The Japanese are enigmatic. As a Gaijin business traveler to Tokyo, an out of body experience captured so masterfully in Lost in Translation, I was exposed to the impenetrability of Japanese business culture. Then came the spectacularly convoluted surrealism of Murakami’s Kafka by the Shore; talking cats, raining fish, patricide and incest, Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders, a heady cocktail that left me reeling in shock and awe. Even when I visited Japan on a leisurely holiday with the family, I came away feeling I had barely scratched the surface. The serenity and politeness is captivating, even infectious – I found myself bowing to the Shinkansen – but to this date the Japanese psyche remains a mystery to me, it’s as if the country exists in a Murakami-esque parallel universe.
Take Abenomics for example. For over two decades, Pink Floyd’s masterpiece Dark Side of the Moon was the perfect metaphor to describe the state of Japan, even the lyrics spot-on (“waiting for someone or something to show you the way…”). Along comes the messiah Abe-san, voted into office based on a sworn goal of pulling the country out of its deflationary death spiral. With a battle cry that might as well be Banzai! the printing presses are cranked up, the currency is trashed, and Japan embarks on the most outrageous, intriguing and desperate monetary experiment in history. But as any high school economics student knows, inflation or even inflationary expectations means higher interest rates, and with a hopelessly over-leveraged sovereign balance sheet, a government borrowing rate of a mere 2.5% would imply that 100% of the country’s tax revenues go toward debt service! Hearing all the talk of third and fourth arrows, the words of the poet Longfellow come to mind. “I shot an arrow into the air. It fell to earth I know not where.”
But this piece is not about economics, though ironically it was inspired by a recent piece from The Economist. Like many in the world of finance, I’ve read the publication faithfully over the years, but only recently realized that the real gems therein are frequently nothing to do with current affairs. In the Science and Technology section, the writer (tongue in cheek of course) talks about the work of Shigeru Watanabe, Professor (Emeritus) of Psychology at Keio University, who has apparently spent many moons conducting research culminating in a paper entitled “Preference for and Discrimination of Paintings by Mice.” Watanabe summarizes his work as follows: “In general mice did not display a painting preference except for two mice: one preferred Renoir to Picasso, and the other preferred Kandinsky to Mondrian. Thereafter, I examined discrimination of paintings with new mice. When exposure to paintings of one artist was associated with an injection of morphine (3.0 mg/kg), mice displayed conditioned preference for those paintings, showing discrimination of paintings by Renoir from those by Picasso, and paintings by Kandinsky from those by Mondrian after the conditioning.” In other words, sober mice were largely clueless, but stoned mice preferred Renoir and Kandinsky to Picasso and Mondrian, respectively! The good professor is apparently addicted to this line of research: in previously published work, he claims to have demonstrated that sparrows prefer cubism to impressionism and that pigeons can tell a Chagall from a Van Gogh. What’s next, Mahler versus James Brown, on morphine or maybe coke? I mean seriously, wtf, I smell a rat here, is this guy cuckoo or what???
I’m off to lunch now, my iPad primed to download Murakami’s latest work Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The restaurant is Yashin of course. When it comes to things Japanese, I can’t decide what I love more, the wackinesss or the sushi.