If you're still wondering whether the Chinese share market is experiencing a bubble, allow me to settle the matter for you: It is. Despite the fact that the MSCI China A Index is down 20% so far this year, that's on the back of three years of 70%-plus compound annual returns. That's a lot.

While it's very likely that China will produce a lot of terrific investments over the next half-century, investors who aren't careful about the price they're paying for a ticket on the "China Express" may find an uncomfortable ride ahead.

A better ride
Meanwhile, next to this emerging giant lies Japan, which maintains a very low profile as the world's second-largest economy. At a glance, it looks like a bargain compared to China:

Country ETF    


iShares MSCI Japan Index   


iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index


Data from Yahoo! Finance as of Feb. 29.

"Humbug," you say. "Japan is perpetually emerging from the slump that accompanied the end of the property and share bubble at the close of the 1980s." Admittedly, the Land of the Rising Sun has cried wolf quite a few times in the past decade when it comes to pulling its weight in the global economy. However, in The Japanese Money Tree, Tokyo-based economist Andrew Shipley argues that Japan is now on the verge of a sustainable economic rebirth that will produce enormous profits for prepared investors.

Signs the sun is up
According to The Economist, commercial property prices rose nationwide in 2006 -- the first such increase in 16 years! In the three largest cities -- Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya -- offices and commercial property prices rose a healthy 10.4%. Buyout giant Blackstone Group (NYSE: BX) opened an office in Tokyo last year that is entirely focused on real estate investments. Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that General Electric's (NYSE: GE) real estate unit may snap up as much as $10 billion worth of Japanese property this year.

As Shipley points out, Japan has some remarkable advantages that position the country well to compete in a global economy, as well as with China specifically:

Valuable intangible assets protected by strong property rights
It's perhaps no surprise that, according to IFI Patent Intelligence, half of the top 10 U.S. patent winners in 2007 were U.S. companies, such as IBM (NYSE: IBM). However, Japan has four companies in the top 10 and 13 of the top 25. In terms of representation in the top 25, Japan also beats out Germany (2), South Korea (2), and Finland (1 -- that's Nokia (NYSE: NOK), by the way). Furthermore, in a ranking of 70 developed and emerging economies according to their International Property Rights Index, Japan was 13th. (China was near the rear at 45th.)

Although Japanese firms have been adept at creating intangible assets for quite some time, they are managing (and monetizing) these assets much more systematically than they did in the past. Shipley spoke to one former Goldman Sachs financier who thinks that this presents investors with a fantastic opportunity, and he's willing to make a career bet on this change. Nick Ricciardi founded an equity research firm that focuses on the value of intangible assets, and he believes that the share prices of Japanese firms with high intangible assets don't reflect their growth prospects. He's excited about his research; after all, "almost nobody else is doing this," he says.

Focus on higher-value-added industries and products
Ricciardi also stresses that Japan is keenly aware of the increasing threat from China as a seemingly insatiable center for low-cost production.

JFE Steel, which was formed by the consolidation of NKK and Kawasaki Steel in 2003, shows that companies in "high-cost" Japan can be competitive, even in an old-world industry like steel. Critical to its success is its product strategy, labeled "only one/number one."

In practice, that means continuously developing and marketing products with excellent profitability potential that are "based on technology that is unique (the only one) or simply the best (the number one) in the industry."

JFE defines success in blunt terms; that's no different from technology CEOs Eric Benhamou of 3COM (Nasdaq: COMS) or John Chambers of Cisco Systems when they described their objective to be No. 1 or No.2  in every product area in which they participate. To maintain that differentiating superiority, JFE has an arsenal of 1,000 people in R&D who produce some 1,800 patent applications per year!

Take your gains where you can get them
Now that I've sung Japan's praises, let me be quite clear: At our Motley Fool Global Gains international investing service, we wouldn't think to exclude a market like China from our radar. But the valuations are heady, and we recommended selling our position in China Mobile because of valuation concerns. Just remember that wild enthusiasm can spell disaster for investors.

If you're looking for international markets that offer better opportunity with less volatility risk, consider Japan and some of the other companies we've highlighted in our service. To take a look at these picks, click here to join Global Gains free for 30 days. There is no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published Oct. 23, 2007. It has been updated.

Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no beneficial interest in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool is all about disclosure.