Media watch: How do Japan’s and Korea’s economies compare?

Shopping in Seoul

Japan’s diplomatic relations with South Korea are probably the worst they’ve ever been, a situation that invariably affects press coverage of what goes on between the two countries. For the most part, these difficulties are grounded in different perspectives on their historical relationship, but, in any case, one has to take Japanese coverage of anything related to South Korea with a grain of salt—and vice versa. The most obvious disconnect in this regard is the way K-pop is covered. Japan is by far the foreign country where K-pop has made the most money over the years, and yet the Japanese media only gives it perfunctory coverage and almost never goes into detail about how K-pop bands routinely sell out arenas and stadiums here, while in Korea the press trumpets the success of K-pop in Japan, even more so than in Western countries where the penetration could be considered more culturally and economically significant.

Lately, however, another disconnect has become a topic of conversation among certain experts: South Korea’s overtaking Japan as a world economic force. In the June 20 evening edition of the Asahi Shimbun, reporter Takashi Kamiya wrote about his leaving South Korea after three years as the newspaper’s Seoul correspondent. Before departing he made the rounds of his regular sources in Seoul and told them he was being reassigned to Fukuoka in Kyushu, which has a special relationship with Korea because of its good reputation as a tourist destination. Everybody congratulated him and said they always enjoyed going to Fukuoka before the pandemic made it impossible. When he arrived in Fukuoka and told people he had been in Seoul for three years, he was expecting them to say something similar—that Korea was a nice country to visit and South Korean tourists were always welcome, or something like that. But instead all they talked about was how South Korea was beating Japan in almost every sector, including the economy. And they seemed seriously concerned by this development.

Kamiya knew what they were talking about, but he was surprised they were that worried. In Korea, of course, such news was reported often, but because of the ongoing conflict he chalked it up, at least partially, to the usual competitiveness. He refers to one article mentioned by the South Korean press that was written by Yukio Noguchi, an honorary professor at Hitotsubashi University that predicted South Korea would soon take Japan’s position in the G7, and included a lot of data showing how the South Korean economy was outperforming Japan’s. The most startling statistic was from the OECD, which showed that disposable income in Korea in 2020 amounted to the equivalent of $50,350, while the same in Japan was only $48,810. Average wage in terms of purchasing power was also in Korea’s favor: $41,960 to Japan’s $38,515. Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development ranked South Korea 23 in the world in terms of competitiveness while Japan came in at 31. In terms of corporate valuation, South Korea’s biggest company, Samsung, is #10 in the world, while Japan’s biggest, Toyota, is #40. Perhaps most telling, Korea’s level of digital penetration is #2 in the world, while Japan’s is #14. Kamiya thinks this statistic was extremely significant during the COVID epidemic, since it allowed for greater economic activity among the public when they were dissuaded from going out and spending money. Consequently, Korea’s economy didn’t suffer as much from the pandemic as Japan’s did. It also made it easier for the bureaucracy, since everything in Korea can be done online, while in Japan many official transactions still need to be carried out in person, which requires more time and money. Kamiya illustrates this point by explaining that when he moved to Fukuoka he needed a copy of his family register from his home domicile (honseki) to register his new address and could only obtain it through the post. 

But when he looked at the matter more carefully, Kamiya found that this reversal of fortune had less to do with Korean growth, which has been minimal in recent years, than it did with Japan’s loss of economic vitality. A professor at the Korean Foreign Language University who has studied the Japanese economy in depth told him that Japan’s poor showing in the past 20 years in terms of the usual economic indicators has been “remarkable,” and the Korean press has watched these development carefully and commented accordingly. In contrast, when Korea’s economy overtook Italy, another G7 country, nobody mentioned it in the Korean press. Politicians and media pundits in Korea love to point out how they are “beating” Japan, and he feels this is an “unhealthy” tone for reporting the phenomenon. He also mentions Taiwan, whose per capita GDP is expected to overtake South Korea’s shortly, but, of course, no one in Korea talks about it. More to the point, Taiwan has managed to build and maintain a vital high tech industry even while its birthrate has fallen. Korea’s real economic problem is its own birthrate, which is now the lowest in Asia at 0.81. Japan’s, at least, is 1.34, because, according to one researcher Kamiya talked to, Japan is taking its low birthrate seriously, while Korea is not. Other sectors where Japan still outdoes Korea is in its consumer satisfaction: there is a much greater variety of affordable, high quality merchandise and services in Japan compared to Korea. In any case, while wages and purchasing power may be higher in Korea, the scale of the two economies just can’t be compared. Japan’s is still much bigger than Korea’s. Also, the Korean economy is almost totally dependent on conglomerates, while Japan has a relatively healthy layer of small and medium-sized companies, which is one of the reasons why the income gap is greater in Korea than it is in Japan. And while Kamiya admits that too much of Japan’s economic might is concentrated in Tokyo, regional capitals like Fukuoka are self-sufficient and provide its citizens with all the amenities that Tokyo provides its residents. In Korea, the difference between Seoul and regional cities in terms of available merchandise and services is quite pronounced.

So in a sense, Kamiya was confused by the reaction of the people in Fukuoka, who seemed to think Koreans were better off than Japanese people, especially since he thought it reinforced their resentment toward South Korea. All the experts he talked to, both in Japan and Korea, agreed on one thing: that the two countries, working together, could easily reinforce each others’ economies. But such a combination depends on both countries entering into what Kamiya calls an “adult relationship.”

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1 Response to Media watch: How do Japan’s and Korea’s economies compare?

  1. Bilbo Baggins says:

    The biggest pile of tripe I’ve ever read. For one, the two countries are working to improve their relationship and second there will be no overtaking of Japan by South Korea at least in the next 20 years.

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