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Friday, June 13, 2008

Scrutable, 'invisible' Japan

The international community of scholars with an interest in Japan is rife with whisperings of Japan's "invisibility."

These scholars note that international policy forums on security and global political issues often take place without any Japanese participants, and that even when Japanese do attend such gatherings, they are little more than passive bystanders, rarely making their presence felt.

Even among Japanese themselves, there is a widespread and growing chorus of voices lamenting the poverty of Japan's intellectual communication. Before rushing to debate possible solutions to this problem, first we need to focus on the underlying causes.

One of Japan's original motives for engaging in intellectual dialogue with the outside world — albeit one that was never stated overtly — was to gain understanding from other countries, especially the United States, of Japanese thinking and public opinion regarding the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this alliance has been strengthened considerably and become global in reach.

Yet the effect of these developments has been to take the sting out of the international debate over the alliance. Focus has shifted away from discussions over what policies should be adopted, moving toward the practical tasks of policy implementation and the adjustment of Japanese domestic legislation for this purpose.

In other words, the consolidation and globalization of the Japan-U.S. alliance has paradoxically helped diminish Japan's presence in the intellectual community.

Looked at from a slightly different angle, the present situation could be viewed as a "half pace" in which Japan has become keenly aware of the need for redefining politico-military roles in the world but finds itself yet unprepared to launch new, bold initiatives.

It is symbolic that some Japanese politicians, by declaring "There is practically no alternative," helped shut the door to the policy debates on Japan's involvement in the Middle East.

In addition, globalization of the Japan-U.S. alliance has, however desirable and beneficial it may be for global strategy and U.S. interests, produced on the Japanese side a subtle, negative liability: shouldering or associating itself with the negative U.S. image that has spread worldwide, particularly in the Middle East and some parts of Asia, partly as the result of the "unilateral" tendencies of the U.S.

This global trend has somewhat discouraged the Japanese from freely discussing U.S.-related issues, as Japan has been increasingly viewed as a faithful U.S. ally.

There is also an economic explanation for Japan's declining presence. Japanese corporations have undergone significant globalization over the past decade — to the extent that many now consider themselves international companies rather than Japanese. They thus strive to dispel their image of "Japaneseness." The fact that more and more Japanese firms are headed by foreign presidents reflects this trend toward corporate "de-Japanization."

Large "Japanese" companies promote, particularly in the U.S., this trend of keeping "Japan" in the background, rather than polishing it as a brand at the forefront of their corporate image.

On the other hand, China, South Korea and many other Asian countries, where economic development is seen as a national goal, are filled with passion and willingness to project their pride and thoughts into the international community. While Japanese corporations are busy divesting themselves of their national identity, people in other Asian countries are becoming increasingly nationalistic and patriotic.

In these circumstances, inputs by Japanese intellectuals will never have the intensity of those of their Asian counterparts. This is another reason for Japan's apparently decreased intellectual presence in international policy debates.

This phenomenon is also linked to the rapid increase of global consciousness among younger Japanese. Friction and misunderstandings between Japan and the international community have become much rarer, whereas the growing interdependence between China and the international community is intensifying friction between them. In this context, it is not surprising that China has become more vocal in making its views known to the global community.

Japan's contributions to international discourse have so far been motivated by the desire to respond to and dispel specific misunderstandings and prejudices on Japan. The fact that there is less and less need for this kind of reactive communication is a major factor in Japan's reduced international visibility.

In short, Japan has until now emphasized intellectual dialogue as a means of gaining the understanding of other countries on "Japanese circumstances," and now this motivation is fading.

It is therefore high time for Japan to voice its vision on the future of the world community rather than simply defend its position. If Japan cannot summon the verve and ambition to express its opinions on the shape of the world of tomorrow, it risks becoming more and more "invisible" in the global policy-oriented intellectual discussion.

Whether Japan can prepare itself for this is likely to depend much on its political development in the years to come.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and a former Japanese ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and France, is president of the Japan Foundation.

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