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Behind Japanese parochialism

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After more than a decade in Tokyo, I am struck by the countless foreign diplomats and businesspersons who lament Japanese parochialism. They forget the huge obstacles Japanese face in understanding the world scene.

“Western software” from Europe and the new worlds it spawned in the Americas and Oceania have lorded over the world for centuries. What Pericles said of Athens applies to the West: “We have compelled every sea and every land to yield to our daring enterprise, and we have strewn the world with everlasting reminders of deeds both bad and good.”

Western intellectual hegemony is stronger than before. China is more open to Western influence than before, as illustrated by the inflow of Chinese students to the West and much deeper personal intercourse between the Middle Kingdom and the West. Other regions, such as Central Asia, in the “non-West” are also in greater contact.

History and culture tie most of the world to the West. In the former colonies, the elites, even if antagonistic to their former rulers, are at least partially Westernized. Euro-U.S. imperialism gave birth to a global Western-centered migratory system, from which Japan is the main outlier, which has grown in recent decades now that Chinese and citizens of the late Soviet Empire can travel and emigrate freely.

But Japan was never colonized, like parts of China. Its small Asian empire was short-lived. English, Castilian, Portuguese, and Arabic boast more native speakers outside of their homelands than in their birthplaces. Chinese plays a big role in parts of Southeast Asia. But Japan’s linguistic footprint never expanded permanently. As Japanese was not superseded at home by an internationalized language (as Hindi and Bengali were by English in South Asia), Japanese is a major but “one-country only” language.

Nor was Japanese religion exported as Christianity and Islam were. No more than a tiny minority of Japanese converted to the large monotheistic faiths, unlike numerous Koreans, Chinese and Southeast Asians. Japan is shut out of the intercontinental networks of the Abrahamic denominations. Buddhism, strong in Japan, is international but without the transnational connectivity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Japanese, unlike Chinese and Koreans, will meet few individuals overseas who were born in the old country. Nor will Japanese, in a society where more than 97 percent of the residents are indigenous, find diversity at home. A refusal to bring in more than a few migrants, despite the demographic abyss, perpetuates this quarantine.

Japan’s amazing modernization during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) buttressed its insularity. By the early 1900s, an independent Japan had set up its own schools and universities. Western instructors, brought in to bring the country up to speed, were then gradually dismissed. Since then, despite protestations to the contrary, latent xenophobia has defined the educational establishment.

Today, Western — first and foremost U.S. — education (and emigration) is much more common for privileged Chinese and South Koreans than it is for their Japanese counterparts. Western universities are far more active in China than Japan. Moreover, to avoid economic subjugation, Japan restricted foreign enterprises. As a result, even in the early 21st century, Japan has very little foreign direct investment. Notwithstanding the official mantra of the Abe administration, it won’t get a lot more.

The United States is Japan’s only ally. Political relations with Asia are underdeveloped. Japan lacks multilateral ties which members of the EU, NATO, NAFTA, ASEAN, and other regional organizations enjoy with each other.

America has been central to post-1945 Japanese diplomacy, but Japan has been relatively peripheral to the U.S. During the Cold War, America concentrated on the Soviet Union, Europe, and locales where it was fighting communism (such as Korea, Vietnam and Cuba). Since the demise of the Soviet empire, American attention has partially shifted toward Asia, but to China rather than Japan, and also to Southwest Asia.

Despite former U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield’s hyperbole, “The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none,” Japan seldom makes it to the very top of the U.S. agenda. In the past 25 years, nearly all of America’s NATO allies and Australia have bled alongside their U.S. comrades in arms in multiple theaters. Japan has been conspicuous by its absence from the battlefields, further marginalizing Tokyo in Washington.

Few people with Japan expertise have risen to the highest echelons of the U.S. government. More broadly, almost all Americans don’t know anything about the country. Thus, Tokyo’s main “pipe” to the outside world in the realm of political and military affairs actually pays relatively little attention to Japan. Though the alliance with the U.S. has benefited Japan (and the U.S.) enormously, the sole focus on America contributes to “disconnect” Japan from what is happening overseas (and makes Japan less valuable to the U.S.).

Japan, with a GDP more than 20 percent larger than Germany’s and with twice as many citizens as Italy has, can still thrive within its own ecosystem. Except for trade, it requires little overseas intercourse. Ill-informed foreigners ask “why do so few Japanese know English?” The answer is simple: They don’t need it. Everything is translated and most don’t interact with outsiders. So, mastering a complex foreign language wouldn’t be more useful to them than Japanese is to a Kansas farmer.

When Japanese graduate from their domestic schools and universities, they get a job with a domestic company working other fellow Japanese. Obviously, this is not the ideal environment to understand foreign cultures.

This feeds the insularity cycle. As most Japanese won’t be able to operate overseas, they are rarely found in multinational corporations, international organizations and NGOs, and nearly invisible in global academia.

In summary, Japanese live in a world where as soon as they step off the archipelago they are foreigners. This may seem obvious, but it is actually not the case for most other nationalities. A New Zealander can fly to London and still feel “at home,” a Gabonese in France or a traveler from Buenos Aires in Miami will not be totally out of place. A Swede in California will still be in a society that is defined by its Western European roots while an Indian will at least find many compatriots. A Chinese can discover a Chinese diaspora with well-established professionals who can explain the local scene in almost any large foreign city.

But a Japanese will really be “abroad” everywhere. Few people will have lived in Japan, counterparts in government and business are unlikely to know much about his country, and it’s unlikely anybody will have graduated from a Japanese university or will discuss a contract in Japanese.

This situation is embedded in history and the economic, educational and social structure. We should not expect to see more than a slow change — and it might be toward more rather than less isolation. What is surprising is that there are nevertheless some outstanding cosmopolitan Japanese.

Robert Dujarric is director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan. © 2015, the Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    Yep, the truth hurts. Japan, the world’s ‘inaka boke’.

  • Richard Solomon

    Inn the context of limited space this piece offers a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the why’s and wherefore’s of Japan’s ‘parochialism.’ One must be careful, however, that an explanation does not become an excuse for why the country cannot/will not change its ways. Given the domestic demographic and the geopolitical and economic challenges it faces it will doom itself to decline unless it makes serious and dramatic efforts to change. Given what it accomplished in the Meiji Restoration and in its post WW II recovery it can do so. Will it?!?

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      I agree with your point, but don’t you think that the massive changes of the Meiji-era and post-war era were due more to application of overwhelming external pressure than any innate Japanese qualities (whatever those might be?).
      After all, even now, the people of Nippon Kaigi resist and seek to reverse all of the post 1945 social changes, such as votes for women.

    • Robert Dujarric

      Yes that’s the key question. So far the outlook is pretty grim.

  • tiger

    As I Chinese, I think this article is as insulting to the Japanese nation as it is offensive to the Chinese.

    Westerners need to learn that the world does not revolve around them. Their dominance today is more of a blip than the norm.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      Oh please, check your Pan-Asian indignation at the door.
      Japan is a ‘late starter’. It’s not western rascism that prevented Japan from starting the industrial revolution and becoming a world leader, and setting the international order, but rather Japans myopic navel-gazing, desire to ossify its society and prevent social change, and closing itself off to the outside world that relegated it to not being a global arbiter of the international order.
      And when Japan attempted to ‘catch up’ it was so brutal in occupation that it is no wonder Asians outside of Japan rejected the Japanese language as soon as liberated.

      • tiger

        The author seems to think whatever the west is doing is the best, and the more western a country is, the more successful it will be.

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        No he doesn’t. Did you even read the article? He explained why Japan will never be a standard setting global leader despite its constant claims to wish to be so, and constant allegations that the global order is unfair. Typical ‘victim Japan’ mentality. But the truth is that the only thing holding Japan back was and is itself, and the one time it was ahead of the west, it squandered its success in satisfying its spite.

      • Hendrix

        absolutely…Japan is its own worst enemy but love to project a victim stance and act like a bunch of kids, Japan is going down the toilet fast and it’s their own fault.

      • Jonathan Fields

        But… Japan is the most amazing country in the world. Japanese people tell me all the time.

      • Hendrix

        I heard Japan has 4 seasons, that is amazing..

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        You know, Japanese people have good manners too. And there are really, really ancient Japanese traditions, like tea ceremony and Buddhism ;)

      • Hendrix

        yes and I’m always amazed they can eat raw fish and they use those chopsticks too, still never quite worked out how to use them…

      • tiger

        The author seems to think whatever the west is doing is the best, and the more western a country is, the more successful it will be.

    • Nemo

      Seeing as you are writing that phrase in English, which has become the dominant international language, your claims of Western dominance being a blip sounds bitter. Not to mention historically obtuse. The Western powers have had a huge influence for the last few hundred years, and the influence will continue for a long time,much like the Romans who for the better half of a millenia impacted Europe. It is an impact that still remains, with Latin being a base for Spanish, Italian and Classical academia, not to mention central to Catholicism. Japan does have a cultural impact, technology and art has made a considerable impression globally, but the longevity and depth of that has yet to seen,

      • tiger

        Well, I am from a country with 4000+ years of success and less than 1000 years of humiliation and counting. I would just say that history is a very long game.

        Let’s see in 20 years time who would be doing better.

      • Shaun O’Dwyer

        Well mate, stop chattering, get busy rectifying your country’s lopsided demographics, and encourage everyone else to do the same. Then in 20 years time, you’ll have something to boast about. Or else, as the saying goes, “China will grow old before it grows rich”.

      • tiger

        Don’t worry about us yet. I don’t know where you are from but there certainly are more worrisome place than China right now.

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        Yeah! Like Japan….

    • Robert Dujarric

      If the world doesn’t revolve around the West why did Xi Jinping’s daughter go to Harvard instread of a Chinese university?

      • tiger

        So because Harvard is a good university, the world revolve around the West? The West is bankrupt both economically and morally. Just wait a few years for some of them to start begging :)

  • Christina Tsuchida

    This is an opinion article and everyone is entitled to an opinion. Yet I wonder whether it would not be more fruitful to explore not the vice of parochialism but the virtue that it represents the lack of: perhaps “internationalisation” (the buzz word of the bubble era; KOKUSAIKA) or “magnanimity” (a rich heart/mind; UTAKA NA KOKORO)? In Nagoya during the bubble, we were drawn into the Design Expo which was truly international; and I recall seeing ordinary Tokyoites on TV giving unsolicited food to Iranian refugees in Ueno Park [I forget when, but perhaps during the Iran-Iraq War]. An absence of virtue is really something that does NOT exist. It is easier to know (even by a sort of heart-to-heart intuition of comparison) what DOES exist, namely, the virtues. [St. Thomas Aquinas]

  • Danjuma13

    He hasn’t even gotten to Japanese area studies. They might get by if they had the experts, but they don’t, and seem to show little interest in getting any, homegrown or imported.

  • David W. Rudlin

    An interesting and well-argued piece. However I think it treats “multinationals” as companies with headquarters outside of Japan, and therefore underestimates the impact of firms such as Toyota, Honda, Uniqlo, etc. which involve Japan with the outside world — and vice versa. Moreover the trend in recent years has been towards greater internationalization at these firms, particularly in terms of HR policies and use of English. There — and possibly only there — hope lies!

    • Robert Dujarric

      Yes that’s a good point. Though non-Japanese multinationals have probably made more progress in globalizing themselves in the past several decades than their Japanese counterparts.

  • Steve Jackman

    The article misses the point that Japan is very popular with the people who really matter in this world, i.e., the ones who’re into anime, manga, lolitas, teen girl idols and kawaii culture. That’s all that matters. Ask Mr. Aso if you need confirmation.

    • Robert Dujarric

      I am not sure that those who are into anime etc are “those who matter”

  • Frido

    Japan is in the same position as an Amazonian tribe with respect to its insularity. What makes Japan unique is the fact that I can enjoy its idiosyncrasy without renouncing the comfort of a well developed country – I can safely wander around and find usable toilets, unlike Amazonia.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      Really? You want to try some non JR train station mens toilets. Worse than plague pits.

  • AJ

    “Japanese, unlike Chinese and Koreans, will meet few individuals overseas who were born in the old country.”
    How strange for the author to tell Japanese, Chinese, or Koreans what they will or will not experience outside of their country. I don’t think the author is qualified either through his own experience or his academic studies to make such a presumptuous remark.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      maybe he has lots of Chinese, Korean and Japanese friends, and the Japanese ones are the only ones who say they never meet people overseas born in the old country. How presumptuous of you to think you can make judgements about the authors friends.

      • AJ

        He makes no such claims to know this from anecdotal evidence or any other. He simply states it as though it were fact.

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

        And you got nothing to show his facts are incorrect. So?

      • Robert Dujarric

        Just look at statistics about immigration, emigration, and you’ll see that what the facts are.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The world scene is degenerate.

    When Japanese culture is the rage in all of the cosmopolitan cities of the West, it is hard to call being attached to that “parochial”.

    Diplomats? They’re all intelligence officers without a clue.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      But IS Japanese culture ‘all the rage in all of the cosmopolitan cities of the west’? Are they sending women with degrees to make the tea and do the photocopying? Are they all using faxes? Are they doing compensated dating? Are the schools full of suicide induced sempai bullying? Are they?
      No, they are not.
      Instead, faux Japanese anime exoticism is all the rage, and the Japanese daren’t correct the misconception because the truth about Japan would disappoint and embarrass.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The world scene is degenerate.

    When Japanese culture is the rage in all of the cosmopolitan cities of the West, it is hard to call being attached to that “parochial”.

    Diplomats? They’re all intelligence officers without a clue.