Why isn’t Japan the richest country in the world?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now. I’ve lived in Japan for close to a decade now.* Why ask such a question?

Well, I’ve been brought up and taught to believe that education is the most important thing in the world to positive life outcomes. Specifically, formal education through public schooling from kindergarten through to university; taking the individual into early adulthood. Only when an individual has gone through all this and is in their early twenties are they ready to face the real world for the next forty or so years before they retire for their remaining twenty. That’s why it is so important that money be invested into schooling and why absolutely everyone should go, (regardless of their suitability), to these institutions. Any problems with schooling (I’m told), come down to the lack of funding and not the design of the system as a whole. I’m being a bit silly here but unfortunately isn’t far from the truth and I’ve heard worse from politicians, academics and educators.

The other thing that I was always taught was that hard work is really important. Usually not from the same mouth that tells me education is important, mind you. You must work really hard and if you work hard, you will do really well. Put in lots of effort and you will be rewarded for it. Pick up that shovel and keep digging until you have a nice big hole in the ground and you will be rewarded for your exertions when that big hole is finally finished. I am assuming there was a purpose to digging the hole, of course.

Japanese people have a reputation (like many East Asian countries), for studying and working really, really hard. Many Japanese children are put into public education/care from as young as six months old and certainly the vast majority are beginning from three or four. There are even baby English classes at private language schools. Once they finish their day of public schooling, many will then go to private night schools to study some more and then go home and presumably continue to study.

Once they’ve gone through all this studying, tests, exams and managed to get all the way through university, they are ready to put on a suit and go to work. Now there is a portion of the population that finishes studying after junior high school or high school and go on to do less important jobs. Jobs such as farming, fishing, roadwork, construction, plumbing and other jobs that keep the country running, don’t seem to require such a lengthy education. One would assume that they must be far less important or else they’d certainly require more education for people to practice them.

Anyway. the really smart people go on through university and then find themselves in a suit waiting in a crowded subway to go to work. This will be their life for the next forty or so years or so they hope for some reason. Their contracts will indicate they must work for eight or so hours and have a lunch break. And I’m quite sure that Federal Labor Law says much the same thing though I don’t read Japanese so well. Despite this, they will work really hard and probably not get home from work until late at night and certainly well past the alloted time. This will leave them little time to reproduce with their significant other, as they’ll need to bath and then eat dinner while laughing at a fat guy and a skinny guy yelling at each other on a television. Their significant other will also likely have a similar job and any children they somehow manage to conceive need to be put through the education mentioned earlier. I hear raising children is really hard work but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest in this line of employment judging by demographics.

Now since Japanese people go through such long periods of education and labor that make lining up for two hours at a theme park or restaurant seem like a holiday, shouldn’t the country be extremely rich? They have a well-funded, high quality education system and they work really hard in their jobs. Unlike in many countries in the West they also don’t have the significant expense of a parasitic underclass. They do have a parasitic bureaucracy, but so does the West and the Japanese bureaucracy supposedly work hard too. If education and hard work are so important than Japan should be the richest country on earth. It should at the very least be richer than Western countries. It isn’t, though it certainly isn’t poor.

My answer to this should be obvious from the beginning paragraphs. Education and hard work are both very important but it depends what is meant when talking about both. Learning about things, how to do things and why things are things can be very valuable but it doesn’t require a huge building to do it in. Also, some things are not as important as other things. It really depends what things you’re learning about.  Education also doesn’t necessarily require an arbitrary length of time in which to learn about things. Especially not a length of time that cuts into anywhere from four to ten years of someone’s potential for building things, making things, repairing things and perhaps creating whole new things.

Working hard digging a hole for no reason will certainly exhaust you out but if what you’re doing has no purpose, it is redundant. You would have been better off doing nothing though you are free to be proud of your efforts. Ditto, with moving papers about an office. It often makes no difference how long you do it and the longer you are expected to do it, the more likely it is you will adjust your pace to the hours you’re expected to work.

Using Japan as an example might seem a little nasty since many of these problems apply to my own. However, Japan is largely homogeneous and has few of the problems brought on by social welfare (apart from retirement pensions), and third-world immigration. Without these problems and with the knowledge that Japanese people study and work really hard, the country should be far richer than it is. If they’re not, then there are a few possibilities. The first is that a country like England has a working population capable of getting things done much more efficiently than Japan does. England doesn’t have significant natural resources either so they’re comparable. The other is that Japanese people spend an awful lot of time working and studying to no benefit. There may be another but I can’t think of one.

So which is it?

*And I will shamefully acknowledge in this endnote that my knowledge of the language isn’t what it should be after such a length of time. In my defence, I’ve met much worse, I don’t study, I don’t go out much and I honestly just don’t care.

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One Response to Why isn’t Japan the richest country in the world?

  1. Bonsai says:

    You are an unusual foreigner by your last paragraph in that assimilation is not your thing. Everything is too expensive in Japan…just overpriced really. I agree that school and work are often “business” without the actual output one would expect. I just posted a review of an interesting paper on “Made in Japan.” I’d really like your thoughts.

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