Since the best-selling book “Japan as Number One” came out in 1979, the country has suffered through a diminished global presence and been beaten out in international business competition, according to experts who gathered to look back and evaluate the intervening decades.
Despite the downside, the experts agree the country retains positive aspects, including healthy and long-lived senior citizens, a robust food culture and technological prowess. And they say there are still lessons to be learned from Japan.
The book, written by Ezra Vogel, professor emeritus of Harvard University, explained how Japan had developed into the world’s most competitive industrial power and solved internal problems that were plaguing the United States.
More than 10 experts on Japan, including Vogel and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, participated in a recent symposium titled “Japan as Number One Revisited,” staged by the International House of Japan in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 27. The house is a private, nonprofit organization incorporated for the purpose of promoting cultural exchange and intellectual cooperation between the people of Japan and other countries.
The experts looked back on the 30 years since the book debuted and considered where Japan should and can be headed in the next 10 to 20 years.
“I was the prime minister at the best time,” said Nakasone, who held the top office from 1982 to 1987.
” ‘Japan as Number One’ was written at that time and it was also in a sense a warning that (the country) would fall down,” Nakasone said. “As the prediction suggested, (the country) is now falling down.”
When he wrote the book, which carries the subtitle “Lessons for America,” “I felt that there are so many good things in Japan. . . . They had a low crime rate, high educational standards for people in middle school, they had a very high company loyalty, the bureaucrats were making enormous contributions and we had a lot to learn,” Vogel said. “Now we all have a different version.”
On culture and social change, Richard Dyck, chairman of Alphana Technology Co., brought up a recent poll in Newsweek titled “The Best Countries in the World.”
It listed Japan as No. 9 in the overall ranking but the highest among populous nations. Japan achieved its high ranking by being first in health and high in education and economic dynamism.
For quality of life, Japan ranked higher than the U.S. in income equality.
However, Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan, said the nation has only a limited global academic footprint.
In the U.S. and Britain, he said, there are very few Japanese who teach outside of Japanese language and Japanese literature departments, while the number of Japanese students heading overseas has dropped to the point that they are woefully underrepresented compared with other parts of Asia.
In the social sciences, Dujarric noted that Japanese authors are few and far between in the most influential journals.
In business, he said, few Japanese have important positions in either U.S. or European companies, or in international organizations.
English-language ability in Japan is well behind that of other parts of Asia, Dujarric said, adding, “That again affects Japan’s ability to be influential and to be heard on the global stage.”
Acknowledging that Japan is a pleasant country in which to live, he warned that in the future its influence will likely decline because of the shortage of Japanese with a global viewpoint and experience.
Meanwhile, Keio University professor emeritus Sumiko Iwao said Japan had reasons to be proud.
“While of course we have an extremely serious problem in that the number of children is decreasing, Japan has an asset in its many healthy senior citizens,” Iwao said.
She pointed out that Japanese people have been maintaining their health by walking and taking public transportation as well as maintaining their personal hygiene. Japan’s food culture also contributes a great deal to the people’s well-being, she said.
“It is necessary for us to change the perception of old age into a time of opportunity and hope,” Iwao said. “We need to think of ways of work and life matching longer life spans.”
As the symposium turned to the world of business, Yasuo Nishiguchi, a visiting professor at Doshisha University Institute for Technology and former chairman and CEO of Kyocera Corp., said Japanese corporations are being overwhelmed by their foreign rivals.
Nishiguchi said, however, that Japan should not be pessimistic about itself.
Noting that Japan holds a large percentage of patents on liquid crystal display technologies, he said Japanese corporations are highly competitive in terms of technology.
Also, Nishiguchi said, emerging countries will be undertaking large social infrastructure projects as they quickly grow.
Japan and Vietnam agreed late last month to work toward the early signing of a bilateral nuclear cooperation pact, with Japan securing contracts to build two nuclear power plants, paving the way for firms to export atomic power generation technologies to the fast-growing economy.
Referring to these moves, Nishiguchi said there will be tremendous business opportunities for Japan to revitalize its industries.
On politics and government, Gerald Curtis, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, said Japanese politics has gone through several changes since the publication of “Japan as Number One.”
“Politics that Ezra described in the book doesn’t exist any more,” he said.
There is no longer one-party dominance, nor is there consensus on the country’s goals, Curtis observed. Powerful interest groups such as the medical association and agricultural cooperatives, which aggregated interests and delivered votes to the political parties, no longer have that ability, he said.
Curtis suggested that bumps and bruises are inevitable as a new functioning political system emerges from the destruction of one-party dominance. How effectively and successfully this process will be depends on political leadership, he said.
“(In the) next few years, you are going to have a major generational change in Japanese political leadership,” Curtis said. “Let’s hope that the leaders here will emerge — that will put the creative spin on creative destruction.”
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