Japan’s Economy: Clearing the Air

Is Steve Forbes the last samurai?

The thing I like about Steve Forbes (I call him Steve) is that he’s inherited a lot of money and, although he looks funny, he sure can pick winners. Along with the magazine that has borne his family’s name (or vice-versa) since 1917, he’s been a kingmaker as well as a prophet, despite the fact that, as Yogi Berra once put it, “predicting is difficult, especially about the future.” A marginally unsuccessful Presidential candidate himself, Steve knows all about Presidents and their problems. Why, just recently he pointed out in an editorial that Obamacare will have its come-uppance in November this year, when we’ll all be rescued by Paul Ryan’s “coopins,” as Ron White calls them.

Forbes (man and mag) are bullish about Japan, and as he (they) point out, in Forbes’ January 30 edition, it’s about time. Personally, I can’t stand raw fish, especially since the Fukushima thing, nor re-called Toyotas, for that matter. But I’ve got to hand it to that gentle culture of silk, tea and sandalwood, even with the occasional rape of Nanking in their history. And so does Steve’s magazine. Listen:

The emergence of ‘Abenomics’ – the expansionist economic policies of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – has put Japan back in the global spotlight… From manufacturing high-quality, innovative goods, such as cameras, printers, components for industrial machinery and food, to providing transportation services and conducting global marketing, investing and trading activities, the sky appears to be the limit. In spite of global economic uncertainties and fierce market competition, these (following) companies exude a sense of confidence that they will continue to thrive in business in Japan and beyond.

Steve, I couldn’t have said it better, although until lately I’d been hopelessly biased because I had an uncle who was a four-ring Captain who lost his ship at Pearl, I had a buddy who, along with James Jones, was helplessly strafed by Zeros at Schofield Barracks on that same eye-opening December 7, and also I had a friend who didn’t make it through the Hong Kong Death March. But let bygones be bygones, including the Geneva Convention, I always say, because I do love Haiku poetry.

Still, that bit “the sky appears to be the limit,” sort of hangs me up, when I read that experts now estimate that the extent of radiation from the Fukushima disaster (and careful cover-up by the company, General Electric and the Abenomics government) will be ten times all of the radiation from the entire world’s nuclear events throughout history. and that dangerous radiation levels have been measured in snow, for gawddsake, in Texas, Colorado and Missouri. So the sky really is the limit.

But then in that same issue of Forbes Mag, they really get down to cases and point out that two or three leading companies are forging ahead in the new Japanese economy. JR East (East Japan Railway Company) is one of them, and they do those groovy fast trains we’re all so jealous about here in Forbes’ America. Tetsura Tomita, the President and CEO is quoted: “We Japanese have been building and operating railroads for 140 years. We love them. But we can’t stand still. Innovation is essential. Globalization is essential.”

The Forbes writer adds: “At home and abroad, JR East is on the fast track to the future.”

That’s what I call great reporting, Forbes. Just one question. I understand that the Fukushima wreckage is also in East Japan, and the latest I read is that at the rate they’re disgorging tons of nuclear wasted water, there may not be any eastern Japanese people left to ride on JR East’s fast trains. So it makes ultimate strategic sense for for Mr. Tomita to get on the fast track somewhere else. Maybe between New York and D.C., where they appreciate speed.

And then there’s soy sauce.

Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Jr. has been the third Forbes to run the magazine since 1917, and as somebody has pointed out, his 20-year tenure has accompanied the decline of the print media in general and Forbes Mag in particular. He was replaced in 2010 as President and CEO, but still hangs around as Editor-in-Chief, which means he can write a column whenever he wants to get off a shot at somebody like Obama or plug somebody like Rand Paul. I guess he’s still got some of his inherited dough, because he raised something like $800 million last time around, electionwise, almost half of which was his own. But it seems like he no longer has a taste for another run at the Oval Office.

And speaking of taste, the Japan pitch in the latest Forbes issue also featured a predominant Japanese corporate icon, Kikkoman, the master of the soy sauce world. They’ve been making this stuff for 300 years, so it’s great as seasoning. The CEO, Yuzaburo Mogi summed up the company’s mission 49 years ago, according to the Forbes feature writer: “We cannot achieve any real globalization of our business unless we build a factory in the U.S.” If you live in Wisconsin you’ve been living within the smell of soy sauce ever since.

Today, Kikkoman stands at a socio-economic crossroad. “I really believe,” Mogi told the Forbes reporter, “that taking Japanese food culture to the world and bringing other nations’ foods to Japan creates understanding. When we eat the same things, we become friends.”

Hold it, Mogi. On the other hand, a scary headline in the EU Union News recently indicated that no less an epicure than Vlad Putin had issued an edict to the effect that all news about Fukushima should be kept ultra-secret so as not to stampede the proletariat. Because, while the sky may be the limit for Japanese industry, most of the Pacific is probably already toast. Who knows? Maybe the United States, despite GE’s major position in the Fukushima account, will get serious about scaring our citizens.

So, my message to Yuzaburo and Steve Forbes both is “hold the sushi, with or without the soy sauce.” I’ll take my chances with mad cow disease.

Actually, Steve may not be all that serious about the Japanese caper editorially. The last thing I noticed — at the top of the feature story — was the tip-off that Forbes was just in it for the revenue. The barely discernible caption read:

       “Japan Special Advertising Section.”

Maybe Rand Paul had a hand in it.

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: hoople84@gmail.com. Read other articles by Bill.