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Is ‘Galapagos-thinking’ Japan back at its evolutionary dead end?

by Roger Pulvers

There are expressions that buzz like busy little bees and ones that don’t buzz anymore. One of the dead-bee buzzwords in Japan is shimaguni konjo, meaning “island mentality.” As for a buzzword for 2011, you’d be hard put to find one more busily doing the rounds than garapagosu, which references the Galapagos Islands that lie nearly 1,000 km out in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador.

In their Japanese context, shimaguni konjo and garapagosu have more in common than merely their connection with islands.

I heard “shimaguni konjo” bandied about a lot after arriving in Japan in 1967. Why are the Japanese often so standoffish when it comes to strangers? “The island mentality.” Why aren’t Japanese good at foreign languages? “Island mentality.” I wondered then if this was being trotted out as an explanation for the way Japanese people were — or as an excuse for the way they weren’t.

The same question has occurred to me recently upon hearing, with greater and greater frequency, the “explanation” of Japanese culture being garapagosuka (“galapagosized”). Is this new phrase just another excuse for Japanese people to close their eyes to their own shortcomings by maintaining instead a very old nostalgia about being isolated and “special”?

The Galapagos Islands comprise a biosphere reserve for a unique array of animal life. Visited by Charles Darwin in 1835, they played a major role in the formulation of his theory of evolution. Similarly, as used in Japanese today, this buzzword indicates that many Japanese products come out of a culture of isolation.

Yoshikazu Shimizu, chairman of the Japan Galapagos Society, calls the Galapagos Islands “a laboratory of evolution” where evolution took place in “a closed system.” Does Japan really represent such a closed system in our day and age?

Let’s refine this notion of galloping isolation before making a judgment on it.

The morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper for Jan. 3 carried an article about galapagosization of the country due to its “peculiar originality.” The prime example of this was said to be the mobile phone. Despite Japan’s cell phones being more technologically advanced than those overseas, they have not traveled well. What works beautifully in this cultural environment may find an indifferent reception outside its confines.

But the Asahi Shimbun article went on to give a novel twist to the argument. It cited a special rapport that Japanese people have with robots, claiming they appear to be more well disposed toward their digital cousins than non-Japanese.

Japanese robots, moreover, look, move and act like humans — so much so that some Japanese business people I know could learn a lot from them about how to appear natural. Again, this humanization of robots is taken as an example, by subscribers to the galapagosization thesis, of a new paradigm, in which the rest of the world will recognize Japanese ingenuity and seek to adopt it for its own uses.

Accordingly, Japan’s cultural specificity will be the new universality. Japan can have its own unique culture and benefit from its natural spreading to the four corners of the world.

But hold on: There’s a problem here.

Almost every culture aspires to cross borders and make a mark on the wider world. When the world discovered the artistic and cultural treasures hidden away in Japan during the era of self-imposed national isolation spanning, roughly, the 17th, 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, it was overwhelmed by their beauty and depth of technique.

Is the new galapagosized culture of Japan just waiting to be discovered again and adopted by the outside world as a paradigm of the exquisite, the charming and the useful?

I doubt it. And this is where the argument, proffered by the Asahi Shimbun, falls down.

In order for there to be wide propagation of an idea or a product, there have to be individuals who know how to make it universally applicable and how to adapt it to the disparate needs of people in a variety of countries. Japan today is sorely lacking in the cadres to pull this off, whether in business, government, science or the arts.

What Japan needs today, in addition to brilliant innovation and manufacturing technique — which have always been the forte of Japanese creative people — are the communication and marketing skills that go with a sophisticated and nuanced cultural entrepreneurship. In short, Japan needs the skill to convince people to want what it has already.

The goal of postwar education was to create a generation that displayed loyalty to company purpose and utter diligence in pursuing its aims. Working in harmony with coworkers in unbeatable teams fast-tracked to productivity comprised the shared work values that made possible Japan’s rapid growth from the 1950s up to the ’90s.

But, Galapagos or no Galapagos, this work ethic won’t sustain Japan’s creative urge in the future. Who is going to adapt the new robots to the needs of people in other countries? Who is going to persuade people all over the world that the “peculiar originality” within Japan is suited to their needs?

Where is the Japanese Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerberg? It would be easy to say that they don’t exist, but that would be wrong. They are nipped in the bud. They are not nurtured by this society. They are not encouraged to soar to heights. Why doesn’t the Diet just pass a law to put “Don’t Rock the Boat” on the national flag and be done with it? Fitting in with others has become a national goal in itself.

Many established Japanese companies retain a conglomerate vertical management structure that prevents new ideas from rising to the fore and becoming concrete reality, though some companies are struggling to reform this. Japanese financial institutions are too risk-averse to provide young cultural entrepreneurs with the wherewithal to test their ideas.

This culture does not reward flexibility of approach or adaptability of execution. Once a decision is made, it’s virtually impossible to change or modify it, because any dissent, however reasoned, is quashed; any alternative, abandoned and never readdressed.

Two living examples of recent years who have succeeded in shifting the business paradigm in Japan are SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son and Tadashi Yanai, founder of Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo. Both of these highly successful executives took the road less traveled. Son, a Korean-Japanese, left this country for the United States when he was 16. Yanai built up his business on an American model (that of Gap) and outsourced the manufacture of clothing to China. Entrepreneurs like Son and Yanai should be active in every industry in Japan.

The key to both the old buzzword, shimaguni konjo, and the new one, garapagosu, is “island.” Having a culture that developed, to some extent, away from the centers of world power, can be an advantage. But it is only going to succeed if it is propagated and disseminated in ways that are meaningful on the global stage. That is the reality of management today.

If Japan does not develop a whole generation of Sons and Yanais, then the country should start creating robots who not only serve humans but consume what they make as well. What would a 21st-century Charles Darwin say about evolution if he came here and encountered that?