Commentary / Japan

Where is Japan going?

by Hiromi Murakami

Contributing Writer

The presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is coming up soon, and if he sails to victory as expected, Shinzo Abe will be on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister ever.

In his “Innovation 2025” vision released in 2007 during his first stint as prime minister, Abe announced that he is committed to turn Japan into an innovative nation. But today, 11 years later, not only is Japan not an innovative nation, it is losing the innovation race to China, the United States, South Korea and others such as Taiwan, Germany and Singapore. Why?

This is not Abe’s fault alone. While technology has advanced globally at lightning speed, Japanese business, society and government remain largely closed to change. Instead, they cling to glorified memories of the past and strongly resist introduction of new technologies, and the social values necessary for their absorption.

Uber is not allowed in Japan because the taxi industry lobbied the government against it while internalizing the Uber system for itself. Airbnb listings have been dramatically reduced since the introduction of new regulations by the Diet in response to lobbying from the hotel industry. Lawmakers are quick to respond to particular industries’ demands, but very slow to achieve an innovative and inclusive society with women and minorities.

Moreover, virtually all major institutions, including corporations, universities, political parties, government ministries and media organizations, are governed by inertia as they are incentivized to embrace “inner circle rules” that result in “group think” and discourage each individual from making their own judgments. We are increasingly seeing collusive scandals and management failures by leaders chosen according to inner circle rules rather than on the basis of management capability or vision. Creativity is not required. Innovative ideas are crushed at birth. Apathy has become normal, and a majority of society feels numb.

In particular, having long finished their mirage role of “guiding the national economy and society,” skilled bureaucrats are busy protecting their institutions and preventing disruptive changes. A newly created national medical research institute, supposed to be conducting cutting-edge innovative research projects, is filled with bureaucrats only interested in protecting the jurisdiction of their home ministries.

In view of the series of sexual harassment scandals and irresponsible behavior by bureaucratic officials, it’s amazing that voters continue to support the institutions and encourage their children to try to enter the University of Tokyo where the bulk of bureaucrats are produced. Keeping these institutions alive will be too costly for our next generation because they are mandated to put off solving problems and leave them to the future.

Our schools and media must also bear a great deal of blame. The Japanese education system is successful in producing an obedient workforce. A nail (child) sticking up will be pounded down. The schools teach children to think “inside the box” when what is needed is for them to begin to think “outside the box.” Getting an advanced degree is discouraged as companies prefer hiring college graduates, not Ph.D. holders. University faculties are not diversified and professors demand students’ submission over creativity in research.

All of our media disseminate virtually word for word the same stories, and continue to emphasize outdated social norms via dramas and news, such as women are supposed to raise kids and quit their job when they have children. Some commentators recently even justified the scandalous action of medical schools to unfairly prioritize male over female students.

One wonders why Japanese women are continually being told that they have to emphasize their “work-life” balance. Spending their life from birth in this environment, women tend not to question any awkward issues and become completely biased (or brainwashed) minor citizens in this society. It may be worse than North Korea, where the brainwashing is intentional. Japanese women often recognize this fact when they happen to live outside Japan and see how things are different elsewhere.

Is there any hope for Japan? Politicians refuse to openly discuss immigration policies despite the severe labor shortage; voters don’t question why no solutions are forthcoming about the fundamental problem of the aging and shrinking population; and younger generations don’t raise their voice against postponing solutions.

Surprisingly, large numbers of younger people supported the guardian LDP in the last general election. If younger generations favor the status quo, the country has no future. What Japan faces today — pervasively shared complacency — is probably much more serious than the resistance to innovation. There will only be hope when the younger generation starts to speak out and demands transparency. The task at hand is to break the chain of complacent thinking and to bring more awakened individuals who can think and act on their own.

Hiromi Murakami is the founder and president of the Japan Institute for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (www.jsie.net/en ).