Saturday, April 30, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 7)

9. Emptying Our Cups

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring.

The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

"It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted.

"You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup!"

The above story has two lessons. First, we must empty our minds of our preconceived ideas if we are to truly learn. If our minds are filled with notions of limitless growth, we are unable to even consider that there are others ways of organizing an economy.

The second stands as an apt analogy for an economy in general. A cup can only hold so much tea, because of the empty space within it that is waiting to be filled. You can keep pouring tea, but it will be of no benefit – you will not be able to drink more than the cup can hold. Pouring more tea into an already full cup will only waste the tea you have, causing it to spill and making a mess. It should also be noted that constantly filling the cup makes it impossible to drink the tea at all.

So, to return to our question, Is Japan the world's first post-growth society? My answer is, yes, it is. Though the Japanese got there first, we are almost certainly headed for the same place. Currently the world's largest economy is engaging in all the same activities that the world's second largest economy engaged in for the last twenty years to restart growth - tax cuts, stimulus spending, quantitative easing, zero interest rates policies, bank bailouts, all to no avail. Why do we think we will succeed where they failed? Are we somehow an exception? Do we arrogantly assume we are somehow smarter, more innovative or more important? And even if growth on paper restarts, will most of us benefit? Although the recession has “officially” ended, living standards are still falling and society is continuing to come apart at the seams.

The elites who are the beneficiaries of interest repayments will do everything in their power to try and restart growth at all costs. We are already oversupplied with too many goods, too many houses, and too much debt. We are straining the natural world to the breaking point. If authors like Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson are right, we will not have the vast sums of energy available to keep growing year after year. It is clear that more growth hasn't made us any happier or enhanced our well-being. Our leaders will never voluntarily embrace Degrowth under any circumstances so it is up to us. If we are to build a sustainable society, we will have to build it from the ground up, rather than the top-down. Fortunately, even though our government is on the wrong track, we ourselves can learn valuable lessons from Japan's Edo period for how to arrange a better life:

1. Stop spending. Save your money. Keep your expenses minimal. Pay down debts. The Japanese have wisely concluded that the future will be one of reduced living standards, and have adjusted their behavior accordingly. They refuse to go into debt and buy big-ticket items they cannot afford. They are not impoverished, but rather choose to live frugally. They save their money for a rainy day, knowing that the future in uncertain. In the past, farmers, who lived with the vagaries of nature, behaved like the proverbial ant, not like the grasshopper. See the following article:

2. Think hard about having children. If you do, have no more than two. This is obviously a highly personal decision, and it depends on what your life circumstances are. Surveys show that couples without children are happier than couples with them. The more children you have, the less you can pass down to each one, and the more they must compete for jobs, education, resources, etc. in a shrinking economy. The Japanese are aware of this, and are voluntarily choosing to forego child-rearing as an act of economic survival. Do you really want your children to grow up in poverty or have to go though the trying times ahead?

3. Embrace voluntary simplicity. This movement, with roots in monasticism, advocates being satisfied with what we need rather than what we want. It recognizes that consumption is not a path to happiness, and that leisure, free time, hobbies and human relationships are far more conducive to enjoying life than the endless treadmill of work and consumption. Do not be afraid to reduce expenditure, income and possessions. No one ever spent their last days wishing they had spent more time at work.

4. Live in dense, walkable urban areas. In the days before cars, Japanese cities were full of shops and merchants in close proximity to the people who patronized them. Today, Japanese cities are much the same – with people living in close quarters and goods close at hand. As energy costs rise, this will allow you to get what you need without having to spend time and money running around. It will also allow you to get to know your neighbors. Japanese of the Edo period would eat communally in restaurants, the idea being that cooking for a large group was more efficient and less wasteful than an individual cooking a single meal for himself or herself.

3. Live in a small, compact house. Do not accumulate clutter. The book The Not So Big House started a movement to celebrate small spaces as more aesthetically pleasing than gargantuan houses. They utilize less resources in their construction, preserve open space, and require much less energy to heat and cool. Apartments are more energy-efficient than single-family houses. Books like The Very Small Home by Azby Brown demonstrate the modern Japanese use of small, efficient spaces to provide comfortable and elegant living arrangements.

4. Use public transportation and bicycle whenever possible. Only 50 percent of trips in Japan are taken by automobile, and Japanese automobiles are generally small and fuel-efficient (it is no coincidence that Japanese automakers introduced the gas-electric hybrid). Bicycling has also become much more popular in Japan since the earthquake. While we cannot force politicians to build a high-speed rail network like Japan has, we can use what public transportation is available, like buses and trains. If you can, carpool. If you must have a car, buy a fuel-efficient car like a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight.

5. Plant a garden. Edo (Tokyo) was full of urban gardens. Even city dwellers grew much of their own food. There are many systems to choose from. Japan's highly intensive growing methods have been recreated in the West by people like John Jeavons, whose methods of biointensive gardening produce large amounts of food on small plots of land. Community gardens using raised bed planters are springing up in communities all over the U.S. Systems like permaculture can also be done in urban areas and replenish the soil just like Asian farming methods. Places like rooftops and walls can be turned green through container gardening and espalier. Edible landscaping can turn lawns into food sources. The work of the late Masanobu Fukuoka has been a great inspiration to people all over the world.

6. Compost. While we may not have night soil merchants like Japan had, we can do similar things for ourselves by using composting toilets. Our food and lawn waste can all be composted and returned to the soil instead of thrown away, just as the Japanese did hundreds of years ago. You can also learn to grow green fertilizer as the Japanese did.

7. Conserve water. Edo-period Japanese would often use the sun to heat bath water, and use the same water to make tea and water their garden. Even today in Japan it is not uncommon for bath water to be pumped to washing machines for later use. You can take such measures as using low-flow fixtures and collecting rainwater for gardening.

8. Redefine status. The “He who dies with the most toys wins” ethic so common in America was unknown in Edo period Japan. Rather, the most admired members of society were those who behaved “honorably” and set a good example according to Confucian and Buddhist principles. Waste was considered unseemly. People rose to high status because of their character, not because of their wealth. They did not feel a need to “show off” to impress the neighbors.

6. Eat a healthy diet. The Japanese of the Edo period ate only natural, healthy foods that they could grow themselves. Imported foods were luxuries. Processed foods were unknown, and seafood, vegetables and rice formed the better part of the diet. While you do not have to eat a Japanese diet, you can patronize local farmers and food producers, and eat fresh, whole, unprocessed foods instead of junk food. Local farmers markets and CSAs can connect you with the people producing food locally and responsibly, and keep money in your local community.

7. Celebrate nature. The Japanese love of nature is renowned. Nature was valuable for its own sake, not just for what it could provide by way of products. The Japanese would compose poems about nature, or make lovely ink-brush paintings and woodcuts of natural scenes. The Japanese felt like a part of nature, not apart from it. Anyone visiting a traditional Japanese garden cannot help but be moved by the harmony of its arrangement. Farmers were respected for their contribution to society and farming was a respected way of life.

8. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. The Japanese did not have a word for recycling – it was just a part of daily life. Every item was repaired or reused in some way. For example, the yukata (a light cotton kimono) - was a hand-me down-item, then it was made into diapers, used as floor cloths, and finally, burned for fuel. Find new uses for “end-of-life goods Our own grandparents lived this way not so long ago.

9. Use energy sparingly. Hang wash on the line. Insulate your house and use passive solar energy. Turn off lights and use candles. Burn wood in energy efficient fireplaces. Use space heating. The Edo period Japanese managed to live entirely within their solar budget while maintaining a high standard of living by getting the maximum use from the energy sources they had at hand.

9. Take up crafts. Be as self-sufficient as possible. Japanese of the Edo period often made their own products. If a kimono did not fit, they would rework the fabric themselves. Villagers would often take up a craft like basket weaving or woodworking and trade with their neighbors who also practiced various crafts. The DIY movement celebrates and encourages this behavior in the present day.

10. Buy for durability rather than cheapness. Consider the long-term costs of what you buy, not just the immediate costs. Many items from the Edo period are still treasured and passed down today. Katana swords are as sharp today as they were hundreds of years ago. Buildings from the period are historical monuments while more modern buildings fade away. Getting many years of use from our belongings saves more money in the long run than buying cheaply-made disposable commodities, and is better for the environment.

11. Support local economies. Patronize local producers. Support regionalism. Know who you do business with. Edo period Japan had a rich "cultural ecology" of local and regional specialties and producers. Today in America, corporations has done their best to wipe out distinct regional character and substitute a homgenous centrally planned culture shaped by advertising. It is up to us us to reactivate our local cutures and economies, whcih existed once and are just hanging on, waiting for a renaissance. Patronize local food producers and encourage regional specialties, whether it be lobsters in Maine, cheese in Wisconsin or wine in California. By patronizing local suppliers, you keep money in your community and increase resilience. The “buy local” movement is an example of this.

12. Engage in your local community. Villages of the Edo period were highly communal affairs. Everyone knew everyone else, and they worked together for the common good. Any number of local organizations need volunteers and support. You can make your “village” wherever you happen to be with likeminded people. the spirit of helping one's neighbor begins with you.

13. Cultivate yourself. Build your character. Make art. The Edo period was a time of intense artistic flowering. People found satisfaction in contemplating nature and acts of creation. Religious practices such as Zen Buddhism sought enlightenment among the art of everyday living. This is a much more effective way to attain satisfaction with life than material aquisition or career climbing. Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, intended his discipline to encompass self-defense, physical culture, and moral behavior. In 1934 he said the following:

Recently in our country, there has been a steadily increasing number of people who dislike work and pursue leisure and extravagance. Almost everywhere individuals and organizations are fighting with resultant loss of energy that is needed for positive action. In order to save them from this situation, a principle of judo, based on the maximum efficiency concept should be applied as one aspect of modern society and as a natural result of the application of the principle of maximum efficiency, a mutual welfare and prosperity is believed to be the only effective way to ease and neutralize the forces among these individuals and organizations.

Other Judo principles include "The most for the least effort," maximum efficiency," and "Overcome by yielding, " all principles that will serve us well in the years ahead.

We are never going to find any lasting solutions to the world’s problems unless we can finally get to “enough.” Our constant need for more will outdo even the most clever solution to our problems. Ultimately, the root of our problem is not having enough. If we had the knowledge and resources we have today with the population we had in 1800, there really wouldn’t be very many problems at all. In other words, so long as we must eternally grow, in industry, consumption, population, we will outrun any solution, no matter how clever or innovative. Only If we discover the value of enough, will we have any attempt at solving our problems, otherwise it is for naught.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 6)

8. The Great Wave

“Japanese history has entered a new phase…”
Writer Kenzaburo Oe

The eyes of the world turned to Japan on March 10-11 as the nation was devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Tens of thousands were dead and missing in the aftermath, and entire towns were flooded and washed away. A 35 foot wave breached the protective sea wall at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing a nuclear emergency that is still ongoing. Because the Japanese have no fossil fuel energy resources of any consequence, they turned to nuclear power as a way keep powering their industrial economy. After the oil shocks of the 1970's, Japan realized the ephemeral nature of Middle Eastern oil supplies, and built 55 nuclear reactors, generating 30 percent of Japan's electrical power.

The disaster in Japan revealed to the world how fragile the global economic system really is, and it's disturbing lack of resilience. Vehicle supply chains all around the world went into a state of chaos. It takes around 3,000 parts to make a car, and if even one of them is unavailable it can stop a car from getting built. Toyota announced it was temporarily shutting down its North American operations due to a lack of part availability. Honda slashed output by half at its North American plants, while Nissan shut all its U.S. and Mexican plants for a week in April. Even Ford Motor Company halted production in its Kentucky plant in the wake of the disaster. Japanese companies specialized in making the highly specialized computer chips that control everything from steering to brakes. Microchip manufacturing is a highly complex process requiring hundreds of discrete steps. That is why another supplier cannot simply step in, or other suppliers cannot simply fill the void. Everything is carefully linked together in a globalized supply chain dependant on cheap energy and political stability. The countries of the world are now like a series of mountain climbers all roped together, if enough lose their grip, they will drag all the others down with them.

Much of the energy infrastructure of northeastern Japan was destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami, including harbors, airports and refineries. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) lost one quarter of its supply capacity because of the disaster, due to the loss of its two Fukushima plants as well as eight conventional power stations. From March 14 onwards, rolling blackouts were extended across Japan's Kanto region. While some of the conventional plants are now back online, it is estimated that such power cuts could continue for years due to the loss of the nuclear facilities.. Shortfalls will become more acute over the summer months as demand for air conditioning peaks. Six of Japan's 28 oil refineries were affected causing fuel rationing beginning on March 12, with the subsequent release of oil stockpiles.

Japan is the world’s third leading consumer of oil, and is completely dependent on outside resources to fuel its export-led economy. Nuclear energy was once seen as the great white hope of a world facing an uncertain energy future. In 2010 Japan’s Basic Energy Plan called for the construction of nine new nuclear plants and a nuclear export industry. Now, the limitations of such a strategy are clear. A twenty-kilometer radius around the nuclear plant is uninhabitable, and may never by habitable again. 7,872 farms were lost, along with 18,754 fishing vessels. Agricultural products from the region are contaminated, and the seawater off the coast of Fukushima contains 7.5 million times the legal limit of radioactive iodine. Seafood, which has been such an important part of Japanese culture, is under a profound threat. Northern Japan has already undertaken heroic efforts to conserve electricity – 15,000 megawatts have been taken offline by the disaster – greater than the total peak summer demand for all of New York City. The ultimate costs of Fukushima are going to more than cancel out any benefits the power plant generated – a classic case of uneconomic growth. Matt Roney, a researcher for the Earth Policy Institute writes:

The aftermath of the two natural disasters has brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of a nation currently reliant on imports to meet the vast majority of its energy needs. Japan imports all the uranium used to fuel its nuclear reactors, which account for 11 percent of its energy consumption. And Japan is the world’s top importer of both coal and natural gas, which make up 21 percent and 17 percent of its energy use. It is also the third-ranking oil importer. Consumed largely in the transportation sector, oil accounts for 46 percent of Japan’s energy use. The remainder comes from renewable sources, mostly hydropower. Altogether, Japan spends some $160 billion a year importing all of its coal and uranium and virtually all of its oil and natural gas.

Now, wishes for a massive "growth" recovery now seem like cruel mockery - survival is now the paramount issue as the nation waits to see the full extent of the damage at Fukushima Daiichi. The Japanese have now become acutely aware of the high price of growth and industrialization. How will this affect the nation's consciousness? While the Japanese are a resilient people and will rebuild as the did after the Second World War, the gloom-and-doom attitude described in the Times article will only intensify. Will the Japanese listen to the siren song of economic growth, or will they realize they must preserve what they already have? How will a nation that was created during the age of cheap oil 40 years ago rebuild now that oil is over one hundred dollars a barrel? Japans’ twentieth century population boom was entirely fuelled by imported energy. Is population reduction, such as what is already occurring, not what should be happening? Once again, is this the shape of things to come? As Brendan Barrett writes in the Guardian:

These food and bottled water shortages, power cuts, fuel-rationing and breakdowns in just-in-time manufacturing have been anticipated by those who take peak oil seriously. It is almost as if eastern Japan is experiencing a peak oil rehearsal, although other regions of Japan are virtually unaffected. If proponents of peak oil are correct, then the rest of the world may experience something similar within the next 5 to 10 years, and hence it is important that we learn valuable lessons from Japan’s response to the current circumstances.

Can petroleum based civilization continue? If it can’t, isn’t now a good time to rethink our basic assumptions about growth, demographics, economics, social welfare, and prosperity? Who better than Japan to lead the way? Brendan Barrett again:

If Japan is to build back better, then it should perhaps do so by building more resilient, more locally oriented communities in the areas affected by the quake and tsunami, and beyond. In fact, this is a chance to reconsider completely the development path for Japan towards one that is less vulnerable, less reliant upon fossil fuels, and ideally a low carbon society.

It is obvious that Japan can not return to the preindustrial Edo period of two hundred years ago – the population is way too large and it’s not likely that a population used to the fruits of high technology will want to return to living in a preindustrial age. Certainly no one would advocate the rigid feudal social structure, autocracy, or lack of human rights that were also features of this period in modern times. Nor will Japan have to close itself off from the outside world, even if it had the ability to do so. As John Michael Greer points out, “The climax community that emerges after a period of prolonged ecological disruption and the arrival of new biotic assemblages rarely has much in common with the climax community that prevailed before the disruptions began. In the same way, and for most of the same reasons, claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, or anything else – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt.” We do not need to repeat the past - we merely need to learn the appropriate lessons from it. We can then add to it the progess we've made along the way, keeping what is beneficial and discarding what is not.

Rather, what if Japan instead pioneered the way to a more sustainable future while enjoying the fruits of industrial development? What if Japan took from the outside world only what it could not produce internally?. What if Japan advocated local economies and self-sufficiency? What if it pushed energy-efficiency and created a recycling culture? What if it preserved its natural resources and became a low-carbon society? Japan is already a leader in fields like robotics and solar energy. In 2006, Japan produced 39 percent of the solar panels in the world, while the government provided generous subsidies for research and installation. Three Japanese firms – Fuji, Toshiba and Mitsubishi – produce two-thirds of the world’s geothermal turbines, although geothermal currently provides lass than 1 percent of Japan’s energy. The cost of the Fusushima disaster cleanup, currently estimated 152 billion dollars, could have purchased enough geothermal energy to generate 33 gigawatts of electricity - 7 times as much as the nuclear plant's maximum output. If that sum were invested in solar energy, it could produce 41.6 billion killowatt hours, enough solar panels for 7,600,000 homes - 15 percent of the total. Japan’s Kamisu offshore windf farm, only 150 miles from the earthquake epicenter continued to produce power with no incident, and was even asked to step up production in the wake of the disaster. If any of these systems were to fail, they would not produce the massive devestation and loss of life seen during the ongoing nuclear catastrophe. According to Matt Roney:

Located along the tectonically active Pacific Ring of Fire, with nearly 200 volcanoes and some 28,000 hot springs, Japan is one of the world’s most geothermally rich countries. Using conventional technologies, geothermal energy could provide over 80,000 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity -- enough to meet half of the country’s electricity needs. But with the modern enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology now available, Japan’s geothermal potential could be far greater. To give a sense of the possibilities, a U.S. Geological Survey study of geothermal resources in the United States found that EGS increased estimated U.S. geothermal power potential 13-fold.

Similarly, Japan’s enormous wind energy potential has hardly been tapped. At the end of 2010 Japan had installed 2,300 megawatts of wind capacity, enough to power 700,000 Japanese homes. The official goals for 2020 and 2030 are 10,000 and 20,000 megawatts, respectively, with the latter capacity equal to 6 percent of Japan’s current electricity consumption. But a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that Japan’s land-based wind resources could provide half of its electricity. If harnessable offshore wind resources are included, the wind energy potential far exceeds current electricity needs.

Japan’s most ambitious renewable energy goals are those for solar photovoltaics (PV), mostly in rooftop panels. Among the world leaders in installed PV capacity, Japan connected an estimated 900 megawatts to the grid in 2010, bringing its total capacity to more than 3,500 megawatts. By 2020, Japan aims to increase this eightfold, to 28,000 megawatts, with a goal of 53,000 megawatts by 2030. This would be sufficient to power 18 million Japanese homes.

In 2007, experts at the National Institute of Environmental Science published a report in which it argued that Japan can achieve a Low Carbon Society by reducing energy demand by 40-45%. According to the report:

Based on sophisticated modeling, the researchers envisage that energy demand reductions would be associated with the shrinking population, accompanied by measures to more rationally use energy, greater energy conservation and improvements in energy efficiencies.

Big differences are predicted by sector. For instance, in the industrial sector, restructuring and the introduction of energy saving technologies are expected to reduce energy demand by 20-40%. In the passenger transportation sector, new measures to promote better land use and improvements in energy efficiency are expected to cut energy demand by 80%.

In the freight transportation sector demand is expected to fall by 60 to 70% thanks to more effective logistics management and improvements in the energy efficiency of vehicles. Similar benefits, in the region of 50% reductions, are anticipated in the household sector due to re-building, better insulation and energy saving appliances.

Writing in the Guardian, author and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben gives a picture of what such efforts might entail:

The other possibility is to try to build down a little: to focus on resilience, on safety. And to do that — here’s the controversial part — instead of focusing on growth. We might decide that the human enterprise (at least in the west) has got big enough, that our appetites need not to grow, but to shrink a little, in order to provide us more margin. What would that mean? Buses and bikes and trains, not SUVs. Local food, with more people on the farm so that muscles replace some of the oil. Having learned that banks are “too big to fail”, we might guess that our food and energy systems fall into that same category.

Imagine, for instance, a nation that got most of its power from rooftop solar panels knitted together in a vast distributed grid. It would take investment to get there – we’d have to divert money from other tasks, slowing some kinds of growth, because solar power is currently more expensive than coal power. We might not have constant access to unlimited power at every second of every day. In the end, though, you’d have not only less carbon in the atmosphere, but also a country far less failure-prone.

And a post on Treehugger also asks the question:

But what, exactly, would a no growth, or steady state economy look like? It's hard to say, because the modern world has never seen one. But among the ideas discussed are shifting the burden of taxation from employment, and toward resource extraction, pollution and waste; encouraging job sharing, part-time employment and flexible hours; promoting cultural pursuits and other non-material consumption; and finding alternative methods of measuring well-being than mere GDP.

Despite the beliefs of modern economists, past economists like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and even John Maynard Keynes thought that eventually we would reach eventually reach a plateau of no-growth. According to John Michael Greer, “A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term.” We can either fight this inevitability, liquidating our society in a mad attempt to start growth at all costs, or grow into maturity, as a tree or an ecosystem eventually does. The choice is ours.

Please read part 1 of this article

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Please read part 4 of this article

Please read part 5 of this article

Continue to part 7

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 5)

7. Lessons From History

We learn about the sayings and deeds of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness. When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap.
-The HAGAKURE, Tokugawa-era Samurai manual

So why did Japan succeed, where other societies failed? Some point out the Japanese reverence for nature. As Ugo Bardi put it, "As far as I understand, the Japanese attitude at that time was as far as possible from that monstrosity that we have today; that of the golem we call "homo economicus" who seriously thinks that a tree is worth nothing unless it is felled." Jared Diamond dismisses this argument, pointing out that economic expansion existed in the early Edo period, and after the Edo period in the twentieth century. Diamond instead looks to other factors, such as:

1) The central government reasonably expected to be in power in the future, and so had an interest in good stewardship.

2) An ethnically and politically uniform society.

3) Internal peace and no outside enemies meant that resources did not need to be devoted to war making, such as horses and guns.

4) Japan's soils and climate allow for rapid tree regrowth.

5) Lack of sheep and goats which have deleterious effects on forests.

6) The abundance of seafood, reducing pressure on cropland, and

7) Generations lived on the same land and passed it down to their descendants, giving them an incentive to manage resources well.

To Diamond's points, I would add several of my own:

1) A monetary system not based around debt and interest repayments, hence no imperative to grow or crash.

2) A tightly regarded social order which minimized social climbing, wealth accumulation, selfishness and ostentatious displays of wealth which consume resources wastefully. Even the samurai, who lived in the equivalent of a gated community and employed a servant, maintained a substantial edible garden, used minimal heating, recycled paper and considered cushions for his tatami floors a needless extravagance.

3) A strong unified authority, able to regulate markets effectively and use a combination of carrot-and-stick approaches for top-down resource management.

5. Clear separation between the economic and political-decision-making spheres. The shogun and daimyo were hereditary positions, and not dependent on merchants for money or votes, allowing them to act independently rather than support commercial interests.

6. A highly literate culture able to catalogue and communicate knowledge in writing.

7) A Confucian ethic that held farmers and food producers in high regard, rather than the lowest rung of society.

8) Lack of slavery and absentee ownership (as opposed to the hacienda or plantation models employed elsewhere), giving the people who worked the land an incentive to manage it well and improve it.

9.) Villagers worked their own farmland but were taxed collectively, giving incentives to work hard individually and cooperate with their neighbors at the same time.

10) A culture with a sense of common purpose that valued social cohesion and cooperation, rather than conflict and naked ambition.

11) As described above, the development of agricultural practices that produced large amounts of food intensively without depleting the soil.

12) A culture that placed an emphasis on frugality and reuse as socially desirable, rather than as markers of low status.

13.) An economy built abound cottage industries and private land ownership, rather than rent seeking, wages and manufacturing. Items made by hand meant a large number of diverse producers rather than monopolies.

14.) Development of local community economies leading to a thriving internal trade without relying on outside imports.

16.) A high level of craftsmanship - buildings and durable goods were "built to last", rather than to be disposable.

17.) A healthy diet based around rice and seafood, and a lack of western diseases (if you expect a high infant mortality rate, you will have a lot more children).

17) Lack of intense wealth concentration and relative egalitarianism (compare to just about anywhere in Europe at this time). Japan's ruling classes were more interested in setting a moral example and ruling wisely than accumulating wealth. Due to the labor-intensive nature of rice farming, large land holdings were not viable, unlike with wheat farming, so land remained in the hands of small landholders who worked the land themselves. The relatively low status of merchants kept them from achieving too much power, and trade with cultures outside Japan was restricted. This situation started to unravel in the late Tokugawa period, however.

18) Innovative and creative solutions were implemented to utilize resources more efficiently, rather than to increase consumption.

and finally, and most importantly, as we have seen:

19.) Population remained steady. This was no doubt partly to the relatively high status of women (compare to the patriarchal societies of the Middle East). While some may recoil at some of their methods of population control, is it really worse than the starvation of adults that accompanies an overshoot of resources? As antropolgist Marvin Harris, in his book Cows, Pigs Wars and Witches reminds us:

Anyone who finds my reasoning depraved or "uncivilized" should read about eighteenth-centruy England. Gin-soaked mothers by the tens of thousands regularly dropped their babies into the Thames or wrapped them in the clothing of smallpox victims, left them in trash barrels, rolled over on top of them during drunken stupors, and otherwise contrived to shorten their babies' lives by direct or indirect means. In our own times, only an incredible degree of self-righteous pigheadedness prevents us from admitting that infanticide is still being practiced on a cosmic scale in the underdeveloped nations, where first-year infant mortality rates of 250 per 1,000 births are commonplace.

Fortunately, we do not have to resort to such drastic measures today if we use contraception intelligently and empower women.

Despite Diamond’s dismissal, I would still acknowledge as well a difference in philosophy between East and West. Japan's native Shinto is a nature-based religion, while Buddhism emphasizes spiritual enlightenment and "right livelihood" rather than material wealth accumulation. It is worth noting that all during this time, Christianity was banned from Japan (Christians were often crucified), so the Biblical admonition to "Go Forth and multiply, conquer the earth and subdue it" was not a part of Japanese thought at is had been for the Western world since ancient Mesopotamia. Rather, as Azby Brown writes in his book about the Edo period, Just Enough, "The mentality of the time found meaning and satisfaction in a life in which the individual took just enough from the world, and no more," How we think about the world matters.

It is worth contrasting Japan's response to limited resources with what happened on another set of islands on the other side of the Eurasian continent at the exact same time.

England in the 1600's was also hitting severe wood shortages. Medieval England, too, was a proximate solar society, and its mighty forests were ruthlessly exploited since Roman times. Like Japan, England used wood for everything - heating, fuel, fodder, industry, construction. Unlike Japan, the English king did not have as much control over the country's feudal lords (by this time England had established a parliamentary system), and there was a well-defined series of legal property rights. Rather than rationing, apportioning wood was done through a price system in an open market. Deforestation of England's old-growth forests caused these prices to skyrocket, putting tremendous strains on England's domestic economy. England turned to the neighboring island of Ireland for trees in the 1600's, and by 1641, Ireland was nearly completely deforested, a condition that persists to this day (by contrast, modern Japan is still 70 percent forested). England then turned to importing wood from around the Baltic Sea region to procure the type of old-growth trees needed to make ships masts. England's rulers became alarmed at the massive amount of imported wood, fearing it would lead to dependency on other countries for this essential resource - if the wood needed to build warships were not there, England would be vulnerable to invasion (the preceding century had witnessed an invasion attempt by sea from Spain). If England were cut off from those imports it would be helpless. Also, importing wood was bad for the economy - it meant that gold was leaving the country causing trade imbalances and again weakening the country's national security.

England's response was the exact opposite of Japan's - rather than closing itself off from the wider world and turning inward, England embraced the philosophy of mercantilism and turned outward, sailing to every corner of the earth in search of markets and resources. What made this possible was the discovery of the North American continent by Europeans at the end of the 1400's. During the sixteenth century from 1492 - 1600, Spain ruthlessly exploited the American continents bringing back vast resources including gold and silver, making it the richest and most powerful kingdom in Europe. In 1588, it attempted its unsuccessful invasion of England, and after that, the momentum started to shift to northern Europe, who sent out their own seafaring expeditions to the New World. In 1607 and 1614, England established its first North American settlements at Jamestown, Virginia and Bermuda. North America's virgin forests and seemingly boundless natural resources allowed economic expansion to continue at exponential rates. With its fertile soils suitable for European-style farming, mineral resources and forests full of trees, the Americas provided a release valve for overpopulation and resource shortages. Suddenly, the limits to growth were removed, as if by providence.

With its wood shortages solved, the English built a vast navy and sailed all over the face of the earth, establishing colonies wherever it could overpower the locals by force of arms. In addition to colonizing North America and Australia, the English established outposts in the West Indies, southern Africa, the Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and managed to gain political control of the entire Indian subcontinent. Where it did not rule directly it established client states, as in China and Central Asia. In this way England was literally able to exploit the resources of literally every continent except Antarctica (there was not much need for ice).

The mercantilism on which the British empire was formed was based on colonialism and a positive balance of trade - raw materials from its colonies all over the world and shipped them back to England where they were manufactured into commodities and sold back to subjects in the colonies. Britain soon overtook Spain as the most powerful nation in Europe and established a global economic empire based on resource exploitation. For example, Britain's North American colonies were forbidden to use their own natural resources in domestic industries by force of law, and tariffs were put in place to subsidize British imports and penalize domestic producers. This system caused friction with the colonialists that eventually spilled out into the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States. The cheap resources that had once fueled the British empire now gave rise to a new empire, one that also saw the world as a boundless sea of resources waiting to be exploited. These empires laid the foundations for the infinite growth debt-based industrial system that is the central organizing principle of the global economy today.

Mercantilism was only one half of the story. Due to the high price of wood, British industries turned to burning coal instead. It has always been known that coal could be burned as fuel, but it was avoided in favor of wood because coal is so much dirtier and more noxious. It's dirtiness also made it undesirable for industries like smelting and glassmaking where it imparts impurities into the finished product. The English had little choice, however, so they began to turn to coal and burn large quantities of it. Unlike the Japanese islands, the English mainland had vast quantities of high-quality bauxite coal, making it incredibly cheap (Japan had only low-quality seams near Kyushu that were difficult to mine and far from urban centers). A unique feature of English coal is that is located near the ocean, casing the mines to constantly flood with seawater. To fix this problem, the mines had to be constantly pumped to remove the excess water. To accomplish this constant pumping action, in 1714 Newcomen and Savery built pumps powered by a steam engine burning coal. It was realized that steam engines could do more than pump mines clear of water - they could be used to transport the coal by powering ships and railroads. Other inventors like James Watt improved Newcomen's engine and put it to work in all sort of applications. Steam engines could be harnessed to the newly formed factory system that was turning out vast amounts of textiles. When a method was found to smelt iron with coal, the Industrial Revolution took off. The next century saw developments like the internal combustion engine and the harnessing of electricity, all powered by nonrenewable fossil fuels. This combination of mercantilism and industrialism forms the basis of the global economy today (combining, in essence, to form Capitalism).

The contrast with Japan could not be more striking. It is this British history that formed the philosophical cornerstone for today's global economy, and it was against this backdrop of unlimited resource extraction and utilization that our economic and social systems were developed. All of modern economic "science" from Adam Smith onward began at this time, and its world view is still colored by it today. Rather than an environment of conservation and scarcity, it saw an environment of limitless growth, debt, and ruthless exploitation of natural resources, by violence if necessary, as the natural form of economics. Economists who saw the limitations of this, such as Thomas Malthus, were dismissed and ridiculed. Japan, unable to rely on the vast resources of the rest of the world until the twentieth century, was forced to pursue an alternative strategy, one which did not rely on growth, but rather ensuring a high quality of life and using resources sustainably. Unfortunately, those ideas did not form the cornerstone of modern economics. Once Japan adopted "Western" methods of economics and factory production, it too, became an imperial power.

The world of today is far different than the world of the 1600's. The limits of England's strategy are becoming apparent. What works for a country does not work for the planet as a whole. The planet as whole is more like Japan - an island in space with limited and finite resources. The earth cannot turn to "outside exports" to solve our problems this time - Mars has no oil or trees, and it takes four years just to get there. Maybe it's time to set the English strategy aside and take another look at the Edo period as our model for how to move forward with a new set of economics and values. After all, mass industrialization and its concomitant economic growth has only been around for a couple of centuries, about the same length of time as the Edo Period. There is no guarantee it will last forever, either.

Please read part 1 of this article

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Please read part 4 of this article

Continue to Part 6

Monday, April 25, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 4)

6. The Cuckoo That Won’t Sing.

You probably know the names of the main leaders of the last phase of the civil wars in Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Eventually, it was Ieyasu who became shogun and the leader of all Japan. About how he managed to do that, there is this story which exists in the form of a "senryu", a short poem. It says that one day Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu got together and they saw a cuckoo bird that won't sing. So, Nobunaga said; "If it doesn't sing I'll kill it". But Hideyoshi said, "No; I'll convince it to sing" And Ieyasu said, "I'll wait until it sings"

I think this story is a nice illustration of how people of the Edo Period rationalized the events that led to their age. It says that the winning strategy is not violence and not even cunning. It is adaptation. The Japanese had understood that they could not force or cajole their island to behave the way they wanted - just as you can't force or cajole a cuckoo bird to sing. They had to adapt and they did. This, I think, is wisdom.
-Ugo Bardi

In fact, endless growth has been the exception, not the rule, for most of human history. This is especially true for Japan. In fact, Japan provides one of the most cited and most potent models for a sustainable society in world history. And it was not the ancient past - it was under 200 years ago!

Beginning in 1467, Japan was wracked by a series of civil wars fought amongst a collection of warlords (the daimyo) who had assumed the power vacuum left by the disintegration of the authority of the Japanese emperor. In 1603, the emperor declared one of these warlords - Togugawa Ieyasu, as Shogun, or chief warlord, and invested in him the authority to rule Japan. In 1615 the storming of the Toyotomi family stronghold at Osaka marked the final end of the civil wars and the unification of Japan under the Shogun, who ruled from his capital at Edo, in modern-day Tokyo, giving this period its name - the Edo Period (also referred to as the Tokugawa Era). The emperor remained only as a figurehead in the old capital of Kyoto. Seeing the threat posed by the colonial powers of Holland and Portugal, the shogun took the extraordinary measures to isolate Japan from foreign influence. In 1614 Ieyasu banned Christianity and expelled all missionaries, and in 1635, he went even further, enacting the policy of Sakoku, or "locked country," forbidding Japanese to leave the country, or foreigners to enter the country upon penalty of death. Japanese ships were also forbidden to leave Japan's coastal waters. During those years of isolation from 1641 to 1853, Japan had little contact with the outside world, and was forced to be entirely self-reliant. Japan was able to meet most of its needs domestically, and was self-sufficient in food, timber, and most metals. Japan was not hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world however - it still engaged in tightly controlled and limited trade with China, Korea, the Ryuku Islands (then not part of Japan), and the Netherlands, mostly confined to island enclaves offshore. Imports were largely restricted to sugar and spices, medicines, luxury wood species, Chinese silk, hides for leather (Japan had few cattle), and lead and saltpeter to make gunpowder. Even those imports declined over time as domestic silk and sugar production rose, and guns were virtually abolished.

Peace and prosperity allowed Japan's economy to flourish. During this period, Japan developed thriving cities and castle towns and increasing commoditization of agriculture and domestic trade, improved coastal shipping, wage labor, a uniform system of weights and measures, road construction, uniform currency, the end of toll and customs barriers, increasing literacy and a concomitant print culture. Agriculture became more productive due to improved flood control, marsh reclamation, and the cultivation of yams and potatoes. The isolation policy also kept Japan free from imported diseases. All of these factors caused Japan's population to double within a century after the wars' end. Edo became one of the largest cities in the entire world, with over one million people. Japan's natural resources came under increasing strain, particularly its forests, on which it depended for timber, fuel and fodder. Population increases, increased commerce and trade, a building boom, an unsuccessful invasion of Korea, and a series of urban fires (including the 1657 Meireki fire in Edo) alerted the Tokugawa to the precariousness of their timber situation. Japan was running up hard against its limits - deforestation, erosion, siltation and sedimentation, and wildfires were starting to become widespread. More land was being brought under cultivation to feed Japan's growing population, putting even more pressure on the forests on which Japan depended. Unwilling to turn to the outside world due to the Sakoku policy, Japan transformed itself into one of the most peaceful and sustainable highly-developed societies the world has ever seen. Japan made masterful use of its natural resources to meet all of it's needs, developing such practices as organic farming, advanced forestry management, commercial fishing, local economies, trading houses and brokerages, cottage industries, and a recycling culture that recycled nearly everything in beneficial ways, wasting nothing. Most remarkably, and most essentially, Japan became a country of zero population growth for over nearly two hundred years!

Japan during the Edo Period exlusively used the earth's primary production, that is, all energy and organic substances were derived from sunlight directly or indirectly - mostly through photosynthesis. This meant that the Japanese had to harvest solar energy as efficiently as possible. Approximately 80 percent of daily commodities were made from the solar energy of the previous year and 95 percent was derived from solar energy received in the past three years. Almost all goods and materials for food, clothing and shelter were made from plants, with the exception of stone, metals, ceramics and other mineral-based materials. This drove farmers to orchestrate efforts to cultivate profitable plants such as tea, mulberry, sumac, paper mulberry, hemp, safflower, indigo plants, cotton, rapeseed or tobacco in addition to grains. Japanese architecture was made almost entirely of timber, along with ships, carts, bridges, etc. Firewood was used for heating baths and cooking, and industries like manufacturing salt, ceramics and tiles. Wood was burned into charcoal for the hotter fires of iron smelting. Farmers used "green fertilizer" (twigs, leaves and bark) to fertilize their fields. During this period, the Japanese learned to use wood more efficiently - charcoal was used in small portable hibachi braziers and kotatsu (fireplaces with a coverlet), designed to be more efficient than heating an entire house with open-hearth fires. Coal use increased. Lighter wood construction replaced heavy-timbered buildings. Buildings were designed and oriented to use the sun for winter heating.

Natural materials like silk (from silworms fed with mulberry leaves), cotton, and hemp were used for fabrics (silkworm husks were edible, and eaten by people and animals). Japanese clothing like the kimono was simple, warm, efficient, and made economical use of material. Japanese paper was made from tree bark. Oil for lighting was mainly from sesame seeds, cemellia, rapeseeds and cottonseeds. Wax for candles was made by squeezing resin from sumac and other tree nuts.

Rice was the staple of the Japanese diet, and rice cultivation, though labor-intensive, was 15 times more efficient than it is today. Farmers would harvest seeds from the most thriving and healthy plants to preserve species that were uniquely suited to particular local soils and climates. It has been estimated that over 1,000 varieties of rice were cultivated in this period. Variety was not confined to rice. The Owari district (the western region of Aichi Prefecture today) had a record of 143 types of barley, 65 wheats, 21 buckwheats, 161 foxtail millets, 75 barnyard millets, 21 daikons (white radishes), and 24 taros. Grain was mainly consumed directly, rather than fed to animals, which is far less efficient - 1,000 bushels of grain has five times as much food value and will support five times as many people as will the meat and milk that can be made from it. Straw, a byproduct of rice cultivation, was nearly as important as the rice itself. It was used for clothing such as hats, shoes and raincoats, as well as bags for rice, pot holders, mats, building materials, horse and cattle feed, and was mixed with manure for compost. Twenty percent of straw was used for commodities, fifty percent for fertilizer, and twenty percent for fuel and other purposes, meaning 100 percent of this agricultural waste product was utilized. Farmers would even intentionally grow varieties of rice that produced the greatest amount of straw. In this way, almost all of the nearly 10 million tons of rice and straw harvested every year returned to the soil in some way or another.

Another source of power was animal muscle, fed by the use of solar power in forests to produce fodder - brush and grass - which was fed to oxen and horses. Animals provided energy in the form of musclepower - oxcarts were commonly seen on the streets, and horses and donkeys provided transport. Animals were extensively used to power the pumps used for irrigation, along with human power - farmers would literally run on top of wheels to pump their water. F.H. King reports that "everywhere their domestic animals receive kind, thoughtful treatment." Areas of cattle grazing were limited - seafood provided much of the protein for the citizenry. Seaweed cultivation harvested needed protein from even marginal land:

The seaweed is first spread upon separate ten by twelve inch straw mats, forming a thin layer seven by eight inches. These mats are held by means of wooden skewers forced through the body of the screen, exposing the seaweed to the direct sunshine. After becoming dry the rectangles of seaweed are piled in bundles an inch thick, cut once in two, forming packages four by seven inches, which are neatly tied and thus exposed for sale as soup stock and for other purposes. To obtain this seaweed from the ocean small shrubs and the limbs of trees are set up in the bottom of shallow water. To these limbs the seaweeds become attached, grow to maturity and are then gathered by hand. By this method of culture large amounts of important food stuff are grown for the support of the people on areas otherwise wholly unproductive.

Expanded fishing efforts incorporated new techniques like very large nets and deepwater fishing. Ocean currents vary around the Japanese islands, leading to a variety of local fishing techniques and specialized types of seafood. Here, too animals were utilized, such as the unique practice of "cormorant fishing" - using cormorants with brass rings around their necks to catch fish (the ring forces them to return and prevents them from swallowing the fish). Whale oil and sardine oil were used for lighting, with the remaining oil cake remaining used as nitrogen fertilizer. Use of fish meal as fertilizer decreased pressure on forests to provide green fertilizer. To help prevent overfishing, property rights on land were extended to adjacent coastal areas as well. Trade with the Ainu, a neighboring people on the northern island of Hokkaido, brought smoked salmon, dried sea cucumber, abalone, kelp, deer skins and sea otter pelts in exchange for rice, sake, tobacco and cotton (with unfortunately negative consequences for the Ainu themselves, who faced declining resources and became dependant on foreign trade).

In keeping with the ideals of self-sufficiency, the Edo Period developed an intensive recycling culture. Specialized buyers collected the drippings from wax candles, used paper fibers, used clothes, barrels, metals, and other commodities, often using children as helpers. Ash from charcoal burning was collected for fertilizer. Tinkerers repaired old metal pots and pans, and ceramics repairers glued together pottery with starch extracted from sticky rice and heated for coagulation. Probably the most extensive recycling operations were used for human waste. Rather than leaving human waste was a potential health hazard, the Japanese realized its value as fertilizer, and had an extensive collection and trade network connecting the cities and the farmers. "Night soil" was a highly prized commodity, with landlords making good money selling it, and merchants making good money trading it. It has another good side effect - The first European visitors to Edo, used to sewage-filled streets back home, were astonished at the dense and highly populated city's cleanliness.

This testifies to one of the most remarkable achievements of Asian cultures - the development of highly sophisticated farming methods which produced extremely high yields from small plots of land, and even more remarkably did it while maintaining or increasing soil fertility! These amazing methods were first chronicled in the West by a University of Wisconsin agronomy professor named F.H. King, who travelled to Asia in 1909 to study Chinese and Japanese methods of farming. He wrote about these methods in his book, Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China and Japan. King noted that there was no "waste" in Asian agriculture - everything was recycled back into the earth in closed-loop systems. He writes of the extensive use of "night soil" throughout Asia:

“Among the most common sights on our rides from Yokohama to Tokyo, both within the city and along the roads leading to the fields, starting early in the morning, were the loads of night soil carried on the shoulders of men and on the backs of animals, but most commonly on strong carts drawn by men, bearing six to ten tightly covered wooden containers holding forty, sixty or more pounds each... Provision is made for the removal of storm waters but when I asked my interpreter if it was not the custom of the city during the winter months to discharge its night soil into the sea, as a quicker and cheaper mode of disposal, his reply came quick and sharp, "No, that would be waste. We throw nothing away. It is worth too much money." In such public places as rail way stations provision is made for saving, not for wasting, and even along the country roads screens invite the traveler to stop, primarily for profit to the owner more than for personal convenience.”

Japanese farmers also used nitrogen-fixing plants to replenish the soil, rotating spring and summer crops:

“Just before, or immediately after the rice crop is harvested, fields are often sowed to "clover" (Astragalus sinicus) which is allowed to grow until near the next transplanting time when it is either turned under directly, or more often stacked along the canals and saturated while doing so with soft mud dipped from the bottom of the canal. After fermenting twenty or thirty days it is applied to the field. And so it is literally true that these old world farmers whom we regard as ignorant, perhaps because they do not ride sulky plows as we do, have long included legumes in their crop rotation, regarding them as indispensable… centuries of practice had taught the Far East farmers that the culture and use of these crops are essential to enduring fertility, and so in each of the three countries the growing of legumes in rotation with other crops very extensively for the express purpose of fertilizing the soil is one of their old, fixed practices.”

The Japanese practiced a highly sophisticated version of multi-cropping - rotating crops in several cycles within a year in the same field. Unique methods of rotation varied depending on location. For example, in areas where winters were mild with little rainfall farmers saturated the fields and planted rice during the summer followed by rapeseed, wheat or barley during the drier winters. In other areas with poor water resources, farmers planted crops in the order of rice, barley, pepo and soybeans in two-year rotations. This meant that the fields were only converted into rice paddies every other year. For example, King writes:

“...The farmers here practice a rotation of rice and barley covering four or five years, followed by a summer crop of melons, worth $320 per acre and some other vegetable instead of the rice on the fifth or sixth year, worth eighty yen per tan, or $160 per acre. To secure green manure for fertilizing, soy beans are planted each year in the space between the rows of barley, the barley being planted in November. One week after the barley is harvested the soy beans, which produce a yield of 160 kan per tan, or 5290 pounds per acre, are turned under and the ground fitted for rice.”

Grain cultivation was not the only intensive cultivation practiced by the Japanese. Highly efficient forms of horticulture were also developed. Even in dense urban areas, vegetable gardens flourished:

“How closely the ground itself may be crowded with plants is seen in Fig. 16, where a young peach orchard, whose tree tops were six feet through, planted in rows twenty-two feet apart, had also ten rows of cabbage, two rows of large windsor beans and a row of garden peas. Thirteen rows of vegetables in 22 feet, all luxuriant and strong, and note the judgment shown in placing the tallest plants, needing the most sun, in the center between the trees.

But these old people, used to crowding and to being crowded, and long ago capable of making four blades of grass grow where Nature grew but one, have also learned how to double the acreage where a crop needs more elbow than it does standing room, as seen in Fig. 17. This man's garden had an area of but 63 by 68 feet and two square rods of this was held sacred to the family grave mound, and yet his statement of yields, number of crops and prices made his earning $100 a year on less than one-tenth of an acre.

His crop of cucumbers on less than .06 of an acre would bring him $20. He had already sold $5 worth of greens and a second crop would follow the cucumbers. He had just irrigated his garden from an adjoining canal, using a foot-power pump, and stated that until it rained he would repeat the watering once per week.”

Regarding his survey of Asian farming methods, King concluded:

“Almost every foot of land is made to contribute material for food, fuel or fabric. Everything which can be made edible serves as food for man or domestic animals. Whatever cannot be eaten or worn is used for fuel. The wastes of the body, of fuel and of fabric worn beyond other use are taken back to the field; before doing so they are housed against waste from weather, compounded with intelligence and forethought and patiently labored with through one, three or even six months, to bring them into the most efficient form to serve as manure for the soil or as feed for the crop. It seems to be a golden rule with these industrial classes, or if not golden, then an inviolable one, that whenever an extra hour or day of labor can promise even a little larger return then that shall be given, and neither a rainy day nor the hottest sunshine shall be permitted to cancel the obligation or defer its execution.”

and, perhaps more importantly:

“Extensive as is the acreage of irrigated rice in China, Korea and Japan, nearly every spear is transplanted; the largest and best crop possible, rather than the least labor and trouble, as is so often the case with us, determining their methods and practices.” [emphaisis mine]

The Japanese developed not only renewable organic agriculture and intensive horticulture, but beginning in the late 1600’s also developed a highly advanced science of silvaulture, or forest plantation management, extensively detailed in Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed. Inventories were taken of the country’s tree stocks down to the level of individual trees. Forest magistrates were retained by the feudal lords to manage forests from the top down, and village headmen managed local forests as common property for all the villagers. Fallen or dead trees were harvested first, and some areas of deep forest were off limits to anyone on penalty of death to permit forest regeneration. Permits were issued specifying rights to collect wood or graze animals on government forest land as long as such activities did not interfere with timber production. Advanced treatises were written on forest management, specifying techniques for cultivating seedlings, fertilization, culling old growth, and coppicing. The government rationed the use of wood - for example the amount of wood permitted to be used to construct one's house depended on one's social status. Craftsmen were prohibited form using rare species like cypress or sugi wood for small objects like boxes and utensils. Valuable species like cedars and oaks were reserved for government use and off limits to peasants. Government inspectors posted along highways and rivers inspected wood shipments to make sure laws about logging and wood use were being followed. The government also encouraged the planting of trees to stem erosion, flooding and siltation in low-lying areas. These measures meant that Japan's forests, once in crisis, were growing again by 1800. No doubt Japan was carbon-neutral in this period. According to author and architect Azby Brown:

“But the main thing is that it worked well with the existing values of the people. They were very frugal to begin with, they had been living in these same valleys for centuries and had a very good understanding of the natural flow of how the watersheds worked and how the weather might change and what the various animal species were. So it was a wonderful way to leverage the value system of the people with this overarching goal of creating a sustainable, well-managed environment. It didn’t happen instantly — it took a couple of generations and different features developed at different paces, but eventually they did it. A big issue that we could really learn from has to do with understanding the relationship between urban areas and rural areas and understanding the flow of items and materials that need to go back and forth.”

None of this would have succeeded without the most remarkable feature of this period - neutral population growth, a feat rarely achieved in any culture. After an initial population increase at the start of the Edo period, Japan's population stabilized at around 30 million and remained essentially constant. Between 1721 and 1828, Japan's population grew from 26,100,00 to only 27,200,000. It is believed that this occurred due to a variety of factors - Japanese in the 18th and 19th centuries married later, nursed their babies for longer, and spaced their children apart at longer intervals. More starkly, they engaged in contraception, abortion, and even in some cases, infanticide. The birth rates in the Tokugawa period rise and fall in phase with rises and falls in the price of rice, meaning couples of this era were responding to economic concerns. After Japan was forcibly opened to trade, the new regime once again encouraged population growth. Population in 1909 when F.H. King visited Japan was around 50 million. Today it is roughly 126 million.

To facilitate internal trade, the Tokugawa introduced a uniform national currency in the form of coinage in gold, silver and bronze denominations. These denominations were fixed, but the rates actually fluxuated on the exchange market. The system was based on multiples of four with coins valued according to the Ryo - one Ryo was worth four Bu, 16 Shu, or 4,000 Mon (a cheap bronze coin). These coins replaced the imported Chinese bronze and copper coins which had been used as currency in the preceding four centuries and which were obviously limited in supply. The material for these beautiful, elegant coins came from domestic gold and silver mines from across Japan such as the Sado and the Toi gold mines. Money was issued by the government, which collected segniorage from its issue (profits accruing from the issuing of money). Because the coins were intrinsically valuable, based a trimetallic standard, inflation or deflation could occur if either the amount of coins in circulation were increased or decreased, or the amount of precious metal they contained were decreased, as happened in 1695 and 1709-1711, resulting in inflation. Paper scrip was also issued, based on the value of the coins. An export ban on monetary specie was imposed by Arai Hakuseki in 1715, and shortly thereafter the gold content of the coins was fixed, leading to 80 years of price stability. It must be noted that these currencies, unlike modern currencies, were not IOU's based on debt as are modern fiat currencies. It should also be noted that Japan maintained control over its own currency exchanges during this time, rather than having it fluxuate against a global market. For these reasons, Tokugawa currency functioned as a medium of trade and a store of value without any imperative for growth, and without the boom and bust cycle so endemic to modern market economies. While loans were certainly contracted between individual parties, the government did not have to go into debt to issue its own currency or manipulate interest rates to control the supply, as it does today. This is also key to understanding a society that does not rely on growth and inflation. This kept prices relatively stable for generations:

People in the past held no expectations of sustained, high-level economic growth. Such reference materials as charts issued by the Bakufu government after major conflagrations indicating the upper limit for Edo carpenters' wages, and wages paid to carpenters employed in the construction of Edo Castle reveal that carpenters' wages almost doubled during the 200 years between the early Edo period of the mid-1600s and late Edo period of the mid-1800s, but this rise represents annual economic growth of no more than about 0.3%, an almost insignificant increase.

Compared with this, the price of a bowl of soba (buckwheat noodles), which was set in 1668 at 16 mon, remained the same until 1865 when it finally rose to 20 mon, which suggests that the living standards of carpenters whose wages almost doubled in the same period would have risen substantially in the Edo period.

Economic growth of about 0.3% per year would be regarded as totally unacceptable in present-day Japan, but surely this makes a lot more sense than nowadays, when no one bats an eyelid at that fact that Tokyo bus fares have risen from 15 yen in the 1960s to 200 yen by 2000, a thirteen-fold increase in no more than 40 years.

As for its economy, even though the island was closed off from the outside world, Japan's varied climate and topography provided a variety of local products unique to geographic locations leading to a thriving internal trade, retaining money in the hands of local communities rather than leaving the country. Trading houses and rice brokers facilitated the transport of goods between the cities and rural areas. Japan's internal economy flourished in this period, assisted by coastal shipping, well-maintained roads, and a uniform system of weights and measures:

A product ranking list fromthe Edo Period documents a total of 132 types of local products. For instance; dried bonito from the Tosa district, cloth for traditional Japanese pants from the Mutsu district, high-class hemp cloth from the Satsuma district, painted pottery from the Owari district, indigo ball for dyeing from the Awa district, Nishijin silk fabric in the Yamashiro district, tatami rush mat from the Bingo district, traditional Japanese paper from the Mino district, thick dried kelp from the Matsumae district, Hakata kimono sash from the Chikuzen district, crinkled high quality hemp cloth from the Hokuetsu district, pottery from the Bizen district, Japanese traditional candle from the Aizu district, cloth from the Kouzuke district, cattail carpet from the Utsunomiya district, paper for calligraphy from the Iwakuni district, sweet potato from the Kawagoe district, and daikon (white radish) from the Nerima district.

With this abundance and diversity of products, it is easy to understand that a large profit must have been generated just from domestic trades. This meant that the country did not need to colonize in or invade foreign countries in order to feed the population of some 30 million.

Peasants lived in small villages where generations of people lived together and knew each other, working alongside one another and bonding through various seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective, with strong pressures to conform and minimize conflicts with others, due to the fact that villages could be punished as a unit. Peasants rarely moved beyond their home villages, which required a permit (though young people often sought seasonal employment beyond their local village). Peasants owned the land they worked, but were taxed as a unit by the local daimyo, with taxes paid as rice. Survival of a village meant that everyone needed to work together to meet the tax burden and overcome natural disasters, leading to a high degree of cooperation. Forestry, agriculture, and fisheries were not separated into independent industries during the Edo period. This was because most fishermen in coastal villages engaged in both farming and fisheries. Each han, or fiefdom, practically had autonomous power, without interference by the central government. Some highly motivated han even embarked on small-scale manufacturing industries - cottage industries developed in western Japan, with each family of the village taking over one step of the production process. Ie trading houses in urban areas would provide rural producers with raw materials and equipment, and sell the finished product in cities, similar to the English “putting-out” system.

Edo society itself was organized by strict customs and relations designed to promote social stability. The Tokugawa shogunate intentionally created a social order called Shinokosho to stabilize the country based on the Neo-Confucian principles of mutual obligation rather than wealth. At the top of the social order, beneath the emperor, shogun, and daimyo, were the samurai (shi), who functioned as an administrative ruling class and were expected to set a high moral example through their strict honor code of Bushido. Beneath the samurai class were the peasants (no), who produced the most essential goods of all - food. Confucian philosophy had a reverence for farmers, realizing that any society could not survive without them, and that they should be correspondingly valued. Below them were the artisans (ko) who produced other non-essential goods - art, woodworking, textiles, etc. The lowest class was the merchants (sho) because they created no new value; they only traded goods made by others (the contrast between the modern American value system here could not be more striking). Some were outside this system, such as Buddhist and Shinto priests, court nobles (kuge), and various outcast classes (eta and hinin). Still, the system gave a remarkable level of stability to society, establishing a clear series of rights, duties, obligations, and responsibilities to members of society. Some peasants and merchants became wealthy during this period, but due to social conventions, they were forbidden to flaunt their wealth by, for example, building larger and more ostentatious houses than the samurai class. Merchants and artisans lived primarily in cities - Japan's population in the Edo period was ten percent urban, one of the highest levels of urbanization in the world at that time.

Although Japan was a preindustrial agrarian society, it was far from backward. Japanese culture achieved a high degree of refinement that is still admired to this day. Temple schools educated the children of peasants and samurai alike. It has been estimated that the literacy rate in Japan was 50 percent for men and 20 percent for women, low by today's standards but high for anywhere in the world at this time. A lively print culture developed - Japan's three largest cities had over 1,500 bookstores. Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock printing, created stunning works of art that were affordable to the masses and had a profound influence on western artists like Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh. Poetry was widely practiced including the celebrated poetry of Basho and the unique haiku form of verse. The art of flower arranging and bonsai - the cultivation of miniature trees, celebrated the Japanese love of art and nature. Kabuki and Bunraku theater developed at this time, reaching a high level of refinement. Japan's architecture, with its clean geometric lines, natural materials and harmony with nature exerted a great inlfluence over Frank Lloyd Wright (who collected Japanese art). Although Japan was at peace, martial arts including jujitsu, fencing and archery were preserved and practiced as spiritual exercises to refine the body and mind.

Please read part 1 of this article

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Continue to part 5

Edo Period (Wikipedia)
King, F. H.  Farmers of Forty Centuries or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Farmers of Forty Centuries, by F. H. King

Scrip of Edo period Japan (Wikipedia)

Sustainability in Japan's Edo Period--300 Years Ago! (Japan For Sustainability)

Eco Edo: A new book delves into Japan’s past for tips on how to save the planet

Diamond, Jared. Collapse, How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2011. Print.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 3)

4. The No-Relationship Society

"Decreasing suicides would be one way to build a society with a minimum level of unhappiness”
Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan

One of the main objections to the mass consumer society is that it impoverishes human relationships. It is a fundamentally materialistic view of the world - one that says we can only achieve happiness and satisfaction by producing and consuming more and more. Certainly having a certain basic standard of living is necessary for well-being. But countless psychological studies and surveys have shown that once a certain standard of living is met, more work and consumption has no effect whatsoever on happiness. Often happiness has more to with the type of society you live in and what your expectations are than with some objective material standard like whether you have a flashy car or the latest cell phone.

A Japanese villager of a hundred years ago could not even comprehend the lifestyle of his great-great grandchildren. Color TVs, video games, foreign travel, automobiles, high-speed trains, karaoke bars, pachinko parlors, 3D movies, Manga, the Internet, robot pets, automated toilets; by all measures the material standards of the average Japanese person are greater than even the emperors of past eras. Thus, the Japanese people today must be infinitely happier than their ancestors, who must have been miserable working in rice paddies all day long. The evidence does not bear this out, however. Japan has probably the world's highest rate of suicide. On average about 90 Japanese people take their own lives every single day, and the sucide rate has been over 30,000 for 12 straight years. Instructions on how to commit suicide abound on the internet in Japan, including how to mix common household chemicals to make poison gas, and how to use a charocal grill to asphyxiate yourself ("death by hibachi"). A survey by the Japanese government in 2008 showed that one in five Japanese men and women had seriously thought of taking their own life. The government in Japan says suicides and depression cost its economy almost 32 billion dollars in 2009. The figures refer to lost incomes and the cost of treatment (by way of comparision, Japan's export surplus was 38 billion dollars).

How is this possible? What's going on here? If material wealth is supposed to make people happy, shouldn't the Japanese be the happiest people on earth? Even Japanese people who lose their jobs do not face anywhere near the destitution that would be faced by the average person in a "developing" country. Even in some of the poorest parts of the world, the suicide rate is nowhere near as high.

In 2010 NHK (Japan's televison network) aired a documentary called Muen Shakai - The no-relationship society. It explored the epidemic of Japan's elderly dying alone, often with no one knowing they were dead for weeks, or even months at a time:

Traditional community relationships withered with modernization in the late 19th century and died in the mid-20th. Family relationships are faring little better. An economy denying many people a foothold, combined with communications technology that joins us virtually but isolates us concretely, have left the individual largely on his or her own – for better and for worse.

Dying alone is something one naturally associates with the elderly, but Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb 24) finds it increasingly common among young people too.

A certain “A-san,” a 37-year-old Tokyo IT professional, offers a cautionary case study, though he survived. His social instincts never developed, his work keeps him glued to his computer screen, and although he lives in one of the most crowded cities on Earth, people are simply not part of his life. Convenience store bentos see him through three meals a day; the containers pile up in his apartment because he fell out of the habit of taking out the garbage and there was no one around to prod him. It’s not the healthiest lifestyle, and last year when the flu was going around, he succumbed. His fever rose. Helpless, he eventually lost consciousness. He might have died if his octogenarian parents, worried over his failure to answer his cell phone, had not paid him an unaccustomed visit, and called an ambulance.

There’s a company called Keepers whose business it is to dispose of possessions left behind by those who die in solitude. Its director, Taichi Yoshida, tells Shukan Jitsuwa, “Lately we’re seeing more young people dying alone. Nearly 20% of our business involves people in their 40s and 50s.”

One thing he’s noticed: “Many young people who died alone owned several computers but not a single TV.”

And something else: “Nowadays there’s a style of dining that exists somewhere between dining out and dining in. When you go out to eat, you interact with people in the restaurant. When you cook for yourself, you make some sort of personal connection in the store where you buy your ingredients, with the staff or with other customers. But when you eat prepared foods exclusively, something you just pop into the microwave, you connect with nobody.”

Modern hyper-convenience, by making isolation easy, indirectly encourages it, he finds.

Yoshida’s unusual calling has made him philosophical. “In today’s Japan,” he observes, “neither the family nor society has any control over the individual. Things are set up in such a way that the individual can live exactly as he or she likes.”

That sounds good, but the isolating impact of absolute freedom has yet to be sufficiently explored.

Comments to the article on Shukan Jitsuwa seen to bear out the isolating nature of modern Japan:

- How many times do you see people smile in Tokyo? I’ve lived here for years, months go by without seeing someone smile. Trains are like libraries, the streets are quiet. People in this country just don’t communicate or interact effectively with other human beings. They’re all “in the zone” – oblivious to what’s going on around them, unable to respond or deal with humans on a one-on-one or spontaneous setting.

- Everything in Tokyo is insular and isolating. Cell phones, Ipods/pads, game players. How often do you see a circle of teens all on their phones and not even talking to each other? At least three or four times a day and I don’t spend much time around kids.

- At work no one talks. On the train people are too busy fighting for that 1cm of space. No one smiles. No one talks. And the 30-50 year old guys on my train route have the expressions of reanimated zombies who are not happy to be back from the grave.

- Tokyo is a a social desert. X million people living in isolation in the same physical area. Sex is in decline, friendship rare, social circles a myth and interpersonal skills illusory. Sad!

These comments paint a grim picture of urban alienation and anomie. The situation is much the same everywhere in the age of cell phones and "personal entertainment." We prefer what is on the screen to interacting with other human beings. We are so wrapped up in our cell phone games, our iPods and our Sudoku that we do not notice the world around us. Everything is "personalized" and convenient so we do not have to rely on others. Relationships fade away. Yukio Shige, a retired policeman, voluntarily patrols Tojimbo Cliffs, above the sea of Japan, where many people go to commit suicide. He has saved 150 people - more men than women - who planned to end their own life.

"Takanori", a young man in his mid-20s who asked not to have his real name used, is one of them.

A few months ago he came to the cliffs intending to throw himself into the sea after losing his job.

Standing on the cliff edge, he recalls what drove him to such desperation.

"I went to the unemployment office, but there was only training and help for older people," he says.

"People of my age were supposed to cope with this difficult situation alone. There was no help for me at all."

Was the situation the same a hundred years ago? Two hundred years ago? Was suicide just as common in pre-industrial Japan? Is more growth going to solve this problem, or make it worse? Maybe the Japanese are just different from everyone else in the world. The economic situation for most Americans is even more precarious, yet we do not have as high a suicide rate. What is known is that suicides everywhere follow the trajectory of an economy - they increase in economic downturns, and according to the magnitude of the downturn. What is the human cost of our roller-coaster economy? Things like job security, a secure retirement, personal relationships, vacations and lack of stress are anathema to the cult of economic growth. Wouldn't these be more valuable to the average person that more consumption? It is worth noting that according to surveys, Americans reported a maximum level of life satisfaction in 1959. If all our increasing material wealth isn't making us happier, what's the point?

5. Nihonkeizairon (Theories on the Japanese Economy)

Imagine a future world history where, fifty years from now, we look back and decide that Japan was the one country that made a semi-success of near-zero growth. Which means we are now watching a Golden Age there of sorts. I'm not betting on that, but if you're looking for strange scenarios that's my suggestion for the day.
-Economist Tyler Cowen

If Tyler Cowen's suggestion is right, we should consider how the Japanese have managed to live through two decades of low growth and yet still maintain one of the world's highest standards of living. Why is Japan still standing, whereas some countries are crumbling after only two years of recession? What ingredients made this possible, and what can the rest of the world learn from it? Let us consider a few characteristics of Japan's economy and culture:

1. The Japanese bent over backwards to preserve jobs. Unlike in the United States, Japanese firms have loyalty to their workers, and do not treat them as disposable commodities. Bailouts went to preserve jobs, rather than ending up as bonuses for super-rich bankers and hedge-fund managers. According to Wikipedia:

But Tokyo's bail-out package came at a price. Free to lend again, banks simply used funds to keep countless "zombie" companies afloat, so great was the desire to avoid bankruptcy and mass unemployment. [emphasis mine].

Consider also this snippet from the BBC News article cited above:

...But smaller businesses cannot do that and are seeing profit margins on their export sales hit hard.

"We will get the people together to re-think the new strategy. That is our way to survive," says Hideyuki Amamiya, president of a third generation family company, Atago, which provides high-tech testing equipment to the food industry.

But when asked whether he will lay off staff, he shakes his head.

That would be unthinkable, such is his loyalty to the workforce. [emphasis mine]

Contrast this to the employment at will regime in America. Japan's official unemployment rate is half that of the U.S. While the lifetime employment system of post-war Japan has started to unravel, part-time and temporary contracts are still better than being without any job at all. Work has been shared, and sacrifices have been born by employers and employees alike, rather than put all on the backs of workers. This has also no doubt helped lessen the need for public assistance and kept Japan’s crime rate low. Contrast this with the United States:

The squeeze is widespread. A survey of American businesses conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that over the last six months of 2010, almost four in 10 companies laid off workers, froze wages and suspended bonuses. Twenty percent reduced employee benefits and six in 10 said they hadn't rehired any laid-off workers. Only 11 percent had “restructured executive compensation” – those in the executive suite appear to be doing OK.

And let's not forget the laid-off and furloughed government workers and widespread union busting.

2. Japanese society does not have the extremes of wealth and poverty as the United States. Consider the following article:

When Japan Airlines hit hard times in 2009 and began to lay off its staff, JAL CEO Haruka Nishimatsu cut his own pay to less than that of his pilots and eliminated all his perks. He now rides public transit to the office and eats in the employee cafeteria, standing in line with his colleagues.

Contrast this with the following story from the Associated Press on April 22:

Unions locked in wage negotiations with American Airlines accused the CEO of greed on Friday because he got an 11 percent boost in compensation, to $5.2 million, while the company was losing money.

Garry Drummond, director of the airline division at the Transport Workers Union, said CEO Gerard Arpey's increase was "almost beyond belief and certainly shameless."

The airline's other two unions also attacked the CEO's compensation. "Whatever happened to pay for actual performance?" said flight attendants' president Laura Glading.

Labor unions said their members haven't gotten raises since at least 2008. All three are in contract negotiations.

American has resisted wage increases, saying its labor costs are already too high. Two of the unions have asked federal officials for permission to start a countdown toward strikes, but the requests have not been granted.

In a regulatory filing Thursday, parent company AMR Corp. disclosed that Arpey received compensation valued at more than $5.2 million in 2010, when AMR was the only major U.S. airline operator to lose money. That was up from $4.7 million in 2009 because the value of Arpey's 2010 stock grants and options was higher than similar grants the year before.

The company said Arpey was paid below the median of CEOs at similarly sized companies.

Nor is this behavior unique:

Although pay for Japanese executives has more than doubled in the past decade, the government says, fewer than 300 people at Japan's 3,813 public companies earned enough in 2009 to require disclosure, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Companies listed on Japan's stock exchanges paid their chief executives an average of $580,000 in salary and other compensation last fiscal year, PWC estimates, about 16 times more than the typical Japanese worker. Average CEO pay at the 3,000 largest U.S. companies is $3.5 million, including stock options and bonuses, according to the Corporate Library, a research group.

Contrast this with CEO behavior in America, American CEO’s continue to award themselves ever more lavish salaries and bonuses, along with golden parachutes, no matter what the status of their company of the economy in general.

Last year, total compensation for CEOs averaged $11.4 million, up 23 percent from the previous year, according to data for 299 major companies.

CEOs at those 299 companies raked in a total of $3.4 billion. That's enough to support over 100,000 jobs that paying the median wage of just over $33,000.

Average CEO compensation is 343 times that median wage.

Ray Irani, the outgoing CEO of Occidental Petroleum Corp., took in $76.1 million in compensation last year. Over the last decade, he received $857 million. "We're not in the business to employ people. We're in the business to make a profit," Irani has said, according to the AP.

Evan at large financial services companies -- where the furor over bonuses was focused -- total compensation rose 5.7 percent in 2010, to a record $149 billion.

In 2010, median CEO pay in the United Sates jumped 27 percent, while worker wages rose 2.1 percent (and was quickly wiped out by inflation). Much of this growth that has justified these pay increases have come at the expense of American workers:

The fact that CEOs’ pay is rising along with stock prices underscores the disconnect between pay and companies’ true underlying performance, Lazonick says. While companies in the S&P 500 boosted profit 47% last year, much of that was due to cost-cutting and layoffs, not from the creation of businesses and growth, Lazonick says. Revenue, a gauge of the money flowing into businesses for selling goods and services, grew at a much slower pace than profit — and ended the year up just 7%.

The results are plain to see. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning research group, the richest 20 percent of Americans saw their share of all Americans’ wealth increase by 2.2 percentage points between 2007 and 2009. The remaining four-fifth of Americans saw their wealth decline by the same amount. The top 20 percent of Americans by wealth controlled 87.2 percent of all wealth as of 2009, leaving the rest of the country with just 12.8 percent of all wealth. The top 20 percent did see their wealth shrink between 2007 and 2009 with a 16 percent average annualized decline in household wealth, while everyone else saw a 25 percent average annualized decline in household wealth during the same period.

3. Japanese have universal health care and an excellent educational system. The Japanese have the longest life spans in the world (although this is probably as much due to diet and genetics as health care). Still, Japan’s health care is widely regarded as among the world’s best systems, covering all its citizens at a tiny fraction of what the United States pays for healthcare, even with a large elderly population. Costs are tightly controlled by the government - every two years the Japanese health care industry and the Ministry of Health negotiate prices for every service and drug. Insurers must cover everyone are forbidden from turning down applicants, even with preexisting conditions. The government picks up the tab for those who cannot obtain coverage through work or are too poor to afford it (a ‘public option’). Japanese go to the doctor three times as often as Americans and get twice as many MRIs. Because there are no gatekeepers they can see any specialist they want. Eighty percent of hospitals are privately owned (more than in the U.S.) and almost every doctor’s office is a private business. Rather than gouging the citizenry for health care costs, hospital profits and doctors wages are actually considered to be too low! (an overnight stay in a hospital costs $10.00).

Again, compare to the United States:

- According to a report published in The American Journal of Medicine, medical bills cause more than 60 percent of the personal bankruptcies in the United States.

- According to that same study, approximately three-fourths of those that do go bankrupt because of medical bills actually do have health insurance.

- If you have an illness that requires intensive care for an extended period of time, it is really easy to rack up medical bills that total over 1 million dollars.

- It is estimated that hospitals overcharge Americans by about 10 billion dollars every single year.

- One study found that approximately 41 percent of working age Americans either have medical bill problems or are currently paying off medical debt.

- Health insurance premiums for small employers in the United States increased 180% between 1999 and 2009.

- Even as the rest of the country struggled with a deep recession, U.S. health insurance companies increased their profits by 56 percent during 2009 alone.

- Between 2000 and 2006, wages in the United States increased by 3.8%, but health care premiums increased by 87%.

- According to a report by Health Care for America Now, America's five biggest for-profit health insurance companies ended 2009 with a combined profit of $12.2 billion.

- The top executives at the five largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States received nearly $200 million in total compensation in 2009.

- Health insurance premiums are once again soaring in 2011. Blue Shield of California recently announced plans to raise health insurance rates by an average of 30% to 35% this year, and some individual policy holders could actually see their health insurance premiums rise by a whopping 59 percent.

- There were more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies that made over a billion dollars in profits in 2008.

- Approximately 46 million Americans do not currently have any health insurance at all. That means that 46 million Americans are just one really bad day away from financial ruin without any protection whatsoever.

The public education system in Japan is excellent, offering a quality education to all citizens regardless of income. Private schools are relatively rare compared to other countries. Japanese students consistently rank near the top of educational achievement:

Japan has outperformed the U.S. in math and science on several international assessments of educational achievement. For example, the average math achievement score for 15-year-old Japanese students was 523 on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). American students only scored 474. In science, Japanese students outperformed American students 531 to 489.

The Japanese school system is teaching math and science to students more effectively than the American school system, and it still has enough resources left over to implement a social curriculum, offer healthy food, and allow students to stay physically active during the school day. These are all great practices that American schools should consider borrowing.

Higher education is still, expensive, however, and many Japanese have to work and take out loans to attend college. It is still cheaper to attend college in Japan than the United States: the average cost for tuition, fees and living expenses per semester is $10,000 (1.4 million yen) as opposed to $12,000 at a public university and over $20,000 at a private university in the U.S. (and tuition and fees at public universities is rising due to budget cutbacks).

4. Japanese have advanced infrastructure and dense, compact cities. Due to Japan's geography, there was not much of a chance of urban sprawl. Still, the remarkable density and compactness of Japanese cities are legendary. Japanese homes are compact, efficient and uncluttered. 79 million Japanese, 70 percent of the total population, live in 209 complex urban centers:

Yet, in a mountainous country the approximate size of California but with the arable land area only twice the size of Massachusetts, Japan houses some 127 million people in a condition that is roughly ten times denser than the United States. In this situation, skyscrapers became inevitable given Japan’s prowess in manufacturing, shipping, information technology, financial services and the arts. Beyond economic rationale, however, density is a way of life in Japan. It is commonplace to find a bar on the eighth floor of a sliver building. In farming communities, freed from the moralizing madness of the Jeffersonian grid, housing is clustered together into tight communities with crop fields dispersed on the perimeter. Urbane society is the glue that holds the entire nation together.

This density has had beneficial effects on transportation. Japan has invested heavily in its infrastructure, which is among the world’s finest. Some 250 high-speed Shinkansen trains connect all major cities, and their punctuality is renowned. Dozens of train companies compete in local and regional transportation markets. There are 173 airports and extensive water transpiration. Infrastructure is efficient, modern, well designed and well maintained. Despite the high level of car ownership, the share of utilization of public transportation in Japan (of all transport modes) is 32%, compared with 8% in Germany, 6% in the UK and 1% in the U.S.

5. Government did not slash spending at the first sign of downturn, in fact it increased it. While this increase was done in misguided attempt to restart growth, it at least prevented the massive social fallout seen elsewhere. The Japanese did not spend the downturn reducing taxes on its wealthiest and most affluent citizens. The Japanese are not turning off their streetlights, or turning paved roads back into gravel. Unlike in the United States, the money for Japan’s deficit spending came primarily from the savings of it’s own citizens through the purchases of government bonds.

6. Japan is the second-largest creditor nation in the world (only recently surpassed by China), due to the Japanese attitudes of thrift and frugality. Japan was able to finance its own deficit spending due to its high savings rate. It’s bond ratings are excellent and its currency is strong. Creditor nations are much more stable and less vulnerable to economic shocks. There is also much more confidence in the economy of a creditor nation (since its money is ultimately backed by debt).

7. The Japanese restrict immigration. Japanese do not have to compete with waves of immigrants for jobs. Japan has only 15,000 immigrants a year, a drop in the bucket. The United States, by contrast, allows in millions of legal and illegal immigrants every year, particularly from Latin America. This puts downward pressure on wages. Illegal immigrant workers are easily exploited, while H1-B visas for professional work are used by employers who want to pay lower wages than the American average. The notion of “worker shortages” or “jobs Americans don’t want” are shams promoted by the business community to continue these policies.

8. The Japanese do not spend lavishly on the military, nor do they engage in costly foreign wars. In fact, since the end of World War 2, the Japanese defense force is forbidden by the constitution to engage in operations outside of Japanese territory except for humanitarian missions. Spending on defense (which truly is for defense) as a percentage of the overall economy is quite small, accounting for about 6-7 percent of the budget and around 1 percent of GDP. In the United States, military spending is well over a third of the nation’s budget once costs for wars, veterans care and other expenses are factored in. The United States spending on "defense" nearly equals that of all other nations combined.

9. Japan is an exporting nation. Unlike the United States, Japan maintained its industrial base rather than shipping it to other countries. High-tech manufacturing continues to be a major part of the Japanese economy, including cars, electronics, and heavy equipment:

Factory work in the U.S. is widely viewed as a dead-end job for losers, something you take grudgingly after all other avenues of livelihood have vanished… This is not the case in Germany and Japan. Employment in manufacturing and factories is still respected as a worthy profession.

Japan and Germany actively promote and preserve manufacturing and industry. The U.S. actively drives manufacturing abroad with high taxes and oppressive regulatory bureaucracy. If you doubt this, please accompany company officials as they gather permits to expand a factory in Japan, Germany or China, and then do so in California.

In the United States, by contrast, we prefer to “innovate” in toxic financial products rather than in electronics or industry. Forty percent of the United Sates economy consists of the nontradeable FIRE economy (finance, insurance, real estate), that is, unproductive money shuffling.

So, broadly, what are the keys to success?” 1.) egalitarianism 2.) active, involved government 3.) universal social insurance 4.) worker’s rights 5.) quality education for all 8.) good infrastructure 9.) positive trade balance. 10) High domestic saving. As Paul Krugman has noted:

Well, I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice this: Japan doesn’t look so bad these days.

For one thing, the famed sluggishness of Japanese policy — the refusal to face up to banking system losses and pour in the funds needed to recapitalize the system, the refusal to let zombie banks die, the stop-go nature of fiscal policy, with concerns about rising debt warring with concerns about the economy — all of that seems entirely comprehensible now, doesn’t it? Even with the knowledge of what happened to Japan to motivate us, so far we’re following exactly the same path.

And given what the next couple of years are likely to look like, Japan’s lost decade — yes, growth was slow, but there wasn’t mass unemployment or mass suffering — is actually starting to look pretty good. We may or may not be about to face our own lost decade, but the sheer misery millions of Americans will face in the near future probably exceeds anything that happened in Japan during the 90s.

I still hope we can do better than the Japanese did, but it’s not at all obvious that we will. [emphasis mine]

When we look at what the Japanese have done well, we cannot help but notice that the U.S. is doing the exact opposite in every instance. In fact, the moves Japan has taken are exactly what economic “experts” are saying must be stopped if Japan is to “grow” again. Steps need to be taken to unleash the “creative destruction” of capitalism, they are told by economists, for economic growth to return. In other words, the people must suffer to bring growth back. Yet the United States, embracing this idea, has experienced nothing but decline and dysfunction, with falling living standards for most Americans outside of the very rich for decades. It appears that the “creative destruction” of capitalism is merely finding creative ways to destroy society for the benefit of the elites.

We do not have to turn to collectivism and give up our individualism, which can also have benefits. The Japanese culture is unique – we do not have to transform ourselves into Japan. But the lesson is that we do need to cooperate and work together. Turning on each other is a sure fire way to hasten our downfall. Our politicians are currently playing Americans against each other – black versus white, immigrant versus native, union versus non-union, employed versus unemployed, middle-class versus poor, rural and suburban versus urban. Fundamentally, Japan’s ability to cope with their economic troubles and still maintain a society worth living in is due to the fact that they recognize society is a collective enterprise, and that they are all in it together. Individuals cannot prosper apart from a wider society. In the future of low or no growth, nations that come together and cooperate rather than turn on each other will be successful, ones that do not will falter and quickly turn to dystopias. When I reflect on this fact, I cannot help but tremble at the future of my country.

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Please read part 2 of this article

Continue to part 4