LAUSANNE, Switzerland — My good friend Philippe Pons, the Japan correspondent for the leading French daily Le Monde, wrote an excellent article, “Au Japon, la crise n’est pas ce que l’on croit” (In Japan, the crisis is not what people think), for the newspaper’s June 19 edition. Pons rectifies many stereotypes and misconceptions about Japan, and points out the many positive things about the Japanese people. I would endorse everything he says.
When I was based in Tokyo in the second half of the 1980s, it was the heyday of “Japan bashing.” Although there were some things said about Japan that were scurrilous and/or idiotic — including by then-French Prime Minister Edith Cresson, who indulged in both — for the most part criticisms were being leveled at Japanese economic policies and practices rather than at Japan as a nation.
With the benefit of hindsight, the Japanese should have listened more to the “bashers”: The government’s protectionist practices and policies have ended up costing the country very dearly indeed.
My own position is reflected by these words: Japan is a great nation, pity about the establishment! A couple of years ago at a conference held at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a Japanese official lashed out at me for my “criticisms of Japan.”
“I am not criticizing Japan,” I retorted, “I am criticizing you!” Countries do not make policies; people, who should be held accountable, make them.
Today most people would agree with the view that the Japanese government — including not only the current prime minister and his Cabinet, but also the entire state apparatus, politicians, the ministries, etc. — stinks. The exception may be, of course, the individuals concerned.
Apart from them, however, both Japanese and foreign observers of Japan would probably agree that while virtually all the governments in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stink, Japan’s, with the probable exception of Italy and possibly France, is the “stinkiest.” Hence all the calls for government reform.
A point I have relentlessly hammered on in this series, however, is that the government is only the tip of the institutional iceberg. The establishment stinks. This, I believe, applies not only to state institutions, but to many private or quasi-private institutions. Again, this is not to suggest that many of these institutions are necessarily much better elsewhere. By and large, though, Japan would still win the prize for the stinkiest.
I have frequently been particularly critical of Japanese universities. My observations are borne out by all the various comparative analyses undertaken by international organizations and specialized institutes. A friend of mine, a specialist in high-tech business incubators, returned recently from Japan saying he had met lots of interesting entrepreneurs, but the problem, he said, is the lack of proper ties and cooperation with university professors.
Japan’s universities are also not producing the kinds of graduates Japanese society now desperately needs. Nor am I aware of much institutional or even cultural reform taking place within universities. I was taken to dinner a couple of years ago in Tokyo by an extremely well-known Japanese professor in management studies, who is frequently a visiting professor at American universities. His graduate student walked with us from the faculty as far as the restaurant entrance, carrying the professor’s briefcase for him!
Japan is not only in need of government reform, it is also in desperate need of very sweeping and quite radical institutional reform at all levels. Mainstream Japanese newspapers are as dull as dishwater and have made the population lethargic. Though management practices, especially the seniority system, have been “tampered with” in some corporations, in fact what is needed is a total overhaul. Institutional reforms must come from within.
I have long been convinced, for example, that there would be a fantastic and quite dynamic knock-on liberating effect on Japanese society if Japanese universities were to abolish that dreadful word of obsequious deference: “sensei.” Companies could then follow suit and abolish their own militarylike hierarchical ranks: kacho, bucho, shacho, etc.
Japan, as I wish to insist, is by no means the only country whose establishment and institutions stink. Apart, however, from being among the stinkiest, Japanese institutions appear to be among the most stifling. The salvation in many other societies is what happens outside the institutions and the degree to which institutions are often ignored.
One of the liveliest sectors in many societies today is the nongovernment organization. A French NGO, Medecins Sans Frontieres, has attracted a great deal of attention and recently won the Nobel Prize for Peace. In late June, a coalition of NGOs in Britain, under the banner name of Trade Justice Movement, has been actively demonstrating for the abolition of trade barriers in industrialized countries that discriminate against developing countries.
Although I often find myself disagreeing with some of the more virulent anti-liberal positions taken by some NGOs, I appreciate the degree to which they have livened up the debate. These extra-institutional organizations challenge the existing institutions and ultimately bring about their renewal.
In Japan, NGOs are conspicuous by their absence. Japanese think tanks and research institutes — another source of vitality in many countries — tend to be far too institutionalized and incestuously linked to establishment organizations. The result is that Japanese think tanks tend to be heavy on the “tank” and light on the “think.”
The continued and extensive power and influence of institutions in Japan account for something else that I find especially striking. Among the young Japanese I meet, who are primarily from establishment institutions — industry, government, international government organizations, academia and the media — the Japanese tend almost without exception to be much less experienced and worldly than their peers in other countries.
Many young people in their late 20s and early 30s will have, for example, interrupted their studies to go backpacking around the world for a couple of years, or will have worked in an NGO in a poor and/or war-devastated country. Having gained this kind of experience, many then opt for more conventional careers such as, working for Shell, investment banking, the European Commission, the mainstream media, etc. I only know of one Japanese case that would correspond to this pattern.
I am often told that the young in Japan are in fact going off more and more to doing their own thing. While this may be true, such people are marginalized from mainstream, i.e., institutionalized Japanese society.
Would the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry or NEC, for example, hire someone who had spent a couple of years backpacking around the world between high school and university, and after university graduation spent a couple of years working in an NGO in Cambodia? Japan’s “gakureki shakai” (school-record society) would make this virtually impossible. Yet METI and NEC would benefit enormously from having individuals of this nature working for them.
Philippe Pons is right. There are lots of fantastic things about the Japanese people. But the country’s institutions both stink and stifle. If all the qualities, pent-up energy and dreams of the Japanese people could be liberated from their regressive and restrictive institutions, that would be fantastic, both for Japan and for the rest of the world.
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