LONDON — In his Sept. 29 policy speech, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed that he wanted to construct “an open economy full of vitality.”
“I will develop a Japanese Cultural Industry Strategy that will reinforce Japan’s international competitiveness and capability to dispatch information to the world in the field of contents, including animation and music, as well as food culture, and traditional culture,” he declared.
He also expressed his intention of making Japan a conduit between Asia and the rest of the world for flows of people, goods, money, culture and information.
I have been serving for two years as chairman of an advisory committee to the Japan Foundation’s office in London at the request of their London representative. At our meeting at the end of November, I drew attention to Abe’s remarks and expressed the hope that this signified an increase in the resources available to the foundation in London and to the Japanese Embassy to enable them to put into effect Abe’s cultural strategy.
The committee learned with dismay that rather than an increase in resources — financial and human — less money and fewer people would be available for cultural and information work in Britain. The members of the committee were puzzled that this should be the case and asked for an explanation. Was the Japanese government intending to use organizations other than its embassy and the Japan Foundation’s office in London? The committee had not seen any sign that Japanese industrial and commercial organizations were ready and able to take on a larger burden in promoting Japanese cultural interests.
All the members of the committee are friends of Japan who want to see a better understanding in Britain of Japanese culture and achievements. The committee has made various suggestions about priorities for Japan in Britain.
It is our view that Japanese studies at the higher educational level are not getting an adequate share of resources. This is, of course, a matter in the first instance for the British authorities, but the Japan Foundation’s help is valuable. The “pump priming” that they already do is useful, but more is needed.
There has been a welcome increase in the number of schools in Britain where Japanese is taught and the Japan Foundation in London has put a great deal of effort into training language teachers. A very small number of young Japanese have been recruited to work in British schools, but the numbers are tiny in comparison with the Japan English language teachers (in the very successful and valuable JET scheme) working in Japanese schools.
The committee had no doubt that ex-JETs are real ambassadors for Japanese culture when they come back to Britain. More young Japanese teaching and working here could make a similar contribution to the understanding of modern Japan in Britain. The committee hoped that the British and Japanese authorities would work together to develop this program.
The committee agreed that much more effort is needed to promote the image of Japan as an “open society.” There should be no shying away from controversial themes that need to be debated openly. If, in response to rightist threats, Japanese organizations fail to tackle historical and controversial themes, there will be no chance of Abe’s wish to promote Japan as an open society and a conduit to Asia being achieved.
The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation has been doing excellent work with its seminars addressed by Japanese and British experts, but more good Japanese speakers are needed. Unfortunately, despite the increasing number of Japanese with a good command of English, there are still not enough available to come to Britain, especially if the resources to cover their fares and expenses are not available.
The Japanese minister of education, Ibuki Bunmei, said at a Sept. 26 press conference that “Teaching English may be necessary (for students to function) in international society, but for Japanese to speak the Japanese language correctly is a higher priority.” It is, of course, essential that we should all be able to speak, read and write our own language and appreciate our own culture, but in order to understand the meaning and nuances of words and phrases and appreciate our own cultural heritage, it is necessary to study a foreign language and culture. For Japanese today, a good working knowledge of English and an understanding of foreign culture are necessary for the creation of Abe’s open and competitive society. Linguistic nationalism is out of date and unsuited to Japanese needs in the 21st century.
The committee noted the growing interest in Japan among young people in Britain. They want to know more about modern as well as traditional Japanese culture. There are ample opportunities in Britain for expanding intellectual exchanges. It is regrettable that lack of resources mean that these opportunities might be missed.
The growing economic strength of China is attracting the attention of British youth. China is exploiting anti-Japanese feelings at home and is opposed to any moves toward the open society espoused by Abe. The Japanese authorities need to do more to counter the tendency among the young to give priority to China and to emphasize what Japan has to offer.
Britain is especially important for Japan’s overall efforts in Europe. Britain is a major meeting point for intellectual and cultural exchanges and a conduit for Japan into Europe.
The committee urged that their concerns be conveyed to the Japanese authorities and expressed the hope that Abe would ensure that adequate resources were provided to ensure that his aims for the promotion of Japanese culture are achievable.
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.