A couple weeks ago I made a one-week trip to Asia, spending the first couple days in Beijing and the next five in Tokyo. Most people I know see the similarities between China and Japan -- a Confucian heritage, Chinese characters/kanji (汉字), the use of chopsticks, high savings rates, interventionist economic policies, etc. I'm much more struck by their differences. I'll mention just a few:
1. The air. China and Japan are at very different places in their economic development. China's industry is energy-intensive, and that of Japan is not. Japan, like the US and Europe, has moved much of its manucturing, particularly that part which is based on low-wage labor and high use of energy, to Southeast Asia and the People's Republic. Beijing is making major stides in reducing energy intensity of production, yet overall absolute use of coal and oil is continuing grow at a rapid pace. The air doesn't give a whit about percentages and intensity; it only cares about absolute levels. Below are photos from Beijing, Shanghai, and Tokyo on what I would call representative days that I think capture the basic difference between the three. Disagree? Send me your photos.
Every day I was in Tokyo I could make out, even faintly, the outline of Mt. Fuji many miles away. In Beijing I rarely notice that the city is, in fact, surrounded by mountains on two sides, with those to the west within a couple miles of the city proper.
2. The temples. Tokyo's temples seem more peaceful and refined than those in Beijing. I visited three near the home of my uncle and aunt, who live in Hyoshi, the suburban home of Keio University. The photo below is typical of them. I could've sat for a long time just relaxing.
3. Economic Policy. During my stay in Japan, I visited with an official from METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. METI was the center of Japanese industrial policy in the post-World War II era, and for most of that time was known as MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. I say "was," because although METI still has bureaux devoted to specific segments of the economy and its officials regularly interact with business, it is no longer "pilots" Japan's economy. Instead, it is a highly interested bureaucratic body that can try to informally steer Japanese business with information and limited financing, yet it lacks many of the tools needed to compel compliance. Its heyday is long over, and Japanese officials who work there (I've spoken with several over the years) do not see themselves as economic architects or engineers in the vein they used to be. And amazingly, they don't seem overly upset about that. Now maybe that's the perspective of a non-Japanese speaking China specialist speaking. So please correct me if I'm wrong.
The contrast with China is stark. China first learned from its Soviet comrades the art of mandatory central planning. In the 1980's and 90's, as China shifted away from mandatory planning, the target for many Chinese officials was incentive planning in the model of Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Chinese officials learned a great deal from their neighbors about how to develop and implement industrial policies, and to this day, the Chinese bureaucracy feels it is entirely legitimate for it to encourage, coddle, or mandate micro choices of Chinese companies or the macro environment around them. That does not mean that the policy process is neat and orderly. The development of the policy agenda, the consideration of choices, their adoption, and their implementation are influenced heavily by the preferences of individual political leaders, inter-bureaucratic rivalries, experts, and lobbying by domestic and foreign companies. Nevertheless, I'm struck at how far Japan seems to have moved away from what some call the "coordinated capitalism" approach and how in China the government is still committed to keeping its hands firmly on the wheel. Again, this may largely be a difference of time -- that part of the Chinese economy which is less subject and responsive to industrial policies is gradually growing -- but the side-by-side contrast one sees in traveling between the two countries seems dramatic.
4. Train signs. Beijing and Shanghai (and other cities) are moving quickly to develop subway and train systems on par with those of Tokyo and other major metropolitan cities around the world. I'll admit Beijing's subway, which I'm most familar with, is light years ahead of where it was five years ago, let alone two decades ago. Nevertheless, I'm struck at how the Tokyo train system gets you to absolutely everywhere in the city you'd need to go. Moreover, companies, hotels, and stores all have online directions to their establishments via the trains. Not only do they tell which stop they are near, they say which exit to leave the station, give precise street directions, and estimate the number of minutes to you destination. Here's the online map with directions to METI's headquarters.
But the most interesting difference in subway systems are the signs. Yes, advertising has taken over both systems. And in Beijing there are digital ads that spring forth in the tunnels as you pass by at 100 km/hour; they somehow follow alongside your car for a few seconds before disappearing. And yet in Tokyo there are still lots of creative signs posted to remind you to be polite and curtious to your fellow travelers. My favorite sign, below, could be misinterpreted, but its real purpose is to remind passengers that they should turn off their cell phones when sitting in seats reserved for the elderly or women, since they might find your talking with your friends or headbanging rock-n-roll seeping out of the earphones to be upsetting. I welcome my Japan specialist friends to provide further details, including the comments from the upset passengers.
Now it may appear that most of the contrasts I pointed to indicate a pro-Japan/anti-China bias. If so, that'll be the first time most people have ever accused me of being anti-Chinese. One thing I missed about China when in Japan was the Chinese language. I've learned a smattering of Japanese phrases over the years, but the reality is that after the basic greetings, numbers below 100, and some food, I can't say very much. Luckily, my family helps me a lot when I'm there, and the scholars and officials I interact with all speak excellent English. But I'm still left feeling somewhat isolated. But on the few moments when I heard Chinese, I felt right at home. When I was eating by myself in a sushi restaurant, I heard these two Chinese businessmen next to me chatting, and it felt wonderful. Then I took my aunt Mikie, my cousin Mie, and her daughter Tesla to lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Yokohama, and I had the best time talking to our wait staff, three lovely ladies from Jiangsu, Xiamen, and Shenyang. It felt like being in China. Until I got the bill -- then I remembered I was in Japan.