Japans Economic Miracle: What Happened?
CRS Report for Congress
Japan’s “Economic Miracle”:
Updated October 1, 2001
William H. Cooper
Specialist in International Trade and Finance
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Japan’s “Economic Miracle”:
What happened to Japan’s “economic miracle?” Since the 1990s, Japan has been
experiencing slow economic growth, income contraction, and recession along with
high unemployment and other problems. These trends since the 1990s compare starkly
with the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan’s rapid economic growth and development
drew admiration from much of the world, including many in the United States, and
thrust Japan into the elite club of major industrialized countries. Japan even became
established in the minds of some as a model for economic growth and development
for other economies to follow, particularly those in East Asia. But Japan’s difficulties
have cast a cloud over its economic prospects and tarnished, perhaps unnecessarily
so, its image as a leading economic power in Asia and the world.
Economic conditions in Japan are having a major impact on U.S.-Japan
economic relations and on the overall U.S.-Japan relationship. A strong and stable
Japanese economy is important to the United States and the world. Japan is the
second largest industrialized economy in the world. If Japan’s economy continues to
grow slowly or contract, U.S. exports to Japan would probably continue to decline,
creating problems for U.S. exporters trying to build a market there. A stagnant or
contracting Japanese economy diminishes overall world economic growth and world
In the long-term repairing Japan’s economic difficulties may present the United
States with significant opportunities. Many of the structural problems that some
experts have cited as a cause of Japan’s less than stellar growth have also been
impediments to U.S. exports and investments in Japan and the source of much friction
between the two countries. If Japan can successfully address these structural
problems, it would likely improve market access in Japan and help alleviate the
bilateral trade and investment friction.
As important as Japan’s economy is to the United States, the direct policy
influence the United States can have on the Japanese economy is limited. Japan’s
economic problems are a function of its own macroeconomic policies and structural
deficiencies. Decisions on these issues are within the purview of the Japanese
The United States, including the Congress, can press Japan to pursue
macroeconomic policies and microeconomic measures that will lead to sustained
economic growth. In the end, the best U.S. defense against continued economic
stagnation in Japan will be maintaining U.S. economic strength. This report will be
updated as events in Japan continue to evolve.
Trends in the Japanese Economy:
Examining the Indicators......................................2
Japan’s GDP Growth Rates....................................3
Unemployment .............................................. 4
Standard of Living...........................................4
Foreign Trade Balances.......................................5
Impact of Japan’s Economic Problems............................5
Factors Contributing to the Economic Problems........................5
“Burst of the Bubble”.........................................5
The Financial Sector “Crisis”...................................7
Fiscal and Monetary Policies...................................8
Structural Economic Problems..................................9
The East Asian Financial Crisis................................10
Japan’s Response to the Economic Problems .........................11
Macroeconomic Measures ...................................11
Banking Reform and Other Structural Changes ....................13
The Economic Program of Prime Minister Koizumi ....................16
Impact of Crisis on the U.S. Economy
and the U.S. Response.......................................17
The Outlook for the Japanese Economy .............................20
Implications and Policy Options for the United States...................21
Japan’s “Economic Miracle”:
What happened to the Japanese “economic miracle?” Since the beginning of the
1990s, Japan has been experiencing slow economic growth or , at times, recession
accompanied by rising unemployment and other problems.. These trends compare
starkly with the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan’s rapid economic growth and
development drew admiration from much of the world, including many in the United
States, and thrust Japan into the elite club of major industrialized countries. Japan
even became established in the minds of some as a model for economic growth and
development for other economies to follow. But Japan’s difficulties have cast a cloud
over its economic prospects and have tarnished its image as a leading economic power
in Asia and the world.
Japan’s economic problems and prospects have broad implications for the United
States and the world as a whole. The problems emerged and grew as economic crises
hit economies in East Asia, Russia, and Latin America. Japan’s economic difficulties
reignited tensions with the United States as the U.S. trade deficit has soared and have
raised concerns in the United States and elsewhere about the likely brake they would
have on economic growth in this country and the world as a whole.
The economic problems in Japan have been the subject of legislation andth
Congressional hearings. They remain of interest to the 107 Congress as the U.S.
trade deficit with Japan grows and as some U.S. industries are adversely affected.
This report examines recent economic trends in Japan that paint a picture of a
very difficult economic and financial situation and reviews the main factors that have
contributed to it. It examines the impact of the crisis on the U.S. economy and on
U.S.-Japan economic ties and presents the options available to U.S. policymakers to
protect U.S. interests. Events in Japan are evolving. This report will be updated as
The Japan’s economic performance remains poor. It suffers from very low or
negative growth, deflation, and rising unemployment, and its prospects do not seem
to be very positive. Furthermore, it is unlikely to get much external help from the
United States or Europe as they are also facing slow growth. Japan also faces a
burgeoning debt burden.
The causes of Japan’s economic problems are varied and complex. They are
rooted in some immediate factors: the burst of the assets bubble in the early 1990s and
Japanese government macroeconomic policies that immediately precipitated the crisis.
But they are also rooted in the fundamental structure of the Japanese economy — the
complex web of government regulations and business conglomerates.
Of critical importance is Japan’s banking sector. The burst of the asset bubble
left Japan’s private banks holding trillions of yen in non-performing and troubling
loans. For the past 25 years, successive Japanese governments have used fiscal and
monetary stimulus and have proposed economic restructuring programs with limited
The Koizumi government has proposed its own program centered on fiscal
discipline and banking reform. The program faces the challenge of trying to maintain
fiscal restraint and to encourage banks to dispose of bad loans at a time of global
economic slowdown. Koizumi also faces the resistence of entrenched economic
interests that have undermined previous economic reform efforts.
Japan’s economic future has major implications for the United States. It is a
major trading partner and the second largest global economic power. Yet, U.S.
influence on Japanese economic policy is limited and is primarily confined to
diplomatic pressure. In the end, the best defense against a troubled Japanese economy
will probably be a strong U.S. economy.
Trends in the Japanese Economy:
Examining the Indicators
The image of the Japanese economy in the United States, around the world, and
within Japan itself has changed many times in the post-war period. From the 1950s
to the 1960s, Japan was viewed as a poor but advancing economy relying on the
production of labor-intensive goods to drive its re-industrialization. In the 1970s and
especially in the 1980s, Japan developed into the world’s second largest, and a fully
industrialized, economy, on track to overtake the United States as the leading
economy in the world. Its success in the production of autos, computers, and other
sophisticated goods, its high growth rates, and the rapidly increasing Japanese
standard of living helped form this image. Some observers even viewed Japanese
economic policies and structure as the “model” to be emulated (and it often was) by
other East Asian economies.
But that popular image of Japan has changed almost 180 degrees since the
1990s, as Japan has undergone various difficulties highlighted by slow, and at times
negative, economic growth rates. As with many popular images, both the positive
and negative ones of Japan have been somewhat exaggerated. Japan was never an
invincible economic juggernaut as some writers viewed it in the 1980s, nor is it now
a collapsed economy. Nevertheless, most experts would argue that Japan faces both
near and long- term challenges that call for bold policies.
Japan’s GDP Growth Rates
impressive, though declining,
economic growth rates in the
post-war era. From 1960-1970,
Japan averaged an annual real
(adjusted for inflation) GDP
growth rate of 11.0%; from
1990— 4.1%. Most economists
argue that declining average
economic growth rates are
commensurate with a maturing1
economy. Despite the declining
trend, Japan’s economic growth
rates remained on average above those of the United States and the other
industrialized countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and2
Economic growth trends for Japan since the 1990s have declined markedly,
raising concerns both in and outside Japan. From 1991-2000, Japan’s real GDP grew
on average 1.4%, substantially below previous trends and, as the graph in figure 1
indicates, below U.S. and OECD trends. Since 1991, the growth rate has not
exceeded 2% except in the anomalous year of 1996 when it grew 3.5%.
That graph in figure 2
shows quarterly seasonally
adjusted GDP growth rates
since 1998. It shows that Japan
has experienced negative
growth six of the last fourteen
quarters. Over time, slow or
negative growth undermines
business and consumer
confidence in the economy and
diminishes residents’ standard of
living. Poor economic growth
can eventually undermine
confidence in political
1CRS calculations based on data in OECD Economic Outlook 64 December 1998. p.191. As
economies develop they are able to import technology from more advanced countries.
Investment in these technologies allow less advanced economies to develop and grow rapidly.
But as they become more mature, the stock of available technology diminishes as countries
must innovate, a longer and more expensive process.
2The OECD is a group of the 29 most industrialized economies, including the United States
Japan’s anemic economy has led to growing unemployment, a relatively new
problem in recent Japanese history. Recently, Japan’s unemployment rate has
exceeded that of the United States, although it has remained below those of most
West European countries and the OECD average. From 1981-1990, Japan had an3
annual average unemployment rate of 2.5% compared to 7.1% for the United States.
But Japan’s unemployment rate has increased steadily since the 1990s. As of July
Standard of Living
Japan has incurred low
inflation rates, much lower than
rates in the United States and
OECD countries as a whole. In
fact, Japan now faces a problem
of prolonged deflation–
negative rates of change in price
levels. Extended periods of
deflation can be a problem for
an economy because declining
asset prices discourage
investment. Figure 3 depicts
Japanese inflation rates
compared with the United States
and the OECD countries as a whole from 1991 to 2000.
Despite its economic problems, Japan remains one of the wealthiest countries in
the world whose citizens enjoy one of the highest standards of living. Japanese
citizens enjoy one of the world’s highest per capita/GDP rates. In 2000, it was
nominally $36,300 compared with $36,000 for the United States. Measured using
purchasing power parity (PPP) — which takes into account exchange rate and cost
of living differences — Japan’s per capita GDP was below that of the United States
— $25,600 compared to $36,000 — but still above that of many other industrialized5
economies. Japanese citizens pay much higher prices for housing, fuel, food and
other staples than do U.S. citizens, thus decreasing their standard of living somewhat.
Japan’s citizens enjoy the highest average life span (81 years) in the world (compared
to the United States— 77 years).6
3OECD. p. 212.
4Economic Planning Agency (Japan). Essentials of Monthly Economic Report and Main
Economic Indicators. February 2000.
5Source: OECD. OECD in Figures: Statistics on the Member Countries. 2001 Edition.
Paris. p. 12, 13.
6Source: World Bank. World Bank Atlas. 2001. Washington. p. 26, 27.
Foreign Trade Balances
Japan has continually run
surpluses in its current account
(balances on merchandise trade,
investment income, and unilateral
transfers) primarily due to large
surpluses in its merchandise trade
but increasingly as a result of rising
income from investments abroad.
(Figure 4) The current account
surpluses are reflective of a high
domestic household savings rate in
Japan, around 15% of disposable
income. At times the trade
surpluses have presented a political
problem for Japan as countries, such as the United States, that continually run
bilateral trade deficits, have considered the deficits reflective of unfairness in Japan’s
trade policies and practices and have encouraged Japan to reduce its surpluses. On
the other hand, Japan’s large savings provide a pool of financial capital to the United
States and other low- savings countries that need to borrow capital for investment.
Japanese capital, for example, helps to finance the U.S. national debt.
Impact of Japan’s Economic Problems
Japanese poor economic conditions have implications for Japan, the United
States, and beyond. For Japan itself, continued slow growth or recession eventually
could seriously damage the standard of living of the average Japanese citizen. Falls
in national income would mean a decline in tax revenues that would worsen Japan’s
already difficult fiscal situation. Continued slow growth could affect business
confidence and consumer confidence causing them to delay or reduce investment and
spending, further exacerbating the gloomy economic trends. Furthermore,
pronounced and extended poor economic performance can undermine popular
confidence in political leaders and create political instability.
Factors Contributing to the Economic Problems
The causes of Japan’s economic problems are varied and complex. They are
rooted in some immediate factors: the burst of the assets bubble in the early 1990s and
Japanese government macroeconomic policies that immediately precipitated the crisis.
But they are also rooted in the fundamental structure of the Japanese economy — the
complex web of government regulations and business conglomerates.
“Burst of the Bubble”
The trigger of the crisis was the burst in the assets “bubble” in the early 1990s.
The assets “bubble” refers to the run-up of prices on land, stocks, and other assets in
the mid-1980s to unsustainable levels. The bubble resulted from loose monetary
policies intended to dampen the effects of an appreciating yen on exports in the mid-
1980s and from liberalization of capital controls that unleashed funds seeking higher
yields. In addition, banks were searching for new customers as firms, their biggest
borrowers, turned from banks to equity markets for their financing. Banks turned to
real estate and real estate-based loans as their targets. The sudden inflow of capital
drove up asset prices.
The phenomenon fed on itself, perpetuating inflated asset values. Investors used
the inflated assets to collateralize loans which they used to buy more assets. The
inflated asset values created a “wealth effect” making consumers and businesses feel
flush with cash, leading them to spend and invest accordingly. Business investment
and consumer spending soared. Stock prices skyrocketed, as the Nikkei index jumped
from 10,000 to 40,000 between 1984 and 1989. Real estate prices increased so
rapidly as to make homes in Japan’s biggest cities unaffordable without extra long-
term mortgages. Japanese investments in U.S. real estate and businesses triggered
fears of an “invasion” of U.S. industry. These trends contributed to high economic
growth in Japan in the mid-1980s: Japan’s real GDP grew an average of 3.9% per
year; it peaked at 5.8% in 1988.
But beginning in 1989 and into the early 1990s, the Japanese monetary
authorities determined that the low interest rates and the highly expansive money
supply were not sustainable and threatened the economy with inflation. Japan’s
central bank, the Bank of Japan, raised its official discount rate from 2.5% in May
1989 to 6% by August 1990. The money supply growth was slowed dramatically and
contracted in absolute terms in 1992.
Tightened credit and money supply brought a halt to asset buying, and the
speculative bubble “burst” by the end of 1990. Stock prices plummeted. By the end
of 1992, the Nikkei average had bottomed out at temporarily at 16,925, about 60%
below its 1989 peak. It rebounded somewhat in the mid to late 1990s reaching levels
close to 21,000. But in one of the signs of Japan’s recent and continuing economic7
problems, the Nikkei average has plummeted below 10,000 in 2001.
The economy was especially hard hit by the sharp drop in land and property
prices which spawned a wave of defaulting loans, much like the U.S. savings and loan
crisis of the 1980s. In Japan as a whole, urban land values declined an average 28%
from the end of March 1991 to the end of March 1999. In the six largest Japanese
cities where land values had jumped more than 200% from 1985 to 1991, they
declined 62% from the end of March 1991 to the end of March Commercial real8
estate in these areas declined 78%. The sharp downturn in asset values along with
the tightened monetary policy precipitated a decline in economic growth in 1991 that
began the continuing period of economic stagnation in Japan that has worsened to the
present. Land prices have continued to decline.
7 Bank of Japan. Research and Statistics Department. Economic Statistics Monthly. Various
8Management and Coordination Agency. Statistics Bureau. (Japan) Japan Statistical
Yearbook 2000. Tokyo. p. 554.
The Financial Sector “Crisis”
The asset bubble exposed deep-seated structural problems in Japan’s financial
sector which contributed to Japan’s anemic economic performance.The collapse
of the real estate market and the stock market left many Japanese banks with a huge
volume of loans which were not likely to be repaid. The financial crisis was due in
part to the use of stocks and real estate as collateral; the number and size of the loans
ballooned with the rise in asset values and actually fed the bubble and collapsed when
the bubble burst.
The crisis has been caused also by government practices, particularly those of the
Ministry of Finance, that oversees the banking sector. The practices included the so-
called convoy policy, that of promoting growth throughout the banking sector with
the stronger banks assisting the weaker ones, rather than allowing weaker ones to go
bankrupt or merge with stronger ones. The collapse of the market also exposed
questionable accounting practices that allowed banks to hide non-performing loans
rather than having to write them-off.
As of March 2001, Japanese deposit-taking financial institutions held ¥43.4
trillion ( $367.5 billion) in nonperforming loans, an increase from ¥42.4 trillion at the
end of March 2000. Many analysts assumed that the Japanese government had under-
reported the extent of the non-performing loan problem have placed the value at ¥
140.9 trillion ($1.1 trillion), if one includes problems loans that could become
nonperforming loans if Japan’s economic slowdown continues or becomes a
The strain of the banking crisis and tighter capital/asset requirements from the
Bank for International Settlements (BIS) challenged long-held government banking
oversight policies and banking practices. The small institutions, including the jusen,
or housing loan institutions, were the first hit with bankruptcy and closure. Between
1993-1996, all seven jusen closed as did several credit cooperatives, and a small
regional bank. In 1997, a mid-sized life insurance company— Nissan Life Insurance
and Sanyo Securities Co, both collapsed. More importantly in 1997 Yamaichi
Securities and Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, Ltd. were allowed to fail, the first time in10
post-war Japanese history that major financial institutions were allowed to go under.
In 1998, the government nationalized the Long-Term Credit Bank (LTCB) and
Nippon Credit Bank under a banking rescue program passed by the Diet in October
The burst of the bubble marked the beginning of Japan’s economic crisis. The
impact that the burst bubble has had on the financial sector has helped prolong and
deepen the economic stagnation. A strong, stable financial sector is vital to the health
of an economy. It is the sector that channels capital, the life-blood of a market
economy, from those who have it (savers) to those who need it (investors). If that
life-blood is slowed or cut off, the economy suffers.
9 U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. Japan’s Banking Crisis.by
Dick K. Nanto. CRS Report RS20994.
10Lincoln, Ed. Japan’s Economic Mess. JEI Report. May 8, 1998. no. 18A. p. 10.
Fiscal and Monetary Policies
Some analysts have also pointed to Japanese government fiscal and monetary
policies as contributing to the economic malaise. Japan’s fiscal situation deteriorated
severely in the 1990s. From 1990 to 1995, the Japanese general government fiscal
balance went from a surplus equivalent to 2.9% of GDP to a deficit equivalent to
3.7% of GDP. Gross debt increased from 65.1% GDP in 1990 to 80.6% GDP in
1995. Net debt (essentially gross debt minus social security contributions) increased
to 11% GDP in 1995, and it is expected to grow as the aging Japanese population
contributes less to government revenues and takes more in social security payments.11
The deteriorating public finances resulted from the slowdown in economic activity in
the early 1990s in Japan, due in part to the burst of the bubble, plus the additional
costs of a series of stimulus packages.12
In anticipation of the fiscal problems Japan would face, the powerful Ministry of
Finance strongly promoted more austere tax and expenditure policies. One of the
major pillars of the austerity program was the passage of the Fiscal Structural Reform
Act in 1997. Among other things, the act required that by Japanese fiscal year 2003,
the government would no longer be able to issue bonds to finance budget deficits, and
the general government deficit would have to decrease to 3% of GDP.13
The government began to take other measures to reduce its budget deficits. In
April 1997, it increased the consumption tax from 3% to 5% and reversed a
temporary tax reduction that had been imposed earlier to stimulate demand.14 The
government had timed the fiscal austerity measures in anticipation of a long-awaited
recovery in Japan’s economic growth. Indeed, in 1996, real Japanese GDP increased15
3.9% after lackluster growth the previous years of the decade. The general
government deficit decreased to 3.4% in 1997 indicating a tighter fiscal policy. But
the fiscal contraction, while financially prudent, contributed to the return of economic
stagnation in 1997 and 1998. Japan’s recent monetary and fiscal policies has been
One school of thought on Japanese economic policy argues that Japan’s
macroeconomic policies have played the key role in Japan’s economic stagnation.
Economist Adam Posen, a member of this school, argues that the burst of the bubble
was caused by the inappropriate contractionary fiscal and monetary policies in the
early 1990s.16 He further argues that when the government introduced fiscal stimulus
11OECD. OECD Economic Surveys: Japan— 1996-1997. Paris. p. 54-55.
12Ibid. p. 59.
13Aghevli, Bijan B., Tamim Bayoumi, Guy Meredith. Structural Change in Japan:
Macroeconomic Impact and Policy Challenges. International Monetary Fund. Washington.
14OECD. OECD Economic Surveys: Japan— 1996-1997. Paris. p. 61.
16Posen. Adam S. Restoring Japan’s Economic Growth. Institute for International Economics.
to boost demand, it was too little too late. The one exception was in 1995, when the
government implemented a large fiscal stimulus package, and it resulted in the boom
in economic activity in 1996. Posen has suggested that the Japanese economy still has
room to grow through fiscal stimulus (potential growth) without triggering inflation
nor would the extra fiscal debt overly burden the Japanese economy.
MIT economist Paul Krugman is another member of this school but focuses on
the role of monetary policy. He has argued that the Japanese economy has entered
into a “liquidity trap:” At very low interest rates individuals will willingly hold (not
spend) all additions to the supply of money, thus rendering monetary policy
Structural Economic Problems
Another group of analysts argues that macroeconomic factors (fiscal and
monetary policies) are not as important as structural rigidities within the Japanese
economy, in addition to those in the financial sector that led to the financial assets
bubble. Such rigidities, they argue, have not only led to Japan’s economic problems
but will prevent Japan from realizing its full growth potential unless they are removed.
One such economist, Richard Katz, argues that Japanese economic problems are
rooted in what he calls its “dual economy.”18 The Japanese economy is really a two-
segmented economy, he argues. One segment is highly efficient and consists of
sectors that have proved competitive in the world economy and are highly productive.
Industries in this segment include cars, electronic products, computers,
semiconductors, and capital machinery. The second segment are those sectors that
are very inefficient with low productivity. They survive through protective
government regulations and private business practices. This segment includes
industries that produce glass, cement, paper, petroleum products and petrochemicals,
processed foods, and basic steel. It also includes many elements of the service sector,
such as financial and retail services.
According to Katz, and others, the Japanese economy had been able not only to
survive but thrive until recently because the competitive part of the dual economy was
so efficient that it was able to prop up the noncompetitive part. They did so by having
to depend on those sectors for their inputs. For example, the car manufacturers
would buy flat glass, basic steel, and other components from domestic manufacturers
but at higher prices than they might have had to pay if they bought from more efficient
foreign suppliers. They sold their products through designated retailers. They also
had to pay high prices for energy.
Washington. August 1998. 186 p. Ibid.
17Krugman. Paul. Japan’s Trap. MIT. May 1998.
18Katz, Richard. Japan— the System that Soured: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Miracle.
M.E. Sharpe. Armonk, NY. 1998. 463 p.
This arrangement could continue as long as the export sectors remained
sufficiently competitive to absorb the costs of the less efficient sectors. But Katz
argues that in the mid-1980s, with the sharp appreciation of the yen, Japanese
exporting firms could no longer absorb the costs without sacrificing their ability to
compete globally. Many of the industries, particularly the car manufacturers and
electronics manufacturers, were forced to relocate operations abroad.
With demand for Japanese exports cut and producers moving abroad, Japan
made up for the loss of demand by pouring more of its financial resources into
investment driven by a loose monetary policy. This strategy allowed Japan to boost
growth rates in the 1980s. Yet, Katz points out, those investments were inefficient,
yielding lower returns than investments made in other industrialized countries. The
continual pouring of funds into assets created the bubble and sowed the seeds of the
economy’s destruction. When the bubble burst in the early 1990s, it signified the end
of the “last hurrah of a faltering system trying to pump itself up.”
Along with Japan’s “dual economy,” Katz points to a second, related problem
— a chronic inability to consume all that it produces. The Japanese economy saves
too much largely because of the lack of an adequate social safety net and social
security (retirement) program. If that savings cannot be exported it is “consumed”
through investments which have become increasingly inefficient, or pumping up of the
economy through government public works programs.19
The East Asian Financial Crisis
The currency crisis that hit several large East Asian economies —Thailand,
Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea — from mid-1997 contributed to prolonging
Japan’s economic problems.20 Japan had become more reliant on East Asia as an
export market and the growth in Japanese off-shore production in East Asia created
customers for exports of Japanese technology. In 1996, Asia accounted for 44% of
Japanese exports. In 1997, after the onset of the Asian crisis, the share declined to
42% and by the end of 1998, to 35% (although it increased somewhat to 37% by the
end of 1999). In 1998, Japanese exports to those countries most sharply hit by the
financial crisis declined dramatically: South Korea— 36.4%; Thailand— 30.7%;
Malaysia— 30.7%; and Indonesia— 54.5%. Furthermore, in 1998, imports from the
countries hardest hit by the financial crisis declined very sharply: South Korea—
69.3%; Thailand— 74.6%; and Malaysia— 78.2% The decline in Japanese imports
made it more difficult for these countries to export their way out of the crisis.21
(Japanese imports from Indonesia actually increased 58.8%.)
In addition, Japanese banks had been heavily exposed in those countries. At the
end of 1996, before the Asian crisis hit, 62.3% of international lending by Japanese
19Ibid. p. 8.
20For information on the Asian financial crisis see CRS Report RL30012. Global Turmoil:
Contagion, Effects, and Policy Responses, by Dick K. Nanto.
21Ministry of Finance (Japan). Obtained from website:
banks was to eight East Asian economies: Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand,
Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.22 Japanese banks faced
the possibility of their loans there going bad which added to the banking sector’s
already enormous problems.
Japan’s Response to the Economic Problems
The examination above of Japan’s economic problems demonstrates that a
number of factors have contributed to them: the burst of the asset bubble; the crisis
in the financial sector; macroeconomic policies; structural problems in the economy;
and the East Asian currency crisis. Successive Japanese governments since the 1990s
have responded with piecemeal initiatives on these various fronts with little in the way
of near-term success, judging by Japan’s continuing poor economic outlook.
Macroeconomic policies are defined as a government’s policies on spending and
taxation (fiscal policy) and on currency and credit emissions and interest rates
(monetary policy). These economic policy tools can be very powerful, but their use
is constrained by the financial resources available to a government and also by the
need to maintain price stability.
Fiscal Measures. Since 1992, the successive Japanese governments have
passed and implemented 10 “economic stimulus packages,” combinations of tax cuts
and spending increases, to try to boost the limping economy. But they have had to
do so against the backdrop of an aging population that will, in time, demand more in
terms of pensions and contribute less in taxes putting additional demands on the
The extra spending is a
political gamble for Japanese
political leaders. If the stimulus
packages prove effective, the
Japanese economy could return to
sustained economic growth.
However, if the economy does
not grow, or does not grow
sufficiently to boost business and
consumer confidence, then Japan
is faced with a very high debt
burden which would become
harder to pay off if the economy is
not generating increasing income.
Japan already has the highest gross debt /GDP ratio among industrialized countries.
Figure 5 indicates that between 1991 and 2000 Japan’s ratio had doubled to over
22U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. The Asian Financial Crisis,
the IMF, and Japan: Economic Issues. CRS Report 98-434, by Dick K. Nanto. p. 26-27.
120%. The ratio for the United States had declined to around 60% while the average
ratio for all OECD countries had increased slightly from 63% to 72%.
Mindful of the growing financial burdens, current Japanese prime minister
Koizumi vowed that his government would cap government spending by limiting
government deficit financing to ¥30 trillion (about $249 billion) in Japanese fiscal
year 2002 (April 1, 2002-March 31, 2003).23 But implementing such a policy is
challenging when an economy is undergoing slow growth or recession, as is the case
with Japan. Furthermore, much of the funds in previous stimulus packages have gone
to public works projects that have been have been the bread and butter of Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP) constituents. Indeed, the prime minister faces pressure from24
within his own party, the LDP, to reconsider the policy.
Monetary Policy. The Japanese authorities have maintained an expansionary
monetary policy since September 8, 1995, a policy commensurate with a slow
growing or recessionary economy. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) has reduced its official
discount rate (the rate at which it lends funds to other banks) in stages from 6.0% in
August 1990. By February 1999, the BOJ had dropped the rate to zero, a rate which
it maintained until August 2000 when, with Japan’s economic prospects looking
somewhat brighter, it raised the rate to 0.25%.25 However, the Bank in effect
returned to zero rate policy in February 2001 as the Japanese economy faced
deflationary pressures. The Bank indicated that the rate would be in place until
consumer price changes turn positive.26 Commensurate with the more expansionary
monetary policy, the BOJ announced in August 2001, that it would increase the
“current accounts” of Japanese private banks, that is, the cash balances held in their
accounts with the BOJ, from a total of ¥5 trillion to ¥6 trillion. In late September
2001, BOJ chairman, Masaru Hayakami, announced that the target would be set
“above ¥6 trillion,” indicating that the Bank would do what it takes to encourage
It is important to note that Japanese monetary policy has not been as loose as it
might first appear. Inflation rates in Japan have been very low, far below those of
most industrialized countries. Therefore, real (adjust for inflation) interest rates in
Japan, which are the effective rates, are higher than in many countries. In addition,
even though nominal interest rates have been low, the growing problems in the
banking sector have stifled credit expansion.28
23 Ibison, David. Koizumi Determined to Limit Japanese Bond Issues. Financial Times.
August 28, 2001.
24Japan Digest. September 11, 2001. p. 3.
25 OECD. Economic Surveys– Japan.. Paris. December 2000. p. 71.
26 International Monetary Fund. IMF Concludes 2001 Article IV Consultation with Japan.
Public Information Notice (PIN) No. 01/85. August 10, 2001.
27Japan Digest. September 24, 2001. p. 3.
28IMF, World Economic Outlook, October 1998. p. 113.
Banking Reform and Other Structural Changes
Many Japanese policymakers and other observers long recognized that Japan’s
financial sector was highly inefficient and subject to corruption. Heavy government
regulations prevented the sector (including banks, trust banks, securities companies,
insurance, and other credit institutions) from adequately responding to the competitive
demands of a global economy. These problems became especially apparent when the
financial bubble burst and banks were left holding bad loans. The proliferation of
troubled banks challenged the long-held government policy of trying to keep all
institutions afloat, the “convoy system.” Government regulations made it difficult for
banks and other lenders to offer new financial services that were tailored to new
markets. Troubled domestic financial institutions could not merge with foreign
institutions to shore up their capital base and the financial sector was isolated from
In November 1996 the then Hashimoto government announced a sweeping
program of financial reforms, popularly called the “big bang.” Among other things,
the program is designed to break down barriers among the various types of financial
institutions to increase competition among them. The main provisions of the big bang
!imposing higher penalties on financial institutions for illegal acts;
!loosening government restrictions on management of investment trusts,
pension funds, and other assets; allowing individuals and companies to make
foreign currency transactions without prior government approval;
!making the Bank of Japan independent of the Ministry of Finance;
!opening the Japan Financial Inspection Agency;
!eliminating licensing requirements for securities brokerages;
!eliminating restrictions on commissions on securities trades; and
!removing barriers to banks, insurance companies; trust banks, and securities
companies from operating in one another’s sectors.
In addition to the “big bang,” Japan signed the World Trade Organization’s
(WTO) financial services agreement in December 1997 which requires signatory
governments to allow foreign firms to participate in domestic financial markets.
Furthermore, in April 1998, the Bank of Japan began to enforce tighter capital/asset
ratios as required by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS). Enforcing these
standards may have curtailed the ability of Japanese banks to lend. Japan and the
United States also engaged in bilateral negotiations and agreements aimed toward
opening Japan’s markets for insurance and other financial services to foreign
The “big bang” is designed to be implemented over time and will affect the
economy gradually. But Japan faces the immediate crisis of a banking sector in deep
trouble, which has led to the loss of depositors’ confidence and to a “credit crunch”
(insufficient credit available to viable lenders). In October 1998, the Japanese
29Taken from CRS Report 98-475, Japan’s “Big Bang”and Other Financial Deregulation,
by Dick K. Nanto.
parliament approved a program initiated by the government of then Prime Minister
Obuchi. The program included over $500 billion in funding, to deal with
nonperforming loans and weak banks. It also included the establishment of new
government agencies to manage and otherwise dispense with nonperforming loans and
Financial reform is very important but only a part of the economic restructuring
efforts that the Japanese government has taken in the 1990s. Japan has grappled with
economic restructuring for many years. In 1986, a report released by an advisory
commission led by former Bank of Japan chairman Haruo Maekawa asserted that
Japan needed to take measures to stimulate domestic demand by relying less on
exports to stimulate economic growth in the face of growing trade surpluses and
political pressure from trading partners, including the United States. These measures
were to include economic deregulation. But the Japanese government did little in
The Japanese government has taken economic reform more seriously as it has
faced continued economic stagnation in the 1990s. Also the government’s poor
response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995 manifested the corruption in some
government ministries, the lack of effective inter-ministerial coordination, and arcane
and inefficient government regulations.
The Japanese government embarked on deregulation and restructuring on a
number of fronts. In March 1995, the government initiated a Deregulation Action
Program (DAP), a three-year program (FY1995-FY1997) designed to make
regulations the exception rather than the rule in the Japanese economy. The initial
program targeted about 1,100 measures to be taken but was revised and increased to
2,800 by March 1997. Among other things, the program focused on strengthening
the enforcement of the Anti-Monopoly Act, Japan’s main authority for anti-trust
activity, in order to improve efficiency and increase competitiveness in Japanese
industries. In addition, the DAP would reduce barriers to entry of new firms to
industries, review regulations that inflate prices of electricity and other utilities, cut
consumer protection regulations and environmental regulations to “minimum
required,” and reduce regulations that bar entry of foreign entities into the Japanese
economy. The program focused on regulations in the following areas: housing and
land; information and telecommunications; distribution; standards, certification and
import procedures; financial services including securities and insurance; energy; labor;
In 1996, the Hashimoto government raised the priority of economic
restructuring. It did so by introducing a multifaceted economic reform program that
included reform in administration (the government ministries and other agencies
responsible for economic matters); fiscal structure (discussed above); financial system
(discussed above); and education.
30Choy, John. Bank-Rescue Legislation, Recapitalization Plan Move Quickly through Diet.
JEI Report. October 16, 1998. 39B p. 1-3.
To date Japan has made small but noticeable progress in deregulation. More
large retail stores have established a presence in Tokyo and other cities giving
Japanese consumers wider choices at reduced prices. The telecommunications sector
is under reorganization with the privatization and eventual breakup of Nippon
Telegraph and Telephone (NTT); removal of barriers between the domestic and long-
distance markets; and easing of barriers to permit more rapid introduction of new
services such as cell phones. In the energy sector, price controls on gasoline and
restrictions on establishing self-service stations have been lifted and the deregulation
of the electricity sector is being considered.31
Transportation costs for freight and passengers are much higher in Japan than
in other industrialized countries. Japan has heavily regulated the entry of new firms
ostensibly to prevent supply capacity from getting too large. To reduce costs and
improve efficiency the government has liberalized restrictions on the number of
airlines and flights to introduce more competition in the industry and barriers in
shipping and passage transport (trains, buses, and taxis) are being loosened. The
government is taking steps to improve efficiency of land use by revising regulations
on land use and housing.32
Legislation was passed to reorganize the government in order to reduce the
number of ministries and streamline their operations, cutting costs and bureaucratic
red tape. Importantly, the government has increased resources at the Fair Trade
Commission to improve enforcement of anti-competition laws and has increased33
penalties for violations.
Although the Hashimoto and Obuchi governments took major steps to reform
the Japanese economy (and these steps have had results), critics point out that Japan’s
path to economic restructuring and reform remains a long one. The OECD has argued
that Japan needs to accelerate the pace of reform implementation or else see popular
confidence in the program erode. It also needs, according to the OECD, to expand
efforts in banking, telecommunications, energy, land-use reform, taxation policy, and34
other areas for economic restructuring to be effective. Economist Richard Katz has
argued that Japanese efforts to date have only skimmed the surface of what needs to
be done, and that Japan needs to undertake more fundamental changes that eliminates
the “dual economy,” primarily by more radically reducing the government’s role in35
economic decisionmaking. Economist Edward Lincoln remains skeptical that Japan
can address the financial practices that got the economy in trouble in the first place.36
31OECD. OECD Economic Surveys: Japan 1998. Paris. 1998. p. 124-128.
32Ibid. p. 129-130.
33Ibid. p. 138-140.
34Ibid. p. 12-14.
35Katz, p. 13-21.
36Lincoln. Edward J. Japan’s Financial Mess. Foreign Affairs. Vol. 77. no. 3. p. 63-64.
The Economic Program of Prime Minister Koizumi
In April 2001, Junichiro Koizumi was elected to the presidency of the LDP and,
therefore, assumed the office of prime minister. He succeeded Yoshiro Mori, who,
himself, had assumed the leadership in April 2000 after Obuchi suffered a fatal stroke.
Koizumi was elected by the grass roots membership of the LDP, much to the chagrin
of the party’s senior leaders. Koizumi campaigned for the job on a platform of
economic reform and seemed to gain popularity among those who wanted change in
Shortly after assuming the leadership, Koizumi announced a package of
economic emergency measures, or guidelines, to revive the economy. His
government expanded on those guidelines in June 2001 by releasing a economic
policy framework which sets out the main macroeconomic and structural objectives
and strategies for his government.
Banking reform has become a centerpiece of the Koizumi government’s
economic strategy. The government’s program calls for a “Drastic Disposal of Non-
Performing Loans (NPLs),” that is, to encourage banks to write-off completely their
nonperforming loans in 2-3 years.37 But that objective has proved an arduous one.
One issue has been to determine the scope of the problem. The volume of what non-
banking analysts consider to be nonperforming loans has greatly exceeded the number
of nonperforming loans officially reported by banks. A second issue is the potential
economic impact. Banks are reluctant to write-off loans of major clients with whom
they have a long-term relationship and government officials are concerned about the
impact on the economy if major companies are forced to close down because they can
no longer get bank financing. On August 30, 2001, the head of the Financial
Supervisory Agency, the agency that overseas bank reform measures , announced that
the bad loan problem could not be resolved in 2-3 years and that by 2007, six years
from now, perhaps half of the bad loans could be resolved.38
Besides banking reform, the Koizumi government’s program sets out other
economic reform objectives in order to revitalize the Japanese economy:
!encouragement of research and development;
!reform of government regulations and the judicial system to develop an
environment for greater competition especially in the telecommunications and
!reform of the structure of the capital and real estate markets and restructure
the labor market;
!reform of the tax system;
37 EIU. Country Reports: Japan. June 2001.
38 DRI-WEFA. Japan Report. September 27, 2001. [http://cas.dri-wefa.com].
!improvement of the social infrastructure by making the public works system
more efficient; and
!reform of the social safety net – social security, medical system, pension
system, nursing and childcare – so that it meets the needs of the changing
The program is ambitious and addresses many problems that Japanese and
foreign experts have cited as the roadblocks to full economic recovery in Japan. But
skeptics may point to more than 25 years of Japanese political economic history and
that included economic efforts that failed produced only lackluster results.
Impact of Crisis on the U.S. Economy
and the U.S. Response
As the second largest economy in the world, Japan makes an impact. And when
changes, positive or negative, occur in the Japanese economy, they can have
significant effects on the rest of the world, especially smaller countries that are highly
dependent on trade and foreign capital. The United States is the largest economy in
the world — twice the size of Japan — and, therefore, not as vulnerable to external
economic changes as are smaller countries. Nevertheless, Japan’s economic
stagnation has affected the U.S. economy, especially in foreign trade balances and
One result of Japan’s economic stagnation has been the rise in financial capital
outflows from Japan. For many years, Japan has been a net “exporter” of financial
capital, a product of a high savings rate that exceeds its rate of domestic investment.
But during the recent periods of recession in Japan, the capital outflows surged as the
savings rate has remained high while the rate of growth in domestic investment has
at times been negative. The United States has, for many years, been a net “importer”
of financial capital, a product of a very low savings rate that is exceeded by its rate
of investment. The United States has been a major recipient of capital from Japan.
It has, therefore, experienced increasing surpluses in its bilateral capital account with
Japan.40 The inflows of capital from Japan help to augment the pool of capital
available to investors in the United States, putting downward pressure on U.S.
The mirror image of the capital account in the U.S. balance of payments is the
current account. If the United States incurs surpluses on capital account, it must then
39 Jetro. Koizumi Government Adopts “Solid Policy Framework” to Promote Economic
Rebirth in Japan. June 26, 2001. [http://www.jetro.org/newyork/].
40U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of Economic Affairs. Survey of Current Business.
July 2001. p. 77
incur deficits on current account. The U.S. current account deficit with Japan soared
to$97.5 billion in 2000.41
The closely watched merchandise trade balance is a major portion of the U.S.
current account imbalance with Japan. U.S. merchandise trade balances with Japan
deteriorated after Japan’s asset bubble burst. The U.S. merchandise trade deficit with
Japan soared over 50% between 1991 and 1994, from $43.4 billion to a record $65.7
billion. From 1994 to 1996 the trade deficit with Japan declined as U.S. exports
jumped 26%. But from 1996 through 1999, U.S. exports to Japan declined while
U.S. imports increased causing the deficit to worsen to $74 billion. In 2000, U.S.
exports to Japan picked up, but imports increased more rapidly causing the deficit to
hit a record $81.3 billion. The slowdown in both the Japanese and U.S. economies
have led to a decline in overall bilateral trade in 2001.
Table 1. U.S. Merchandise Trade with Japan, 1991-2001
Year Exports Imports Balances
1991 48.1 91.5 -43.4
1992 47.8 97.4 -49.6
1993 47.9 107.2 -59.4
1994 53.5 119.2 -65.7
1995 64.3 123.6 -59.3
1996 67.5 115.2 -47.6
1997 65.5 121.7 -56.1
1998 57.9 122.0 -64.1
1999 57.5 131.4 -73.9
2000 65.3 146.6 -81.3
2000* 31.5 71.3 -39.8
2001* 31.4 65.9 -34.5
*First six months
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census. Exports are total
exports valued on a f.a.s. basis. Imports are general imports valued on a customs basis.
Since 1997, Japan dropped from being the second most important U.S. export
market, after Canada, to the third most important (with Mexico moving up). It has
remained the second most important source of imports to the United States. U.S.
exporters of computers and computer components, agricultural products (such as
corn and soybeans), and lumber and wood products saw their markets in Japan shrink
substantially. U.S.-based car manufacturers, who were just beginning to make inroads
in the Japanese market saw their exports to Japan shrink as well, albeit from a small
base. Some exporters, such as producers of aircraft and parts, and integrated circuits,
actually increased their business in Japan. U.S. import levels from Japan have
increased in the last few years.
Nevertheless, as the second largest economy, a strong Japan makes a significant
contribution to world economic growth, and its stability is critical to ensuring the
stability of world financial markets and the world economy as a whole. As the
world’s largest creditor, Japan is the source of large volumes of financial capital to the
United States and other countries, sudden withdrawals of which could have strong,
adverse effects on U.S. and world financial markets. Japan is also a dominant force
in the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and other
multilateral and regional economic organizations.
The United States also has a strong interest in the economic and financial
stability in East Asia. The negative effects of Japan’s economic problems on those
countries thus indirectly affects the United States. Some observers have argued that
Japan’s failure to increase imports from East Asia have forced those countries to sell
more in the U.S. market thus increasing their trade surpluses with the United States.
There is not much foundation to this argument since the growth in U.S. trade deficits
with those countries was primarily the result of decreased U.S. exports rather than
increased U.S. imports.
Japan’s poor economic performance has tended to dominate U.S.-Japan relations
since the 1990s. U.S. policymakers, the business community, and the agricultural
sector have been eyeing economic developments in Japan as U.S. export markets have
been shrinking with the rest of the Japanese economy. They are also concerned that
Japan would strive to “export” its way to recovery by maintaining a weak exchange
rate to boost the price competitiveness of Japanese exports in the U.S. market. In
that regard, U.S. policymakers in the executive branch, including the President, and
in the Congress, have been pressing Japan to proceed with reforming its banking
sector and restructuring the rest of its economy.
For many years, the United States has made restructuring and economic
deregulation direct or implicit elements of trade negotiations with Japan. U.S.
negotiators and industry representatives have long argued that government policies
and regulations, by effect if not by design, protect inefficient domestic producers from
foreign competition and provide Japanese exporters with an unfair advantage over
competitors in the United States and other countries. Furthermore, the structure of
Japanese business, especially the dominance of cross-ownership conglomerates
(keiretsu), their business practices, and their tolerance by the Japanese government
have prevented U.S. firms from competing in Japanese markets to a degree, these
firms believe, that is commensurate with their competitiveness in other markets.
Deregulation, competition policy, and economic restructuring underlie many of the
current bilateral sector specific trade disputes with the United States: flat glass, autos
and auto parts, photographic film, and insurance.
The Reagan Administration engaged Japan in the Market-Oriented Sector-
Selected (MOSS) negotiations that targeted Japanese government regulations and
other impediments to imports from the United States in selected sectors. The first
Bush Administration negotiated with Japan under the Structural Impediments
Initiative (SII), which targeted government policies and regulations and private
business practices across sectors. The Clinton Administration combined the two types
of negotiations under the U.S.-Japan Framework for a New Economic Partnership
with a strong emphasis on sector negotiations and obtaining quantitative results.
On June 30, 2001, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi
announced the formation of a new framework for addressing economic issues of
mutual concern. The "U.S.-Japan Economic Partnership for Growth," (Economic
Partnership) follows and draws from bilateral forums that previous U.S.
administrations established with their counterpart governments in Japan. The
Economic Partnership will consist of several initiatives or dialogues to include
participation from subcabinet level leaders from both governments and participation
from members of the business communities and other non-government sectors from
both countries. The U.S.-Japan Subcabinet Economic Dialogue will provide overall
direction for the Economic Partnership. Other elements of the Economic Partnership
include: the Regulatory Reform and Competition Policy Initiative (with working
groups on telecommunications, information technologies, energy, and medical devices
and pharmaceuticals, plus a cross-sectoral working group); the Financial Dialogue;
the Investment Initiative; and the Trade Forum. Each one of these elements will be
responsible for reporting to the president and the prime minister on the progress of
The Outlook for the Japanese Economy
Few would deny that Japan has been and remains in a very serious economic
situation. The unprecedented (for post-war Japan) poor economic growth rates, rising
record unemployment rates, and the lack of business and consumer confidence paint
a rather dismal picture for an economy that was the “economic miracle”for many
decades. The build-up of the assets bubble in the 1980s (and its bursting at the
beginning of the 1990s) triggered Japan’s economic problems. The sudden and
continuing drop in the values of real estate, stocks, and other assets sharply cut into
the wealth of Japanese and sent the banking sector, suddenly holding billions of
dollars in bad loans, reeling. The crisis has adversely affected the sense of well-being
of the average Japanese citizen.
The near-term outlook for the Japanese economy is not promising. Many of the
major economic forecasters are predicting very slow or negative economic growth in
2001 and probably 2002. If many observers agree that Japan’s economic situation
remains serious they disagree on the fundamental causes, and therefore on the
solution. The debate pits those who argue that fiscal stimulus and/or monetary
stimulus will unleash economic growth against those who argue that such
macroeconomic measures will provide a short-term spurt at best unless Japan
undertakes fundamental structural changes.
42 For more information on U.S. trade policy toward Japan see CRS Issue Brief IB97015,
U.S.-Japan Economic Ties: Status and Outlook.
Determining which school of thought is correct is a task beyond the scope of this
report. Nevertheless, based on Japan’s experience since the 1990s, one can conclude
that Japan’s road to recovery depends on a proper balance between macroeconomic
policies and economic restructuring. The rise in the asset bubble and its burst resulted
from structural problems within the banking sector. Confidence within that sector will
have to be rebuilt if it is to exercise its important role as a financial intermediary in the
Japanese economy. Japan can also realize important productivity gains which would
contribute to economic growth if it pursues deregulation and restructuring in other
important sectors. At the same time, as Japan’s experience in 1996-97 proved (when
economic recovery was truncated by a premature tightening of monetary policy and
increase in taxes), if the government does not conduct the correct fiscal and monetary
policies, economic growth can be prematurely aborted.
In pursuing macroeconomic stimulus, the Japanese government is constrained
by the limitations of its revenues and of its ability and willingness to borrow to finance
deficits. It is constrained in pursuing deregulation and restructuring by the ability and
willingness of policymakers to confront the various interest groups within the
bureaucracy and elsewhere that have had stake in the status quo. Japanese
governments under various leaders have attempted to tackle these challenges with
limited success. Often failure to achieve complete success has lead to the political
downfall of those leaders.
Prime Minister Koizumi and his government face the many of the same
challenges. Their program addresses many fo the obstacles to economic growth that
Japanese and foreign experts have cited but already the government is meeting
resistence and doubt.
Implications and Policy Options
for the United States
U.S. economic policy toward Japan has reflected a broad range of U.S. national
interests and pressures, and U.S. policy will have to continue to reflect those interests
if it is to be effective. These interests include those in the American business
community and agriculture that are looking for unfettered access to markets and
strong Japanese demand for their exports and investments as well as those who are
wary of competition from Japanese production. Beyond the specific interests of
individual sectors are the overall interests of the United States in a robust and stable
Japan is the largest economy in East Asia where it accounts for roughly 2/3 of
the region’s GDP. Japan serves as a model for economies in transition, such as China
and Vietnam, and is critical as an engine of economic growth in the region.
In the foreign policy and national security area, Japan is an important world
partner and chief ally in Asia. The United States and Japan face the mutual threat of
an unstable North Korea and also the challenge of how to manage relations with a
rapidly emerging China. A strong and robust Japan is vital to fulfilling its role as a
partner of the United States in meeting these foreign policy challenges.
But as important as Japan’s economy is to the United States, the direct policy
influence the United States can have on the Japanese economy is limited at best. The
United States could promote economic growth in Japan by selling yen for dollars or
by boosting U.S. interest rates to drive down the value of the yen. A more expensive
dollar/cheaper yen would make Japanese exports cheaper and would increase
Japanese exports to the United States, all other factors remaining the same. But such
a policy option would present other problems for the United States: Increased
imports from Japan would increase the U.S. trade deficit, which could prove
politically sensitive especially with those sectors of the U.S. economy feeling the
increased competition from Japanese imports. Furthermore, higher interest rates
would slow down U.S. economic growth.
National sovereignty restricts the influence the United States can exert in shaping
Japanese economic policy, although outside pressure has often raised the
consciousness in Japan with respect to a problem and can speed up decisionmaking.
Decisions on macroeconomic policy and economic reform are within the purview of
the Japanese government, and policymakers will undertake them within the context
of what they perceive to be Japan’s national interests.
But those limitations have not prevented the United States from defending its
interests and pressuring Japan to move forward with deregulation and economic
stimulation. The United States will likely continue to do so in bilateral negotiations
on sector specific issues and on the broader issues of foreign investment and
deregulation. The United States also will likely continue to work with Japan on such
issues in multilateral fora, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). An effective
U.S. approach in these negotiations would underscore the mutual benefits to both
countries of Japan following U.S. suggestions.
In the long term, if successful, Japan’s efforts to overcome its economic
difficulties might present the United States with significant opportunities. Many of
the structural problems have acted as barriers to U.S. exports and investments in
Japan and the source of much friction between the two countries. If Japan can
successfully address these structural problems, it would likely improve market access
in Japan and help alleviate the bilateral trade and investment friction. In the nearer
term, the best U.S. defense against continued economic stagnation in Japan will be
maintaining U.S. economic strength.