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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — I do not live in Japan, although I first set foot (a rather small foot at 4 years old) on Japanese soil in 1949 and knew the country throughout the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when I either lived there temporarily or commuted frequently. My visits this century have been far fewer — not more than once or twice a year and usually only for a few days (I shall explain the reason for this in a future article). I have no pretense, therefore, to being an “insider.”

My column has two main objectives: to provoke (hence, the provocativeness is deliberate) and to see Japan from a distance. I spent a number of years looking at the globe from a Japanese perspective, now I am looking and describing Japan from a global perspective.

And I do spend a good deal of time “globe-trotting.” In the first six months of this year, for example, I have been three times to Sarajevo, twice to Ljubljana, once each to Monterrey (Mexico), Dakar, Miami, Shanghai and Beijing, and have made regular trips to London, Paris, Bergen and other Western European cities. All of these trips involve lecturing, or participation in international policy forums, and/or interviews with government officials, business leaders, academics, civil society etc. I am frequently in Geneva (about 40 minutes from Lausanne), the location of the World Trade Organization and numerous other international agencies.

From a global perspective, what is striking about Japan is how conspicuous it is by its absence. At international policy forums, either the Japanese are absent or, in the words of writer and journalist Yoichi Funabashi, they are “silent, smiling and sleeping.” Japan hardly crops up in any conversation, except, at best, in passing.

In Shanghai, IMD (where I teach) has run a module of its executive MBA program for several years. We have speakers from both the Chinese and foreign communities, but the only Japanese who has appeared is a woman in a very senior position with a foreign pharmaceutical firm. Otherwise, although there is a substantial Japanese community in Shanghai, one never hears of any particular individual whose ideas and experiences would make him or her stand out.

From a distance, not only is Japan’s presence and influence missing, but one is not aware of any really interesting and innovative debate taking place on what Japan’s role and contribution could be. The most recent example I can think of is an article in the 1991/1992 winter edition of Foreign Affairs by Funabashi titled “Japan and the New World Order.”

Funabashi was writing in the wake of the Persian Gulf Crisis, which, he says “revealed the real Japan. In the moment of truth, an economic superpower found itself merely an automatic teller machine — one that needed a kick before dispensing the cash.”

Funabashi’s article appeared following the bubble economy, when “the gap was most pronounced between Japan’s underdeveloped political capacity and its seemingly uncontrollable economic expansion.” One could have hoped that, with Japan’s economy now lying in tatters, its political capacity might have developed. Not so. Funabashi chastises his compatriots for what he calls “inward-looking exceptionalism,” which may be the greatest mental obstacle to globalism. A decade later, nothing has changed; it arguably has gotten worse.

Funabashi set out a vision for Japan that I find compelling. First, to play a constructive role in the new world order, “Japan must have a regional strategy,” he argues, something it has not had since the end of World War II. He terms his proposed Japanese regional strategy “Pacific globalism,” which consists of three main pillars: promoting regional economic growth through trade and investment liberalization and multilateralization; enhancing regional peacekeeping; incorporating the region’s rapidly changing socialist societies.

Funabashi admits, however, that the fact that “Japan has not come to terms with its own past puts a fundamental obstacle in its pursuit of an effective regional policy.” Beyond founding a robust regionalism, Funabashi sets out what in today’s jargon would be called “Japan’s value proposition” on the basis of four priorities:

* to act as a model for and lend assistance to poorer countries in their own efforts for economic and democratic development;

* to join international peacekeeping;

* to promote human rights;

* to protect the environment.

Japan has tinkered in a number of these areas, but the value proposition has most emphatically not been translated into a mission or vision, let alone a strategy. On aid, for example, while it is true that Japan has substantially increased its financial contributions, there is virtually no intellectual contribution that I am aware of. Aid is disbursed by penny-pinching petty bureaucrats.

The reasons for this lamentable state of affairs refers back to the theme I have been harping on repeatedly, namely that Japan suffers from a combination of institutional sclerosis, gerontocratic governance and social anomie. And that is also why I have insisted that for Japan to join the global era and become a constructive actor, reforms of the financial system, or even political reform, are simply not enough. Japan needs extensive institutional reform and leadership renewal.

Ideas do not emerge from bureaucracies. They emerge from universities, from think tanks, from high-brow media and from nongovernmental organizations. These are all areas where Japan is weak. Either these institutions do not exist in Japan or are few and scattered (as with high-brow media and NGOs), or they are contaminated by inward-looking exceptionalism and bureaucratic interference (universities and think tanks).

Japan, which for more than five decades has been the country to benefit most from the international order, today stands to make a constructive contribution to the world along the lines Funabashi proposes. But ideas, strategies and action emanate from broad and vigorous debate across constituencies, generations, professions etc., not from bureaucracies. For Japan to be a positive force in the world, Japanese society needs to be liberated.

In 1991/92, Funabashi wrote that “future foreign policy success is essentially a function of overcoming the immobility of the Japanese system.” The immobility, he says, “is the product of institutional and cultural factors,” one of which is the “supremacy of ‘domesticists’ over the internationalists.”

In the past 10 years, the world has changed a lot. Not only has Japan remained the same, but one cannot be certain that Japanese policymakers and public are even aware of international changes.

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