Commentary / Japan

Are Japanese ready to make their mark on the world?

by Yoko Ishikura

The eventful state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump, with extensive welcome and hospitality by Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako and overwhelming omotenashi by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is now behind us. Next on our diplomatic and geopolitical agenda is the Group of 20 summit in Osaka at the end of the month.

According to media reports, Abe, as chair of the G20 summit, intends to focus on data and information governance on the global level and climate change action as the key agendas of the meeting. The main issues on people’s mind, including trade friction between the United States and China, and a threatening global economic outlook amid the tit-for-tat exchange of retaliatory tariffs by the world’s top two economies, are reportedly not listed as priority items so far, probably due to the complex and sensitive nature of the issues.

The business community here seems to be also concerned about how the trade negotiations between Japan and the U.S. will shape up, since there is little hope that the U.S. will return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Despite the close personal rapport between Trump and Abe, it remains to be seen how tough negotiator the U.S. administration will turn out to be, with Trump’s self-declared “tariff man” policy.

With the escalating U.S.-China conflict, some expect Japan to play a mediating role between the two superpowers because of its geographical location and significant trade relationships with both countries.

Japan appears to have come under the limelight in global geopolitics since it enjoys much greater domestic political stability than other advanced countries where the traditional political order led by mainstream parties has been disrupted. In response to these expectations, Abe seems to be keen on building his administration’s legacy by making the best of the diplomatic events. In addition to hosting the G20 summit, the prime minister appears interested in playing the role of mediator in the U.S.-Iran dispute. Probably he also wants to make the best of the launch of the Reiwa Era — which is meant to signify “beautiful harmony.”

But does Abe have public support for his bid to make Japan a significant player on the world stage? Some data indicates that Japanese people at large do not seem to care enough about global issues.

According to a recent poll by the Cabinet Office, the ratio of respondents who think “individual/private life” is more important than “attention to the national and world issues” has been increasing for all age groups since the early 2010s.

An international survey of the younger generation (those in their teens and 20s) reveals that the proportion of Japanese youths who want to study abroad (32 percent) and the ratio of those who want to live overseas (12 percent) are both the lowest among the seven countries polled (Japan, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and South Korea). Another survey by Nomura Research Institute on public mentality and attitude indicates that the ratio of Japanese who are willing to tackle challenges to improve their current lives has been declining over the past two decades in all age groups.

It is quite surprising to find this trend because “world/global” is much closer to us now than in the past as technology goes beyond national borders and access to information, events and people regardless of one’s physical location and/or organizational boundaries has expanded exponentially. With technology, individuals today are able to express their views and visions to start a new initiative to change the world.

In addition, we have ample opportunities to interact with diverse cultures, since large numbers of people from overseas will visit Japan during upcoming international events such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games. Yet the number of people who feel capable of understanding/responding to people from diverse cultures from around the world remains a mere 29 percent.

Judging from this data, we can almost visualize people (particularly the younger generation) preferring to stay in small, limited spaces and continuing their lives as usual. The surveys indicate that the mentality and mindset of young Japanese seem to be increasingly inward-looking.

My recent experience has confirmed a hypothesis that little change has taken place in the mindset of Japanese people over the past three decades and that relatively limited viewpoints, frames of reference and perspectives still persist. It almost appears that ordinary Japanese have little intention to take action on global issues.

Recently I interacted with two groups of people. One was a final reunion of business executives who had participated in a program in the 1980s and ’90s to develop global managers. The other was an event for young people interested in global careers.

The participants in the last Family Day reunion of the Multinational Business Institute had taken part in the 10-year program established in 1984 to develop global managers at 30 major Japanese firms. It was one of the early initiatives to develop global managers by offering opportunities for global management. The focus of the program was not just knowledge, but real experiences of interacting with business people in the U.S. and Europe. I was one of the instructors running a simulation game for the program.

It was good to see those people after almost three decades. We have lost some, but many (now in their 70s and 80s) seem to be having good and productive lives, engaged in a variety of activities — art, wellness, diplomacy and so on. It was my impression that the real experience gained in the program and overseas assignments for the companies had a strong impact on their lives, broadened their views and helped them to lead active lifestyles.

The following day I joined an event titled “The world is your oyster, let us develop skills to become global talents,” which was targeted at young people at the university homecoming event. First, I was struck by the similarity of the topic after three decades. What was even more surprising was that people seemed to be hesitant to ask questions, make comments and engage in discussions. Questions were asked such as how to ensure diverse information sources to avoid living in an echo chamber and to gain a wide range of experience. It appeared that people seemed to shy away from experiment and action despite their interest in things global and how to develop global skills. Listening to their questions almost led me to believe that the past three decades had in fact not passed.

Little change in topics of interest after three decades and little initiative to act to make their lives better do not indicate an willingness on the part of the general public for Japan to take a position in a world full of complex issues. This is quite different from what I see as the trend (particularly among the younger generation) in other parts of the world, where they seem to be more interested in what’s happening beyond their comfortable and familiar spaces.

So what should we do? Should we encourage the young generation to go beyond their spaces and try something new? Should we encourage them to follow Abe’s model?

Recently I find myself leaning toward a “leave them alone” choice instead of trying to motivate them to act. Rather than encouraging those who are not interested in global issues to have broader perspectives, we should leave them alone. They can design their individual lives the way they want. After all, their lives are their own and nobody should tell them what to do. If they want to stay in their comfortable small spaces, let them do so.

If they are satisfied with their lives the way they are, that is their choice. They may or may not realize that stability is not normal anymore and that not changing in a rapidly changing world will just result in them being left behind.

Today in Japan and a majority of developed economies, people have infinite potential to lead the lives they want. It is up to individuals to make the best of their opportunities. This unprecedented freedom may have caused the divisions and sharp polarization the world is experiencing as each person can and has exercised their choices. Some may think that divisions and polarization are bad and should be avoided as they imply conflict and chaos. If intergenerational divisions widen, we may have less harmony in society.

However, divisions can serve as grounds for constructive debates and as launching pads to trigger departures from conventional ways of life and of thinking. Through divisions, each one of us can learn, think about the divisions and differences, and design our own life with little guidance from others. If we can turn the divisions around this way, we may be able to create a society as hoped for in the name of the new era.

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 Expert Network.