What 2011 means for Japan in 2012 and beyond

We asked three long-term foreign residents to give their thoughts about Japan’s past year and the coming year.

They were asked to comment on:

1) In the future, what aspects of 2011 do you think you will remember most clearly? What feelings, what changes in Japan and your relationship with Japan affected you the most?

2) In your occupational field, what strengths and weaknesses did the disasters highlight?

3) How did the disasters shift your perception of Japan as your adopted home?

4) In light of the events of 2011, what must Japan do to make itself stronger and guarantee a smooth recovery?

Kathy Matsui

1) What was most impressive was how the Great East Japan Earthquake galvanized the entire nation. Many don’t regard Japanese people as very philanthropic, but given how homogenous the society is, there was an incredible sense of empathy post-March 11, with everyone outside of Tohoku thinking, “That could have been me.” The silver lining of the disaster was how it brought the Japanese society together, leading to an outpouring of sympathy and support for the victims.

2) The disaster was clearly a wake-up call to corporate Japan insofar as it highlighted the risk of overly concentrated production and vulnerabilities to the supply chain and power disruptions. Combined with a postwar high in the yen as well as ample cash on corporate balance sheets, Japanese firms decided to globalize in a meaningful way in 2011. For instance, last year saw record levels of outbound M&A transactions. In the past, outbound mergers and acquisitions were dominated almost exclusively by export companies. This time, however, domestic-oriented firms are also beginning to move aggressively overseas — not only to reduce their costs, but to take advantage of higher-growth markets.

3) Having lived in Japan for over 20 years, the disaster didn’t change my perception of Japan, but since I have kids, I did become somewhat more careful about the food our family eats and I finally bought a couple of earthquake preparation kits for our home!

4) Since the disaster has resulted in an accelerated shift of production overseas by many companies, the government urgently needs to implement concrete measures to offset the effects of “hollowing out.” Specifically, this means much faster deregulation to unleash growth potential in areas such as health care, environmental technology and tourism.

Kathy Matsui is chief Japan equity strategist and co-director of Asia investment research for Goldman Sachs.

Jake Adelstein

1) 2011 was a year of disaster and strife that tested the lives of everyone in Japan or anyone living there. I respect the people who chose to leave after the earthquake and the subsequent nuclear meltdowns. They all had their reasons — reasons which can be known only to them. I admire the people who stayed. I was in New York speaking at the Japan Society Yakuza Film Festival when the earthquake happened. I came back as soon as I could, around March 20. It was one of the emptiest flights I’ve ever been on. I came back to evacuate my bodyguard and his family as nuclear containment at Fukushima seemed uncertain. I owe him my life and I felt a need to make sure he was OK and a need to contribute something to the country where I’ve lived more than half my life.

On my way home and when I arrived, what surprised me the most was while the disaster tore some lives apart, it brought many people together. People were more courteous to each other. The United Airlines staffer in San Francisco let me carry an extra bag of supplies on for free. His family had suffered an earthquake in Central America and thus he sympathized with Japan. There was a general air of civility that was refreshing. It brought out the best in many people — both foreigners and Japanese. It reminded me of one of the many things that I love about Japan — the importance placed on reciprocity. You can call it giri or on but the principle is essentially the same: An honorable person is expected to remember the favors that have been done for them, be grateful, and return the favors in kind when the time comes.

2) The disaster showed that the Japanese media has been asleep at the wheel for a long time. The foreign media may have seemed hysterical at the time, and there was some awful reporting, but they were much more reliable than the Japanese government, the Japanese press and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which lied again and again to the public about the extent of the disaster, when a meltdown had occurred, how much radiation was emitted and how much the environment had been contaminated. The Japanese press, for the most part, excepting Sankei Shimbun and Chunichi/Tokyo Shimbun, kept to the party line long after even the general public realized that the government and Tepco were feeding them a stream of disinformation. I was impressed at how robust the foreign media could be at times in their reporting and also with the willingness of Japanese people to talk to the foreign press, including myself, about what really happened at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. It was as if Japan realized that the safety valve to keep the system from exploding were judicious leaks to the outside — the non-Japanese press. I can only hope that continues.

3) Japan no longer feels like my adopted home; it is home. Shortly after the earthquake, when I arrived back in Japan, I got the results of my comprehensive medical physical, and they weren’t good. I started getting treatment within days and find myself relatively healthy now. Japan may be plagued with many natural disasters -I found out the greatest natural disaster I face is my own body. And in Japan, thanks to national public health insurance, I was able to stay alive and be cured. It turns out that affordable health care beats no health care at all — which is what the U.S. really offers when you actually try to use your health insurance. I received excellent treatment in Japan. I don’t think I can live anywhere else. Almost literally.

4) Japan needs government agencies with the autonomy to do their jobs, where whistle-blowing is rewarded and a free and independent press to serve as a fail-safe device when the watchdogs fall asleep on the job.

Japan’s biggest problems are not disaster readiness or dealing with the nuclear meltdowns. The biggest problems Japan faces are encapsulated in Tepco and Olympus: systematic corruption, lack of real regulation, and lack of oversight by independent bodies on the companies that have so much influence on the nation. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima was foreseen and nothing was done; mounting evidence suggests that the earthquakes alone caused enough damage to one reactor to start a meltdown. The Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency, instead of sanctioning Tepco, has been a cheerleader. The financial fraud at Olympus should have been uncovered years ago. Corruption is a cancer that eats at Japan and for the country to grow, those cells need to be removed.

Jake Adelstein is a veteran investigative journalist in Japan and author of the book “Tokyo Vice.”

Adam Fulford

1) I hope I will be able to remember 2011 as a year when a new path to the future opened up. The March 11 disaster took away so much that cannot be replaced. But we’re members of a species that seems unable to stay still for long; we walk on. The question is: Where do we go from here?

I now see my own path to the future taking me through Fukushima to other parts of Tohoku and on to the rest of regional Japan. What I plan to do on that path is draw world attention to valuable Japanese ideas, and draw Japanese attention to valuable ideas that come from outside Japan. To some extent, I already do this in my everyday work, but from now on I want to focus in particular on international exchange in regional settings.

As a representative of a new NPO in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture (pending authorization), I will be seeking ways to build confidence in Fukushima’s future. Throughout Tohoku, I will be pursuing initiatives that will bring foreigners and Japanese together in unconventional ways and initiatives that are likely to contribute to sustainable economic activity. My hope is that these initiatives will eventually spread to other regions around Japan.

2) I work in the media. If people in Japan are truly committed to sharing information about Japanese values and products with people outside Japan, then first of all great care must be taken to communicate efficiently and effectively in English, the global language.

Many individuals and organizations sharing information with audiences outside Japan were very active in the days after March 11. Japanese media organizations — and in fact any student of communication in this country — would learn a great deal from an analysis of the various ways in which the Tohoku story was told to different groups of people around the world. Maybe the government or media organizations themselves should sponsor a study of this kind. The results would help people in Japan to decide how to improve their English-language media presentations. Some of the results might also be applicable to media presentations in other key languages.

3) I see Japan as my home. This has been true for years. Like so many other people, I was amazed at the composure, dignity and fortitude evident in Tohoku in the days after March 11. At the same time, I have become accustomed to people in Japan surprising me with the things they do that make everyday life not just bearable but actively enjoyable. There is still a lot for me to learn about what I call “the way of you,” but Japan is an excellent teacher, and for the time being I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

4) Japan needs more diversity in the making of key decisions. Too many important matters are decided, or in many cases not decided, in rooms packed with middle-aged men (like me).

An absence of diversity represents a dangerous obstacle on the path to a sustainable future in a modern world fraught with uncertainty. That same modern world offers us amazing tools to accelerate movement toward our goals, including instant access to what we need to know. But to make the best possible use of those tools, more input is needed from women, from people disabled by society in various ways, from outsiders, from minority representatives, from young people . . .

Greater diversity in each social context would also undermine frequently rigid views about who leads, who follows and how goals are achieved. Japan needs an environment in which iconoclastic leaders can guide the nation in constructive new directions. Those new leaders need a platform and a chance to find their voice.

There’s no time to lose. Japan must act now. Ganbare, Nippon!

Adam Fulford is a language consultant and CEO of Fulford Enterprises, which provides language services for NHK.