01/21/2009, 00.00
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The future of Japan, buffeted by the financial tsunami

by Pino Cazzaniga
Tens of thousands of unemployed; more than 15,000 companies bankrupt. Most of the people are looking to the future with pessimism. For some analysts, the focus should not be on finance and market mechanisms, but on man and the quality of life.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) - After the new year's vacation, the country is reflecting on the global financial tsunami that has shaken its economic system to its foundations. On the national level, a mobilization is underway of intellectual, economic, and government forces in order to confront the most serious crisis to have struck the country since the end of the war. The people are teetering between panic and hope.

The fundamental characteristic of the Japanese economy is not the stock market, but the intelligent and organized work of its citizens. If they lack work, they are finished and the nation goes into recession. As we have already indicated in AsiaNews, in December the labor ministry forecast that by the end of the fiscal year (March of 2009), 85,000 workers would lose their jobs; now the experts say they are sure that the number will have to be doubled.

But these statistics concern only Japanese workers. The situation is even worse for foreign workers. In Japan, there are 486,000 foreigners working on either long or short term contracts: most of them are Chinese (43%), followed by Brazilians (20%), then by Filipinos (8%). Toward the end of the year, 4300 foreigners lost their jobs.

But it is above all the number of company failures in 2008 that demonstrates how hard the world economic crisis has hit the Japanese economy. According to data from the Shoko research institute (Tokyo), 15,646 companies went bankrupt, and 2009 is expected to be even worse.

The headlong plunge of Toyota and Nissan, two of the most solid automobile companies, is a symbol of the grave deterioration in the second largest economy in the world: Toyota, which in 2007 recorded a profit of 2.27 trillion yen, ended 2008 with a loss of 150 billion yen, and Nissan, instead of the forecast profit of 550 billion yen, suffered a loss of tens of billions. The causes of the disaster are the devaluation of the dollar, and the collapse of exports to the United States.

Japanese analysts, in agreement with their colleagues all around the world, have attributed to the United States the primary responsibility for the tremendous financial tsunami, while respecting the proverbial label of their culture.

The syndrome of desperation

Pessimism is the sentiment that seems to prevail among the Japanese. Responsible analysts are trying to remedy this by opening their hearts to hope. The newspaper The Japan Times does this by citing an article by Tom Petruno, a journalist for the Times. According to the essayist, there are two forms of pessimism concerning the financial crisis: one that is without hope, and another that is open to the future. According to the first form, we are today facing not only a recession or depression, but the end of the American economy, and no way out can be seen. It is called "Armageddonism," taking inspiration from Michael Panzer, a Wall Street veteran and author of a book entitled "Financial Armageddon."

The expression, borrowed from the book of Revelation, is dangerous if it is interpreted according to fundamentalist literalism, because it eliminates hope. And in fact, the idea of an imminent cataclysm has become popular, with the complicity of many internet sites. But the pessimism of those who are open to the future is constructive. They also agree in maintaining that, for now, there is no room for optimism. They expect hard times. But they are just as convinced in affirming that what has ended is not the world, but the age of an unquestioned faith in self-regulating capitalism, in which soulless numbers (money) have gained the advantage over man.

Let's abandon the paths of utopia

In the camp of the pessimists open to hope is professor Takamitsu Sawa, a member of the economics department at the University of Kyoto. According to the scholar, the current crisis, as painful as it is, is creating the conditions for a new industrial civilization at the service of man. His theory revives confidence and infuses optimism, because the professor has been proposing it for decades and because it has been formed through reflection, bit by bit, on the unfolding of the life of his country.

Although he tended towards socialism during the 1960's, he has never allowed himself to be influenced by ideology, but has placed man at the center of his intellectual efforts. "For a long time," he has written, "I have been saying that the 20th century was an age of utopia, while the 21st century will be an age without utopia."

His argumentation is not the fruit of indifferentism, because for Sawa utopia signifies an imaginary ideal. This is what the communist utopia was that dominated much of humanity for much of the 20th century, and this is what the utopia of "pure market fundamentalism" was, promoted in Europe by English prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and in Japan by former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi. The American, European, and Japanese spendthrifts who over the past 25 years have let themselves be deceived by the mechanism of "borrowing and spending" have tragically revealed their lack of substance.

Sawa does not condemn capitalism per se. He simply urges that money be invested where it can really bear fruit, meaning in man and in the quality of life, calling upon governments and nations to confront sincerely and concretely the problem of restoring the planet's environment. "For a long time," he has written, "I have been saying that the central theme of the 21st century will be the protection of the environment. The financial crisis that has caused ruin all over the world seems to mark the end of the 20th century civilization of oil and the automobile, and the beginning of a new civilization led by green industry."

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