Japan: The World’s First Post-Growth Economy?

By Jeremy Williams

One of the problems with the post-growth movement is that it can appear theoretical. More of the ideas have been tried than you might think, but certainly they haven’t all been tried at once as a deliberate strategy. No matter how confident we might be, we lack proof that a post-growth economy is possible.

Or do we? Perhaps the world already has a post-growth society, albeit an unintentional one. Here’s what Japan’s GDP has been up to for the last twenty years:

As far as economists are concerned, this is a tragedy and a disaster. How the mighty have fallen. Japan’s GDP is essentially unchanged since the early nineties, its share of global GDP falling from 17 to just 4%. China overtook it last year to become the world’s second largest economy, and now it limps along as a economic failed state, a cautionary tale for students of capitalism.

And yet, the lights are still on, everything still works. Literacy is high, and crime is low. Life expectancy is better than almost anywhere on earth — 82 years to the US’ 78. The trains run to the second. Unemployment is only 5%, and levels of inequality are enviable. Real per capita income growth matches America’s at 0.7% over the past decade. It’s hardly a basket case. In fact, it is living proof that growth isn’t necessary to deliver a high standard of living.

That’s not to say that Japan is to be envied or emulated. A legacy of failed stimulus ideas has left it with big debts, and the future is as uncertain as it is anywhere. Neither is it a steady-state economy in the way that matters most — in its materials. Japan consumes considerably more than a one-planet share and is not sustainable in that sense.

The point is that for well over a decade, one of the world’s most important economies hasn’t grown. And at the end of that stint, it’s still a great place to live.

So maybe Japan isn’t a failure. Maybe it’s just ahead of its time — not ‘stagnating’, but settling into the plateau of ‘enough’.

After 15 years of fretting, maybe it’s time Japan embraced its post-growth state and told the economists where to stick their theories. Professor Norihiro Kato recently suggested that Japanese youth culture was doing just that, downsizing and taking a more measured approach to consumerism. Japan’s population had already levelled off, he noted. He even suggested Japan was entering a post-growth era. “Japan is a small country” people are saying, “and we’re O.K. with small. It is, perhaps, a sort of maturity.”

The Economist declared this “one of the saddest things I’ve read in a long time” in an article entitled ‘ Pity Japan’, but the Economist has not yet entered the 21 stcentury. Kato’s comments certainly struck a chord with others. Environmnental campaigner Junko Edahiro agreed that young Japanese are beginning to aspire to “a kind of prosperity not based on resources.” You might expect that from Adbusters magazine, but how about this from the Financial Times: “If the business of a state is to project economic vigour, then Japan is failing badly” wrote David Pilling. “But if it is to keep its citizens employed, safe, economically comfortable and living longer lives, it is not making such a terrible hash of things.”

Japan, whether it likes it or not, is the world’s first post-growth economy. It won’t be the last, and I suspect several other countries are dropping onto a growth plateau, perhaps including the UK. If so, let’s work with it. Japan proves that growth isn’t necessary to safeguard the things that matter most in life. There’s nothing to fear in levelling out, and if the alternative is boom and bust, then the plateau is a far safer place to be.

(cross-posted at Make Wealth History)

Originally published at http://postgrowth.org on February 1, 2011.

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