Why can’t Japan be more like South Korea?

by and

Countless commentators both here in Japan and abroad have deplored the insularity of Japanese society. They lament the paucity of Japanese venturing abroad to study, teach or work. Japan’s multinational corporations are regularly criticized for failing to internationalize their corporate management.

The implicit tone of much of this criticism is “why can’t Japan be more like the United States?” The answer is simple. Japan’s is an Old World East Asian society with Confucian, Buddhist and Shinto roots. It’s no surprise it is different from a New World nation founded by dissenting Calvinists from Europe.

Comparing South Korea with Japan is far more logical and useful. Korea and Japan share the same cultural heritage. Korean civilization, and the transmission of Chinese culture through Korea, had much influence on Japan.

The Emperor himself has acknowledged a “kinship” with Korea. In the other direction, the legacy of Japanese colonialism continues to be felt in Korea. Both societies are among the most ethnically and linguistically homogenous nations in the world.

Until all too recently, Korea, once known as the Hermit Kingdom to Westerners, was even more insular and less cosmopolitan than Japan. But in the past four decades, South Korea has undergone a radical transformation. Large numbers of Koreans, from elementary school children to postdoctoral scholars, study overseas. Many in the Korean elite are now global citizens, equally at home in two or more societies. Language ability, not only in English but also in Japanese and Chinese, is impressive. Over 10 percent of National Assembly members have advanced degrees from abroad. In Seoul, one-fifth were educated in the U.S.

Korean businesses have done more than just become global behemoths. They have made large investments in internationalizing their staffs, not only by promoting foreign language fluency but also by making an effort to understand local cultures. They are also making a strong push to bring in foreigners into their core management teams.

There are several explanations for Korea’s successful internationalization. Since its population is less than half of Japan’s, its businesses have a stronger incentive to globalize and its citizens more motivation to learn about the outside world. Twentieth-century history, namely the country’s colonization by Japan, and after 1945 the very powerful influx of American influence, forcibly brought Koreans into contact with foreign cultures.

Nevertheless, Korea’s growing internationalization is also the result of decisions on the part of the government, universities and businesses. There is much in that experience that could be applicable to Japan.

In academia, universities reward professors who publish and teach in English, sending a clear message that scholars must be competitive in the international arena. In contrast, being famous within Japan is often sufficient for Japanese academics. Koreans returning home with prestigious foreign credentials find much better opportunities in Korean universities than their Japanese counterparts, who are often at a disadvantage compared with colleagues who never left the country.

In the corporate world, Korean companies have also undertaken a deliberate effort to bring in foreigners into management ranks. POSCO, Korea’s leading steelmaker, has two Americans on its board of directors. Korean industry took advantage of the demise of the Soviet Empire to bring Russian engineers to work in Korea.

Foreign-born Koreans and foreigners have begun to play important roles in government and academia. The Korean Tourism Organization is headed by a tall German who became a Korean citizen. The previous president of KAIST, Korea’s leading science and engineering university, was Nobel Prize-winning American physicist with no Korean roots. All courses at the university are now taught in English.

For understandable reasons, Japanese often benchmark their country against the U.S. But in many cases, the differences between the two societies are such that importing U.S. models would be like a gardener in subtropical Okinawa looking for inspiration in the flora of Alaska. As Japanese policymakers worry about another round of “Japan passing” and consider ways to more effectively engage the world, they would do well to look to their Korean neighbor for inspiration.

Peter Beck is the Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Research Fellow at Keio University. Robert Dujarric is director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan Campus.