Robert L. Sharp: A view from Japan

January 24, 2009 

I received a message from a friend in Japan greeting the New Year of the (dependable, calm, methodical, patient, hardworking, ambitious, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious) Ox.

Maybe he remembered that is my oriental birth year, several cycles ago.

He brought me up to date on his family activities and remarked on the excitement of Barack Obama's election in the United States.

What was most interesting was his view of American social policy. He believes a Democratic government will be tougher on Japan than a Republican one, because he believes the philosophy of the Democrats emphasize equality of results, while Republicans emphasize equality of opportunity.

While my friend Seiichi-san is the scion of a family who own a successful electronics company founded nearly a century ago, with operations around the world in Asia, Europe and the Americas, his view reflects the stronger socialist mentality in Japan.

In that society, 90 percent of the populace view themselves as middle-class and welcome government guidance.

This is contrasted with the capitalist ethic in the United States, where there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor, with a shrinking middle class, but a belief in the chance to succeed.

This view is also enhanced by many years of U.S.-Japan trade frictions.

Japan's economic competitiveness threatened U.S. manufacturing and the U.S. angrily characterized Japan's market as unfairly closed to U.S. goods, while enjoying a large and ever-increasing trade balance with us.

This was the era of Japan as No. 1, with the Imperial Palace grounds calculated to be worth as much as all of California. We were incensed that the trade deficit with Japan was nearing $18 billion.

They say Americans can't hold two Asian countries in their mind at the same time, so as we focus on China today, our deficit with Japan at over $80 billion gathers no comments.

During that period I served a term as the elected president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), a group that was thrown into the middle of these trade discussions.

The ACCJ had a somewhat different view of the Japanese market, being involved directly on a day-to-day commercial, rather than political basis.

Several of our members, such as Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Bristol Myers, Amway, Caterpillar Tractor and many others have commanding market shares in Japan. It is not always understood, but some 15 to 20 U.S. companies have sales in Japan at the $1 billion level.

I used to observe the call for "free trade is when you are winning. Fair trade is when you are losing."

My friend Seiichi-san in Japan holds a doctorate of engineering from the prestigious University of Tokyo and while he has never lived or gone to school in the United States, or any other country, has a superb command of English.

Of course, English is taught for several years beginning in junior high school in Japan, and my friend said he supplemented this with wide reading material, such as Michael Crichton's novels.

With a voracious interest in many subjects, Seiichi-san became interested in the graduation thesis of a student at a Japanese college, who was writing on the social gaps in U.S. society.

His interest led him to the GINI coefficient, which is a statistical measure of inequality of wealth distribution. A GINI coefficient list shows that the lowest gaps are in Japan, Germany and European countries. The U.S., along with Russia and China, has the widest gaps for an industrialized country.

My friend comes to this conclusion: "I have come to an idea that World War II was the beginning. The U.S. was intact at (the end of) the war while Japan and European countries were devastated whether they were winner or loser. Those countries and people had to accept equal results of devastation, hiked inheritance tax rates, and tried to redistribute wealth. The U.S. has been pursuing equal opportunities and the market fundamentalism, widening the gaps. Russia, then the USSR and China tried to develop their countries based on communism. The original communism sought both equal opportunities and equal results. Their communist party bureaucrats, however, became nobles, and widened the gaps."

It is useful to see what the view looks like from the eyes of another.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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