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Sino-Japanese relations

The relationship between the two largest economies in Asia has been marred throughout the 20th century due to territorial and political disputes including Taiwanese sovereignty; the invasion of China by Japan in the second world war and Japan’s subsequent refusal to acknowledge the extent of its war crimes; territorial disputes surrounding the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and associated fishing rights and energy resources; and Japanese-American security co-operation.   

CommentInsight & Opinion

What China can learn from Japan

Lex Zhao says Sino-Japanese animosities notwithstanding, the Chinese should look to their advanced neighbour to learn how to solve entrenched problems in governance and society

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 3:19am

Years ago, I had the honour to be at the same dinner table as a famous Indian scholar. I candidly asked him the following question: India has so many excellent economists at Harvard, MIT, Chicago, Stanford, and Cambridge, just to name a few - so, why was the Indian economy in such a bad shape? His answer surprised me: because Britain had colonised India, India chose to learn from the Soviet Union for many years, even though many Indians knew that the British system might be much better.

Pioneers of the Chinese revolution, including Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai , Qiu Jin and Lu Xun , went to school in Japan before they succeeded in modernising China. In fact, countless terms in modern Chinese, including communism, science and democracy, first appeared in Japanese translations.

Despite the animosity and distrust between the two peoples over the Diaoyu Islands, I have to admit that we must still learn from Japan, even today. Japan has invaded and inflicted pain on China on several occasions, but a "victim syndrome" blinds many Chinese to the fact that Japan is far more advanced.

That Japan used to learn from China - it adopted Chinese culture more than a century ago - makes matters worse. Many ordinary Chinese are indignant that the student now appears to be beating the master at the game.

Here's why China must learn from Japan. One, Japan's per capita gross domestic product (in current dollar terms) is still nearly 10 times higher than China's, even after two lost decades in Japan and three booming decades in China. Two, worldwide, some of the most visible lights in skyscrapers at night are advertisements of Japanese multinationals, such as Sony, Toyota, Toshiba and Panasonic. Three, although more densely populated than China, Japan is arguably the cleanest, safest, most convenient-for-travel country on earth, especially for children and seniors.

There's more. Four, illiteracy has almost been eradicated - most young people enter colleges - and there is minimal inequality between rural and urban areas. Five, Japan is a modern giant, yet tradition is maintained gracefully. And, six, neighbouring countries and regions such as Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong succeeded in modernising after learning from Japan.

You may argue that these are so general that they are hard to mimic. Let me outline four things that China can learn from Japan, starting today.

First, on smog and other pollution. What Japan does is twofold: one has been to develop nuclear energy (about a third of total energy used in the country, before the Fukushima disaster in March 2011), and the other is to limit driving into big cities, by increasing tolls, parking fees and petrol prices, making the process of obtaining driver licences long and expensive, and developing the public transport system, including layers of subways and city buses. In Japan, one cannot buy a car unless the police confirm that the would-be owner has a parking space. Compare this to China, where those rich enough to own cars face little restrictions and are encouraged to pollute even more.

Second, on corruption. The fundamental way to eradicate corruption is to have competition in the political system. Obviously, this is mission impossible at present. Many are proposing "sunshine legislation" that requires officials to publish their income and assets, but such a law has little chance of passing.

A more plausible and simpler way is - again, learning from Japan - to rotate public servants to different prefectures and provinces. Rotation limits the number of years a civil servant stays in one post and in one location, reducing the chances of interest groups forming, while increasing the odds of detecting them.

Third, on food safety. A subsidiary of heavyweight Snow Brand was forced into bankruptcy after it was found to have mislabelled beef to earn government subsidies. Top-down accountability is exactly what China needs to deal with poisonous food - not to mention low-quality bridges, roads and buildings.

Fourth, on housing bubbles and regional inequality. The housing bubble has made some of China's so-called first-tier cities - Beijing and Shanghai, for example - expensive to live in. The outdated household registration system forces those not from the city to lie and bribe their way into city life. It is time to get rid of this unfair and unjust system. The government can also impose a property tax, stopping the rise of housing prices on the one hand and raising revenue on the other.

Certainly, there are many more things China can learn from Japan, such as its advanced engineering and medical technology, efficient management systems, and top-down accountability at all levels of governance.

China may be entering the so-called middle-income trap. Upgrading the industrial base requires a total package of quality education, an independent legal system and fair government support.

The age of using millions of people for cheap labour to manufacture one thing in a single location is gone, shifted to even cheaper countries. Besides, China is running out of natural resources, water and even clean air.

For starters, even the four areas outlined above would change China for good by a mile, without touching the fundamental political system and institutions of one-party rule.

Chinese people laugh at how frequently Japanese prime ministers are changed, instead of seeing it as accountability.

Perhaps due to the victim syndrome, many Chinese seem to favour learning from the US rather than Japan. This is misguided. America is vast and sparsely populated, and rich in resources, not to mention its fair institutions and tolerant culture that attracts millions of skilled foreigners each year. Japan, on the other hand, is densely populated and has almost no natural resources.

Its peaceful blending of modern governance with traditional East Asian culture and customs, and its efficient use of limited resources, are exemplary for any developing country trying to catch up on the road to modernisation.

Lex Zhao is a professor of economics at Kobe University in Japan. zhao@rieb.kobe-u.ac.jp


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if you read Japan's history. prior to Meiji Restoration (1868) a time beforejapan learned "west", it never invaded, let alone brutalized any countries. once Japan learned "west", they thought they became white and began doing the white thing... territorial expansion, racial superiority, conquer.... the rest you know...
as to cleanliness. anyone grew up in 60s/70s hong kong would recall how messy the city was. however, when hong kong became rich, things improved.... cleanliness ties to economic progress/wealth... takes time.
i respect your positive sentiment to Japan, we need more scholars on BOTH sides to foster better relations. a few disagreement (but doesn't mean lack of respect)
1. anglo american economic system clearly is not working. US '08 melt down is just tip of the iceberg. the $16 trillion+ growing by $1.4 trillion a year print and ObamaSpend. there is no way we can pay back this debt which means we are going to depreciate the US$. i know China is our frenemy, so may be China should learn from US?
2. nuclear energy? you did not hear Japan shut down ALL nuclear generators after Fukushima? even prior to the earthquake, only 30% of japan's total energy derived from nuclear. PM Abe is trying to reopen some but the popular sentiment in japan is still very much against this. i agree china needs more nuclear energy but the challenge is "not at my backyard". nobody wants a nuke plant near their homes. that's a political and social challenge.
3. democracy to help eliminate corruption? NOT SO FAST. US is one of the most "democratic" countries, yet corruption is rampant. just google "corruption USA" you will get so many news stories on corruption that you think this is a third world country. even worse, many corrupted activities were legalized. when corruption is not illegal, is it corruption? singapore, a country with so called "democracy" (actually "not democratic" by US, european benchmark), yet Singapore is the cleanest (least corrupt country) in the world.
Adrian P
Certainly China needs to learn from all the countries that have something to offer economically, politically, environmentally. This commentary however strikes me as being both outdated and clueless. Outdated because Japan is no longer the only game in East / Southeast Asia, and all the differences between the two countries the author gives as the reasons why China should learn from it apply to a number of other countries/ areas in the region as well. So the question is what is about Japan today that's so unique that China should learn from it and not from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore? And then some of the suggestions are just clueless, like the one about having a nuclear energy policy. The suggestion about having top-down accountability also seems rather strange. All China has had is top-down accountability. It is because top-down accountability is perceived to be not effective enough that there have been calls for more transparency and democracy. Obviously the issue is more complicated and needs further studying. Finally Japan is a graceful mix of modernity and tradition? Really? What era was the author thinking when he wrote that?
Chinese culture, heritage, mentality (whatever) is everything the Japanese is not. Japanese adopted everything of modernization from the West some 300 years ago whereas the Chinese adopted only things superficially: e.g. branding is one thing the Chinese never learned or failed as Chinese "psyche" is for quick profit, disbelieving in the future (as future being so uncertain throughout China's history). Cleanliness and politeness are other things Chinese are so different from the Japanese ... Surely there are many things Japanese that we should (but cannot) learn from.
Learn from Japan the lesson of Economy Loss Decades lately.
That is incorrect. Japan first invaded Joseon Korea in the last decade of the 16th century, with ambitions of eventually conquering Ming China. The original Japanese offer was for Korea to side with Japan against China, which Korea refused and was therefore attacked. A few years later, Japan invaded Korea a second time. And, again, the Japanese invasion was rebuffed by the Sino-Korean alliance. Japan's history of military aggression goes far beyond the Meiji Restoration.


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