The strength of Japanese manufacturing

For  two decades the New York Times has reported almost nothing but gloom about Japan’s manufacturing industries. I challenged a recent report in a letter to the editor.

Your report ( “Japan Confronts Its New Normal,” May 12 in the international edition) presents Japan’s manufacturing sector as “battered by cheaper rivals” and suggests that “fears long held …. of a ‘hollowing out’ of Japanese industry” have been intensified. Talk of this sort has been a constant media theme for more than two decades, yet to say the least there is little evidence of any industrial hollowing out in Japan’s long-term trade trend. Japan’s current account surplus totalled  $194 billion in 2010 — up more than five-fold on $36 billion for 1990. By comparison and by a remarkable coincidence, the  United States also multiplied its current account balance more than five-fold in the period — its current account deficit, that is! The recent Japanese disasters have taken a truly terrible toll on life and limb but Japan’s manufacturing exporters will soon be back stronger than ever.

Eamonn Fingleton, Minato-ku, Tokyo

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Beyond free trade

Meet the heterodox economists challenging globalism. (This article was first published in the April 2011 issue of the American Conservative.)

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its advanced treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks.” So said one of the greatest textbook writers of them all, Paul Samuelson.

But even Samuelson didn’t live forever—he died in 2009 aged 94—and now others decide what the rising generation is reading. It is a fair bet that, on one of the most critical issues of modern economic policy, his successors’ books would not meet with the master’s approval. That issue is trade.

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Earthquake: Interview on Thom Hartmann’s Big Picture

Thom Hartmann interviewed me on his show The Big Picture last week. (Thom is one of the most astute commentators in the American media and author of several great books.)

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The coming crisis in the global manufacturing chain

How much will the Japanese earthquake hurt the global economy? (Article as first published by the New Republic.)

Not many people in the American electronics industry had ever heard of the Japanese town of Niihama before the summer of 1993. That changed overnight when a small specialty chemical factory there was knocked out by a fire. Obscure though it may have been, this factory accounted for 65 percent of the world’s supply of epoxy cresol novolac, a resin essential in making most semiconductors. As shockwaves shot through the world electronics industry, prices of some kinds of semiconductors doubled in days. The crisis soon became so acute that the Clinton administration weighed in with a public plea to the Japanese government to take emergency action to restore supplies.

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Tokyo, briefly terrified by quake, recovers quickly

This  article was first published at the Atlantic’s website in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Click here for the original.

TOKYO, Japan — Your first Japanese earthquake is your most memorable. Or so I thought until, along with about 50 million other residents of northern and eastern Japan, I was transfixed by Friday’s whopper.

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A message to Japan Forum members

My offer to debate the “basket case Japan” story has generated more heat than light at the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Japan Forum.

As a matter of policy, I do not participate in online forums but, as friends have alerted me to some exceptionally egregious misrepresentations in the Japan Forum in the last couple of days, it is time to respond.

I know that the great majority of forum members believe in fairness and intellectual honesty and it is to them that I address this message.

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Would a debate solve anything?

Although my proposal to hold a debate on Japan’s “lost decades” story has met with considerable support, some people have demurred.

Would a debate on the Japanese economy really solve anything? One correspondent at a major American university seems to think not. Here’s what he wrote:

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More reactions to my debate initiative

My call for a debate on Japan’s “lost decades” story continues to make  waves and many well-placed observers have written in support. I have obtained permission to pass on the comments below.

From an investment banker in the United States:

“I greatly enjoyed your piece in the Atlantic on the myth of the Japanese “Lost Decades”. The same issue has flummoxed me for quite some time. The data just don’t add up. The idea that they have been managing the numbers low makes a great deal of sense.”

From a former Tokyo-based think tank executive who has now returned to his home country:

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Japan’s “slump”: editorial page article from The Guardian

Britain’s Guardian newspaper ran an editorial page article last year that closely supported the Fingleton analysis of   Japan’s “slump.”

Among the many expressions of support I have had since  I posted a blog  article at theatlantic.com last week on the myth of Japan’s “slump,” one of the most welcome apprised me to the views of  the American political analyst Steven Hill. He has published many articles in recent years that closely mirror my analysis. Below is one from Britain’s Guardian.

The Economic Fallacy of ‘Zombie’ Japan

By Steven Hill, Guardian, August 11, 2010

Japan has been getting a raw deal from the so-called economic experts. Consider this: in the midst of the great recession, the United States is suffering through nearly 10% unemployment, rising inequality and poverty, 47 million people without health insurance, declining retirement prospects for the middle class and a general increase in economic insecurity. Various European nations also are having their difficulties, and no one knows if China is the next bubble due to explode.

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The Fingleton invitation: some reaction

It turns out — surprise — that not everyone thinks the Japanese economy is a basket case.

A few days ago I issued an invitation to ten top Japan watchers to a debate on what has really happened to the Japanese economy in the last twenty years. I publicized my initiative not only in this forum but via James Fallows’s blog at The Atlantic — where I was privileged to be a guest blogger last week — and I must say both the size of the reaction and its tone have been a very pleasant surprise.

It seems I am far from alone in my view that the “two lost decades” story is a myth. Several capable observers who have known Japan for years (most of them new to me) have written to congratulate me on my stand. I will quote from some of their messages when I obtain their permission. In the meantime readers might like to check out this link to an article someone has just drawn to my attention. It is  by a well-placed Tokyo-based journalist who has lived in Japan even longer than me.

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