by Walden Bello, in The Nation Newspaper, 4 March, 1997, Bangkok Thailand
If the bureaucrats are stymied when it comes to economic reform, they are desperate when it comes to high tech. The key to global economic primacy, they realise, lies in information technology. While the Japanese have excelled in translating technological innovations into cheap manufactured goods in consumer electronics, computer parts and memory chips, it has eluded them in microprocessors and in software, the two strategic heights of the information sector, control of which allows domination of the whole sector, as exemplified by the twin hegemony now exercised by the US microprocessor manufacturer Intel and the US software giant Microsoft.
A recent interview I did with a prominent Korea-born engineer who immigrated to California's Silicon Valley and ended up creating his own, thriving software firm, is worth citing extensively since it captured vividly several dimensions of the Japanese dilemma as perceived by a frontline fighter in the software wars.
Knowledgeable of the real state of Japanese high tech, he asserted, ''I don't think the Japanese fully realise that more and more, strategic control of their industries will lie with the American firms that will determine the software they will use."
It is becoming clearer to people in the industry that the problem with the Japanese is not lack of capital. In fact, they have a surfeit of it. The problem is cultural. As the Silicon Valley entrepreneur noted, ''software development depends on an education that emphasises logical rigour, individual creativity and competitiveness. Japan's educational system prizes memorising, discourages individual creativity, and puts the group above everything."
An enthusiastic headhunter, he said that he doesn't even bother to look for people in Japan, ''because it's a waste of time. And it's not just a question of high salaries. It's simply that I won't find them there. We go to India and now to Lahore [Pakistan] for people, where the training in individual problem solving is along western lines."
In fact, some Japanese firms have come to the same conclusion as Silicon Valley and started to form alliances with Indian firms, though, with their less insular and bolder methods, the Americans are far ahead of the Japanese. Besides, says the engineer, ''you will never get the Japanese to import significant numbers of Indian software people into Japan the way the Americans do. It's skilled immigrants that are largely fuelling information tech development in the US something that is totally inconceivable in Japan".
So what can Japan do to reverse the trend? He pauses, then says, ''If I were the Japanese, I would focus on providing capital to others that have the capacity to innovate and let them do the innovating for me. You know, like venture capital. But the Japanese should not seek to control these companies, since Japanese methods will merely deaden their creativity."
The fertility free-fall
Culture rather than purely economic factors appears to also lie at the root of the third major problem that troubles the Japanese: the declining fertility rate.
The decline in the birth rate is a problem for most of the advanced capitalist countries, but the projections in the case of Japan are starker than those for most of the other major industrial powers. The current birth rate stands below replacement levels, and it is projected to decline from 1.45 per cent in 1995 to 1.38 in 2000. A recent study of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research recently triggered alarm bells by projecting that Japan's population will peak at 128 million in 2007, decline to 100 million by 2050, then plunge to 67 million by 2100.
Japan's declining birth rate has upset the country's male elite, in particular. It is reported that in an earlier incarnation as a senior minister of a previous government, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto suggested that one way to arrest the fertility decline was to discourage women from attaining higher education!
The sexual strike
Hashimoto and other powerful males are not mistaken in sensing that it is educated women that increasingly hold the key to Japan's future demographic profile and, indirectly, its future economic and political status in the world. In the 10 years since 1985, the percentage of those unmarried among women in the key 25-29 years old age bracket jumped from 30 per cent to 50 per cent.
Undoubtedly, the statistical trends are to be accounted for partly by economic rationality: In the choice between staying single and devoting oneself exclusively to work and getting married and being torn between the demands of one's occupation and housework, Japanese women are opting for the former in increasing numbers. Economic choices are, however, only partially responsible for women's marriage choices. Indeed, what seem to be economic choices in this case are shaped by cultural expectations that have prevented the creation of institutional arrangements that would ease the burdens of the modern working wife, who does not want children to become an insuperable obstacle to career advancement: Men are not expected to do housework or care for the children, women are.
These expectations are, in turn, part of a complex of male values and expectations that are geared toward socialising women to be submissive, loyal and housebound. It takes but a few conversations with Japanese women in their 20s and 30s to realise that something profound is happening in the relations between the sexes. An ordinary 38-year-old housewife in Osaka, who serves as a schoolteacher and takes care of the child while her husband works in Tokyo, told me, ''The growing gap in men and women's expectations that is this country's No 1 problem. I simply can't accept it when my husband tells me that the reason he stays with me is to have somebody take care of him when he's old."
A 30-year-old manager in a Tokyo-based NGO tells me that practically all of her friends who got married are now divorced and in no hurry to get remarried. ''It's this widening gap between traditional male expectations and women's changing values that's making more and more of women of my generation choose to remain unmarried,' she stated.
''Narita-divorces" are on the rise, she says, referring to a phenomenon whereby love-struck lovers leave for their honeymoon from Narita airport only to return wanting a quick divorce. ''Most Japanese men just don't get it," she concludes, revealing that she herself preferred to have a long-term relationship with a non-Japanese.
It is tragic that probably the last to realise that their women are waging what amounts to a sexual strike against them are Japanese men, who do not appear to be in any hurry to shed their old ways.
Is the decline irreversible?
The decline in fertility and the rise in the numbers of unmarried women will have major consequences both for the domestic economy and for Japan's place in the world. The proportion of senior citizens is expected to reach a quarter of the population by 2015 and climb to nearly a third by 2049.
What precisely will be the political fallout of a situation whereby relatively less and less people of working age support relatively more and more economically non-productive people is not known, but that there will be a political fallout is certain.
With a progressively smaller pool of workers to draw from, Japan will be forced to confront the decision of either allowing in a large number of foreign workers or accelerating the movement of its industrial facilities to East Asia to take advantage of plentiful Asian labour. Whichever option Japan follows, there will be explosive consequences.
With fewer and fewer cannon fodder in the form of young Japanese recruits, Japan might opt for a high tech military force structure and strategy, including developing the nuclear bomb to provide the ''ultimate security" to an ageing population.
So is Japan entering a period of irreversible decline, as the indicators and trends appear to suggest?
In military strategy, there are said to be two fundamental maxims. One is to never invade Russia. The other is to never invade China.
There are analogous truisms in the study of techno-economic competition among nations. The first is never to count the US out. The second is never to count Japan out.
Like the United States, Japan might have a few surprises in store for the declinists among us.
Dr Walden Bello is co-director of Focus on the Global South, a programme of the Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute, and a professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines. Dr Bello is also a contributing editor with The Nation. This is the last of a two-part series.