Emperor Akihito and abdication

On the same weekend that Alex Rodriguez, 41, announced his retirement from baseball, Japanese Emperor Akihito, 82, made an address to the Japanese nation in which he indicated his desire to abdicate–a wish current Japanese law has no provision to grant.

an (incredibly) short history

Japan was ruled by an hereditary line of emperors until the late 12th century, when it was removed from power by the royal family’s chief military adviser, the Shogun.

The shogunate persisted until Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Tokyo Harbor in 1853, forcing Japan to end a long period of isolation.  In the turmoil that followed, the shogun was deposed and the emperor restored to the throne as a semi-figurehead.

In the post-WWII Japanese constitution, the emperor was allowed to remain, in a purely symbolic political role. He (the constitution requires a male emperor) confirms the Prime Minister, for example, but he can only anoint the candidate that the legislature presents to him.

a cultural/religious role

I began studying the Japanese economy and stock market in 1986.  To fight jet lag, every morning I would run from my hotel to the Imperial Palace, around the palace (two miles?) and back.  Unlike the situation today, back then there were no Japanese runners for company, only one or two other odd foreigners.  But at 6:30am there were always a dozen, sometimes many more Japanese citizens kneeling facing the palace and praying.

That’s because of the religious/cultural belief that when the emperor is crowned he mates with the sun god Amaterasu.  His communion with the source of light makes him semi-divine; it also assures the good will of Amaterasu–and Japan’s exceptionalism as the land/race on earth that maintains a uniquely harmonious balance between dark and light.

the calendar, too

When he ascends to the throne, the emperor chooses a name for his reign.  The traditional Japanese calendar is reset to be Year 1 of that era.  Emperor Akihito chose “Heisei” (peace everywhere) in 1989.  So 2016 = Heisei 28.  His father, Hirohito, was the Showa (enlightened harmony) emperor.

Akihito and abdication

Twenty-five years ago, a speech like Akihito’s would have sent shock waves through Japan, and would doubtless have had a negative effect on the stock market.  But while visitors to Tokyo still seek out the Palace Hotel because it’s the closest one can physically get to the Imperial Palace grounds, the morning worshipers have long since disappeared.  Japanese citizens appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of changing the law to allow Akihito to abdicate.  Bhe move will likely create as few economic ripples as the resignation of Pope Benedict did three years ago.

the yen and the unraveling of Abenomics

Last week the Tokyo stock market had two days in which the benchmark Topix index fell by more than 5%.  For the week as a whole, the market declined by 12.5% (the quirky Nikkei 225, the Japanese equivalent of the Dow, fell by 11%).

This has little to do with worries about the oil price or about a global economic slowdown, in my view.  This is all about Abenomics.

The three “arrows” rhetoric aside, the idea behind Abenomics has been to create extraordinary short-term economic stimulus in Japan through huge depreciation of the currency, large increases in government deficit spending and a big expansion of the money supply.

It has been clear from the outset that all three of these actions will leave deep permanent scars on the Japanese economic landscape.  However, their purpose has been to buy time and space for export-oriented Japanese industry to restructure and modernize.  That would, in turn, allow these firms to hire more workers and increase wages for all.  In the eyes of Abe boosters, the benefits brought by a revitalized industrial base would more than offset the body blows caused by depreciation, inflation and an increase in already gargantuan outstanding government debt.

It has also been clear that Abenomics can’t take infinite time to work. Shock-and-awe stimulus is temporary; waves of it are progressively less effective.  Theory and practical experience both say that without substantive changes an economy tends to revert to its previous torpid state after a few years   …except there’s higher inflation.

In Japan’s case, industry hasn’t voluntarily restructured.  Government continues to protect recalcitrant corporate managements from outsiders skillful enough, wealthy enough and willing enough to take on the modernizing task.  So far, then, Abenomics has all been jam tomorrow, as Lewis Carroll put it.

Since the beginning of this month, early in the fourth year since the launch of Abenomics, the yen has risen by about 7% against the US$, 8% against the renminbi and about half that against the €.

This strength is a bit surprising, since it comes immediately after further stimulus by the Bank of Japan in the form of negative interest rates.  Investors in Tokyo are reading the currency strength as the first sign that the window of opportunity for Abenomics to succeed is starting to close.

I’m not sure this interpretation is completely correct.  But, having been an Abenomics skeptic from day one, I won’t argue that it’s wrong, either.

For people like me, who continue to watch from the sidelines, Japan is important to the rest of the world as a tourist destination, but mostly as a cautionary tale about the limits of monetary policy and the dangers of special interest politics determined to defend the status quo.