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Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011

What became of the Meiji spirit?


LONDON — The number of Japanese studying at top universities abroad has been declining while the number of outstanding Chinese students has been increasing. Numbers are not everything, but it is disturbing to see reports that Japanese students are less willing than Chinese to participate actively in discussions and are less articulate in English.

The young men of the Meiji Restoration, like Ito Hirobumi, Inoue Kaoru, Togo Heihachiro and many others, had been through dangers and hardships before they left Japan. They relished the adventures and challenges that faced them overseas. In the Meiji Era, families were often large and there was often intense rivalry between siblings. Most families were also poor and had to struggle to survive. Youngsters had to be over-achievers if they were to get on.

Communications in those days were slow and difficult and many Japanese youngsters had to spend many years abroad without seeing their families while mastering foreign languages and then pursuing their studies often of complex scientific and technical matters. A number died while they were studying abroad. Many were lonely. Some found wives in foreign countries. Others succumbed to diseases physical and mental, but the majority returned to Japan determined to contribute to the modernization of Japan and its emergence as a major power. They were ready to speak up for the New Japan.

Now where few families have more than two children, parents can afford to be indulgent and the education mothers (kyoiku-mama) push their children hard to get into the best schools do not encourage them to leave the nest and become independent, which means separate accommodation, which is expensive.

Cost is a factor in the decline in the number of Japan's overseas students, but for Japan in early Meiji the cost was much greater. The generally high standard of comfort in Japan, especially for young people living at home, is another factor for youngsters today. Students may find it hard to live in a foreign country with different food and customs, but these problems were much greater for their Meiji forbears.

Why do so many Japanese youngsters today apparently lack the spirit of Meiji? There is no simple answer and it is of course unwise to generalize about the people of any nation. Young Japanese are not, of course, all the same, but certain qualities are inevitably encouraged by cultural, sociological and historical factors.

One factor in the success of Japan's economy has been the importance traditionally attached to consensus. The British tradition of politics and of law is of confrontation and fierce debate. A greater emphasis on trying to achieve a consensus could be beneficial for us.

But there are real dangers in putting consensus above other considerations. To use mathematical terms, the outcome of consensus building is often the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor.

The egalitarian ethos in education also deters individuals from rising above their classmates. Teachers give priority to fostering self-esteem and fear that competition and rewards for individual achievement will mean losers as well as winners. As a result the competitive spirit is often discouraged in schools.

This has been a problem in Britain also, but the new British coalition government is less wedded to "political correctness" than the previous Labour government and competition in sport is part of our ethos.

One other factor is the way in which foreign languages are taught in Japan. More emphasis needs to be placed on oral expression, but Japanese need to be encouraged to speak even if their linguistic abilities are limited. They must learn that they will only make progress if they practice and must cease to worry about making mistakes,

Japanese frequently cite as a guiding principle of the consensus society the proverb "deru kui wa utareru," which may be translated as "the protruding nail will be hammered down." In all societies an element of conformism is essential for every individual if he wants a quiet life. But societies need some protruding nails, if reforms and improvements are to be made. Not so many years ago there seemed to be a realization in Japan that schools should do more to develop individual personalities, but there were then complaints that loosening the basic curriculum and allowing greater time for individual pursuits was leading to a fall in standards. Indeed Japanese standards in basic subjects have not apparently kept up with rising standards in, for instance, South Korean schools,

When in the past I used to give speeches in Japanese to Japanese audiences, I always tried to be, even if only slightly, provocative. I was disappointed by the lack of response. Very few were prepared to ask questions, let alone to challenge what I had said. Perhaps this was the deference that in Japan is given to older people or persons in authority. You will not find much of this sort of respect in Britain.

In schools and universities in Britain debating societies are encouraged. Oxford Union debates are sometimes even reported in the press. When I visited Japanese universities I would often ask about debating societies, but was usually disappointed by the negative response which I received. Debating is not a Japanese tradition, as is apparent from the way in which proceedings are conducted in the Japanese Diet largely through interpellations which are carefully prepared in advance. This inevitably leads to many boring exchanges.

Nihonjinron, which emphasizes Japanese uniqueness, is a mistaken theory. All peoples and individuals have their unique qualities, but uniqueness does not mean superiority. Nihonjinron leads to inward-looking attitudes and a reluctant approach to internationalization and globalization.

Japan's future lies crucially in the willingness of young people in Japan to develop individual personalities, to be ready to speak out and debate with others, but above all to think in international terms.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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