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Shock. Lehman shock.

I am somewhat puzzled by a label I commonly hear in Japanese news media. In reports on economy and trade, news announcers and pundits frequently discuss the “Lehman shock” (リーマン・ショック), sometimes short-handed as “Lehman”. The etymology of the term is entirely clear: it is an allusion to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank whose 2008 bankruptcy and liquidation is seen as symbolic of a wider financial collapse. What puzzles me is how, at least in Japan, that bank’s collapse seems to have become so widely used as shorthand for what is variously called the Global Financial Crisis or the 2008 collapse, and attendant shocks sometimes called the Great Recession.

For quite some time I have had the impression that “Lehman shock” is a commonly used phrase in Japanese media. To check that subjective impression, I searched the archives of the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and Tokyo Shimbun for headlines containing the word “リーマン” in reference to the so-called Lehman shock or associated events. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access the archives of Japan’s largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, nor financial papers such as Nihon Keizai. Nonetheless, the numbers show that the label is still in common use.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Asahi 4 17 20 21 24 44 23
Mainichi 7 10 6 9 9 16 6
Tokyo 2 15 13 10 0 25 8
Occurrences of リーマン (Lehman) in newspaper headlines

(These numbers should be taken with requisite grains of salt. Although I did my best to eliminate false-positives, such as occurrence of the string within the word サラリーマン (salary-man), and to include only references to the financial crisis, I can’t say with certainty that I didn’t make any errors of that kind, or other errors I didn’t think to check for.)

The chart suggests that use of リーマン has not declined significantly. By contrast,  金融危機 (“financial crisis”), a phrase used in literally hundreds of headlines in late 2008, has fallen off precipitously. These numbers are for Asahi only; I didn’t check the other two papers.

2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Asahi 301 103 30 5 8 4 5
Occurrences of 金融危機 (financial crisis) in Asahi Shimbun headlines

To be sure, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a big deal, and it seemed to strike many people as an emblem of financial uncertainty around the subprime mortgage crisis and related (especially following) crises. There was, for example, a BBC film about The Last Days of Lehman Brothers.

But Lehman was neither the first nor the largest institution to fall. BNP Paribas is noted as the first bank to recognize the crisis when it froze withdrawals in August 2007; it emerged from the crisis largely unscathed. Bear Stearns, on the other hand, only narrowly avoided bankruptcy by selling its assets in March 2008; Countrywide was sold to Bank of America in July amid rumors it was essentially bankrupt; and U.S. mortgage traders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entered “conservatorship” in September, a week before Lehman filed for bankruptcy.

Even more curious: some of the financial contraction referred to under the リーマン・ショック heading seem to pre-date not only the fall of Lehman Brothers, but the whole 2007-08 crisis. A rising poverty rate in Japan, sometimes blamed on リーマン・ショック, was already on the way up by 2006. And while it is frequently noted that Japan has suffered four recessions since 2008, it also suffered recessions in 2001 and 1998, as well as periods of negative growth in 1999, 2003, and 2007 following the bursting of its bubble economy.

Perhaps this could be explained with reference to Arnold Zwicky’s reminder that labels are not definitions. I do wonder, though, about journalistic labels that suggest false definitions.

3 thoughts on “Shock. Lehman shock.”

  1. Wasn’t Lehman Brothers the biggest institution to fall??? On Wiki, they say Lehman was the largest filing of bankruptcy in history.

  2. In Japanese, I think, the “shock” thing comes from “Nixon shock,” the same way that Nixon’s legacy to the English language has been to make sure every scandal gets a “-gate” suffix. Trump’s election last week has made “Trump Shock” an expression too.

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