For years now I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that there’s something to be said on behalf of Eamonn Fingleton’s counternarrative about Japanese economic success, but I don’t quite agree with his interpretation of all his points. This, though, is the core insight:
It is not necessary to present my entire argument here but a few pointers might be useful. First, it is obvious there is a disconnect between the low officially-calculated GDP growth rate and the visibly rapid improvement in the Japanese people’s living standards. Healthcare, eating out, the universal prevalence of all the latest advanced gadgetry (car navigation systems, smart-phones, and large LCD television screens, etc.), clothing quality, and public infrastructure (airports, subway systems, train stations, broadcast and mobile phone signal quality etc.) are only the most obvious areas where the Japanese have progressed well beyond American standards in recent years.
To me the main point to make here is simply that when you start looking at rich countries, which Japan is, it’s probably more enlightening to try to make direct inquiries into living standards rather than draw inferences from per capita GDP. Are people healthy? Are they getting healthier? Is there lots of unemployment? Are there horrible traffic jams? Is there lots of crime? What’s impressive about Japan over the past 20 years is that they do well on most of these scores. Working age people seem to be able to get jobs, the life expectancy is very high, and the streets are safe.
That said, by American standards, Japanese people have very small houses and in general put up with a lot of crowding. I grew up in Manhattan and think it all looks pretty cool, but it’s obvious that lots of Americans seem to put a high value on occupying tons of space and might experience Japan as a huge hit to their living standards.