Interviewed by Shiokura Yutaka, senior staff writer
The news that South Korea has surpassed Japan in average wage has been drawing attention. Is it proof that Japan, a proud economic power, is slipping into the twilight? How do we gain a true-to-fact self-image and move on? An interview with Kimura Yu, a professor at Kobe University, follow.
I have studied Japan-South Korea relations over the past 30 years. Until the 1990s, there was a tangible difference in economic prowess between the two countries. Starting around 2005, however, South Korea’s economic growth accelerated rapidly, and today I believe South Korea has about caught up with Japan.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise because, in truth, Japan outperformed South Korea in economic growth rate only once in the past 40 years since 1981.
In one class of mine I introduce a list that ranks countries’ per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in terms of average wages and purchasing power parity. In recent years Japan ranked anywhere from 20th to 30th, lower than South Korea. When my students see this, most of them look unhappy. There was even a student who complained that I didn’t have to rub it in.
I think the young people in Japan are deeply worried and uneasy. While grownups look like they are losing confidence in Japan’s economic power and feel the forlornness of an economic “twilight,” young people seem to be dreading the arrival of “night” that follows.
Adults should try to understand fears and anxieties harbored by the generation that has never experienced strong economic growth in their lifetimes.
Many students accept, albeit not very happily, that Japan ranks lower than China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. But these same students react strongly and emotionally to find that South Korea has surpassed Japan. One of the students asked, “Does this mean Japan is no good?”
The likely reason for this attitude is that the young people have inherited from the older generations the dated perception that “Japan is a developed nation, and South Korea is a top developing nation.” This explains why they translate being surpassed by South Korea as falling to the status of a developing nation and react emotionally.
It is not difficult to remedy the situation: Just make it clear that South Korea’s economy ranks 12th in the world, and the ROK has been a member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for a quarter of a century. By repeatedly revisiting this reality as necessary, Japanese youths can remain calm in facing facts they don’t want to see.
I don’t agree with those who expect China and South Korea to keep growing while only Japan slips into economic twilight. Rather, I foresee all East Asia entering a prolonged era of “population crisis.”
In the past, the common thinking was that East Asia would develop with Japan leading the way, followed by South Korea, Taiwan, etc. Now, it is estimated from the region’s population trends that South Korea and China will soon follow Japan in having a shrinking labor force. The trend will soon become prevalent in the region.
The government should do what it can to address the decline in the labor force, starting with raising the employment rate of women and the elderly aged between 65 and 74.
Kimura Kan, born in 1966, is a Kobe University professor specializing in comparative politics. Kimura is an expert on South Korean politics and the author of “Problems of Historical Perception in Japan-Korea Relations” and other books.