LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In the 1980s and early ’90s, there were efforts on the part of Europeans and Japanese to strengthen their bilateral relationship. Europeans were conscious that they had neglected Japan, while the Japanese were seeking to expand their international networks at a time when the U.S.-Japan relationship was particularly strained due to “trade friction.” I participated in numerous colloquiums, forums, seminars and conferences aimed at bringing about this goal.

From 1992 to 1997, I was the founding director of the European Institute of Japanese Studies at the Stockholm School of Economics, where I defined our mission as seeking to contribute to a more robust, mature and dynamic relationship between Japan and Europe.

By the time I left Stockholm, I was disillusioned. After more than 20 years of being involved in seeking to foster closer ties and better understanding between Japan and Europe, it seemed pretty clear that the relationship was not going anywhere. It is not a particularly bad relationship — certainly no risk of war — but it is tepid, distant, shallow, platitudinous and opportunistic. Initially, I lay the fault emphatically at the European door. By the late ’90s, however, I became convinced that the main obstacles were to be found in Japan.

One of the major reasons arose from an opaque and quite profound psychological barrier that was well reflected in one of the more common mantras in the Euro-Japanese “dialogue.” This consisted of the Japanese invariably pointing out that “whereas we Japanese know Europe, Europeans do not know Japan.” Certainly, far more Japanese go to Europe than Europeans go to Japan, far more Japanese have heard of Napoleon than Europeans have heard of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and far more Japanese speak at least one European language than Europeans speak Japanese. The list could go on and on.

But, as I often pointed out, there is a great difference between “knowing” and “understanding.” Many Japanese know Europe, but very few understand Europe — or, for that matter, most other regions of the world. This arises from the fact that, contrary to the prevailing myth, Japan is a very simple nation to understand. It has attained an unparalleled degree of homogeneity, in ethnic, religious, linguistic, social and regional senses, with standardization imposed by a highly centralized education system. Young boys and girls in Kagoshima and Aizu Wakamatsu are taught the same interpretation of the Meiji Restoration.

There are minorities in Japan, but they are neither statistically nor politically significant, the suffering and humiliations endured by individuals notwithstanding.

Europe, on the other hand, is a patchwork of complex ethnicities, religions, languages and dialects, with many deep-seated historical grudges, not only between countries, but also within countries. The Basques, Corsicans and Northern Irish are only the violent manifestations of tensions that pervade the continent with highly varying degrees of intensity.

In the Vendee region of France, the visitor will be surprised to find the bookshops packed with books about the “Vendee wars,” which occurred two centuries ago (when the region took up arms against the forces of the revolution), but which have not been forgotten. On Eurovision Song Contest night, the Norwegians invariably wait in anticipation to hear how Sweden has voted for them, the score usually being low, thereby generating angry groans from the audience in Oslo. The Norwegian kingdom “separated” from Sweden in 1905, but nearly a century later, latent resentment finds expression even on such trivial occasions. While driving earlier this month through the Catalan region of Spain, graffiti could be seen congratulating South Korea for having beaten the national Spanish football team!

In the ’80s, “Europe” still basically meant Western Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet empire and the liberation of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the complexities increased geometrically. Bosnia-Herzegovina, to cite one example, is a very small place, with a population about the same size as Yokohama, composed of three communities, Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, and with a highly tortured past.

As the Cold War ended, a Japanese defense analyst commented to me: “During the Cold War, things were relatively simple for us, all we had to do was count, i.e., how many ballistic missiles on one side, how many on the other, how many tanks on one side, how many on the other, etc. Now, we need to analyze societies, and that is much more difficult.”

The poverty of Japan’s capacity of analysis and intellectual elite can be illustrated from the following observation. When, for example, a meeting of Japanese studies in social sciences is convened, there will be American, European, Australian, other Asian scholars, as well as a good number of Japanese specialists of Japan. There are, however, virtually no internationally recognized Japanese economists, historians, political scientists or sociologists specializing on Russia, Poland or the Balkans, nor even, indeed, on Italy, Germany or France.

I often refer to Japan as the “Ottoman Empire” of the 21st century. In one critical respect, the difference could, of course, not be greater, given the Ottoman Empire’s extreme heterogeneity, in contrast to Japan’s extreme homogeneity. The comparison, however, is drawn mainly from the fact that Japan is today’s “sick man” of the international community and that this in good part arises, as it did in the Ottoman Empire, through the erosion and obsolescence of institutions and the narrow parochialism and myopia of the elites.

In writing about the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, Bernard Lewis’ magnificent essay “What Went Wrong? — Western Impact and Middle East Response” makes the point about the asymmetry in the knowledge and curiosity between it and Europe: whereas by the 18th century there were a growing number of “Orientalists” in Europe, even a century later the Ottomans had no “Occidentalists.”

Japan’s handicap of analysis and understanding of Europe applies, of course, to other regions of the world, including Asia. It not only prevents Japan from playing a constructive role in the global community, but also weakens it intellectually. Poor powers of analysis make for a rather dull society. In international meetings, the comment is repeatedly made how remarkably little the Japanese have to say.

This debilitating handicap has nothing to do with genes, contrary to lots of imbecile theories that circulate about left-sided vs. right-sided brains! In the 1960s I was a student — and subsequently a very close friend — of the late political scientist Masao Maruyama, whose depth and breadth of analysis and understanding of societies across space and time were extraordinary. When Maruyama came to Oxford, where I was doing my doctorate at the time, luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin would come to listen and learn from him.

There are, I believe, two main causes for the handicap today. The first is a result of the protection afforded by the United States after World War II. Japan no longer had any need to “think” about foreign affairs and foreign societies, since the Americans would do so for them.

The second is the degree to which debate and dissent on social and political issues in general have been stifled in Japan by the postwar establishment, the main theme of Masao Miyoshi’s brilliant, but quite disturbing, book, “Off Center: Power and Culture Relations between Japan and the United States.” Japan, Miyoshi argues, is the world’s most intellectually regimented democracy.

Japanese universities, as I have often stressed in this column, are much at fault. Political, economic and intellectual reforms are necessary, but insufficient. For Japan to avoid playing out its finale in the Ottoman Empire scenario, it needs a vigorous intellectual renaissance.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.