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The Secret Success of Abenomics

TOKYO – Tokyo is in the midst of a construction boom, with old high-rise office and apartment buildings being rebuilt in more modern and elegant forms, all while maintaining stringent environmental standards. So bright is Tokyo’s gleam – which is sure to impress visitors at the 2020 Olympic Games – that the city might seem like an anomaly, given gloomy reports that, after decades of stagnation, Japan’s GDP growth remains anemic.

In fact, even the small cities of Kushiro and Nemuro in Hokkaido, located near the disputed islands between Russia and Japan, are being rebuilt and modernized at a brisk pace, as is apparent to any tourist (as I was this summer). What explains this divergence between disappointing national economic data and visible progress in Japanese cities?

It may be a problem of calculation. According to official data, Japan’s economic growth slowed by one percentage point, in real terms, in the 2014 fiscal year. Yet, according to Bank of Japan researchers, tax data suggest that growth was more than three percentage points higher than the official figure, implying that GDP was some ¥30 trillion (about $300 billion dollars) larger than officially reported.

There is good reason to believe that it was. Tax data account for distributed GDP and cover a broader swath of economic activity than traditional measures of output. And, because few taxpayers have incentives to inflate their reported income, the resultant figures are unlikely to be overestimates.