77 North Washington Street

The Japanese economy in trouble

THE surging Japanese economy was one of the big economic stories of the 1980s. Commentators often treated the subject in an allegorical way, using Japan's relatively just and productive economy (high rates of growth, lifetime employment, egalitarian income distribution) to criticize an American economy that was neither just nor satisfactorily productive. The Atlantic Monthly, in those years, accorded Japan appropriately generous coverage, much of it by our then Washington editor (and now editor of U.S. News & World Report), James Fallows, who had moved to Japan. In major articles and a provocative book, (1994), Fallows dealt with Japan on its own terms and on ours. Murray Sayle's article in this issue, "The Social Contradictions of Japanese Capitalism," picks up the story at a point where, in a reversal of fortunes and morals, the vibrant American economy is being used to judge the faltering, imputedly "statist" Japanese economy.

Murray Sayle is famous among the journalists of four continents for the Niagara of his talk. "Dickens's conviviality is exhausting," Lionel Trilling wrote of Charles Dickens's letters. That could justly be said as well of Sayle's marathon conversation. A tall, dark-haired, usually black-suited Australian with an expressive face, given to irony and editorial comment, Sayle needs only the match of a question to ignite; then off he goes on several subjects at once, learned and passionate and entertaining.

He has been a journalist for more than fifty years, starting on the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1945. "Tried journalism," he notes in the picaresque document he employs as a résumé, "while deciding on a worthwhile career such as law or politics. Never did." Instead he covered nearly every war of the postwar period, from the Middle East to Vietnam; climbed Mount Everest ("reached 23,000 feet"); reported on and participated in a trans-Atlantic sailing race ("came forty-fifth"); wrote a well-reviewed novel ("sued for libel, withdrawn"); and finally, "wearying of war and assembly-line journalism, and intrigued by Japan as an intellectual adventure," moved to the village of Aikawa (the name means "Love River"), in Kanagawaa Prefecture. That was in 1975. "Accompanied by Ms. Right, now lawfully wedded Jennifer Elizabeth Phillips.... Happy couple set up as freelancers, intending to stay six months. Still here."

That rootedness gives Sayle an intimate purchase on Japan. As he says in his first sentence, "It's not every day that a nation's economic woes come knocking at your door." The Japanese economic crisis is there in his neighbors' lives. Readers of his article in this issue will quickly see that Sayle's voice is as distinctive as the legend on his letterhead: "Murray and Jenny Sayle will work for rice."


The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 281, No. 6; page 6.