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Now it’s Japan’s turn to shout ‘Yes, we can!’

by Michael Hoffman

Two thousand eight was a dreadful year. Long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were going badly. The U.S. “subprime crisis” was strangling the global economy. Rising food prices were causing concern at best, riots at worst. The worse things got, the more helpless the world’s democratic leaders showed themselves to be. Their low support ratings reflected surging public disgust. That was even before the so-called “Lehman Shock,” which looked at the time like the end of the economy as we know it, and may yet prove to have been just that.

There was one bright spot — a flash of light named Barack Obama, who won the American presidency that year by insisting, repeatedly and with conviction, “Yes, we can!” If you say it loudly enough, smile charismatically enough, punch the air vigorously enough, people may believe it — the need for belief is that strong.

Perhaps the letdown was inevitable. It’s upon us now, no need to describe it, and anyway this column isn’t about Obama at all but about “Yes, we can!”

Can we? There are sectors in Japan, near prostrate though the country in dark moments appears to be, which are distinctly in Obama-mode. It is heartening to see that — heartening to see that optimism can survive the blows it is being dealt, and maybe even thrive on them.

Two recent magazine pieces are pertinent. One is a package of articles in the business monthly The 21 on the theme of “problem-solving ability” — some have it, some don’t; the latter can cultivate it. The other, in the young men’s weekly Spa!, sports this eye-catching title: “What young men who somehow succeed despite their mediocrity have in common.”

2011 looks poised to compete with 2008 for worst year in living memory. It has taught us whole new meanings of the word “problem.” Are today’s problems solvable at all? Or if they are, does the solution to one problem not inevitably generate unforeseen new problems? Japan is living the perfect example of that vicious circle: Nuclear energy once seemed a golden solution to a resource-poor nation’s need for a stable, clean, cheap power supply. No need to belabor the point.

The 21 focuses not so much on national or global problems as on personal and corporate ones. How can a business thrive? How can personal ambitions be realized? The people it introduces are not mediocrities — not Spa!’s crowd — but leaders in their respective industries: the whisky company marketing ace who broke down cultural resistance and launched a whisky highball boom; an ad copywriter who created one of those TV commercials (for a deodorant, as it happens) that, like it or not, succeeds in clinging to the mind like a burr; a young woman who rose higher in her firm than her youth would normally permit. Their advice: Be creative, think positive, get organized, never give up. Do we need to be told this? Yes and no. No because it’s old hat, yes because it’s encouraging. “Yes, you can!”

“Penetrate to the essence of a problem,” counsels Yoshitaka Kitao, CEO of the financial services company SBI Holdings. That’s the first step, and no easy one, he admits, for it involves a sound knowledge not only of one’s professional field but of history and philosophy as well. He cites Hegel as a personal influence, which is interesting because that 19th-century Prussian philosopher was mainly preoccupied with a vaguely-defined cosmic Absolute and its earthly embodiment, the absolutist state. Not a CEO’s most obvious mentor. Regarding history, Kitao is on firmer ground. A knowledge of the relevant history, he points out, would have shown the architects of the nation’s nuclear power system that magnitude 9.0 earthquakes and 15-meter-high tsunamis were by no means as “unimaginable” as they had blithely assumed.

Lowering the intellectual temperature, Spa! celebrates, among other virtues, the power of bluff. You’re stupid? Ignorant? Unskilled? Underconfident, with good reason to be? No problem! So much the better, in fact. Conventional attainments that equip and adorn the mind also fetter it. Here, for example, is the unfettered, irrepressible Yoshiyuki Ito, whose mediocrity is not his shame but his boast, his claim to fame, and why not? He’s earning ¥10 million a year, and wrote a bestselling book about how he rose in three short years from company gofer to executive rank. It doesn’t matter what abilities you lack, is his message. What matters is what abilities you can project. Sample ploy: Approach someone in the company who matters, and say, “There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.” Not that you do have anything to discuss, but any inconsequential patter will seem consequential (he says) when introduced with sufficient gravity. Or this: “When addressing a meeting, throw in from time to time the phrase, ‘This is the point.’ That will incline your listeners to think you actually do have a point.”

There’s something a little meretricious about all this “Yes we can!” bravado, as Ito unwittingly helps show. It has its place, but also its limits. “No we can’t!” has its just claims upon us as well. It reminds us that desires can be curbed as well as pursued and satisfied. Sometimes they should be. That’s not the only lesson we can learn from Japan’s nuclear disaster and the state of the planet generally, but it may be one of them.