Japan's economy jumps out of sick bed

April 30, 2004|By Thomas L. Friedman

TOKYO - So I come to Tokyo to get away from it all, and what do I discover but more bad news for the John Kerry campaign.

Not only does the U.S. economy appear to be headed for at least a burst of recovery around election time, but so does the world's second-largest economy, Japan's, which should also help buoy the U.S. recovery. It's more evidence, to me, that Mr. Kerry may have to run in the most difficult of all environments, and exactly the opposite of the one Democrats had hoped for: an environment where the U.S. economy is rebounding and Iraq is reeling.

As I lie awake in my Tokyo hotel, jet-lagged out of my mind and having my Bill Murray Lost in Translation moment, I am clicking back and forth between CNBC and CNN on the television. All the news on CNBC seems to be about how Asia's economies are now on fire, and all the news on CNN seems to be about how America's Humvees in Iraq are now on fire.

Maybe that will change in the months ahead, and maybe American voters will develop a different reaction to those contrasting images, should they continue. But for the moment, judging from many polls, it seems that President Bush is being rewarded for the economy's tentative recovery more than he is being punished for Iraq's troubling slide.

I'm sure the Kerry camp was hoping for the opposite scenario - a stable Iraq and a slumping economy that would start to recover only after November - because it would play much more to Mr. Kerry's strength with voters. But, for a lot of reasons, that doesn't seem to be what's happening, and the Kerry folks had better start positioning their candidate for the world we're in.

I wish I had some smart advice. Alas, all I have is information. Even through my jet lag, I can see that the sick man of Asia, otherwise known as the Japanese economy, just jumped out of bed and is now running laps around the hospital. Everyone in the neighborhood is watching, wondering whether the sick man has really gotten healthy or just an injection of Chinese steroids and will soon stumble again - as happened before in the 1990s. No one in the neighborhood is quite sure, even the sick man himself, but everyone is enjoying the show, especially the sick man.

There is evidence to suggest that, maybe, this Japanese recovery is real, is not just based on government spending and will last longer than previous wind sprints. I went to a briefing that Wal-Mart put on with its Japanese partner, Seiyu, a local store chain, about opening the first Wal-Mart-like "big box" stores in Japan. No one ever believed that Japan's rigid, small-shop economy would tolerate a discount big-box approach like Wal-Mart's, where wholesalers get squeezed and everything from employees' pens to paper gets rationed.

But Japanese consumers, many so spooked by their faltering banks that they stuffed money in their mattresses, seem to be suddenly spending again - their confidence bolstered by recent bank restructurings and better leadership from the Japanese central bank. The Nikkei 225 stock average jumped 47 percent in the fiscal year that ended March 31.

Because Japan (much more than the United States) has been able to hold onto a sophisticated manufacturing base - such as high-end steel, machine tools, cutting-edge electronics and industrial robots - it's been exporting like crazy to China's start-up factories. This year, Japan's trade with China surpassed its trade with the United States.

"Two-thirds of the reason for [Japan's] recovery is China," says Kenichi Ohmae, a Japanese management consultant. China, and new Japanese plants in China, are sucking in so many Japanese exports there aren't enough ships to bring them over fast enough. China is literally dragging Japan out of its slump.

"There is [also] much more attention [in Japan] to restructuring than there was in the past," says Jeffrey Young, Tokyo economist for Nikko Citigroup. "Companies are improving their efficiencies." And Japan's workers have proved more adaptable in hard times than commonly believed.

The big test is: Can Japan continue to grow, based on domestic consumer-led demand, if and when the overheating Chinese economy starts to cool? Domestic wages and productivity are still lagging. And how does Japan deal with its huge fiscal deficit and still-weak banks, which will probably require more taxes from an aging, shrinking work force to sort out?

Only when we see that will we know whether the sick man has it in him to do anything more than run laps around the hospital.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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