Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

japanpanelbeckyRebecca MacKinnon is moderating a Japan panel this year.

Last year, when I was on a Japan panel and MC'ing the Japan dinner, Japan was still looking dismal and my role as risk taking agitator was a good card for the Japanese to play to try to show that they were trying to change.

This year, the economy is "recovering" and the panel is populated by more of the old-school participants who are cautiously trying to explain the "turn-around" and how the "recovery" will continue.

I think the consensus is that the engine of the recovery is the restructuring of private companies and that the government policy and reforms are the oil.

I personally think that we need more fundamental changes in Japan, but I think that the incentive to make big changes will decrease as long as this fragile recovery continues. I think it's probably more constructive for me to spend my efforts on global issues and blogging until Japan needs my subversive energy again. ;-)

Comment from the audience: It's not the number of women in the women in the Japanese workforce, but rather their role in the workforce.

UPDATE: Ack! Rebecca glared at me, I shook my head, but she called on me for a comment anyway. I asked whether the more painful reforms are going to get less attention now that people are focused on the recover and making people feel comfortable.

One of the panel members disagreed with me and asserted that with political will, many of the fundamental changes will continue to happen and might even be easier.

Hmm... maybe in some areas, but I doubt it. Maybe I should have defined "fundamental changes."


I don't agree. It would be a lot better if Japan could find a gentle way to use the 'calm before the storm' to sort out the fundamental issues. I'm an outsider and I don't know that much about it. However, my feeling is that the people of Japan has a very high expectation of long-term guaranteed jobs and services from the state and corporate sectors. Suddenly pulling the rug out of under the populace during an economic downturn could turn very very painful. When I say painful, I don't mean a bit of misery and complaining about cutbacks. I mean full-scale confusion and mayhem of the worst kind. The consequences of this would be catastrophic, not only for Japan, but for the entire world.

No doubt, no government anywhere wants to swallow bitter medicine during an upturn, but it's the best chance that Japan has. If you really believe that Japan needs to change, this is the time to go and lobby and tell people what you think needs to be done. It's at least worth trying, if it could save major global political strife later on.

Well, lucky for the Japanese economy that they didn't ask me to speak about Japan at any of the sessions this year. ;-p

I agree with you Joi - now that there appears to be some kind of recovery, I doubt that there will be any political will to really push badly needed reforms forward. People say that desparate times need desperate measures, but when things look like they are getting better, suddenly nobody wants desperate measures any more, particularly when they run against a lot of vested interests.

When you think about the problems of an aging population and (from what I hear) increasing numbers of people being 'retired early' (like in their fifties!), not to mention huge amounts of government spending propping up agriculture and construction, it still seems that there are a lot of challenges that face the Japanese economy and society. Unfortunately I don't think that anyone has the guts and the power to do something about it.

Koizumi seems to be all talk and no walk; not his fault, more the fault of the LDP which (from outside Japan anyway) seems to be the same old group of people doing the same old stuff. It's too bad there isn't a big, credible challenge to the LDP with some really good ideas that might change things for the better in Japan.

Hang on guys. Think about what you're saying. If the Japanese economy goes down the tubes again (more likely than not if your view is true) there's going to be a revolution.

A revolution may seem like a glorious thing, but coming from a country where we've seen revolutionary happenings over the last century, I guarantee it's not as glamorous as it seems. It is a desparate, bloody business.

It used to be fashionable to poke holes in the Japanese economy. Now it's not, because it looks like it's recovering. But just because it's not fashionable is no reason not to do it.

This is the time when your criticism might make people think twice. Everybody will call you a knocker and a begrudger , but so what? If you think that Japan needs reform, and if you see an opportunity for reform, say it loudly, now. People might not want to hear it, but life isn't a popularity contest. If it might save the country from a big mess later, it's the right thing to do.

I am totally positive about the direction of Japan.

Established companies are trying to get around red-tape, like Don Quixote selling drugs without a doctor on-site, and Yamato pushing to get around restrictions in package deliveries. Foreign investments in Seiyu, Nissan, Shinsei, Tokyo Star, and many insurance companies will bring more rationality to Japan as well. And although Koizumi might be a weenie, I think some local governments (financially in worse shape than the national goverment) are improving.