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Japan May Be In A Post-Growth Era, With Or Without Abe

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to win snap elections this weekend. But successive Japanese governments have been unable to reverse economic stagnation.

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No Japanese government in nearly two decades has been able to revive the country's stagnant economy. And, heading into a national election this weekend, some think the country needs to rethink its priorities, especially the importance of economic growth. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls the vote a referendum on his efforts to pull Japan out of recession, and he's largely expected to win. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on a different view of the future if Abe can't turn things around.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Japan is about to break out of the deflation that has lasted for 15 years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says in a campaign ad. Economic recovery, he concludes, there is no other way.

But Masaru Kohsaka insists there is another way. Kohsaka asks clients to take off their shoes as they enter his bar in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district. He decorated the place himself. There are no clocks to be seen. Kohsaka quit his job as a salary man more than a decade ago to live and advocate a slower life. He grows his own rice, makes his own soy sauce and works a four-day week.

MASARU KOHSAKA: (Through translator) Without economic growth, you can become happy. I grow and eat organic food, build my own house and generate my own electricity. I've transformed myself from a person who couldn't do anything without spending money.

(Singing in Japanese).

KUHN: Kohsaka sings a song, welcoming so-called downshifters to his bar. He's also welcomed a few notables, including Prime Minister Abe's wife. Experts point to two important reasons why Japan, more than any other nation, will have to downshift and accept a smaller, more sustainable economy.

One is that Japan's public debt is now two and a half times the size of its economy - the highest in the world. The other is Japan's rapidly aging population. It's projected to shrink by two-thirds from its current 127 million down to 40 million early in the next century. Noriko Hama is an economist at Kyoto's Doshisha University.

NORIKO HAMA: Japan is definitely the frontrunner here in terms of going the way of the postmodern, post growth society. There is really nobody in front of us, and everybody behind us is watching to see whether we will make it.

KUHN: Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, rejects the idea of accepting a diminished Japan. It sees this thinking as defeatist. But Norihiro Kato, a literary critic and emeritus professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, says this is the last hurrah of the traditionalists who define national success in terms of GDP growth and military might.

NORIHIRO KATO: (Through translator) The failure of the Abe administration and its policies will usher in a real beginning for the Japanese people.

KUHN: Kato says that Prime Minister Abe is peddling an illusion that Japan can return to the rapid economic growth of the 1960s. Those who believe it, he adds, are mistaken.

KATO: (Through translator) Humans are living lives based on the delights of limitlessness. People's desire for better, happier lives should not be denied, but we should make a distinction between that desire and our materialistic obsession of wanting more and more.

KUHN: Kato says that when we humans are able to choose not to do, build and acquire things that we don't need, then we have outgrown growth. Kato admits, though, that so far no political party in Japan has come up with viable policies for a post growth era. For example, when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan was in power for three years until 2012, it had to back down on key reforms in the face of opposition from big business. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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