For people to become mature, they need to balance their feelings of self-respect with a coolheaded recognition of the need to see oneself in relative terms. These days, there seems to be a tendency among some Japanese to give up this balance and push forward their sentiments of self-esteem.

The modesty that regards impudent self-advertisement as shameful must have been among Japan’s traditional values. But nationalists who loudly call for respect of tradition are succumbing to narcissism more frequently than other groups.

An NHK chairman who tries to justify the World War II “comfort women” system by saying that other countries did the same during wartime, and a member of the public broadcaster’s board of governors who denies Japan’s wartime aggression with his revisionist view of history, symbolize such the spirit of the times.

Because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strongly backed the appointments of these people, it follows that he is the very symbol of immature narcissism.

Japanese political leaders who exhibit a desire to paint a positive picture of themselves also tend to advocate the need for globalization in the fields of education and the economy.

How should we interpret this strange combination that exists in these people?

Nurturing human resources conducive to globalization is the buzzword in the field of education. Japan’s schools — from the elementary level through university — are busy trying to respond to the call for producing more Japanese capable of working in a global environment. English lessons will become part of the curriculum at elementary schools, and teachers at Japanese universities are required to teach in English to students.

Behind these moves is the conviction that Japan is lagging behind other countries in global competition, because Japanese are poor at English.

Curriculums are tampered with based on the simplistic belief that the English proficiency of Japanese youths will improve if schools are encouraged to provide more English classes.

In the first place, language is a tool of thinking. If one thinks in a language with which one has a limited vocabulary, one will naturally come up with only superficial and simple ideas.

Many Japanese university teachers who have to teach in English can be likened to tennis players rallying with sponge balls instead of tennis balls.

If Japan appears to lag behind other countries in globalization, it’s the result of historical experience. Japan was the first non-Western country to successfully modernize by relying on its native language. When Japan imported Western civilization in the late 19th century, intellectual leaders like Yukichi Fukuzawa used their knowledge of Chinese classics to translate Western concepts into kanji phrases.

With the spread of education, cultural markets in Japan expanded, and the publication of books written in the mother tongue of Japanese flourished. The Japanese people became capable of abstract and high-level thought in their own language.

The approach taken by the government in its current push for “globalized education” is to reduce the number of hours for training youths how to think and to invest more resources in having students acquire English — mostly as a tool.

Such a course is reminiscent of the days when the government, shortly after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, built the Western-style Rokumeikan (Deer-cry Hall) for parties and balls in Tokyo. As part of its attempt to get Japan into the ranks of the Western powers, the government operated the hall for the purpose of teaching members of the elite how to dance in Western dress. In its way of thinking, the government presumed that people could absorb Western civilization better if they danced in Western dress.

Today’s government shows that it has inherited this way of thinking, as it believes that Japan can globalize itself if Japanese youths acquire some English skills.

Westernization policies, symbolized by the Rokumeikan, triggered nationalistic reactions that eventually led to Japan’s feeling superior to its Asian neighbors.

In today’s Japan, the over-adaptation to globalization and the rise of exclusionist nationalism are two sides of the same coin.

To keep a balance between sentiments of self-respect and self-criticism, we need to develop the composure to look back on the achievements as well as the failures of modern Japan.

To do that, we need to deepen our understanding of history and society — and not make light of knowledge and cultured intellects.

The so-called globalists in Japan view education merely as a tool for the pursuit of profits. Such a way of thinking is what pushes Japan further along the path toward the Galapagos syndrome.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.

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.