Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned his newly reshuffled government’s intention to “revolutionize people’s working style.” It is great news that Japanese political leaders recognize the need to address some of the entrenched employment traditions that no longer serve the country’s ambitions. Obsolete employment practices are one of the problems faced by Japan to regain its international splendor. For this new policy to succeed, it must also include reflection on the attitude toward foreign employees. Put bluntly, Japan needs to revise how workers from other countries can contribute to the nation’s reinvigorated internationalization.

To become more international, a country needs an engaging attitude toward foreign affairs, people and cultures. Attracting more tourists will not suffice; an international country needs to make sure its foreign employees feel welcome and are appropriately integrated. The leading international countries of today have put this recipe to good use. Japan needs to do similarly to succeed in its renewed international quest.

Here are a few recent personal anecdotes that provide some useful context to understand the Japanese situation. They occurred in and around Fukui Prefecture, which is arguably different from Tokyo and Osaka. But they actually serve our purpose quite well, Fukui being, as the tourist brochure says, the “real Japan.”

A classic example is the weekly trip to the supermarket where, inevitably, children stare at the foreign face as if they had seen an alien pushing a shopping cart. Finding medical assistance can be an enlightening experience as well, like that phone call to a specialist clinic during which the doctor asked, after he learned that his interlocutor was French, if he was a terrorist. Or that visit to (another) specialist clinic where the doctor treated the patient not to a (normally expected) physical examination but to a (totally unexpected) high-five. Or the tour with some visiting parents to a famous local tourist spot, where the owner of a restaurant barred us entrance to her parking lot, assuming, as she confirmed later, that “the foreigners (in that car) would probably not appreciate the local delicacies served here.” I love oroshi soba and my parents would die for “sauce katsudon.”

These anecdotes reflect the general attitude of Japanese people toward foreigners, one of cross-cultural misunderstanding, certainly to be attributed to a rather high level of parochialism rather than to any malignant intention. The people of Japan are not to blame; they simply have not received a sufficient level of exposure to foreigners to know how to interact with them appropriately. Governments, national and local, should bear most of the responsibility since they design and implement the education and social policies that impact their citizens’ cultural awareness and sensibility.

What is needed from national and local bureaucracies is a genuine attention to non-Japanese matters. The recently opened Tourist Information Center in front of Fukui Station posts a sign outside its door advertising “bycycle rental.” A small misspelled sign for a tourist information center, but a giant indicator for a country. There is also a need to portray foreign influence in a more appropriate fashion. A few months ago the local NHK news program covered a new security system at highway toll stations; the simulated attack featured an English-speaking assailant!

So Japanese citizens are generally under-informed or misled in their perceptions of foreign people living around them. But how could that be possible since most Japanese kids have foreign (read English) native speakers as assistant language teachers in their classrooms at some point of their educational curriculum? Beyond language acquisition, they should also be introduced to foreign ideas, behavior and attitudes.

It could be that the role models are inappropriate, which raises the issue of differentiation. For lack of skills or interest, managers in public and private offices put little effort in the selection and retention of talented contributors, a basic cornerstone of efficient human resource management. Differentiation is as necessary between the good and not-so-good foreign workers as it is among Japanese employees. Japan needs to learn better how to differentiate between foreign contributors with the potential to make a positive difference to Japan’s future, while letting others go. Treating everybody similarly, with the smallest common denominator (e.g. short-term contract, no organizational commitment) is like shooting oneself in the foot. Less efficient employees will accept the temporary conditions, knowing they won’t find better elsewhere, while those with potential will not, knowing that they will be recognized for their real potential elsewhere. Japan needs less discrimination but more differentiation toward its foreign workers.

Obviously, there is quality among the many language assistants who contribute to Japan’s education. So children might be underexposed to cultural awareness issues because foreign assistants, despite their upmost efforts and dedication, are often considered more as entertainers than educators. Kids see them as amusing characters who deliver entertaining performances.

In a Confucian tradition, the sensei (professor) who educates is revered, the jester with his or her tricks is made fun of. At the latest welcoming ceremony at my university, the only foreigner invited to address the audience was a gentleman, dressed in a bright yellow, red and green clown costume, doing juggling while giving an “inspirational” address to new students and their parents: the modern version of the court jester entertaining royalty and their guests during banquet time.

Being an entertainer is a perfectly legitimate profession and entertainment can surely convey inspirational thoughts. But consistently categorizing foreigners in that role creates long-lasting social trauma. When foreigners are pictured as either clowns or terrorists, children cannot develop a healthy attitude toward non-Japanese people and the possibility of having a simple but efficient living and working relationship with them.

The vast majority of non-Japanese living here love this nation and wish it the very best. They have needed skills and competence but are not given the opportunity to contribute fully. Social psychology teaches us the universal human need for belonging and achievement. The many non-Japanese who live here are not asking for anything but the opportunity to contribute to their full potential, and in return to receive a sense of gratitude and acceptance for what they are contributing.

If Japan wants to maintain or regain its global significance, the “revolution of people’s working style” called for by Abe is indeed necessary. The full internationalization of the Japanese economy will require a proper selection and retention mechanism of foreign employees and a legislative and cultural revolution that would allow them to contribute fully alongside Japanese employees.

Didier Andre Guillot is a specially appointed associate professor at Fukui Prefectural University.

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