Commentary / Japan

Enhancing Japan's strengths, remedying its weaknesses

by Shinji Fukukawa

Lately in Japan, as a result of its declining influence in the international community, calls are mounting for redefining and raising its national power, called “Japanability.” In other words, Japanese society urgently needs to enhance its strength and remedy its weakness.

To begin with, let’s examine the aspects of its strength.

First, in Japanese society, people share the spirit of self-help and mutual assistance. This was evidently manifest in the self-composed responses shown by people in the Tohoku region in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Whereas Japanese people may appear humble in the eyes of foreigners, there flows through Japanese society a strong spirit for overcoming difficulties with independent efforts as well as mutual assistance. This tendency may have derived from the country’s historical development as an agrarian society and its long struggle to cope with weather changes.

Second, the strength of people’s self-fulfillment through the pursuit of individual careers typically manifests itself in Japanese craftsmanship. The refined beauty of traditional Japanese artifacts such as lacquer-ware, costumes and ceramics is highly valued in other countries.

This trait is also seen in the high quality and good designs of its modern industrial products. An increasing number of Japanese shine worldwide in the fields of sports, music and fashion.

Third, the strong relationship of trust prevails in the nation’s social groups. In the age of high economic growth, knowledgeable people abroad pointed out that the strength of Japanese enterprises consists in the strong ties of trust within their organizations. This was illustrated by such practices as placing emphasis on field activities and promoting kaizen (improvement) movements. Japanese society receives praise from foreigners because people respect manners as well as stress cleanliness and safety. This trait also results from the sense of “trust.”

Fourth, there is a strong desire among Japanese for absorbing foreign culture. In the Nara and Heian periods, the Japanese sent envoys to the Sui and Tang dynasties of China to take in culture and technical skills from the continent. After the Meiji Restoration, they aggressively introduced European civilization. Since the end of World War II, they have learned advanced technology, business management and culture from such countries as the United States. In this process, Japan has absorbed the world’s first-rate culture. Nowadays, people can enjoy first-class music, paintings, movies and cuisine in Tokyo.

Fifth, Japan has its cultural diversity, which has developed in Japanese people’s symbiosis with nature over the years. Whereas the thought of humans controlling nature and resources is strong in the Western world, the concept of humans co-existing with nature is alive in Japan. The awareness of mottainai (waste not, want not) is well established in this country because of its idea of attaching significance to the blessings of nature. This trait manifests itself in excellent achievements made by the Japanese in the fields of energy saving and environmental protection.

The salient characteristic of Japanese culture is that it aims to harmonize natural beauty with artificial beauty. Japanese gardens use what is called “borrowed landscape” as important part of their backgrounds. They are designed so adeptly as to match up with the beauty of their surroundings in contrast with European parks whose basic tone is geometric beauty. This feature is also seen in the field of Japanese food culture, which works out excellent tastes and beautiful appearance by utilizing the essence of natural materials.

In the 21st century, the world will surely turn out to be an era in which people care more about the natural environment and think more about human values. I think Japanese society owns such characteristics, which will trend well with the 21st century.

On the other hand, Japanese society has some regrettable weak points as compared with other countries.

First, there is the weakness of its capability to make autonomous decisions. In the nation’s corporate community, the tendency to rely on precedents and follow other firms is strong while the efforts to step up innovation are weak. Young corporate workers tend to wait for directions from above. Japanese politicians cannot exercise leadership on the world stage. In Japan, as people often refer to the saying that “The nail that sticks out gets banged down,” there is the inadequacy of frank words of praise being expressed for successful persons.

Second, there is the general tendency to avoid a logical approach. In the country’s political world, a compromise often comes out of the process of “adding differences and dividing them by two” and a settlement is worked out usually through efforts to even things up. In the business world, vague trading practices are going on under the pretext of maintaining long-term relations of trust and this trend has often come under fire from abroad. Japanese people tend to avoid settling a problem on the basis of logic, specifically for fear of inviting a personal conflict.

Third, Japanese people have a poor international perspective. It is difficult to say that Japan is making international contributions commensurate with its economic strength.

In the field of international cooperation in which provision of funds is necessary, this country has made considerable contributions although its effort was cynically called the “check diplomacy.” This country has made few significant contributions in the fields of security, formation of order and intellectual creation.

As for business expansion overseas, Japan is lagging behind China, South Korea and Taiwan as well as advanced Western countries. Students from those countries strongly want to go to study in the U.S. and Europe, but the eagerness of Japanese students to study abroad is low. Japan’s interest in international affairs is generally low, as seen in the activities of journalism and think tanks in this country.

Fourth, Japanese people’s power of communication is generally low. This is illustrated by the fact that there exists no specific indigenous term in the Japanese language that means communication. Since a long time ago, there has been in Japan a cultural trend among people to avoid speaking out as indicated by such sayings as: “The eyes are as eloquent as the mouth” and “Silence is golden.”

Japanese people’s command of English is also generally poor. In the TOEFL score rankings, Japan ranks 137th among 163 countries of the world and 28th among Asia’s 30 countries. Their capability of making logical explanations is notably low.

Japanese society has strength and weakness as mentioned above. Therefore, we should aspire more to bolster our strength, remedy our weakness and enhance the so-called Japanability while keeping an eye on what is happening around the world.

Shinji Fukukawa, formerly vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is senior adviser for the Global Industrial and Social Progress Research Institute in Tokyo.