Could China become another Japan?






Below is an interesting article by Dan Slater of Finance Asia in response to Japan’s Open Future (the book I have written with Tomas Casas i Klett and Jean-Pierre Lehmann, as introduced in an earlier post). I am reprinting Dan’s article here with his kind permission; it has been picked up on a couple of other sites as well.

And thanks to Elissa Bogos for allowing me to reproduce one of her wonderful photos here! John 

By Dan Slater  |  7 April 2009 
A new book raises the grim possibility China could ‘turn inwards’ and end up like Japan.

China’s decision not to allow Coca Cola to buy local soft drinks champion Huiyuan Juice, announced on March 18, and the latest World Bank report predicting growth will slow to 6.5% from the previously forecast 7.5%, has caused some commentators to wonder whether China could turn inwards. The fear is that China could turn away from its relatively open economic model and copy Japan’s ‘mercantilist’ model, defined as manipulating the terms of trade in one’s favour through currency depreciation and non-tariff barriers to imports and investments, and thus ‘stealing’ growth from one’s neighbours.

Japan has a total trade-to-GDP ratio of just 18%, and the stock of foreign direct investment represents a truly lamentable 1%. With only 2 million registered foreigners, Japan is the least welcoming country in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with a ratio of 1.5% foreigners to the total population. Compare that to 10% in Spain, or even Germany, which has 16 million foreign residents in a population of 85 million.

China is far more open, with FDI accounting for 4% of GDP and 10% of capital formation in 2008. Total trade accounts for 35% of GDP. Foreign firms exporting out of China account for almost 50% of total exports — probably a unique ratio in world history. China also has huge imports, meaning the net contribution of trade to GDP is much smaller. But China is clearly an important cog in the global production chain. Japan, despite its well-known brands, is not. Indeed, Toyota pretty much sums up the significance of Japanese exports. (Cars are Japan’s most important export component, and within that, Toyota is the most important company.)

Tomas Casas i Klett, co-author of the excellent new book Japan’s Open Future warns: “The world can digest one mercantilist super economy, but not two.” This comment refers to what Casas i Klett believes is the defining characteristic of Japanese economic history, namely the accumulation of trade surpluses with the rest of the world. His concern is that in a time of crisis, China could follow Japan’s lead in turning away from mutually enhancing growth, as Japan did in the 1930s and surprisingly, even today, as reflected in the figures above. The effect would be a series of ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policies through currency depreciations and protectionist methods which could plunge the world into depression, according to one widely held theory.

China already looks somewhat like Japan in its pomp. Just as Japan went through a manically energetic episode after the Second World War, during which people united behind the goal of ‘catching up with the West’, China in the 1980s turned its back on the ideological rigidities of Maoism. Just as Japan did earlier, China has flourished by creating an enormous amount of manufacturing capacity in order to export to the West. But the pupil has surpassed the master: China’s ratio of trade to GDP is 35%, two times that in Japan. Japan seems to be going in the other direction, with its share of the world export market falling from 8.25% in the 1990s, to 5.5% today.

Is Japan still mercantilist if its trade activity is diminishing? Yes, but perhaps an increasingly bad example (which is precisely why Casas i Klett urges opening up the economy). Japan still has huge trade surpluses (but the first current account deficit in 13 years came in January 2009), and exports provide what growth the economy manages to eke out. “Fifty-five percent of GDP comes from private consumption, 15% from exports, but when you look at the growth rate of GDP, which is very marginal, that marginal change can be largely explained by a rise in exports. So it’s the change in GDP, not the absolute value of GDP, which is changing,” Kenichiro Kawasaki, a former Japan economist at Lehman Brothers, explained to FinanceAsia last year.

Another similarity is excessively depreciated currencies. Japan has achieved that by extraordinarily low interest rates, while China has achieved it through a target level against the dollar.

The end of the bubble in 1989 brought about conflicting responses in Japan. Under Prime Minister Koizumi, the country made some attempts to switch from the state-directed, mercantilist model of economic growth to a more classically liberal one. But Casas i Klett and his co-authors argue (despite cosmetics reform like the privatisation of certain agencies, especially the Post Office) that this has made little real difference: “Japan (today) is closed by any objective criterion one cares to use: level of imports, inward foreign investment, immigration, foreign managers and professionals, foreign brand recognition, penetration of international media, foreign language capability, international standards, contribution to development, extent of political contests inside Japan etcetera.”

Actually, during the internet bubble of 2000, a crop of ‘new economy’ companies did emerge. What is different to the post-War era, which stimulated entrepreneurial giants like Honda and Sony, is that these companies did not become great world-beaters. On the contrary, the internet sector, as reflected by the mother board of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, has never recovered from Takefumi Horie’s Livedoor scandal.

The question now is whether China will react in the same way as Japan to an economic catastrophe — and let us be clear that this does not necessarily imply evil or stupidity. The lesson of the 1930s (as could be repeated today) seemed to be that liberal economies simply did not work, especially when only the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany seemed to have found an economic solution. Recall that pre-war Japan was run in the orthodox liberal manner — at least until 1931 when the country was forced off the gold standard along with Britain. After 1931, in a bid to solve the banking crises and wealth inequalities that had followed World War I, Japan adopted very illiberal policies. The results were initially good: Japan saw trade growing at a faster rate than GDP in the 1930s. The big difference versus Japan in the post-war era was that these policies did not result in yearly trade surpluses, because of the military’s import needs. The state took on even more power in 1938 with a series of laws controlling trade and capital. By then, the country was run on purely ideological (Fascist) lines, rather than purely economic (mercantilist) lines.

Experience teaches us that realistically speaking, it’s impossible to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach in times of economic crisis, however desirable in principle. Brokerage CLSA has published figures which predict a huge shrinkage in world trade. Unless GDP shrinks to the same extent (a disaster in itself) it’s impossible to see China, or any trading country, maintaining its openness in terms of trade-to-GDP ratios. 

CLSA’s China economist, Andy Rothman, is more bullish than most on China, but apparently only if assuming China becomes less open. Rothman claims that China is far more of a continental economy than generally appreciated, given its low net exports (under 10% of GDP). Thanks to its control of the state banks, the government can force spending to rise on real estate and construction, a sector which is greater than 10% of GDP, and can therefore balance out a collapse in net exports. So problem solved? Kawasaki, quoted above, would not agree. But it would show that China has the ability to crush the vested interest in the export sector for the good of the overall economy. Crushing vested interests in its domestic economy is exactly what Japan has failed to do.

Theoretically, even a successful domestic re-orientation would not prevent an international reduction in living standards, since countries would depart from the theory of comparative advantage. In practice, that theory has been partly discredited, since industrialised countries trade mostly with each other (for example Renault has 10% of the German car market). But new compensating domestic demand must be found — and here Japan and China are both challenged: Japan by terrible demographics, and in China, by a lack of widespread wealth. In this crisis, there are no easy answers.

© Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

Japan’s Open Future



At long last, my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship (co-authored with Tomas Casas i Klett and Jean-Pierre Lehmann) has landed in warehouses in the UK and the US. My fellow bloggers at Sans Everything will know that this has been a long time in the making, and I thank them for some very helpful feedback on earlier drafts. 


Japan’s Open Future is ambitious, drawing on a range of disciplines and themes including history, communication, business, economics, politics and geopolitics. It seeks to present a grand strategy for Japan by showing how all these issues are connected. Over the next couple of months I will be posting commentaries and excerpts here that draw on specialist topics from the book; as I do I will invite people with a stake in those topics to drop by and join us for a discussion.


Let me start by sharing an opinion piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, “Japan in a Post-American World.” It provides a summary of our argument as it relates to these acutely challenging global circumstances. In our book we argue that Japan has no choice but to look outward and become a global citizen if it would like to have a more secure and prosperous future. The alternative, of remaining insular and closed to new ideas, immigration and trade, would be a loss for the global community and would exacerbate Japan’s current problems. The financial crisis has only served to reinforce our argument on many levels.


Yet more than one recent commentator has underscored the absence of good ideas and creative reform efforts emanating from Japan. Let me share four recent examples. Continue reading

In Honour of Musa Khankhel


As with all his writing, Kafka’s masterful story Ein Brudermord (A Fratricidecan be read on many levels.  Most immediately it is about the inexplicable murder of Wese by Schmar, with the neighbour Pallas a passive observer to the scene; Wese’s wife arrives too late, only to discover her husband is already dead. Yet on a deeper level the story reads as an allegory for the death of reason as progress, the bludgeoning of Enlightenment philosophy at the end of a knife: “An und für sich sehr vernünftig, daß Wese weitergeht, aber er geht ins Messer des Schmar.”  In and of itself it is very rational for Wese to go forward, but he goes into the blade of Schmar. The philosophical cadences here are unmistakeable: “an und für sich” is the language of Kant, and even the name of the protagonist – Wese – evokes the German word “Wesen,” or “essence” in the German philosophical tradition (Schmar, meanwhile, suggests Schmarre; a slash). Schmar’s irrational opposition to Wese, his old “friend,” his brother in humanity, is as complete as it is impatient: even after Schmar has already stabbed Wese, he turns to his body and asks: “Why aren’t you just a balloon full of blood, so that I might sit on you and make you disappear altogether? … What silent question do you mean to pose?”

Writing against the backdrop of World War I, Kafka did not need to be reminded of the manifestations of his allegory, of the hope of progress and civilization’s rational advance terminated by brutal, unmediated violence. My friend Imtiaz Ali, a courageous journalist from Pakistan who has himself been threatened by the Taliban, wrote yesterday with the sad news that his colleague Musa Khankhel, 28, was murdered after a brief abduction by militants.  “It is all the more painful,” reflected Ali, because Musa Khan was working in a critically important part of Pakistan, where the Pakistani government had just signed a peace deal with militants in the hope of bringing peace to a turbulent and violent region.  But this was Khan, says Ali: a “peace activist,” a muckraker who “broke many stories,” and “a fearless man.”  

Continue reading

Global Zero


Following my recent thoughts on nuclear energy expansion and disarmament, I was heartened to run across Global Zero. In December 2008, one hundred global leaders met in Paris and launched an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. The idea is to phase out the world’s 27,000 or so weapons over the next 25 years (96% of them are in Russia and the United States). It will be easier said than done, of course, and there will be major game theoretic issues to sort out, like how to respond to a violator with a secret cache in a world in which all other countries have eliminated their weapons. Still, I admire the simplicity, clarity and moral resolve of the initiative.

Signatories include the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yoriko Kawaguchi, Robert McNamara, Desmond Tutu, and Muhammad Yunus; Canada’s Lloyd Axworthy is also among them. Building on this high profile support, events are planned for 2009 culminating in a World Summit in early 2010.

Will this initiative open space for Obama to advance a disarmament agenda, notwithstanding how much else he will have on his plate? In July 2008, he said “as long as nuclear weapons exist we will retain a strong deterrent.” But he also said, intriguingly, “We will make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy.”

If you want to sign the declaration, as I have done, you can do so here.

Obama’s Energy


 Happy New Year!

I have been away from this wonderful blog for far too long. Thanks to A.M., Ian and Jeet for carrying the ball in the latter half of 2008, and 2009 will see me blogging at Sans Everything once again.

Let me start by sharing some energy policy suggestions I offered to President-elect Obama recently on the Huffington Post.  What do you think? Am I missing some big  items? Do you agree or disagree with the ideas below – and if so, why? If you had to advise Obama on priority changes in energy policy, what would you say?


Transforming the Energy Economy 

by John Haffner

With volatile oil prices, growing global energy demand, and the spectre of catastrophic climate change, energy has become a front-page and household issue — not just in the United States, but around the world. The next president has the opportunity to lead a radical energy transformation towards a future based on low carbon, reliable and sustainable energy. There are seven steps the next administration could take that would help drive this transformation.

First, the United States must lead global climate discussions before and after the United Nations Climate Change Conference in late 2009. Carbon reduction targets for the period from 2012 to 2050 must be rooted in the latest scientific findings on the pace of climate change, and the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol must include aggressive intermediate reduction targets so as to drive investment decisions.

Second, the United States should introduce a federal moratorium on new coal-fired plants that do not have carbon capture and storage (CCS), as well as an aggressive time frame for retirement or retrofit of existing coal-fired plants without CCS. It should challenge other countries to do the same.

Third, the United States should challenge every country to generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and 30 percent by 2030. It should commit to underwriting global and regional financing and policy mechanisms that support this objective.

Fourth, as the global community prepares to expand the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the administration must undertake serious efforts to restore the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and to begin a discourse that looks beyond non-proliferation and towards disarmament. The president should review how to strengthen the oversight capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and devise a plan, in collaboration with other countries, towards universal (or near-universal) adoption of key international legal instruments to be used against proliferation: the Additional Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Fifth, the United States must adopt aggressive energy efficiency standards and codes nationwide, and the president must be willing to exercise strong leadership in challenging builders, cities and companies to adopt a wide array of visionary efficiency measures in homes, buildings, and transportation.

Sixth, the United States should reduce its domestic agricultural subsidy policies and apply sustainability criteria towards ethanol production — in comparison with other options — so that the United States will be able to expand the use of biofuels in a sustainable manner.

Finally, the next president of the United States should move away from the misleading rhetoric of “energy independence,” and instead embrace a new discourse of “energy interdependence,” a more enlightened language that recognizes that energy nationalism is dangerous for everyone, and global energy challenges will be solved together or not at all.

The Supreme Court Salutes “Get Smart”


As the 1960s sitcom Get Smart makes its way back into popular culture with the release of the film adaptation starring Steve Carrell, it is amusing to note that the series has also had an unlikely impact on legal discourse. In both Canadian and American legal briefs and court rulings, the idea of the ‘cone of silence’ – which never worked on the show – is discussed earnestly and interchangeably with another metaphor with an interesting lineage – ‘Chinese walls.’

Here’s Canada’s Supreme Court in 1990 in MacDonald Estate v. Martin:

“… The courts in the United States have generally adopted the stricter ‘possibility of real mischief’ test. According to this approach, once it is established that there is a ‘substantial relationship’ between the matter out of which the confidential information is said to arise and the matter at hand, there is an irrebuttable presumption that the attorney received relevant information. If the attorney practises in a firm, there is a presumption that lawyers who work together share each other’s confidences. Knowledge of confidential matters is therefore imputed to other members of the firm. This latter presumption can, however, in some circumstances, be rebutted. The usual methods used to rebut the presumption are the setting up of a ‘Chinese Wall’ or a ‘cone of silence’ at the time that the possibility of the unauthorized communication of confidential information arises. A ‘Chinese Wall’ involves effective ‘screening’ to prevent communication between the tainted lawyer and other members of the firm. A ‘cone of silence’ is achieved by means of a solemn undertaking not to disclose by the tainted solicitor. Other means which would constitute clear and convincing evidence that no improper disclosure has or can take place are not ruled out.”

Here’s to hoping we may see a shoe phone reference the next time a telecom matter is before the court.

In Defense of Goolsbee


My friend and fellow blogger Jeet has suggested that Barack Obama should “wave goodbye” to his economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee – but not, mind you, because Goolsbee has done anything wrong. In the recent controversy involving Canada, NAFTA and the Obama campaign, Jeet even believes that “Goolsbee was the innocent party.” Why, then, does Jeet think Goolsbee should go? In a word, “because of his policies.” What policies, you may ask? Jeet evidently regards Goolsbee as a “neoliberal,” and quotes approvingly John Nichols’ comment in The Nation that Obama and Goolsbee do not have the same views on “NAFTA, China trade and a host of related issues.” 

Now Jeet – as readers of this blog will know – is normally a purveyor of erudition and common sense across the great range of topics he tackles. On trade, however, he seems to have adopted a rhetorical posture that suggests he could be writing under the influence of moonshine or Ralph Nader (or both). Imagining himself at a distance from me and the other two bloggers on this site, Jeet offers the following cryptic assertion: “I believe I’m the only skeptic of our group when it comes to neoliberalism and the policies that are often described as ‘free trade’ (but which are in fact managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power).” 

Where to begin? Here are my responses to this line of reasoning:

1.  I am not, and have never been, a blind supporter of policies that are only described as ‘free trade’ but in fact are really managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power. I support free trade, and I believe the arguments for free trade far outweigh the arguments against it. Having said that, I am fully aware that both ‘free trade’ agreements and countervailing protectionist measures reflect, to a large degree, the interests of local stakeholders. It is because of this reality that open trade on the global level is at once a worthwhile and elusive objective.

2.  Though I can’t be sure, I do not think the other two bloggers on this site are blind supporters of highly flawed free trade agreements either. I can say, however, that we have not formed a vast right-wing conspiracy of three on this point.

3.  Where is the evidence that Goolsbee is a neoliberal – and what does Jeeet mean by a neoliberal, exactly? Another observer tells us that Goolsbee is “not known for having a particular ideological orientation.” Is he progressive? Here is Goolsbee criticizing Republican attempts to revive supply-side economics, and endorsing the Democratic position that Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest should expire. And here is Goolsbee advocating (as support for Obama’s platform) higher taxes for oil and gas companies, because they need to pay their “fair share.” I expect that Jeet would support both of these positions, and again, I am not sure how they can be characterized as neoliberal.

Perhaps Jeet takes exception to Goolsbee simply because he, like 99% of economists, supports the principle of free trade. Does this make him a neoliberal? I hope North American intellectuals (or in particular, Jeet) will get past the misleading idea that free trade as an economic and moral principle can be reduced to either the left or the right on the political spectrum (for some distinctions in this regard, see fellow blogger Ian Mason’s response to Jeet’s Guardian essay).

4.  Goolsbee agrees with Jeet that it is important to be skeptical of managed trade agreements designed to bolster corporate power. As he commented at a January forum of the New America Foundation (quite publicly, alongside economic advisers to Clinton, Edwards, and McCain):

“I’m an economist. Nobody’s ever going to be more in favor of open markets and free trade than the economists. And so then, you would presume that I would say, Oh, we should be for everything that has the words “free trade agreement” in it … That said, if you look at the free trade agreement – if you have never read a free trade agreement, I encourage you to go read it. Because it is as close to the economists’ case for free trade as our tax code is to the economists’ case for the ideal tax system. If you look at these 900-page agreements, there are two pages of what every economist would say: Yeah, that’s great, they’re lowering tariff barriers. And it’s 898 pages of loopholes. It looks just like the tax code: ‘Protect this company, and make sure that they’re getting their money, and these investor protections.'”

So Goolsbee is saying that although the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has the words “free trade” in it, in fact it is a managed trade agreement designed to protect companies. Sound familiar?

5.  Goolsbee hasn’t all of a sudden shifted his economic policies – so why say goodbye now? Either Obama knew, or ought to have known, where Goolsbee stood when he hired him. Certainly, Obama ought to have known that he was hiring a supporter of free trade. As prominent economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote recently in the Financial Times, Goolsbee has been “a valuable source of free-trade advice over almost a decade.”

6.  Is there really an important difference between Obama and Goolsbee on economic matters? If Obama is not a supporter of the principle of free trade, then he has a good economic advisor in Goolsbee who can persuade him why he should be. But in Goolsbee’s characterization at least (in the same January forum mentioned earlier) the two of them share the same general approach: “I think that the case for open markets is different from ‘What do you think about this, that, or the 146 trade agreements that were signed in the 1990s?’ Obama has been trying to get us away from what I call the false choice – that either you’re for every single thing that the administration has done, or else you’re a protectionist and you’re against America’s role in the international economy. Neither of those are true.”

7.  If Jeet is advocating that Goolsbee be replaced by a protectionist (if only a protectionist escapes the neoliberal moniker in Jeet’s eyes), then he is advocating a turn in a very dangerous direction for the world. Would an American-led global turn towards even greater protectionism (than we have now) give poor farmers in Africa a better chance of escaping poverty, and would it encourage greater stability in emerging economies like India and China? By contrast Goolsbee, who wants to see real free trade in the world, is encouraging Obama to support progress at the World Trade Organization, the only forum capable of achieving change across the proliferation of local trade agreements. Broadly, those are the world’s choices: progress towards truly open and stable global trade (what Goolsbee wants); a proliferation of highly imperfect and preferential local trade agreements meant to favour local businesses (what neither Jeet nor Goolsbee wants); or a turn towards even greater global protectionism than we have now (what Jeet may want, although I’m not sure).

8.  Goolsbee is a talented economist. There is probably some hyperbole in a recent description that he is “one of the world’s premier economists” – but he may very well be on the path. The Economist recently described one of his ideas – to ease the burden of tax returns for most people – as a “gem,” and further suggested that Obama – thanks to Goolsbee’s influences – “offers a more measured response to the housing crisis than Mrs. Clinton does.”

 9.  Finally, and especially for an economist, Goolsbee is an unusually gifted communicator – and he communicates with the same generosity of spirit that Obama does. Back in the day, in university debating tournaments in the early 90s, I had the pleasure of watching Goolsbee give speeches. (One of his debating partners from that period, Dahlia Lithwick, went on to become, in Jeet’s estimation, “the best writer on legal issues in America“). I recall Goolsbee giving a very funny speech at McGill warning of the perils of Quebec separation, and my debating partner Stephen Pitel and I ran up against Goolsbee one memorable round at a tournament in Toronto. All this may sound like a self-indulgent trip down memory lane (OK, it is partly so). But there is a larger point I want to make here about character, civility, and talent: Goolsbee was good enough as a debater that he didn’t have to be a jerk to compensate for any insecurities. What Jeet wrote of William F. Buckley Jr. was also true of Goolsbee in university debating days: he “treated his interlocutors with a courtesy that other mainstream debaters, whether liberals or conservatives, lacked.” I believe my anecdotal observation ought to count for something, assuming his character has not changed dramatically in the intervening years: civility is a scarce commodity in Washington.

Both Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke have warned that the next U.S. president will inherit the most difficult foreign relations file in the history of the American presidency. The next president will need all the help he or she can get to steer the world towards greater stability and to restore a position of credible leadership for the United States. If Obama makes it to Washington, I hope Goolsbee is in his economic corner, urging him towards truly open and global trade, and helping him to craft arguments that might resonate with skeptics like Jeet.

Comparing apples and oranges


We’re not supposed to compare apples and oranges – or so the saying goes. But as H.P. Glenn, erudite author of Legal Traditions of the World points out, we can compare apples and oranges: “[t]here are obvious criteria of roundness, acidity, colour, sweetness, price and so on. “ As Glenn goes on to ask, “Why do people say you cannot compare things, that they are incommensurable, when they are so obviously comparable or commensurable?”

A bit of etymology may be in order: ‘incommensurable’ is the negation of the Latin ‘com’ and ‘mensurabilis,’ indicating, as Glenn says, “a degree of common measure.” Incommensurable, in other words, is a fancy way of saying that things are incomparable. The term derives from debates in ancient Greek mathematics: there was an issue at the time of whether everything mathematical could be expressed in integers, and the Pythagoreans demonstrated that some aspects of geometry could not be so expressed.

I mention all this not out of sheer pedantic interest, but because some friends have been urging the notion of incommensurability on me recently in the context of energy policy debates. Oddly enough, the abstruse idea of incommensurability has implications for our energy choices. Continue reading

Japan’s Justice Minister Hatoyama on Death Penalty

Hatoyama Kunio, Japan’s Justice Minister, gave an interview in the magazine Weekly Asahi last October that has been reprinted on Japan Focus, (a peer reviewed electronic journal and webzine on Japan), and reported recently in the Japan Times. The interview has some fascinating nuggets, but none so interesting as Hatoyama’s explanation for why Japan should continue to uphold the death penalty in contrast to Western countries:

Interviewer: Why should Japan not consider abolition?

Hatoyama: As the Japanese place so much importance on the value of life, it is thought that one should pay with one’s own life for taking the life of another. You see, the Western nations are civilizations based on power and war. So, conversely, things are moving against the death penalty. This is an important point to understand. The so-called civilizations of power and war are the opposite of us. From incipient stages, their conception of the value of life is weaker than the Japanese. Therefore, they are moving toward abolition of the death penalty. It is important that this discourse on civilizations be understood.


Welcome to Osaka

ferriswheel.gifThe touchdown at Osaka airport by night is rather enchanting: there is even a lit up ferris wheel visible from the air. Enter the customs area at the airport, however, and the mood is somewhat less magical. Behind the row of customs officers processing visitors is a massive yellow sign, perhaps more than 30 metres across, with the words: “Strict inspections are being carried out for the prevention of terrorism.” Every visitor to Japan is not only photographed, but also fingerprinted, one index finger from each hand.  

Japan is not the first country to go down this path. The American decision to introduce fingerprinting of visitors led the esteemed Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben to turn down an NYU teaching invitiation in 2004 because he refused to submit to the procedure, seeing in it very menacing overtones. As Agamben wrote in Le Monde at the time of finger and retina prints and other such procedures, “by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states … have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it’s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.”Agamben pointed out that what begins at the border could find its way into other areas of political life within the state: “the bio-political tattooing the United States imposes now to enter its territory could well be the precursor to what we will be asked to accept later as the normal identity registration of a good citizen in the state’s gears and mechanisms. That’s why we must oppose it.”

The Japanese are, of course, following the American lead: as the Bush administration has entertained ever more intense suspicions of outsiders under the guise of its war on terror, it has given new animus to the xenophobic side of Japanese culture in its wake. I find the Osaka airport experience objectionable, and not only for the reason so well articulated by Agamben: travel to another country should not have to feel like a booking at a police station. As a visitor, I should not have to face a rebuttable presumption that I am up to no good. It is a remarkable achievement in the EU that European citizens are able to travel freely from one country to the next with minimal to no oversight. But the EU model is starting to look less like a glimpse of the future and more like a global exception.

It would be easier to accept the entry procedure to Japan, perhaps, if one had reason to believe that it will meet its stated objective of preventing terrorism. But as with Jeet Heer in a previous post, I have trouble taking what Japan says on terrorism seriously. I see the procedure as feeding a kind of indeterminate suspicion of the world, with little behind it in the form  of coherent policy. Anti-terrorist rhetoric is now used the world over by states to strengthen their control and oversight, and Japan is playing its own version of this game.

What terrorists in particular does Japan hope to detect – and against what sources of intelligence? Recall that the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways in 1995 – the most serious terrorist attack in Japanese history – was conceived of by graduates of Japan’s elite universities; the cult flourished under the plain light of day because most of its practitioners were, to all appearances, ordinary Japanese – the sort of people who would pass through airport security stalls without raising eyebrows. And then there is the question of what will happen to the photographic and fingerprinting information on visitors now being assembled. In a country that has managed to lose at least 10 million pension records from its own citizens, one is now simply forced to hope, as the price of a visit, that one’s personal fingerprinting and photographic information will remain secure in the hands of the Japanese state.

Japan is now hoping to improve its poor international ranking of inbound tourism – somewhere in the order of 35th place, way behind other G8 members and most other Asian countries.  The tone for visitors begins at its entry gates, where first impressions are made.