For years, Japan and Europe have been the sick men of the world economy. This week, their paths diverged.
Even as Europe fell deeper into what just became its longest recession since World War II, Japan posted an unexpectedly robust growth rate of 3.5 percent under the bold new stimulus measures championed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — precisely the medicine many have urged European leaders to take.
"The elites in Europe don't learn," said Stephan Schulmeister, an economist with the Austrian Institute of Economic Research. "Instead of saying, 'Something goes wrong, we have to reconsider or find a different navigation map, change course,' instead what happens is more of the same."
He added, "Angela Merkel is not willing to learn from the Japanese experience," referring to the German chancellor.
Since taking office in December, Mr. Abe has pushed a three-pronged program — called the three-arrowed approach in Japan — to end two decades of stagnation in the Japanese economy. It involves a strongly expansionary monetary policy, increased fiscal spending and structural changes to improve competitiveness; the first-quarter growth spurt suggests that his approach is already paying off.
Not only have exports improved, the logical outgrowth of a weaker currency, but consumer sentiment and household consumption also have risen. "The real economy is responding," said Adam S. Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "The last five months, six months, there's been a mini consumer boom. All the things that people said could never happen in Japan have turned around."
He added: "Japan's central bank is supporting recovery, and it's working. The European Central Bank is supporting stagnation, and it's working."
The question is whether European leaders will learn from the Japanese, and the answer thus far appears to be no. Though it is early in Mr. Abe's term, Japan may have found the recipe for successful economic stimulus, but Germany is barring the door to the European kitchen.
"In Germany the hostility toward those unconventional measures is greater than in any other European society," said Heribert Dieter, a political economist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. In his view, the question is whether a departure from austerity would provide anything more than a few months or even a few years of breathing space.
(Read More: Hold On, Japan Still Missing Key Pillar of Growth)
Other than more flexibility in the speed of budget cutting, there is little sign of a deep rethinking in Germany. If anything it feels as though Berlin is digging in its heels. "It would postpone the day of reckoning," Mr. Dieter said. "It would not solve any problems." The emphasis, in the German view, has to be on maintaining fiscal discipline while focusing on structural changes to restore competitiveness, the only one of Mr. Abe's three arrows that the Germans seem prepared to pull from the quiver.
Many German economists argue that the period of retrenchment is nearing a conclusion, and that the gains promised for the pain of austerity are now right around the corner. "There's no need for a special fiscal stimulus program," said Michael Hüther, the director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.
Mr. Hüther pointed to signs of improved export performance in countries like Spain, Greece and Portugal as evidence that an upturn was nigh. "I'm optimistic that next year there will be a turnaround," he said. "It's not a good idea to join the Japanese program."