LAUSANNE, Switzerland — A central argument of many observers of Japan, myself included, is that there has been very little change and no leadership. The two are interwoven: leadership is required to generate and manage change. The Japanese system that was quite appropriate, dynamic and robust in the 1960s and ’70s, then stood still. The result is that while the world has changed a good deal, Japan has not changed.

In writing the concluding articles of this series, I have already noted the rigidities of the educational system, especially the universities and their inability to produce young people able to assume leadership and bring an end to the rule of the gerontocracy.

Japan’s social, economic and political decay marginalize the country from the global arena. Being an actor in the global arena requires not just the appropriate institutions, but also a “global mindset.” And the very first step toward achieving a global mindset is to discard primitive, visceral and atavistic racism.

Racism, alas, exists in all societies. In Western Europe, racism is practiced by fringe minority social groups — such as attacks by German skinheads against immigrant Turkish workers — or as a reaction against the liberalism and the openness of mainstream society — such as voter support for Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.

In the United States, even though the White House is now inhabited by what many consider a very rightwing president, there are blacks in his Cabinet and his rebuke to Trent Lott, the Republican senator from Mississippi, cost him his job as majority leader.

Japan has not reached this stage. Japan is an outlier; from the racism viewpoint, it is a pariah state. Racism lies in the very fabric of Japanese society; it is still at its primitive, visceral and atavistic stage. It is so ingrained that Japanese often appear totally bewildered when told they are racist. Being racist and being Japanese are so intertwined that racism is not seen as a form of deviance, but as normal. So Japanese racism is rarely expressed in vituperatively violent form. It is passive, intrinsic, underlying general social behavior. Barring foreigners from joining golf clubs, for example.

I was recently in Manila, having a drink with a former Japanese student of mine stationed in the Philippines. A bachelor, he was telling me that when he was living in London there were many young Japanese women he could go out with and could have proposed marriage, but that in the Philippines there were hardly any untied young Japanese women; hence poor marriage prospects.

“Why don’t you marry a nice Filipino girl?” I half-teased him, to which he exploded in response: “My friends and family would say I had married a prostitute.” This former student is basically a very nice young man, but it did not occur to him that equating Filipino women with prostitutes is morally abject. Rather than passively acquiescing in such reprehensible attitudes, he should be actively combating them.

Let me skip a few decades back and recount two stories that occurred in Oxford when I was there in the late 1960s. Oxford landladies were notorious for not renting rooms to nonwhites. One of the students at my college, a Ghanaian — who has since become a prominent official at the United Nations (not Kofi Annan!) — kept being told over the phone that rooms were available, only to be turned down when he arrived at the door. His fellow students, the university and college authorities, Oxford members of Parliament, Church groups, etc., all got involved mainly to educate, enlighten and, occasionally when necessary, reprimand the Oxford landladies.

Another fellow student was a young woman economist who was dating a brilliant Indian economics lecturer — who has since become a highly esteemed scholar — as a result of which her parents had apoplexy and tried every device to bring the relationship to an end. Today, in all probability the girl’s parents would be very proud.

The Oxford landladies and my friend’s parents did not see themselves as racists. They would not be the kind to go out and burn crosses or engage in the skinhead pastime of “Paki-bashing” (beating up Pakistanis). They were caught in the social warp of the time. Like most Japanese today, their racism was one of exclusion due to suspicion of the unknown. The elites helped to bring about change, and attitudes have since moved on a good deal, albeit still definitely not as far as they should.

Racism in Europe is still a problem and has become more acutely so as the number of immigrants from different cultures and races have increased. Here again, however, the role of leadership by example of establishment institutions is important. Switzerland has a reputation, not totally unjustified, of being a chauvinistic society. But walk into the headquarters of Nestle in Vevey and you will see all races represented at practically all levels of the hierarchy.

Come to IMD (where I teach) for lunch. Not only is the professoriate multicultural, but among the support staff you will see white Swiss and Swiss from Tunisia, Kenya, Korea, Kosovo, etc., all eating together. For them that is totally natural. Here again, though, is where Japan stands apart.

In other countries belonging to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, “multinational corporations” are increasingly multicultural, one of the reasons why (even among French firms!) English is more and more becoming the corporate language. And the multiculturalism of French multinationals is what allows a hitherto parochial French firm like Renault to hire such a brilliant corporate leader as Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian of Lebanese extraction.

But go to the headquarters of any Japanese firm, even supposedly highly international ones such as Sony, and you will find generally exclusively, sometimes simply overwhelmingly, Japanese at all levels, especially senior levels, of the hierarchy, and no foreigners. Indeed, the founder of Sony, Akio Morita, considered it completely normal that he should coauthor a book with the avowed racist Shintaro Ishihara, the present governor of Tokyo.

Japanese universities, as I have frequently commented, with only a very few notable exceptions, totally fail in multiculturalism.

The value of the example set by the establishment cannot be underestimated. When I was 14, in 1959, I spent a year in a school near Lausanne. It was at the time an entirely white city, with the only sizable minority being Italians. Today, Lausanne is a patchwork of all colors. Walk around and you see young black men going out with young white girls, and vice versa, neither of whom would consider this in any way “strange.” And this is in chauvinistic Switzerland!

So while there is every reason to be vigilant about the rise of racism, I have confidence in these young people who have virtually shed all form of atavistic racism. Such a sea change in society could not have come about had it not been for the quiet, but enlightened leadership of establishment institutions such as Nestle and IMD.

“Things” certainly do not change on their own. It is people who make change happen and especially people in positions of authority and leadership. I do not see leadership emanating from Japanese industry or government leaders in the field of race. I do not see much change in attitudes among Japanese youth. I am not confident that change will happen in Japan and that primitive, atavistic, visceral racism will be abolished.

The abdication of Japanese leadership and responsibility in this highly sensitive and important area at home is what condemns Japan to exclusion from the global arena. It is more than sad. It is tragic and it is dangerous, as racism in Japan may inflame regional rival nationalisms and racisms.

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.