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There has been much soul-searching among the Japanese in recent years, following the collapse of the bubble economy and the recession it triggered. Economic woes aside, a crisis of confidence exists at the most fundamental level. People have come to doubt not only the ability of society as a whole, but also their own individual abilities. Even as we head into the 21st century, there is a widespread fear that Japan is falling behind, that the new millennium will present challenges that we will be unable to cope with. The future seems bleak.

How much of this pessimism is actually warranted is debatable. What interests me is the underlying cause of this lack of self-confidence and the corresponding fears for, or of, the future. The reason, I believe, is rooted in the very different approaches of the Japanese and Western mind toward the future.

For Westerners, reality exists on two levels. In addition to the real world, another distinct construct simultaneously exists, their personal concept of the ideal world — we could call it their philosophy — where “things are as they should be.” The very reason for existence is to get as close as possible to this state of perfection, hence the importance of the future, since this perfect world can exist only at some point in time after the present.

For the Japanese, the real world is all that matters. The future does exist, but it is of no pressing importance — the present is of more immediate concern. To talk with any serious intent of the future is considered taboo and often results in general derision. The concept of “things-as-they-should-be” does not exist; rather it is essential to accept “things-as-they-are.”

The influence of this philosophy of living in, and for, the present permeates the fabric of Japanese society. Take the concept of individuality. The Japanese often come under fire from Westerners because of their overriding need to assimilate, to be “one with the herd.” The rationale behind this desire for consensus (“yo no naka”) in all things is that individual differences are inconceivable since they would entail change, and therefore a departure from living only in the present. To distinguish oneself from others, or to live, as idiom has it, “outside the mosquito net” (“kayo no soto”), is be condemned to an isolated, lonely existence. The norm is to accept one’s position in a hierarchical society and to abdicate decision-making to others. Westerners may label this constant reference to something other than self as childish, but for the Japanese it is part of the accepted order of things. Change is always in reference to the future, hence it is not desirable.

The education system has also been profoundly influenced by the way we view the future. It is common knowledge that while primary education in Japan is of a high standard, the quality of higher education remains poor. I think that the fundamental reason for this is that the former focuses on the present, while the latter aims at the future, which as I have pointed out, is a concept alien to the Japanese psyche. Also, as I have stated, ignoring the future is linked to the inertia working against change, which in turn explains the pre-eminence attached to consensus (yo no naka). Japanese university students tend to skip classes because they think that the contents of lectures can be obtained directly from textbooks. More importantly, this is what everyone does (yo no naka). On the other hand, incongruously, they slog to get into university by attending cram schools, because this, too, is part of yo no naka.

It is obvious that higher education urgently needs to be reformed, but resistance to change is substantial. Ideas such as “academic freedom,” institutional autonomy” and “effective decision-making” have been tossed around. But in the absence of any real desire to confront the future with the aim of improving it they remain metaphysical concepts with little bearing on the present. Without ideals (“things-as-they-should-be”), it is all too easy to throw up one’s hands and say, “this is reality and we have to accept it.” Without ethical standards based on “things-as-they-should-be” there is no sense of justice, which explains why Japanese people are so reluctant to go to court to settle legal disputes. This inability to take prompt action came to the fore during the student riots of the 1960s, when Japanese university professors were faced with the choice of calling in the police or letting their classrooms continue to be blockaded. Not only did they fail to decide on what should be done (“things-as-they-should-be”), they lost even the inclination to speak out, and became mere spectators, passively accepting whatever happened (“things-as-they-are””).

Japan faces a host of challenges today, not the least of which, I think, is how to overcome this passivity in the face of adversity. We have to stop living solely in the present. We have to learn to look the future squarely in the eye and see what can be done, right now, to improve it. Each of us has to think about what we can contribute, not only as members of a larger group, but also as individuals.

So what is the solution to our malaise? While there is no silver bullet, a good first step would be to change the way we approach English education in this country, because comprehension of such a widely-used language will help to open our eyes to ways of thinking different from ours. We have to master English, not merely toy with it. It is no doubt a formidable task, but I believe that it can be done, provided we start now. In this, as in everything else, we have to aim for an ideal future. Only then can we change things as they are today to things as they should be someday.

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