We’re off on vacation. Post scheduling is awesome! This article is automatically published while I’m relaxing in the Florence hills, quaffing vino and eating much too much cheese. Internet and email access will be spotty at best. Although comments are hugely welcome, I will be slow in responding. Thanks you for reading.
In contrarian investing circles, Japan is frequently cited as a symbol of imminent global financial ruin, th its 200% debt-to-GDP ratio and a stagnant economy over the last twenty years. Even noted collapsologist (*) Jared Diamond, writing on Bloomberg, weighs in with three crucial reasons why Japan’s economic pain is getting worse (demographics, immigration and lack of resources), and bound to get a *lot* worse.
Its nuclear reactor fleet is still largely shut down. The country’s energy needs have been met with imported fuels, thereby driving its trade balance in the red. The major media decries the lack of innovation coming out of Japan Inc.
And yet, the country is still there. The islands have not yet disappeared Atlantis-like under the icy waves. There was no appreciable looting after the tsunami disaster. For innovation in robotics, Japan is still the place. Who knows, out its hyper-drive for renewable energy might come the next breakthrough technology. A country that vaulted itself from a feudal backwater into a modern world power during the Meji Restoration shouldn’t be easily discounted.
Even though last week was the first time I’d been to Japan, I felt a bit like I already knew the place. I’ve known a number of Japanese professionals as customers, suppliers and colleagues. My very first girlfriend in grade school was Japanese.
The street scenes, the politeness and punctiliousness of the taxi drivers, the neatness of its streets, was expected.
And, my library has a few books on Japan. All that does not a know-it-all make, but even from a business and career perspective, it pays have passing familiarity with the world’s third largest economy.
Here’s a list of not-your-usual titles I can recommend on Japan:
You Gotta Have Wa (Vintage), by Robert Whiting, is an incisive look at the very different way the Japanese people approach baseball. From the martial boot-camp training their players endure, to the highly organized cheering factions, the Japanese know baseball quite differently than a typical Red Sox fan.
The title refers to the idea/concept of wa, a state of harmony, peace and balance. That the Japanese view besoboru as the sporting equivalent of a tea ceremony should come as no surprise.
These two quotes prefacing Chapter 2 (“A History”) perhaps encapsulate it:
Baseball is more than just a game. It has eternal value. Through it, one leans the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan. ~ Suishu Tobita (1886-1965) – Japan’s original “God of Baseball”
This country has got its national flag all wrong. Instead of a rising sun in the center, there should be a baseball. ~ British Tourist
Samurai!, by Saburo Sakai. An autobiography of Japan’s greatest WWII fighter ace, with more than 60 recorded air victories. Sakai flew a Zero fighter over Guadalcanal, the Solomons and Iwo Jima.
The regimen that young pilot trainees were subjected to was extremely harsh. Beatings were routine. One mental image from the description of the experience I still find hard to fathom. Pilot trainees were required to jump off a tall tower, perform several flips, and land on their feet on the hard ground, with, as the author describes, “predictable results”. As Sakai relates, this brutal regimen was the main reason that Japan faced a severe pilot shortage during the war.
Sakai’s story is compelling, told honestly without much jingoism or nationalism. The dog-fight and on ground experiences related in this page-turner of a book are real enough. Tellingly enough, after the war Sakai became a Buddhist acolyte, and forswore violence.
“Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan”, by Alex Kerr The title is taken from an old Chinese parable, which says that dogs are difficult to draw, while dragons and demons and anything that springs from an artist’s imagination is quite easy. Similarly, the book focuses on the mundane tasks that the Japanese authorities do quite poorly, while excelling at the fantastic, like its construction of monuments and iconic buildings.
The book could be considered to be generally negative in its assessment, although it focuses mostly on government and bureaucrats. In fact, it is prescient in its examination of Japan’s nuclear regulatory body, the formerly named Donen. Its handling on the Tokaimura nuclear accidents in 1997 and 1999 was less than competent, and hopefully not a precursor to what is going now at Fukushima.
Rather than end on a negative note, take a few minutes to look at this video.
The “Daiku” performance, “The 9th” Beethoven symphony performed by 10,000 (amateur) singers, is the culminating point of each year´s performance in Japan at the end of December. This is the last movement, recorded during the 2011 Osaka´s concert dedicated to the victims of the devastating tsunami last march… sit down, relax and enjoy … all sung in perfect form and in perfect German!
Like its adoption of besoboru nearly a century ago, Japan has taken Beethoven’s symphonies, and the 9th in particular, in a uniquely Japanese fashion. In what other countries could we find ten thousand (!!!) singers, amateurs no less, that can put on a performance like this. Almost brings tears to your eyes.