- Baron Lamarre
WHAT IS KILLING JAPAN? & WHY YOU SHOULD CARE.
There is ONE disturbing thing about Japan that people keep ignoring. The country is in turmoil and it will see its own demise, slowly but surely. There are not many man-made challenges that could bring down The Great Nippon Empire on its knees. After all, the country has set a benchmark as the World's best exhibit of what mankind can achieve against the worst that mother nature will throw at you.
Here is an Island-nation smaller than the State of California with less Oil reserve than Myanmar. Sitting on the Pacific ring of fire, the birthplace of the Ninjas is frequently battered by Typhoons, Tsunamis and earthquakes. It is simply a miracle how this relatively small nation managed to rise up to the rank of the 2nd largest economy in the world and remained there for a large part of the 21st century.
"It was during my trip to Tokyo in 2012 following the Fukushima Nuclear disaster, that I could size up the invisible pandemic that’s been killing Japan since 1990."
NUCLEAR NIGHTMARE CONTAINED
When the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck in 2011, it changed Japan for good. It was a turning point in the country’s history. it combined both a Tsunami and a Nuclear disaster to deliver a devastating blow to the country self-confidence. Japan knew how to deal with Tsunamis and manage a nuclear crisis each separately. But to have both hit you at the same time was quite a traumatic event. Nonetheless, against all odds Japan still came out on top.
Japan is frequently battered by Typhoons, Tsunamis and earthquakes.
A reminder: the March 11th 2011 nuclear accident that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Ōkuma, Fukushima Prefecture Japan, is still considered till this day as the most severe nuclear accident in the human history since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The accident was triggered by the Tōhoku earthquake and a tsunami that came from it. In the days after the accident, radiation released to the atmosphere forced the government to declare emergency and evacuate about 154,000 residents from the communities surrounding the plant. Large amounts of water contaminated with radioactive isotopes were released into the Pacific Ocean during and after the disaster.
The only country in the world that has ever been nuked was traumatized by the prospect of radioactive materials leaking out of its 54 nuclear reactors and poisoning the country for thousands of years to come.
Considering that 30% of the country’s electricity was generated from Nuclear power, it was simply unthinkable to shut down all the nuclear reactors without plunging the country into darkness and tanking the economy. Well, Japan did just that: The government closed or suspended operations at all of Japan's nuclear plants for safety inspections.
But where would they find the Fuel to replace the supply lost from nuclear power plants? The country went on a shopping spree around the world to purchase Fuel oil which could be shipped to Japan on short notice and keep thermal power plants running. They issued purchase tenders for Fuel Oil supply. My company was one of the shortlisted suppliers fortunate enough to win some of the tenders. This was our opportunity to support Japan with the much-needed Fuel to replace the dangerous Nuclear Energy. A PERSONAL EYE OPENER As the Head of Fuel Oil Trading Desk in PETRONAS, I visited Japan in 2012 (a year after Fukushima Disaster), to negotiate our supply contract renewal with various Japanese Fuel importers: TEPCO (Tokuyo electric), Mitsubishi, Toyota-Tusho (these are not the car companies but the Energy trading arms of large conglomerates that manufacture multiple goods including cars) and many more.
It wasn’t my first trip to Japan as I’ve been visiting frequently in the past for business meetings. Every time in my prior travels to Japan, I would normally stay at The Grand Hyatt Roppongi: A beautiful hotel located right in the middle of Tokyo. While in my past visits, I would mostly venture out for business meetings, dining with customers and occasionally shopping, this time I decided to take a walk around Tokyo neighborhoods and talk to the locals. Since the Fukushima disaster was all over the media, my goal was to hear what regular folks (Fruit stall traders, barbers, people in the street etc.) have to say about the latest national crisis and how they cope with it in their daily lives. As I was about to start exploring Roppongi by foot and try cheap local street food with a hope to talk to as many people as possible, I asked the hotel concierge for suggestions on authentic local dishes. The hotel recommended me a guy named Kobayashi be my tour guide and translator. I thought I would do fine walking alone and wouldn’t need a tour guide. I was sure I could survive a basis conservation with locals using my Casio Electronic dictionary/translator. Then they cautioned me with "Please, becareful! This is a Yakuza territory." I was surprised and thought: "What!? How can such a posh area in the middle of Tokyo be a Japanese mafia gangland?" Kobayashi told me that what you see is not always what you get in Japan.
What you see is not always what you get in Japan.
In less than a year, the birthplace of Ninjas has successfully contained the worst nuclear disaster in the country’s history since World War II yet the Yakuza mafia was still thriving. Although I still couldn’t visualize Yakuza operating in Roppongi, I nonetheless changed my mind and agreed for him to come with me around Roppongi not out of fear of the mafia but more to have a crash course on Japan’s underworld.
YAKUZA IN ROPPONGI
As we were walking along the back alleys, I just couldn’t picture how a mafia gang would thrive in a such clean and beautifully lit place with security cameras everywhere. Then Kobayashi began to tell me about Ryoichi Sugiura.
He was a 43 year’s old Leader of Sumiyoshi-kai (One of the notorious Yakuza gangs operating in Tokyo). In February 2007, he was assassinated in broad daylight as he sat in his car on the street of Roppongi. This occurred only four years earlier... (it was evident that the people in Roppongi remembered in clearly). That’s when the grim reality hit me. I’ve only seen Yakuza stories in movies and thought it was some ancient fantasy. Nonetheless, my tour guide reassured me that Yakuza rarely resort to killings but when they do, their victims would mostly be other gangsters. They do not target tourists. The apparent contradiction between a violent underworld beneath a clean and serene landscape raised my curiosity even further.
We went to eat authentic fresh sashimi in a small restaurant owned by a man who was a 4th generation sushi chef. He as training his son to take over the business. I must admit though that the taste was tough for me. The conversation with the local chef was more interesting than the Sashimi (raw fish) with strong wasabi.
The apparent contradiction between a violent underworld beneath a clean and serene landscape of Roppongi raised my curiosity even further.
By talking to the regular guy in the street, my impression was that people were more worried about the economy than they were about Fukushima disaster. Somehow, they felt that since they have survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they will certainly contain Fukushima. That Samurai spirit which runs through the vein of Japanese people still wasn't been enough to find a cure to the country crumbling economy for more than 30 years.
The chronic economy mess has also been a fertile ground for Yazuka activities. This mafia organization makes money by operating illegal casinos, online gambling networks, drug dealing and Loan sharking business.
The stubborn economic malaise has burdened many Japanese companies with heavy debts. When it became very difficult for them to obtain credit from commercial Banks, many would go to Sarakin (loan sharks) for help. Illicit lenders have emerged as a big problem for Japan, where the economic slump and high unemployment have left score of people short of funds. VOA news reported in 2009 that more than one million people have turned to loan sharks to make ends meet and would often face harassment if they are late with payments. When borrowers fail to keep up repayments, their names go on blacklists, which are sold on to sharks (Usually Yakuza).
Telephone calls follow, typically offering modest sums in return for nothing more than the names and addresses of a few guarantors, often relatives or neighbors. But they soon find themselves paying annual interest well in excess of the 29% legal maximum. Sometimes it ends with suicide.
THE SUICIDE CRISIS
It’s a tragic barometer but a vivid one that showcases the extend of the economic desperation in Japan. Regular folks are killing themselves due to financial trouble. Suicide has reached a crisis level, though the government has been active in intervention to decrease the risk of suicide among vulnerable populations. According to public data, it is the leading cause of death in men among the ages of 20-44 and women among the ages of 15 to 34. Japanese men are twice as likely to commit suicide as their female counterparts, particularly after a divorce. Of particular concern is suicide among men who have recently lost their jobs and are no longer able to provide for their families. People are expected to stay married with a single person and stay on a single job for their entire life, and the pressure of this expectation can make a divorce or job loss feel like a failure. Aokigahara Forest, at the base of Mount Fuji, is a country’s Mecca for suicides, as hundreds of people go there each year to kill themselves. Police regularly patrol the area for suicide victims and survivors.
According to Japan's National Police Agency, more people died from suicide in the month of October 2020 than from COVID in all of 2020. In that single month 2,153 Japanese died of suicides whereas the total Covid-19 death toll up till that point was only 2,087.
Nothing is as it seems in Japan: Mount Fuji stands majestically as a mopnument of the country but its base, Aokigahara Forest is an insidious getaway: a Mecca for suicides.
It’s fair to say that the government’s efforts to curb this phenomenon have helped to gradually reduce the suicide rate over the last 20 years and ensure that Japan wasn’t the country with the highest suicide death in the world. Nonetheless this great nation is still in the unenviable position of Top 3 suicide nation amongst the G7 countries. Only South Koreans and Russians kill themselves in greater ratio.
Having contained Fukushima disaster, kept Yakuza in check and somehow bended the suicide rate curve, the country have had a much harder time reversing the declining population which itself makes economic recovery a tall order.
Some people visit Aokigahara Forest for camping, some never come back as they've chosen it as their final destination.
THE RISE OF HERBIVOROUS MEN & IMMIGRATION RELUCTANCE
One of the emerging sub-culture in modern Japan is the rise of Herbivorous men. While not being really gays, this breed of men are usually described as “kind and gentle dudes” who do not pursue romantic or sexual relationships for fear of being hurt or hurting others. Herbivores men are increasingly present in Japan.
According to 2015 survey of 1,134 people aged 16 to 49 reported on in the Japan Times. Some observers have questioned if this was a form of depression and mental illness. A 2013 study published on Washington post showed that Japan has the lowest clinical depression diagnosis rate in the world, perhaps because of a lack of recognition of depression as a 'clinical' matter. The country's long working hours (about 80-hour weeks) seems to also have an effect on sexuality as over 20% of the married men in the Japan Times study said they weren't interested in sex because they were too tired from work.
Low sex drive either from herbivorous men or work-stressed employees are not going to help the "demographic time bomb" that's ticking in the country. The Japanese media has been calling it Sekkusu shinai shokogun or celibacy syndrome. With 48% of men and 50% of women reporting not having had sex, it’s a no wonder why the country fertility rate has dropped by half from 2 babies per woman since the late 1970ies.
Having travelled extensively around Asia, I find Japanese legendary politeness peculiar as it always reminds you that you’re a “guest”. They treat you nicely because you’re not and will not be one of them.
They (The Japanese) treat you very nicely because you’re just a guest. You are not and will ever be one of them.
There is something popularly referred to in Japan as the “Gaijin Card”. It’s a like “free-pass” or ready-made social-excuse that foreigners can use when they mistakenly offend Japanese cultural sensibility.
Likewise, the Japanese people will stick the Gaijin label on foreigners which means they will never stop calling you “other” no matter how close your relationship or how long you’ve been a resident in that country. Understandingly, the Nippon government is doing everything it can to preserve its cultural purity by promoting the use Japanese language everywhere and keeping preventing national treasure like Sumo wrestling from being “too diluted” with foreign athletes influences.
However, even such a strong popular desire for cultural homogeneity could not stand the economic gravity. To cope with demographic challenges and labor shortages, Japan’s right-wing government has done what previous governments have resisted for so long: open the country to immigration.
According to Foreign Policy Magazine report, Immigration to Japan and the number of foreign workers in the country have been rising steadily since 2013, when the government expanded a trainee programs to attract hundreds of thousands of temporary migrants. In 2017, Japan streamlined the immigration of skilled foreign workers with a new fast-track bill in the parliament. This growth in immigration, in turn, is changing the image of Japan from ethnically homogenous to moderately diverse.
Immigration was the last front of resistance which Japan has now reluctantly crossed. I remember in 2008 when I asked one of my friends in Mitsubishi how he thought his country intended to address the population decline. His answer was Technology!
“Baron, we’re going make robots to care for aging people in retirement homes, assist doctors in hospital, replace domestics helpers at home and work in factories…”
I was truly impressed by how Japan was going to solve its population decline using technology. It all sounded great until you dig deeper. Robots don’t Pay taxes.
Yes, the giant KILLER of the mighty Nippon Empire is not Tsunamis, Nuclear disasters, chronic Suicide or Yakuza, It’s DEBT! Foreign labor who come to Japan are doing what robots cannot do. They pay taxes and give birth to new tax payers. It’s their money that Japan needs to reimburse the massive debt hanging around the neck of the country.
IT’S THE DEBT PANDEMIC THAT IS KILLING JAPAN
Most people might not realize this but Japan’s economic miracle is no more. The country has effectively stopped growing since 1990. From 1991 to 2003, Japan GDP grew only at 1.14% annually, while average real growth rate between 2000 to 2010 was about 1%, both well below other industrialized nations.
Taken in totality, the combined effect of the 2008 Great Recession, 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and COVID-19 pandemic have essentially stalled Japan’s Economy over the last 30 years. It’s usually referred to as the LOST DECADES!
Japan’s secret to success has been copied by South Korea and other Asian dragons. Samsung has beaten Sony in the smartphone race while Hyundai has surged pass Honda in the automobile industry.
Is the Land of the Rising Sun now a Setting Sun?
Since 1990, the country has been accumulating mountains of debts over another. The best brains in the country have not yet found a cure to this debt pandemic.
Sitting on a $9.8 Trillion dollars of debt representing more than twice its GDP (National debt is 259.19% of GDP), Japan is currently the undisputed world champion of debt followed by Greece, Italy, Portugal and the United States of America. Japan hasn’t yet declared bankruptcy like Greece (with less debt ratio) did in 2015 only because 90% of the money is owed to domestic lenders (pension funds, Japanese corporations and citizens). Greece wasn’t so fortunate as the chunk of their debt was owned by foreigners (IMF and others).
Domestic lenders in Japan still believe that their self-interest tied to the survival of their home nation. If that country was to declare bankruptcy, they might just write off their massive debt. It would certainly do irreversible damage to Japan stellar reputation carefully built over centuries and turn the country into a Zimbabwe or an Argentina but the nation will still exist. The real loser will be the millions of lenders and government bond holders. That’s why domestic investors are continuing to lend instead of letting it collapse.
Japan currently has such a high level of debt that it’s doubtful the country can ever repay the full amount. The fact that the yearly interest payment on debt represents only about 12% of the Tax revenue collected is no reason for comfort.
Because, if current investors suddenly move their fund to other safer assets, the Japanese government would have no choice but to raise Bond rate to attract new investors. Such sift might quickly push the interest rate expense to a level between 30-50% of Tax revenue as in the case of Lebanon now.
Forbes analysts estimate that by 2041, assuming tax revenue remains constant and there won’t be any economic shocks, Japan’s interest repayments will exceed tax income. If this figure increases above the current 1.1% then the government will default more quickly.
HOW ALL OF THIS AFFECTS YOU
Japan is not the only country infected by the debt pandemic. I turned the spotlight on the Nippon Empire because it’s the most efficient nation amongst the G7 and probably the most innovative and all-rounded technologically advanced country in the world (they have produced more output with less resources). If a country that survived two nuclear bombs, countless earthquakes and Tsunamis cannot overcome the debt ticking time bomb then the world seriously needs to ponder who can.
A country’s ability to borrow depends on its credibility and the confidence it instills on investors. When a nation’s bond is rated AAA, it can essentially use its citizens and private investors as its ATM.
It’s not a coincidence that the top 10 countries with the highest debt to GDP ratios also happen to be some of the most advanced nations in the world: Japan, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, USA, France, UK, Spain and Canada.
If you live and work in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, South Africa or Pakistan, unbeknownst to you, it’s highly likely that your government is already either borrowing from your retirement fund or using it to buy bonds from Japan and other debt trapped advanced nations.
The wealthiest 1% in the world know this game, that is why they keep their money in Global tax heavens they have created for themselves: British Virgin Island, Jersey, Bermuda, Seychelles and Mauritius etc. When a country’s national debt to GDP ratio exceeds 70% then it’s time for the average guy to take action to protect himself.
Amongst the world richest nations, China & Germany have kept a moderate level of debt at about 55-56% of their GDP while Singapore has surprisingly joined the debt-drunk club with a ratio of 110% to their GDP. If this trend continues, then Singapore will end up in crisis like Japan soon, especially as the country’s population is aging.
To shield yourselves against a debt addicted government, you might want to consider taking out your money from pension funds, mutual funds and place it on assets you can control (like properties or safe stocks).
High level of debt means the large chunk of your tax goes to paying interest charges rather than providing social services to you. Singapore & Norway are able to take care of their citizens because they spend less than 0.8% of their tax revenue on paying interest charge. A rising debt will naturally lead to a rise in interest repayment expenses.
By contrast Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Brazil, Egypt and Pakistan are all trapped is such a debt valley that they are devoting between a quarter to half of their tax revenue to paying interest expenses. That explains why schools, hospitals, public facilities and all the services required by the average citizen are neglected.
Although Japan and United States are debt-drunk, they'rehanging by their positive reputation perception rather than sound balance sheet.
NATIONAL EXCEPTIONALISM VS CITIZEN EXCEPTIONALISM
Every country sees itself as special and different in one way or another from the rest of the world. Japan is no different. Japanese exceptionalism has served them well until they caught the debt virus. The US, China, UK, India each express their national ideology in some form of National exceptionalism. It’s the same mentality that the 1% holds.
This author is suggesting that average folk should adopt this attitude: Citizen Exceptionalism. We may need to take exception from the mass trend and secure our welfare in a way that Nations look after their self-interest.
It’s true that some things such as national defense and public security are best handled by a central government. When it comes to money, we need not let governments spend it for us nor borrow it from us without our consent.
Everyone will be well served checking the debt ratio of the country in which you live and work. If that number is above 80% then you might want to take action to safeguard your money.
Overreliance on debt for growth is probably one of the main flaws of the modern economic model. Just like sugar, too much debt is a poison while too little leaves you low. That poison is killing Japan and many other countries slowly but surely.