Book Review: “Blindside” by Eamonn Fingleton

“Blindside,” written by Eamonn Fingleton and published in 1995, carries the subtitle, “Why Japan is Still on Track to Overtake the U.S. by the Year 2000.”  While I’m sure this helped sell a few more copies back in the nineties, it makes it very easy for potential readers to dismiss it today as just another book purporting to tell you the secrets of Japanese business success.  This is a shame, because that is not what this book is about.

Blindside Cover

A better subtitle would be “A Look at How Japan is Organized in a Superior Way vis-a-vis the U.S., with Particular Emphasis on Economics.”  I’ll admit it’s not quite as catchy.

Though really, if I were to take a Fingleton approach to the book, I might suspect that he put that subtitle in there to make sure no one read it after the year 2000.  Fingleton was living in Japan at the time, and therefore stood to benefit from its continued success in the world.  Perhaps this book was his last desperate plea for America to get its act together, and if it didn’t take his advice by 2000, then it was probably better off not knowing the secrets contained within.

Of course, this sounds a bit silly.  But the true thesis of the book is that through careful planning and implementation, everything that has happened in the world has gone Japan’s way.  He specifically names Japan’s Ministry of Finance (MOF) for subtly directing everything in Japan in order to build up the nation as an economic powerhouse.  The book reaches it’s conspiracy climax on page 288, where Fingleton addresses the early nineties crash in Japan that triggered the so called “Lost Decades:”

“In reality, the MOF never lost its grip on the markets:  it engineered the crash as a counterintuitive piece of industrial policy to effect the transfer of wealth from rich private citizens to corporate Japan.”

These sort of quotes make it easy to dismiss Fingleton as a conspiracy theorist, which I suppose he is.  But does no one in the world ever conspire to do anything?  Is everyone, and, specifically, are Japanese people just dumb economic animals lumbering about playing at the game of civilization?  Having lived in Japan for a number of years now, I find it easier than ever to believe that Japan knows what it is doing.  Everything else in this society is carefully thought out and organized, from recycling to trains, from how to eat to how to say hello, so is it really so hard to believe that Japanese bureaucrats also concern themselves with how to properly organize Japan’s economy?

The most compelling evidence to support Fingleton’s theory of Japan as perpetual winner (albeit a gracious one who would never dream of kicking sand in his downed opponents’ faces) is that despite some twenty plus years now of “Lost Decades,” the people of Japan are doing quite well.  Life expectancy is up, unemployment has consistently stayed at around four to five percent, current account surpluses (i.e. trade surpluses) have continued to grow, and things like homelessness, violent crime, police brutality, and abject poverty that are daily companions in the West are virtually unheard of.

And the standard of living here is just ridiculous.  All the trains run on time, you can go to the doctor for peanuts, it is easy to find cheap, fresh, locally grown food even in chain supermarkets, everyone drives a new car and has a flat-screen TV, things like roads and bridges are well-maintained, bathrooms even in places like train stations and convenience stores are impossibly clean, there is virtually no litter anywhere, etc.  Despite the doldrums Japan is supposed to be suffering, in reality it is an incredibly advanced, well-organized society that does very well by its citizens.

In fact, for illustration, let’s just take a quick look at some of the regulars at an evening English conversation class that I teach:

•Two friends, women, early thirties, single.  They work as the equivalent of secretaries for the city, sometimes jockeying a counter, sometimes emptying trash-cans.  They take yearly trips abroad (this year it was Singapore, next year is Canada) and about bi-weekly trips to various destinations within Japan (for example, they’ll fly a few hundred miles on a weekend to go see a figure skater that they like).

•Mid-thiries male, married with two children.  His wife is an elementary school teacher and he is a contract (“temporary”) worker for a solar panel manufacturer.  Despite the fact that his company has been cutting back on hours and shedding employees, in the past year he has:  bought a house, had his second child with his wife taking an entire year off of work with pay, and had expensive braces attached to his teeth (such cosmetic procedures are generally not covered by insurance).

•Woman, seventies, married with adult children.  She and her husband take twice yearly trips back to their hometown (some hundreds of miles away) to see friends and family, and she will often take extra solo trips herself to attend a class reunion or whatever.  They live in a very nice, large house fitted with all trimmings of modern life.  Her husband is retired and she volunteers at various schools and day cares, but she has never worked a day in her life.  She raised her children, bought her house, and continues to enjoy an ideal, “Leave it to Beaver” middle class life entirely on her husbands salary and, now, pension.

And this is all in a country where, aside from a mortgage, personal debt is almost unheard of.  People tend to have large savings, and credit cards are difficult to get (and often when you do get them you’re expected to pay the balance every month).  As Fingleton says, “…the Japanese economy’s special achievement is that its average stand of living is so uniformly high.”  Obviously people interested in English and with free time enough in the evening to come to my class are not going to be a perfect representation of Japan as a whole.  But still, where exactly are these Lost Decades?  Take for example this paragraph from T. R. Reid’s “Confucius Lives Next Door:”

“In December of 1997, six months after the first wave of currency crises hit East Asia, I went to Japan with a film crew from the Arts and Entertainment Network to make a documentary about Asian financial troubles.  Because time and funds were in short supply, A&E had decided to restrict its filming to one country; Japan was picked because it had experienced both economic boom and bust (and because the members of the film crew were dying to travel to Tokyo to get their hands on the latest video equipment, which hits the market in Japan about six months before it comes to New York).  What I remember from that trip is the poor producer pulling his hair out every morning because it was so hard to find any sign of the economic disaster that Asia was supposed to be suffering.  Everywhere we looked in Japan, we saw calm and order.  We saw well-dressed people in late-model cars moving through their normal lives, going to work, shopping, strolling hand in hard through the parks.  “Wheres the recession?” the producer kept asking me.  “Where are all the homeless?  Where’s the social breakdown?””

Let me give you bigger example:  skyscrapers.  As Fingleton points out on page 294:

“Despite the strain in real estate finance, building work continued wherever it had been initiated so there was no expensive dislocation in the form of half-built buildings going to waste.”

This is one of those examples where things in Japan are conspicuous by their absence.  Buildings left, at least for a time, half-finished in the middle of a recession are a common occurrence in other countries, but why do you not only never see them, but never ever hear of them in Japan?  When I came to Tokyo in 2009 there was a huge global financial crisis and economic downturn.  Yet everywhere I went I saw huge buildings being built.  Even construction of the gigantic Tokyo SkyTree continued uninterrupted, and would go on to actually be completed ahead of schedule.  As I looked up at the already ridiculously built-up Tokyo being built-up even more, I knew something wasn’t right.  It was like everyone who writes about Japan was talking about some other place.  And I’ve only become more convinced of this as the years have passed.

Fingleton addresses this disconnect between the reality in Japan and English reporting on Japan.  Talking about a particular example where the press was wrong:

“…American press correspondents in Tokyo seem constantly to place their trust in the wrong sources.  In this case, correspondents relied on American securities analysts to ‘substantiate’ their reports.  Such analysts are readily accessible but, for the most part, unreliable:  typically they don’t read Japanese, and in trying to see into the Japanese financial structure, they draw heavily on newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal.  In a word, they reflect back to the Journal the misguided version of Japanese reality that Journal writers want to believe.”

“A major problem for American correspondents is that the Japanese generally do not correct foreigners’ misunderstandings.  For the Japanese, Westerners in Tokyo are ‘guests of Japan,’ and one does not correct guests.”

“With few exceptions, business publications have utterly failed to provide their correspondents with the solid cultural and linguistic training needed to begin to unravel the true story of Tokyo’s economic strategy.  Their excuse has been that effective language training would be too expensive.  And true, total fluency in reading Japanese is almost beyond the reach of Americans who come to the Japanese language in adult years.  But the point is that with as little as two years’ study, a reporter can acquire enough of the language to scan the headlines, use standard reference books, and read advertisements and signs.  The American press has not contemplated even this modest investment.”

To return to the meat of the book, though, it is basically an outline of how the Japanese economy works in Fingleton’s opinion.  He appears to have read every book on the subject he could get his hands on, and then combined that with his personal observations to come up with this broad theory that Japan knows what it is doing, but does what it does in ways that are counterintuitive to how we tend to think about things in the West.  I think this makes it hard for most Americans to not just accept, but even consider that Fingleton might be right, because, first, it is hard to imagine a country being run along such different lines than our own, and second, most Americans prefer to think of Japan as America’s stupid kid brother, always messing things up for itself due to its lack of wits and experience.

And certainly, Fingleton’s main point that the Ministry of Finance calls all the shots and has cunningly directed things over the years to Japan’s gain is probably impossible to prove.  Yet he does demonstrate that the Japanese government has powers and influence that we don’t think of government as typically having, and that things have tended to go very well for Japan, even at times when it would appear on paper that things were going badly.

As for the book’s subtitle then, Fingleton seems to be of the opinion that Japan has surpassed the U.S., despite whatever GDP figures seem to show.  He claims that if Clinton had weakened the dollar in order to save American manufacturing, then Japan’s GDP would also show its superiority.  But instead, the dollar was left strong, and American has a huge GDP with very few good jobs, and essentially no advanced manufacturing industry.  Meanwhile Japan has failed to become number one in GDP, but is probably the single most successful society in the world.

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