Time magazine & The Economist cast doubts on Japan’s future

Opinions - March 1st, 2002
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott Stokes

I have just returned from a trip to the UK. I flew on Virgin Atlantic, with a seat on the “Upper Class”—a first-class equivalent—reserved for me by Toppan Travel. It was remarkable. There are now sliding seats in this class. You slide your legs, no matter how long, under the seat of the person in front of you, fall fast asleep and wake up in time for tea in London.

And London? There is a huge amount going on. My wife marked about 16 dozen places in the capital that she wanted to visit. In the end I settled for the Paris exhibition at the Royal Academy and for a show­ing of David Lynch’s film “Mulholland Drive.” I wished I had had time for more. I wonder if London has ever been a more excit­ing place to visit than it is now.

What were those famous words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century wag?

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford!”

I particularly recommend the show at the “RA.” It is drawing big crowds—but not too big on the Saturday morning I was there with my son Harry, 17. The pieces on exhibit cover much of the last cen­tury in Paris. Right in the heart of the exhibition, look out for that odd, upturned bicycle wheel that Marcel Duchamp did in 1913.

We also came across a rare wrapping of 1963 by Christo—a transparent package featuring the face of Jeanne-Claude, his fellow artist and wife. Those two moved across the Atlantic from Paris to New York in 1964, while still under 30. The great days of Paris, as a cen­ter of the arts, were over…

While in London we met with a couple of writers. One was Christopher Ross, the author of Tunnel Visions—an unclassifiable work of philosophical reflection and autobiography, based on Chris’ 18 months experience of working on the London Underground.

Chris had just been in Tokyo for a few months, where I had met him for the first time—he was doing research for a new book. He and his friend Robert Twigger, the author of Angry White Pajamas— the most enjoyable book written by a Brit on Japan in recent years—are getting to be noticed, in the UK, as writers with a love of Japan.

Chris gave me a tip. A new work on Mishima is about to come out. It is a novel, tided Report to the Emperor. The author is Richard Appignanesi. The publisher is Sinclair-Stevenson. I took down these details from Chris, knowing nothing of the book beyond the above, but always being on the lookout for writers interested in Mishima—see my last column for Tokyo Weekender.

I now know of three authors with new works related to Mishima in preparation or ready to publish: Chris, Appignanesi, and Andrew Rankin, also British. Something about Japan’s most controversial post-1945 author, is making people sit up. Not before time, I would say—it is 32 years since he commit­ted suicide at an army base in Ichigaya.

Another writer I met in London was Michihiru Matsumoto, author of some 98 published works. Michi brought with him, hand-car­ried from Heathrow, the latest issues of Time magazine and The Economist—out on Feb. 16. Both carried covers on Japan featuring weeping ladies, with tears coursing down their cheeks. You get the idea.

“The sadness of Japan” wailed The Economist. The sadness of Japan… as if the world is coming to an end here. Well, well, two of the world’s leading weeklies had thought fit to revisit the theme of Japan sinking, giggling, beneath the waves. Michi held the two mags in his hand, looking lost.

As well he might… I wonder now. If Japan is about to disap­pear—the world’s second-largest economy going up in a puff of smoke—how come that British mobile phone company Vodafone just invested some $11.5 billion here (the largest foreign direct invest­ment ever made in Japan by a for­eign company, so they say)? Putting it differently: what does Chris Gent, the boss of Vodafone, know about Japan that the editors of Time and The Economist have lost sight of?

Or then again: what would the cover illustrators who produced these proud designs for Time and The Economist think of Tokyo, if they actually came here, and found the center dominated by the largest urban redevelopment projects in the history of the nation… There are construction cranes in the sky on all sides. Does that fit the image of a saddened nation on the edge?

I have lately started to take an interest in unquoted companies here. A colleague and I have drawn up a list of the 100 companies we like among the 7,000 firms listed in Toyo Keizai’s monumental work of reference. I can tell you this: there is a torrent of little companies, all founded since 1990—the end of die Bubble—all raring to go public in due course, and all totally unreport­ed by my colleagues in the interna­tional press, wise men and women that they are.

I don’t get it. This is not to say that the banking system is not a frightful mess. The government has been slow in responding to the crisis building up there. And it is not to deny that a “deflation spiral” is undermining confidence in the country, day by day—to the point where the international credit rating agencies cut Japan’s ranking to somewhere below that of Botswana, the wags note.

Score a black mark in banking policy. But that does not mean an end to Japan.

I personally liked what President Bush had to say here by way of praise for Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister. Not that every­one agreed. Howard French and Jim Brooke of The New York Times tut-tutted in a jointly by-lined piece for the world’s most powerful paper.

Well, I felt that Elisabeth Bumiller, the White House corre­spondent for the NYT, got closer to the subject, simply by reporting what Mr. Bush said, namely that this was a time to say thanks to Japan and to Mr. Koizumi for sup­porting the U.S. stance on terrorism in September 2001.

On my return to Tokyo from the UK, I just caught the end of the visit by Mr. Bush, fighting my way past the Okura Hotel and all the security there, to get to my flat… Hmm, so the visit went off well.

Goro Yamazaki of the Okura Hotel proudly gave me a map showing the way to the yakitori joint where Messrs. Bush and Koizumi had dinner. It was Gonpachi, tel. 5771-0170.