Is Japan, in fact, number one?

August 04, 2011 4 min read

This week, headlines in Asia and around the world were that Japan may be dethroned as the second largest economy once the final figures have been tallied for the year.

In many ways, this should not be big news. Demographics are stacked against Japan. While population growth does not immediately and exactly equate to economic growth, in broad patterns the two have been very highly correlated throughout human history…and, China’s population is ten times bigger than Japan’s. Furthermore, Japan’s population is the oldest in the world; we all know that old people buy less and produce less than young people.

Even though the logic of this ranking shift should surprise no one, we are still giving this news rapt attention for two important reasons: One, we humans love hierarchy. We like to know exactly where we stand in relation to others. In our book, The Attention Economy, we found that magazines that have a ranking featured on the cover are more likely to sell than those that don’t: 10 best ways to lose weight, top 5 hotels, 7 most livable cities, the Fortune 500 list, etc. We’re innately interested.

Two, we pay attention to big things. This is basically a law of nature; bigger is better – bigger eats smaller. When he claimed (counter-intuitively and convincingly) otherwise, E.F. Schumacher became a household name with his book, Small is Beautiful.

So, there is no denying that Growth is a good thing.

But, during the 1990s and 2000s, when everyone else had written off Japan because of its flat or often even negative growth, I saw a country that in some ways was oddly better off than it had been during its growth years (people working less, enjoying more, living in better homes, shopping in better stores, enduring shorter commutes and living longer). Japanese companies are still some of the largest and most successful in the world. Japan’s reputation for design and creativity make it very popular. When I mention to almost any 20- or 30-something in the world that I used to live in Tokyo, they say jealously that they hope to be able to do that someday.

Structurally, Japan may never grow very fast again – even if the nation adopts all of the prescriptions that economist and journalist throw at them: looser immigration laws, government stimuli to domestic consumption, or more globalization.

But Growth is not the only Good in the world; and maybe that is not where the Japanese have been focused for a long time now. Even during the go-go days of their economy in the late 1980s, I remember telling a same-aged Japanese colleague about the high salary I’d been offered with a consulting firm. He basically scolded me for taking a salary that, he felt, was unnecessarily high. “You don’t need all that money. It just isn’t right.” For him – and many like him, there were more important things than Growth.

Just by looking at the cultural and policy systems in place, it appears that Japan – perhaps more than any other country on earth – focuses its attention not on Growth, but on Life itself. Japanese live longer (rising from 68 years to almost 83 years over the last five decades; but oddly a recent scandal was families covering up the deaths of record-holding long living relatives); have a better health care system (government pushed medical equipment suppliers to develop lower cost MRI equipment – patients in Japan pay $100 for a scan versus $1500 in the US); and boast of a Constitution that actually prohibits going to war. Although Wall Street analysts work longer hours than even the hardest working Japanese, Japan’s government is the only in the world to impose criminal (and civil) penalties for an employee dying from being overworked. Employers find it almost impossible to take away employee livelihoods once they have been brought on as full-time workers. And, apart from the couple of odd exceptions (whaling and dolphins – made famous by a film about one infamous village), Japan is probably more cognizant of nature and conservation than any other nation on earth. Its air and water are clean and its forests well preserved.

Our news outlets, daily organizational lives and experiences in a capitalistic world drive us to adopt a priority of Growth, even over Life. Almost any business organization in the world sees Growth as the greatest Good and we’ve become inured to the notion that top business leaders can be paid bonuses even while the livelihood is being snatched from those lower in the organization. Particularly when we are living in places where there is not much fear of an early or untimely death, our priorities tend to skew toward a focus on Growth as a measure of success.

But if our perspective changes just a little; if we turn the spotlight onto Life rather than Growth, there is an argument that Japan really is number one.