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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why is Japan introverted?


The number of students from China, South Korea and other Asian countries studying at American or European universities have, in general, been increasing over the years. Although there was a time when such a tendency was checked due to the increasing complexity of entry procedures into the United States, or to the depreciation of Asian currencies, the desire of Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asians to study in the U.S. or in Europe has not waned.

Businessmen, technicians and artists — from Mumbai to Seoul — seek a place of activity in the U.S. and in Europe.

Although it can be said that the number of Japanese students who wish to study in China and South Korea have increased, their general interest in studying abroad is not very positive. This phenomenon is not limited to students alone. Government officials as well as businessmen increasingly prefer to work within Japan rather than go abroad.

In comparison with the situation 10 to 20 years ago, a glance at Japanese people living or working abroad today shows a decreasing tendency for them to earnestly learn the language, or to study in depth the culture or history, of the country where they are posted. This tendency is not confined to the young alone. It appears that the Japanese people as a whole have become "domestic-oriented" or "introverted."

Why should it be so?

Is it because the mounting number of elderly people and the decline in the birthrate are causing a loss of vitality in Japanese society as a whole and making it move in the direction of security rather than dynamism?

Or is it because Japanese society, as compared to some other countries, is a stable and affluent one that enjoys a good environment, public security and order, and does not lack for tasty food, nice clothing and comfortable shelter?

Or could it be due to the drop in Japanese activities in the international arena in the wake of financial deficits and prolonged economic stagnation?

None of these reasons can be ignored; however, the real truth lies elsewhere. It lies in the relations between Japan and the international community.

Ever since the 1970s, Japan, through its economic and technological power, has established factories and business bases around the world. It has also played an active part in international affairs, particularly in the area of economic development. Such Japanese power, buttressed by bureaucrats and businessmen, was symbolized by the large amount of Official Development Assistance, trade volume and investment, which are now rapidly diminishing in quantity.

Today the point of contact between Japan and international society is no longer Japan's "quantitative" power. Rather, as is symbolized by the popularity of the "soft power" concept, the point of contact between Japan and the international community is rapidly shifting to the qualitative: sentiments of the modern man as exemplified in the literary works of Haruki Murakami, manga, animation, costume play or the postmodern sensibility innate in otaku culture. In other words, Japan's international contribution is shifting from the quantitative to the qualitative.

Environmental measures such as the "mottainai spirit" (even debris is precious), the use of the furoshiki (wrapping cloth) and the practical application of robots in welfare work are all manifestations of the Japanese spirit replacing the traditional idea of modern civilization. This can be called the "qualitative contribution" to the international community.

In order to carry out such qualitative, spiritual, cultural, ideological contributions, however, we must begin by redefining and reconstructing the meaning of Japanese tradition, culture and spirit.

It is now up to the Japanese people to, once again, take a good look at themselves and redefine and reconstruct the Japanese spirit. On no account has Japan become introverted because of a negative and shrinking spirit. Rather, the country at present is in the transitional process of redefining "Japan" so that she can make a new appeal to international society.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of The Japan Foundation.


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