It’s hard to find a word that has so traumatized a generation as has “globalization.” The term has become a convenient shorthand for all the uncertainties and unknowns of daily life, a catch-all for the problems that tug at economies and threaten to unravel traditional social structures.

The unease was evident in a recent survey of five leading industrialized countries (Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States).*

Theoretically, these nations are best able to benefit from globalization. They have the technology to exploit new opportunities and the consumers that will reap rewards from lower prices. They are best suited to respond to the changes wrought by the globalization process.

In no country did a majority of respondents think that world conditions will be better in 10 years than they are today. The French were the most optimistic (43.6 percent saying that things looked up), as well as the only country where the outlook improved (from 39.4 percent) significantly over time. The Germans were the most pessimistic, with only 18 percent agreeing that the future looked brighter.

When asked about their own prospects, only in the U.S. did a majority (59.6 percent) see conditions as improving. But even Americans, enjoying unprecedented economic prosperity, must think that the good times are going to come to an end and that the “new economy” is going to lose some of its sizzle: The number of people who think conditions will continue to improve has fallen 8 percentage points since the last survey in 1997.

In Japan, less than a third (28.2 percent) said world conditions were going to be better, and slightly more respondents (34.6 percent) saw Japan’s situation getting better. Indeed, Japanese respondents were most pessimistic when it came to the outlook for their own country; even the dour Germans were more optimistic about the future (41.2 percent see things as improving).

When asked to examine particular features of their country, the outlook is even more grim. Significant majorities in every country (more than three-quarters of respondents in Britain, German and the U.S.) thought that morals and ethics were declining. In no country did more than 13.8 percent say that they were improving. In every country, more people thought education, social systems and welfare levels were declining than improving.

It gets grimmer

According to the data, the Japanese have little to look forward to. More than half of respondents felt that morality and ethics (62.7 percent), terms of employment (56.4 percent), the natural environment (61.1 percent) and domestic safety (57.4 percent) were getting worse. What is most troubling is that unlike the other countries, Japan had little to offset this decline.

In no field did more than 30 percent of Japanese think the country was improving. Only in art and culture and science and technology did respondents see improvement of standards. The report’s authors note that this “reflects a growing sense of crisis in Japanese society.”

The effects could be severe. At a time when Japan is calling for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and positions itself as a natural voice for Asian interests in international forums, the Japanese are becoming increasingly inward-looking.

When asked about the role their country should play in the world, a majority (77.4 percent) could only be mustered in support of “a contribution to the improvement of the global environment.” No other issue received a response rate above 50 percent. Even when it comes to arbitrating interests and opinions within the region, a mere 39.6 percent of Japanese were in favor — and that was a decline of 3 percentage points since 1996.

By contrast, majorities of Germans supported an international contribution in the fields of helping developing countries, helping the world economy, improving the environment (a whopping 82.5 percent) and contributing to solving international conflicts. In that last category, twice as many Germans as Japanese (54.2 percent against 26.8 percent) showed a desire to help out.

What explains Japan’s inward outlook? A decade of stagnation might have convinced the Japanese that their first priority is healing their moribund economy. It is difficult to get worked up about events overseas when the home front is such a mess.

Lack of exposure to information also contributes. Only 56.6 percent of Japanese said they pay attention to information on foreign countries in the media. That represents a 7.5 percentage point increase over 1996, but it is still the smallest among all the countries surveyed. Put another way, 42.8 percent of Japanese are not interested in information about foreign countries.

Finally, the survey data shows a tug-of-war within Japan about the proper direction the country needs to take. When asked about the ideal image of Japan, a whopping 85.1 percent said that traditional Japanese culture and values should be respected. Yet more than half (56.2 percent) said the Japanese need to change so that they are better understood by others.

How? Three-quarters of respondents said the country needs “a vibrant society where individuals can fully express themselves.” Reconciling that individualism with the group identity that has typified the society promises to be difficult.

The tension is also evident when asked about the social model for their country. Although a little less than half (48.6 percent) of Japanese said they thought a “free competition society” was ideal, a third were undecided whether that was better than an egalitarian society. That might sound like a vote for the free market, but the number of Japanese who are unsure is rising and support for the “free competition model” is falling, by about 3 percentage points in each case.

That unease is apparent when asked whether pay should be based on ability or seniority. A little less than half (48.4 percent) believe that pay should be merit-based, while only 10 percent think seniority should be the determining factor. The problem is that the number of Japanese who favor merit pay actually fell by 7 percentage points (from 55.2 percent) in 1997 and the number who say they don’t know which is better has risen from 34 percent to 41.4 percent.

Clueless about future

When asked whether their ideal image is a regulated or deregulated country, 40.1 percent opted for the first, while only 26.1 percent chose the latter (that number represents a 7 percentage point decline). Once again, one-third of respondents are unable to choose. This uncertainty about social ideals suggests that the country is adrift, unclear about the future and unable to decide where it wants to go. No other country is as uncertain in terms of its ideals.

The authors note that, “In Japan survey results show a slight reverse shift in the sense of value, moving slightly away from the emphasis on performance-related distribution of wealth to the emphasis on equal outcome. In fact, a wide range of social reform is under way primarily through deregulation and corporate restructuring and it is thought that anxiety about the personal effects of this change has acted to brake the trend.”

In other words, uncertainty only increases the inherent conservatism of the Japanese people. That is understandable, but it also means that internal stresses will only increase. It is a vicious circle, and the data offers little hope for a solution.

*The Era of Competition: The Globalization of Economic System and the Diversification of Social System; The fourth comparative analysis of global values, by Dentsu Institute for Human Studies, March 2000.

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