Fifteenth in a series
LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Francis Fukuyama, perhaps best known for “The End of History,” wrote an equally fascinating book titled “Trust.” Taking trust as the critical factor, Fukuyama ana- lyzed the institutional and sociological patterns of different societies. This enabled him to completely ignore the rather tiresome East vs. West syndrome, and instead find interesting comparisons between societies across continents and cultures.
Italians and Chinese, for example, having often been exploited by their ruling establishments across the ages, tend not to trust anything or anyone associated with the state apparatus. Thus both Italians and Chinese rely on kinship relationships or kinshiplike relationships, such as the Mafia and the triads, respectively.
Neither the Chinese nor the Italians are prone to establishing large public corporations — large enterprises in Italy are either run by the state, such as ENI, or by a family, such as Fiat. Instead, both societies are characterized by the large proliferation of mainly family-run small and medium-size enterprises.
In contrast, Germans and Japanese intrinsically trust their public institutions and the individuals associated with them. Italian political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli could never have been a German, just as Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu could never have been a Japanese. In both Japanese and German history, orderly governments tend to have been the norm; even during their respective “fascist” periods in the 1930s and ’40s. Although minorities and foreigners were tortured and exterminated during this time, the native populations did not particularly suffer. This element of trust in public institutions allows both Germans and Japanese, unlike Italians and Chinese, to establish large public corporations.
Trust, identity and solidarity are the kernel of society. When individuals within a group trust each other, share a common identity and feel solidarity, then they will be able to found a viable nation. When these elements are missing, more often than not anarchy, civil war, implosion, etc., occur. The 14th century Tunisian historiographer Ibn Khaldun described a phenomenon he called “asabiyya,” translated as “clan,” as the defining circle of shared identity and solidarity.
Neither an Italian nor a Chinese will think of himself primarily as a national of either country, but his sense of shared identity will be overwhelmingly with a region — Calabria, Shandong, whatever. Germans and Japanese, on the other hand, though conscious of different regional roots within their own countries — e.g., Bavaria or Tohoku — will outside their countries identify themselves primarily as German or Japanese.
This rather long introductory disquisition on trust is critical to a number of considerations that will be raised in this and in future articles. I have insisted on a number of occasions that the challenge in the global era is not simply to establish an open global market; the far more daunting challenge is to create an open global village.
A key theme throughout this series has been that the Japanese are not especially good at the global market and even less so at the global village, thus contributions have tended to be meager or often negative. As Japan is still the world’s second-largest economy, having such a prominent member of the global village standing in self-imposed sulking isolation in a corner is not healthy. Japan must be induced, somehow or other, to join, indeed commit to, the global village.
The extent of the challenge struck me in a conversation I recently had with a young woman in London. She had worked for a while at the London affiliate of a Japanese organization, but had left. She described one case that will immediately strike anyone who is not Japanese and yet has worked with a Japanese institution as a highly familiar pattern. The institution in question had arranged to have an exhibition of Japanese technology in a London science museum. Instead of letting the local London staff get on with it, teams of Japanese from the home office would regularly descend on London and, together with the Britain-based Japanese expatriates, go off to meetings at the museum, leaving the local British staff behind and in the dark. As the English of the Japanese visitors was poor, the London museum management would often have to call the British staff after the meetings for questions, but they could not be very helpful because they did not know what was going on as the Japanese management was not communicating with them.
When she had finished telling me this story, she concluded by saying, “the problem is that they just don’t trust us.” The fact that she happens to be a Briton of ethnic Asian origin did not help. Japanese do not trust other Asians any more than they trust any foreigner.
It then suddenly dawned on me that that’s it. The really major problem the Japanese have in the global village is trust. It is not, I think, that they do not trust foreigners because they believe they will necessarily be dishonest, but rather that they cannot trust them to do things in “the Japanese way” and more especially in such a way that can be explained to other Japanese, especially colleagues and, even more especially, superiors.
It is unthinkable, for example, that Yoshimura would tell his boss Takahashi about a project in Britain by saying: “I told Campbell to get on with it and just let us know if there’s a problem. I am sure he will do a good job.”
In fact, Yoshimura will presume that Takahashi wants to know every single detail and every single step, so Yoshimura either will take matters into his own (not necessarily very capable) hands or he will be on Campbell’s back morning, day and night. In fact, most likely there will be a combination of both so that he can report back in full to Takahashi.
There are, of course, exceptions. I cofounded The Evian Group for Global Liberal Governance with a Japanese friend, indeed, a former MITI official to boot, Katsuo Seiki, with whom I had a relationship of total, implicit, reciprocal trust. Very sadly he suddenly died four years ago.
Furthermore, not trusting foreigners is obviously not unique to the Japanese. As with so many things, though, what distinguishes the Japanese is not the nature of any particular phenomenon, but the degree.
For the past seven years I have been running a series of annual high-level international round-table meetings. Part of the success of these meetings depends on getting the chemistry right in the seating arrangement, where I deliberately mix not only nationalities and professions, but also hierarchies, genders and ages. These meetings are normally attended by Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Southeast Asians, Europeans, Americans, Mexicans, etc., and, of course, Japanese. Every single year, at every single meeting, I have had Japanese coming up to tell me that a particular Japanese “dignitary,” or several, are not properly seated. This is never about the individual himself, but someone in his entourage. Changing invariably implies rearranging the whole table, which seat about 65 people. So I usually refuse.
In all these seven years, not once have I ever been approached by anyone else than a Japanese in respect to seating arrangement. When I point that out to the Japanese, they tend to stare back incomprehensibly. Of course I can be trusted to seat foreigners; I just cannot be trusted when it comes to seating arrangements for Japanese!
Seen from a Japanese perspective, the global village is truly a very tiny speck on a very distant horizon.
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