Who is to blame for the dead hand of inertia that has prevented Japan from forging ahead economically and politically in the last decade and a half?
Is it the big businessman, ever protective of the greedy interweave of money and influence? Is it the politician, who sacrifices the integrity of a forward-looking idea for a stiff bow to expediency? Or is it bureaucrats (most Japanese seem to blame bureaucrats), whose primary function, it appears, is to stay where they are and be lifelong functionaries?
There is a social revolution taking place in Japan today, and yet it is not toppling the partitions in corporate offices. The management culture of this country’s major companies, with a few striking exceptions, is essentially unaltered since the 1980s.
You certainly won’t find radical change in the halls of government either. Japanese politicians and bureaucrats talk liberal reform but act out the tightfisted secret deals that have sustained them since the mid-’50s, while expertly feigning progress: They are masters at running tirelessly in place.
But it is in Japan’s universities, of all sizes and affiliations, that the rules of engagement in society are being turned upside down.
The social model that has been the vehicle for Japanese progress for the past century is one based on cohesion. Japanese people, once a part of an organization, generally slipped their heart and soul into the time clock upon reaching their place of work, withdrawing them as they left at the end of the day. If someone in their team created a successful program or policy or deal, that person was expected — socially required, might be better way to phrase it — to practice a quiet form of self-effacement.
It was important for the team, and therefore for the institution, that the lines of achievement be blurred. Of course, privately all members of the team, and occasionally even the management, would pat the true achiever on the back and maybe even give them a token bonus or a dinner on the town. But the ace salesperson, brilliant innovator or popular teacher was expected to display profound modesty.
No society has made self-deprecation into a radiant virtue to the extent that Japan has — even the word yashin (ambition), has long had a connotation of “egotistical obnoxiousness.”
Japanese fairness had its root in this silent pact of cooperation, and it was the Japanese workers themselves, both blue- and white-collar, who preferred and supported this culture of self-deprecation. And why would they be so enthusiastic about it? For the simple reason that if credit is spread among many people, though they may be “undeserving,” so blame will be spread as well. Japanese people are highly security conscious in their personal relations: The “truth” behind an incident may be far less important than the cohesive harmony it could engender.
This social model, however, no longer has pride of place in Japanese higher education. Universities throughout the country are reforming their curricula and, in some cases, their admissions policies and the content of their entrance exams to produce students who shine above the rest, who stand out from the crowd and are rewarded for it.
The Japanese education system will be the breeding ground of this country’s meritocracy. I have spent 15 years teaching in Japanese universities, both private and public, both arts and science oriented, and it is clear that originality of approach and being cleverly different now bring praise from many teachers where, in the past, those traits might have invited only grudging approval.
Now, too, many Japanese universities are actively encouraging their students to spend a year of their studies overseas, and are forging agreements with universities overseas so that credits can be transferred back home. Returnees, who in the past were often greeted with derision at Japanese universities and went to pains to hide their linguistic abilities, are now the center of attention on many campuses. Conversely, students who overly conform to fit in with the group are not as popular as they once were. Yesterday’s perfectly normal conformists are today’s nerds.
Some universities have created a more open-ended admissions policy that enables new students to be chosen through interviews. It won’t be long before a recommendation from a high school teacher can get a place for a student at a university.
But will Japanese business people and government officials, with their stick-in-the-mud inability to act, be ready for these new graduates?
Look at Takafumi Horie, the spiky-haired 32-year-old president of Livedoor who recently thumbed his nose in the faces of the Pomade Brigade at the Fuji Sankei Group, and came out many millions richer. Horie may be a hero of many young people in Japan, but the media here treated the Internet mogul with barely disguised disdain. If universities produce an army of ambitious Horie clones, what is to become of the Establishment that guards Fortress Japan as if they owned it?
Look, too, at Shuji Nakamura, the brilliant inventor of the blue light-emitting diode, or LED, that turned Nichia, the dot-on-the-map Shikoku company where he worked, into an international powerhouse — but one that gave him an insulting 20,000 yen for his achievements. Nakamura sued the company and was eventually awarded 843 million yen; and the faults below the foundations of the business world suddenly shifted, sending an ominous quake through every boardroom in the country.
The last thing executives, managers, politicians and bureaucrats want is determined, focused and exceedingly original young people invading their one-big-happy-family dens of influence.
But this is the model student that we at our universities are about to produce and send into society: sophisticated young men and women who may no longer be content to share the credit for their individual achievements with complying cohorts.
If I were a captain of industry or a defender of the “old” Japan, I would be quaking in my boots over this phenomenon — more than over what is happening on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., or on the streets of Beijing.
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