Some readers’ thoughts on the Jan. 3 Zeit Gist column by Glenn Newman, headlined “Japanese must tap their ‘inner Israeli’ “:

Israel living on more than its wits

Mr. Newman, I’ve just read your interesting and well-informed article in The Japan Times of Jan. 3. I especially enjoyed reading the contrasts you pointed out in the attitudes and social culture of the two peoples.

However, I felt moved to write to gently chastise you for being a tad dishonest (Please forgive me!) in the argument you present that “Japan and Israel both live or die on their wits alone.”

Come now, Israel has the best-equipped armed forces in the Middle East, with, for example, some 30 vessels in its navy, including a couple of submarines, of which the “frontline” states have none, along with an arsenal of sophisticated and very expensive missiles, plus around 100 top-of-the-line jet fighters — and all this financed by a population smaller than that of London. And I haven’t even bothered with the nuclear weapons Israel doesn’t have!

While not for a second belittling the achievements of Israel, you know as well as I — although almost certainly the average Japanese is unaware of this — that the country is propped up by the American taxpayer to the tune of many billions of dollars per year, and this won’t change whichever of the U.S. Tweedledum, Tweedledee parties is in power, or who the president happens to be.

Can Japan rely on the same largesse?

Croydon, England

Leaving out half of Israelis

Thank you for your insightful article. While I found many of the comparisons of Japan and Israel to be quite apt, and the criticisms of the Japanese business environment quite accurate, I felt there were some key contradictions, particularly where Israel is concerned.

While Israel’s reputation for innovation and entrepreneurism is well known and well deserved, it continues to isolate itself from the international community due to political issues. It’s precarious position in relation to its neighbors discourages what might otherwise be a larger tide of foreign investment. And to claim that Israel is in the midst of an “economic Golden Age,” however true that may be, in light of the large-scale demonstrations throughout the country last year, is one-sided to say the least.

Recently, particularly since the disaster in March, many large Japanese manufacturers have been moving production facilities overseas, so the number of salarymen working abroad is actually expected to increase in the near term. Your description of global-oriented, English-speaking Israelis leaves out one-third of the Israeli population (Russians) that often don’t speak English, or even Hebrew for that matter. So between them and the Arabs, you’re now dealing with roughly half the population.

Most surprisingly, you refer to Israel’s immigration policy, but this is an unfair comparison as that policy is open only to Jews (as you explain) and is, therefore, extremely limited on its own merits. As for Israel maintaining it’s “national character and unity,” this very idea is at the heart of protests taking place as I write between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, and that’s just one example of growing divisions in Israeli society.

In addition, Israel still has some physical room for population growth; Japan has much less and, as someone with your experience should know, the Japanese generally turn something of a cold shoulder towards those who come back after spending significant time abroad.

As for citizenship, as Japan does not allow citizens to carry multiple passports, ethnic Japanese immigrants, particularly from Europe or North America, would be understandably hesitant to give up their passports.

So, while I appreciate many of the points you make, I think the situations in the two countries are far too different to warrant such a direct comparison on some issues. That said, again, I agree with your criticisms of Japanese attitudes toward doing business and that they can certainly learn from Israel’s example.


Affinity-based policy a bad idea

I really enjoyed and appreciated Glenn Newman’s insights into what Japanese might learn from the model of Israeli society. I share his concern that Japan is entering into a renewed sakoku (closed country) period politically, socially, economically and academically. I agree in particular that Japanese need to place greater emphasis on “global thinking” and foreign-language education.

However, I am doubtful of whether Newman’s proposal that Japan adopt affinity-based immigration policies to stimulate economic growth and development is a wise one. As many are aware, Japan already offers a special visa to immigrants with Japanese ancestry, which allows them to stay and work longer than other immigrants. Legislation enacted in 1990 allows any Japanese descendant up to the third generation to become a teijūsha (long-term resident) and work in Japan for up to three years, with unlimited possibility for extension of stay.

The purpose of this special status, as understood from scholarly analysis of government rhetoric, was to bring in those who would assimilate easily into Japanese society. This assimilation was presupposed on the basis that these immigrants’ genetic similarities would translate into cultural and personal similarities. However, when the immigrants arrived (a vast majority of them being Brazilian), quite the opposite was found. It is not surprising, but second- or third-generation Japanese who have been raised abroad share almost nothing in common with Japanese raised in Japan.

Much disappointment has been expressed by government officials and private residents alike with regards to these immigrants’ “un-Japaneseness.” Disputes at the personal and political levels, especially in areas with large migrant populations like Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, are well documented. In short, there is little evidence that affinity-based immigration policy is linked to expedient cultural assimilation.

What I propose is instead necessary is to do away with any expectation that immigrants will assimilate easily based upon some sort of “affinity” with the Japanese host culture. A religious-based system like that which exists in Israel will not translate to Japan, where religious practices are for many little more than cultural traditions. As for cultural affinity, there is no evidence that those of Japanese descent abroad are more culturally similar to Japanese in Japan than those of other ethnic descent, and to suggest so runs counter to generally accepted knowledge about cultural identity.

The Japanese government must accept from the start that immigrants will be different. Only then can programs to assist assimilation be effectively implemented, which will allow immigrants to contribute towards Japanese society in the way the government hopes they will.

In turn, native Japanese attitudes towards immigrants must change if they are to be accepted past a very basic stage into Japanese society. This can be achieved, as Newman would agree, through increased “meaningful foreign experience” among Japanese citizens, and improved foreign language education.

This is, of course, easier said than done. But in my opinion, sakoku is no longer an option for Japan in today’s world. These changes will either be made by Japan on Japan’s terms now, or they will be decided for Japan by international and internal circumstances in the near future. I hope that Japan will soon awake to this reality.

Sakado, Saitama

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