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‘Galapagos’ has evolved as an analogy for Japan

by Mark Schreiber

English naturalist Charles Darwin put Galapagos on the map, having visited the group of islands, situated in the Pacific Ocean some 970 km west of continental Ecuador, in 1835, during the voyage of the HMS Beagle. His impressions and observations of the islands’ unique biosystem contributed to his 1859 magnum opus, “On the Origin of Species.”

Now jump to Japan a century and a half later, when one of the buzz words shortlisted for 2010′s “word of the year” was gara-kei (short for Garapagos keitai), used in the context of how Japan’s mobile telephone technology functions as a separate entity from the rest of the world. Certainly from the standpoint of market penetration, Japanese manufacturers lag considerably behind Nokia, Samsung, Apple and others — although adoption of Google’s Android mobile operating system may help put them back in the running.

Beyond cell phones, the Galapagos analogy has been expanded to cover other products developed to appeal solely to Japan’s domestic consumers and, by extension, in a figurative sense to suggest that even Japan’s society is evolving apart from outside influences.

In the Japanese business community, such views are cause for increasing concern. Last Dec. 12, Takao Sato, the Sankei Shimbun’s Moscow bureau chief, wrote a front-page op-ed describing Japan as a “Galapagos country.”

“Among the Japanese community in Moscow as well, the survey results that indicate ‘more young people in Japan are becoming inwardly oriented’ has become a topic of controversy,” Sato writes, referring to a survey of 400 new corporate hirees taken last July by the Sanno Institute of Management, in which half the subjects aged 18 to 26 said they had no interest in working outside Japan.

Young people will go their own way, and there’s probably no point in trying to coerce them into “aiming for the world,” writes Sato resignedly. But he concludes that with the declining population and shrinking domestic markets, Japan’s future concern may be less one of evolution than extinction.

Meanwhile, Nikkan Gendai (Feb. 24) had some precautionary advice for parents who are contemplating sending their children to study in China. There may already be a glut of Japanese learning the language. From 5,055 students in 1994, the number rose to 18,640 in 2007 and then declined to 16,377 in 2008. The tabloid argues there’s no assurance that knowledge of the language will give them any advantage in job-hunting back home.

“Quite a few students immerse themselves wholeheartedly in Chinese; but because of the growing number of lazy students the ‘value’ of Japanese people who know the language has gone down,” asserts Konatsu Himeda, a Shanghai-based freelance journalist.

“Many students just hang out with fellow Japanese and seldom show their face in the classes,” she adds. “Some just spend their time going to drinking places or karaoke establishments. The Chinese instructors or students confront them, asking, ‘What did you come to China for?’ ”

Taken in reverse, the Japan-as-Galapagos mentality may also imply that once departing the country, a return does not come easily.

Spa! (March 1-8) reviewed the lives of half a dozen men age 30 and over who embarked on extended overseas working holidays or backpacking to places such as India or Nepal, where they could live — and occasionally get high — on a shoestring. A common pattern is to work at low-paying part-time jobs for a few years until they can save enough money for their trip, and then return home and repeat the process.

Yuji Shimokawa, author of a guidebook about inexpensive overseas jaunts, tells the magazine that many people are unable to parlay their overseas experiences into anything useful to their livelihood, and sometimes wind up being treated as pariahs by their peers .

Although he recognizes extended stays overseas are not for everyone, Shimokawa is a strong advocate of the experience, pointing out that some Japanese on “working holidays” abroad manage to land jobs in the foreign subsidiaries of Japanese companies. While wages there are lower than in Japan, the remuneration still enables a decent livelihood.

“It isn’t all that easy, but people there have a different approach to time, and the way of life in those countries is more laid back than in Japan.”

Finally, photo weekly Flash (Mar. 15) reminds its readers they can always journey to the “real” Galapagos, although getting there from Narita airport takes about 40 hours. The magazine dispatched reporter Shigehiro Nakayama and photographer Katsumi Sakaguchi to the islands and ran a two-page photo spread with shots of seals, iguanas, giant tortoises and a variety of birds in their native habitats.

Then overleaf, Flash’s thirsty duo descend on the town of Puerto Ayora (pop. 5,000) on the island of Santa Cruz, whose main industry is catering to the 170,000 tourists who visit the islands each year. Ever determined to appeal to its mostly male readership, Flash reverts to type, delivering an indiscrete account of the island’s seamy nightlife, topped with the tongue-in-cheek observation that “The women of Galapagos have also evolved independently!”