The Japanese are suffering their losses in silence. That stoicism is part of Japanese culture, which already children with a pronounced sense of shame at an early age. Instead of looking for solidarity from society, the Japanese try to take care of things by themselves.
Even the homeless living in Tokyo parks neatly place their shoes in front of their makeshift cardboard shelters before crawling inside. People committing suicide bow politely before throwing themselves in front of trains. In Tokyo, a railway line had special, bluish lamps installed along its tracks to calm potentially suicidal commuters. Of the more than 30,000 Japanese people who commit suicide every year, many are victims of the economic decline.
Fears about the future have been driving down consumption in the island nation. "Gekiyasu" ("super-cheap") goods are now in demand, pushing prices down and putting pressure on corporate profits. In some cases, the downward spiral continues until companies go bankrupt.
A large share of Toyota's population of more than 400,000 depends solely on the auto industry. Outward signs of the crisis are not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, many suppliers in the surrounding vicinity are still going out of business. Many have been forced to reduce costs and prices for so long that they are no longer profitable.
When the "Toyota shock" gripped Japan more than two years ago, because Europeans and Americans were suddenly buying far fewer Japanese cars, the company laid off thousands of temporary workers. Along with their jobs, the workers often lost the right to live in company-owned apartments, and many returned to their hometowns, where they no longer had places to live.
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[Toyota city mayor Kohei] Suzuki, too, is becoming increasingly affected by the apocalyptic mood. The figures he quotes sound grim. His revenues from corporate taxes declined by an unusually drastic amount last year, he says. This is the sort of thing that happens when an entire city depends on a single company, he adds. "I was shocked," says the mayor.
The planned expansion of the city hall was temporarily put on hold and only restarted in order not to cause additional bankruptcies among local contractors. The acquisition of new paintings for the city's art museum has been postponed. At least Suzuki hasn't had to cut social spending, thanks to a reserve of several billion yen he established during better times.
When asked what the future holds, Suzuki pensively pushes a model of a Toyota hybrid back and forth on his desk. The Japanese version of the German "cash for clunkers" scrapping premium, with which Tokyo sought to support the auto industry, expired recently, and sales plunged. At the same time, the value of the yen went up, mostly because of the weak dollar, making exports more expensive. Japan is becoming unattractive as a place for Toyota to build its cars and trucks.
What will he do if Toyota decides to produce all of its cars overseas? "Unthinkable," says Suzuki. "Our city can't survive without cars!
Thorny territorial disputes with neighbours China and Russia appear to nudging Japan’s pacifist public toward accepting what has so far been an unpalatable prospect: a more assertive and militarily strong country.
Almost 80 percent of those polled in a survey released on Nov. 8 by Japan’s NHK public television showed growing frustration with their socialist-leaning Prime Minister Naoto Kan over his handling of tensions over territorial rows. Many pointed to his "weak" diplomacy as the second most important reason, after the stagnating economy, for their disappointment in him.
"Japan’s hands are tied when it comes to rapping China and Russia over the territorial disputes," Hisashi Manabu, a 62-year-old company employee said, referring to the post-war Constitution that prohibits Japan from rebuilding its military after its World War II defeat. "The stark reality is that we must be responsible for our own protection."
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These open challenges that China and Russia threw at Japan have pushed Tokyo to step up moves to court the United States, an approach that is quite a departure from earlier pronouncements by Kan’s socialist-leaning government. When it took office in June 2010, it promised to align Japan closer with its Asian neighbours.
Likewise, Japan’s leading daily, the ‘Yomiuri’, reported that the Defence Ministry plans to beef up the country’s military, called the Self Defence Forces, by sending a new unit to the Yonekuni island, which lies in close proximity to the Senkaku islands.
The unit will monitor via radar the movements of Chinese warships that have increasingly been active in the East China Sea, defence ministry officials say.
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"The new thrust by Japan takes place against a historic shift in power in East Asia with the rise of China’s influence," said Prof Yuichi Hosoya, who specialises in international politics at Keio University.
But he expresses the hope that these diplomatic maneuverings, which will continue as Asia reacts to China’s clout, would lead to a more balanced power configuration, and not more instability, in the region. Said Hoyosa: "A stronger Japan supporting the United States must become not a threat to Beijing, but rather produce a balance of power in Asia that will be welcomed by all."
The trends reported by these two news items can't possibly have negative consequences, can they?