Japan can say yes
... to the rest of the world
November 3, 2000
A country's strength often is also its weakness. Japan's relative homogeneity
of population, language, and culture has been historically a source of
its immense strength. But with the tide of globalization hitting at its
shores, that homogeneity has become a source of weakness. Japan's homogeneity
helped her in the 19th century to quickly unify against Western imperial
ambitions. The Meiji Restoration catapulted Japan to the ranks of great
powers by the turn of the 20th century. Although the same uniformity of
beliefs and behavior led the Japanese people to blindly follow their militarist
leaders into the Second World War, the postwar years witnessed a resurgence
of Japan as an economic superpower.
Since 1990, however, the stagnation of the Japanese economy has revealed
important structural impediments to the Japanese progress. The most important
of these impediments is perhaps the Japanese mindset forged by its island
insularity. In an age of globalization, countries that are heterogeneous
in population with many ties to the outside world enjoy an advantage.
Witness the United States and more recently Canada and Australia that have
actively encouraged immigration and multicultural policies.
Immigrants bring to a country not only their talents and sometimes capital
but also a drive to succeed and a diversity of cultural and social ties
across the globe. They stimulate the economies and societies of the host
countries by offering human and financial capital as well as their cuisine,
music, art, language, religion, and culture.
Japan has been extremely reluctant to accept immigrants. Some Japanese
leaders such as Prime Minister Nakasone have been blunt about the reasons
for this reluctance. In the 1980s when Japan seemed to lead the rest of
the industrial world in its economic performance, Nakasone opined that
the U. S. weakness stems from the presence of too many immigrants in its
population. In the current debate on whether or not Japan should extend
voting rights in local elections to the permanent residents who have been
in Japan for several generations, the ruling party's policy is negative.
For example, many Koreans who were forcibly removed to Japan during the
inter-war period to undertake menial tasks have been denied citizenship
and equal rights.
A recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace shows that to maintain
its current industrial power Japan must allow some 600,000 immigrants per
year. Like the graying of populations in other advanced industrial societies,
the graying of Japan requires import of workers from elsewhere. However,
the Japanese reluctance to allow immigration presents an impediment to
its future progress. This is not to say that relaxing its immigration policies
would be a panacea to Japan's current economic malaise. Japan's skewed
income distribution, high rates of savings, bureaucratic government, and
a state-corporate alliance discouraging competition, present equally serious
obstacles to its progress.
Fortunately for Japan, however, there are views and voices today that
argue for a Japan that can say yes to the rest of the world. The younger
generation Japanese are clearly more open to the world than the older.
Their language ability, inter-cultural skills, travel, and in some cases
international education have prepared them to face a more complex world
than their parents. However, they face an uncertain future unless Japan
moves beyond its current doldrums. Ryu-Murakami, one of the most popular
Japanese novelists, warns "this country has everything except hope."
Japan's lifelong employment is a thing of the past. Young women are often
required to quit their jobs after marriage. Bankruptcies have led many
mid-size corporate executives to take their own lives. The rising tide
of suicide, some 40,000 this year, is indicative of the problems.
Such figures as Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Gakkai International, and the Komeito
Party have for long advocated an internationalization of Japan. Ikeda
has extensively traveled around the world and has built cultural bridges
between Japan and many countries. He has also held dialogues with over
1500 world leaders. Soka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist organization that is
now represented in more than 150 countries. Komeito Party advocates voting
rights in local elections for permanent residents. Japanese global corporations
such as Sony, Toyota, and Fujitsu also have contributed their share in
the globalization of Japanese trade, investment, and travel. Japanese
tourists are bringing the news of the world to their country while adopting
such exotic practices as the hula dance, which is enjoying popularity among
Japanese older ladies.
But that is not enough. Japan needs to overhaul its immigration and
educational policies to overcome the homogeneity that gave it strength
in the past but is presenting an impediment to its future progress. Introduction
of foreign languages and cultural studies at an early age, a more open
immigration policy, extension of rights to the immigrants including citizenship
to those who have lived in Japan for several generations, and celebration
of other peoples and cultures can put Japan back on its path to progress.
Globalization for Japan as for other countries requires no less. As
an economic superpower, Japan can play a significant role in world affairs
by adopting a kind of Scandinavian positive neutrality in international
conflicts. Japan can also unleash the immense energy of its own population
by democratizing its politics, redistributing income to generate greater
internal demand, emancipating its women from social and economic fetters,
and allowing the synergy of immigration to stimulate its society. The
rest of the world also has much to learn from the genius of Japan- in discipline,
teamwork, aesthetic sensibility, generosity, and of course marvelous cuisine.
Tokyo, October 31, 2000
Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the
University of Hawaii and director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.