On the day of his departure from Hokkaido on April 16, 1877, at the end of his tenure as the first president of what later became Hokkaido University, William Smith Clark left his charges, and Japan, with a parting message: “Boys, be ambitious.” For the next century plus, Japan was ambitious, creating the advanced, prosperous nation we all know today.
Sadly, while Clark’s words are still well-known, their significance has been largely forgotten.
There was little reason to expect much from Japan in 1877. It was poor, lacking in natural resources, still emerging from centuries of isolation, and hemmed in by the great powers of Europe and America. But, as Clark sensed, the Japanese people could achieve great things if they were ambitious and believed in themselves.
Japan is incomparably wealthier today than it was when Clark made his famous remarks. And yet 21st century Japan is, in some ways, poorer than the Japan of 1877, or 1987.
Japan today suffers from an ambition deficit, a poverty of confidence. Yes, Japan has real problems that must be urgently addressed, from swelling debt to competitive pressures in its export markets, to rising income inequality, to a looming demographic disaster. But Japan will not be able to solve its problems unless it first gets its mojo back.
After back-to-back “lost decades,” many Japanese have lost sight of this country’s still-formidable strengths. Japanese tend to have a “glass is half empty” mindset to begin with, exacerbating the current sense of hopelessness and drift.
Therefore, let’s spend a moment reminding our Japanese colleagues, friends and neighbors (as well as potential foreign investors) of the deep well of resources this country has which, with an added dash of confidence, will enable it to climb out of the pit of malaise and achieve great things again. This is worthwhile not just for the sake of Japan, but for the world at large. Japan still has a lot to contribute to the global community, economically and culturally, if it can get its act together. Here are just a few of Japan’s qualities:
1. Work ethic
Older Japanese lament the supposedly declining work ethic of young workers. It may well be true that young people today are more interested in achieving a balance between work and life than their elders, for whom work was life. Nevertheless, as anyone who has spent time here can attest, Japanese of all ages have a tremendous capacity for, and devotion to, work for work’s sake (that is, not merely for an immediate financial gain).
I recently read “Underground,” Haruki Murakami’s account of the victims of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro. Moments after witnessing horrific scenes of human suffering, and often while suffering grievously themselves, most victims apparently had only one thing on their minds: How will I get to the office?
2. Quality of workforce
The quality of the workforce in Japan is broad and deep. Even relatively low-status, poorly paid workers (such as employees of fast food restaurants and gas stations) tend to be well-trained, conscientious and capable. This is often not true in other countries, such as the U.S., where the competence, education level and work skills of individuals at the lower (or even middle) part of the scale are spotty at best, and frequently atrocious.
There is obviously room for improvement and reform; for example, for often deeply ingrained cultural reasons Japanese employees tend not to show much initiative in performing their jobs, preferring to “go with the flow” and avoiding risk like the plague. But the foundation upon which improvements can be made is solid.
3. Attention to detail
Whether manufacturing products or providing service to customers, Japanese focus relentlessly on details. This is a time-consuming process and can be maddening to non-Japanese but, as Japanese know in their bones, it is the accumulation of details — of getting the little things right and constantly making small improvements — that results in near-zero-defect products and unsurpassed customer service.
A common criticism is that Japanese sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. Fair enough. But foreigners (Americans in particular) sometimes forget that there are any trees at all.
Other countries may be able to imitate, or even surpass, Japan’s many technological innovations, but it is very hard to replicate Japan’s obsessive perfectionism.
4. Civility and public order
Japanese people are civil, follow the rules and crave order. This makes for an uncommonly stable and safe society.
Contrast, for example, public reactions in Japan and China to the recent Senkaku Islands incident. In China, unruly protesters took to the streets in large, occasionally violent demonstrations, which left in their wake not insignificant property damage to Japanese businesses.
The emotions of many Japanese were also inflamed at this time, but there were no violent outbreaks against China worth mentioning.
Government officials should do more to forcefully pitch Japan’s stability and adherence to the rule of law when seeking foreign investment. Japanese may feel uncomfortable with self-promotion of this sort, but the point needs to be made and any such qualms should be put aside.
5. Culture and aesthetics
Japan is on the cusp of becoming a cultural superpower. It’s popular culture — be it manga and anime, design, music or cuisine — is broadly consumed and influential around the world. This has happened spontaneously, with little planning or support by government or industry.
Imagine if a sustained, concerted effort was made to build on Japan’s global cultural appeal. Studio Ghibli (the creative home of dozens of characters from films such as “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”) could become an entertainment conglomerate on par with Disney. Kurazushi (the highly efficient and innovative Japanese kaiten sushi chain) could be the next McDonald’s (instead of ceding much of the already large foreign market for conveyer belt sushi to Korean operators, as seems to have happened in the United States and, presumably, other countries as well).
Japan has a remarkable ability to import foreign ideas and practices (political, technological, culinary, sartorial, linguistic, etc.) and adapt them to serve the country’s needs without compromising core Japanese values. Indeed, it’s difficult to point to any area of Japanese life that has not been touched, and often transformed, by foreign influence.
Some cultures disintegrate when confronted with alien concepts; Japan’s has only gotten stronger. By the same measure, Japan should not fear the “importation” of foreign people and instead get serious about immigration law reform as a way to cope with its enormous demographic problems. Japanese society is easily robust enough to absorb and adapt to more foreigners in its midst without sacrificing its essential nature.
7. English proficiency
No kidding. I have worked with or taught hundreds of Japanese and other non-native English speakers over the years. It is true that, by and large, Japanese speak English more haltingly than, say, Chinese or South Koreans. However, having graded many term papers and exams from graduate business and law students over the years, I am often surprised by the high quality of the English writing skills of Japanese students compared to their Chinese and Korean classmates.
Chinese and Korean students and businesspeople do not always possess great English skills. Indeed, they often speak poorly. But they speak poorly with great confidence. If I am having trouble understanding what a Chinese student is trying to express in English, he or she will try again. If I still don’t get it, they will blame me!
My Japanese students, ever fearful of making a mistake and lacking self-confidence, tend to speak as little as possible, even though their command of English grammar and vocabulary is frequently superior to their foreign classmates. The natural reserve of many Japanese may have something to do with it, of course, but lack of confidence seems to be the bigger factor.
The Japanese students who do speak up (and, interestingly, they tend to be women) do so without abandoning their qualitiesof humility and careful forethought.
Readers, I’m sure you can share many other examples. Japan faces immense challenges but the glass is much more than half full.
Japan, be confident!
Glenn Newman (email@example.com) is an attorney and former long-term resident of — and frequent business traveler to — Japan. He is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he teaches a course on Japanese law. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org