Commentary / Japan

Stop trying to create Japanese versions of overseas institutions

by Kotaro Tamura

Today’s Japanese leaders have belatedly started trying to open up Japan to the rest of the world. While this is generally a good thing, there’s one bad idea in their way of thinking. They immediately attempt to create “Japanese versions” of various things from abroad.

It’s true that the copying of good ideas from abroad made a contribution to Japan’s postwar development. But today there is no time to create Japanese versions of such ideas. Moreover, many of the “Japanized” copies will soon be useless because the world and technologies are changing rapidly, and the aging and shrinking of Japan’s population is accelerating.

Politicians, business leaders and bureaucrats with whom I am friends often express hopes of creating Japanese versions of liberal arts colleges, research institutions like Rand Corp., Silicone Valley, international research universities and MBA courses to nurture Asian leaders — and ask me for help.

To be honest, such endeavors would have little meaning and would only be a waste of time and money. While such projects would cost a lot of time and money, their results would likely be greatly inferior to the original institutions in terms of quality.

If there is so much money available, why doesn’t Japan send more of its citizens to the original organizations and innovation ecosystems? Why do we need inferior Japanese imitations?

With a mere 1.6 percent of the world’s population and slightly more than 5 percent of the world’s GDP, Japan is too small to operate inferior copies of the world’s cutting-edge organizations and ecosystems. Japan simply does not possess the human resources that can create world-class cutting-edge educational institutions, research institutes and innovation ecosystems.

In everything ranging from funding to human resources and brands, Japan lags far behind other countries with exemplary institutions. It is impossible to find any significance in creating inferior, downsized copycat versions.

In terms of cost performance, sending Japanese to the original institutions and ecosystems would be the best choice. However, it wouldn’t be easy to send them to liberal arts colleges, think tanks, research institutions and innovation ecosystems. Such places only accept a limited number of people in accordance with their English ability, intellectual capability, entrepreneurship and financial status.

Now that the gap between Japan and the world’s vanguard has become so wide in terms of the capabilities of people ranging from entrepreneurs to researchers, the only way left for Japan may be to send to those institutions talented pre-high school youths who demonstrate the right thinking, courage and language abilities.

I also question the existence of “Asian-style management” and “Asian-style leadership,” much less the idea that Japan can play a leading role in such areas. Asia is a broad concept that covers Northeast Asia, where Japan and China are located, Southeast Asia, as represented by ASEAN, and South Asia, which includes India. Recently the concept of Asia has been expanded to include the Middle East and Oceania. The region encompasses most of the world’s religions and ethnic groups.

The political systems, economic systems and stages of economic development in Asia are the most diverse in the world. Is there an Asian-style leadership capable of encompassing the diversity of this region? I have never met leadership candidates who wanted to learn such things in Japan, whose business management and political system are so idiosyncratic. Asia is much more diverse and larger in scale than most Japanese think.

In this day and age, the very idea of trying to create Japanese versions of things overseas — by digesting the latest ideas from around the world and copying the original versions — will bring more problems than benefits. Instead, the Japanese government and businesses should exercise leadership to help young people keep in touch with the latest ideas and things on the front lines of the world. That would be much more beneficial.

Kotaro Tamura, a former Upper House member and parliamentary secretary in charge of economic and fiscal policy, is an Asia fellow at the Milken Institute and serves as an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore.