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People of Japan, take a clear stance

by Yoko Ishikura

How many of you found the Japanese government’s decision to vote against the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 21 as a sign that Japan took a clear position and kept its identity?

The Middle East seems far away to many of us not only physically but psychologically, as not much news about the region is reported by Japanese media. Unless you are an expert on the region or have engaged in business there, the conflict in the Middle East and its historical background may be too complicated to comprehend.

When Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, communicated President Donald Trump’s threat to cut U.S. funding to countries that voted against the decision, some of us might have thought we would abstain, as Canada and Australia did. That might have been perceived as a low-risk strategy, since Japan is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (which has become even more crucial with the escalating threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs), trade with the United States is important for Japan’s economy, and Japan has little desire to make the Middle East more unstable.

But even though it had made no clear statement about Trump’s earlier recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (unlike such European countries as Britain and France), Japan joined 127 countries to vote against the U.S. it the General Assembly. I take it as a good sign that Tokyo made its position clear.

With many geopolitical uncertainties not only in the Mideast but also in Asia, with North Korea, South Korea, China and the U.S. as the main players, some call for Japan to establish a clear identity and stake out a clear position in the region and in the world.

Many ask, “What kind of a country does Japan want to be?” When other countries such as China articulate their roles and goals — as in President Xi Jinping’s speech at the January 2017 World Economic Forum pledging to serve as global leader to protect world trade and support globalization — the need for Japan to clearly state her position on the world stage is all the more important.

I am not trying to argue what position Japan should take in an ever-changing geopolitical landscape. What I’m trying to say is that each one of us could learn from this example, realize the importance of taking a clear position and practice it in our daily life. A nation consists of its people, and each one of us makes the country what it is. To fulfill our responsibility as a citizen of the country and more broadly of the world, each of us is required to have a view of our own and state it with confidence.

The reluctance among Japanese to state an opinion when asked for one is nothing new. Several decades ago, when I went to the U.S. for the first time as an exchange student, I was overwhelmed by a series of questions about Japanese politics, economy and society. I did not know how to respond. I did not want to represent the country as I was not an expert on or did not know enough about the topics. I had assumed that they wanted “expert” opinions and views, i.e. some “right” responses. When, for example, you are asked about the impression of the leader of a country other than yours, you may feel even more pressure to find the “right” response. No matter what you feel about a U.S. president, you do not want to make too many negative comments in front of Americans.

This tendency of Japanese to avoid sharing their views does not appear to have improved much. On the other hand, other Asians have learned new rules of the game and have shown an eagerness and willingness to publicly state their opinions. You can see a widening gap between Japanese and other Asians at international conferences and meetings. It appears that the distance between Japan and the rest of the world in this regard has widened slowly but steadily.

My concern is if this tendency of Japanese people staying silent continues, Japan, once deemed a stellar economic powerhouse with rapid growth and advanced technology, might soon be forgotten to the point of being nonexistent on the world scene. After all, each one of us shapes the perception of this country in the world. We are marketers of the nation.

What can and should we do? Here are my suggestions.

Say “something” then and there and take a position with confidence, when you are asked. You are entitled to your own viewpoints, whether or not you are an expert on the topic. Relax and express what you feel and think. Forget the “right response/answer” syndrome. With so much uncertainty in the world and little consensus even among the experts on some many issues, nobody has a “right” approach to the problem, much less the “right answer.”

Have confidence in your view, your hypothesis and share it with others. It may trigger heated discussion, as some will not agree with you, try to prove you wrong, point out the lack of understanding and/or holes in your logic. You may not feel comfortable being criticized — you feel that your personality and your whole self is attacked and shredded. But it will give you a chance to revisit your own thinking and explore more ideas and facts, deepening your understanding of the matter.

By stating your views, you can make your presence felt and appreciated. This country may disappear from the world scene if it does not state its position. People who say nothing do not exist and will not be invited back to the meeting. But if you have ideas and present your hypothesis, however innovative or seemingly “crazy,” you will get more exposure to new fields.

After unprecedented events that shook the world in 2017, such as the Trump presidency in the U.S., we are stepping into uncharted territory in 2018 where every one of us should have the means to express our view. Why not make the best use of it? Remember, each one of us makes the country and ultimately the world. We shape the future. To shape the future, we must not only think but state our thoughts and move on.

Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.