LAUSANNE, Switzerland — One of the best terms of the 21st century is “global connectivity.” Composed of three elements — (1) entrepreneurial and energetic individuals, (2) the Internet and (3) the English language — global connectivity serves not only to exchange information and ideas but also to create wealth. A poor Bangladeshi entrepreneur of textile-design software, with no means to borrow, was able through “connectivity” to find clients in Washington State and Milan. Three years later his business is roaring, and some 150 jobs have been created.
Late last month I was invited to Bled, Slovenia, to speak to the 10th Annual Meeting of the Central and Eastern European Management Development Association, or CEEMAN, which consists of educators, entrepreneurs and officials from 24 central and eastern European countries and a number of other nations, including the European Union states, the United States, Canada, India but unfortunately — though typically — not Japan.
About 100 people attended the meeting. A dozen years ago such a meeting would have been unfathomable. Yet here it was, taking place with open discussions on the management challenges of economies in transition, the problems of corporate governance in both the East and West, and the implications for business leadership and business education. Everyone spoke in very fluent, even if accented, English, and everyone remains connected via e-mail and the CEEMAN Web site.
Earlier this month an Egyptian colleague and I organized and spoke at a one-day workshop in Dubai on the theme of the changing paradigms of globalization and the marginalization of the Middle East. There were about 150 participants, primarily from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries but also from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
One of the causes of the Middle East’s marginalization from globalization has been its lack of connectivity: Only 0.6 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa have Internet access and only 1.5 percent have personal computers. Getting these millions of people online was recognized as a major challenge, a major priority, and one of the most forceful vehicles in bringing about radical change in governance in the region.
The host of the meeting was Dubai Internet City, which aims to achieve quantum leaps in connecting the countries within the region and to the rest of the world. Here again, English was the lingua franca, fluently spoken by all participants, hence no need for interpretation into Arabic.
Returning to Switzerland, a couple of my colleagues and I met with a Japanese journalist from one of the country’s leading newspapers for interviews on competitiveness and globalization. The journalist, in his mid-40s, spoke very halting English. He was accompanied by an interpreter, who did fine when it came to translating from Japanese to English, but had very great difficulty in the other direction.
A few days later I met with another Japanese journalist, based in Geneva, who is responsible for covering the World Trade Organization, and whose English is equally poor. There are 130 delegations of member states to the WTO. In only one — the Japanese delegation — is Japanese spoken. Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand, the director general of the WTO, is the first non-Westerner from a developing country to head one of the three Bretton Woods institutions. Although he speaks fluent Thai, English and Dutch, he does not speak Japanese.
All of this leads to a number of observations. The fact that a number of countries not from central and eastern Europe, including every member of the Group of Seven, have representation on CEEMAN — but Japan does not — underlines once again how aloof Japanese are from the affairs of the global community.
Several months ago I reported how conspicuous Japan was by its absence from the U.N. conference in Monterey, Mexico, on financing development. Later this month I will be speaking at the International Chamber of Commerce Africa Regional Meeting in Yaounde, Cameroon, on the “the role of international trade and investment in building a sustainable approach for Africa’s development,” which follows from the recently launched New Economic Partnership for African Development initiative. It will be interesting to see how strong the Japanese representation is, if indeed there is any at all.
Japan’s linguistic barrier impedes it from “connecting” to the outside world, especially in articulating views, positions and insights on itself.
At a meeting on the IMD campus of senior executives, attended by 60 participants from 28 countries, including three Japanese, questions were raised by some of the participants regarding the economic policies and prospects of Japan. None of the three — all senior executives of leading Japanese “international” companies — was able to provide a comprehensible explanation.
Apart from the Japanese leaders not being able to explain, there had to be severe doubts about their capability to understand. How can a correspondent in Geneva covering the trade round get a sense of the agenda of the key players, whether they be “big” powers such as the EU, U.S. or Canada, or some of the feistier developing countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, when he cannot “connect” in English?
The example of the interpreter rather desperately trying to distill the quite complex analyses that my colleagues and I were trying to convey to the journalist who came to call on us is both illustrative and really quite frightening. It is just not possible, under these circumstances, for Japanese leaders — let alone the Japanese public — to understand what is going on in the world. It used to be said that Japan had a poor transmitter, but a good receiver in international communications. Both receiver and transmitter are clearly defective.
The debate about how truly “unique” Japan is has been going on for some time, mostly in unproductive directions. Where Japan does appear to be unique in the global era is in its disconnectivity. This isolation from the rest of the world is neither intelligent nor healthy.
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