industry is almost ludicrously
dysfunctional -- and therefore is quaking in its boots at the rise of Chinese
manufacturing. The tone of desperation was nicely encapsulated in an op-ed
article recently by corporate chieftain Nobuyuki Idei. Under the headline
"Nation's competitiveness must be recovered," Idei bemoaned Japan's allegedly
widespread economic inefficiency and a general decline in competitiveness. But
how inefficient can a nation be if it boasts the largest trade surplus in world
history and pays some of the world's highest wages? (Japanese wages now run
about 20 percent higher than American levels.) Idei, of course, did not mention
these points. Also left unsaid was the fact that Idei's own corporation has
multiplied its dollar-denominated sales nearly fourfold over the last 15 years.
What should the United States do? Clearly it cannot -- and should not -- attempt
to emulate everything a highly regulated nation like Japan does. But it could
make a start by doing some things that, until recently at least, have always
been in the best American traditions -- like being honest with itself.

Eamonn Fingleton is a Tokyo-based economic commentator and author most
recently of Unsustainable: How Economic Dogma is Destroying American
Prosperity.. This article appeared in the August 2005 issue of The American
Conservative. It is published at Japan Focus on September 23, 2005.

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Authors: For all articles by the author, click on author's name.   Eamonn Fingleton