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No.1 ,Culture  Jul 28, 2010

TWO ASIAN SOCIETIES IN TRANSITION

“One of the first things that struck me when I began studying in Japan is how little the university students here study,” said Zhang Cheng,[1. The names of the Chinese students interviewed for this article have been changed.] answering my first question in fluent Japanese.

Zhang (age 21) comes from a family of scholars; both parents are professors at an elite university. He lived the first four months of his life in Japan, where his parents were conducting research, and during high school he spent short periods in Japan, the United States, and Canada as an exchange student. In a country where travel abroad is still inaccessible to many, Zhang’s opportunities were exceptional. He was on the elite academic track, with almost all of his high school classmates going on to study at Peking University or Tsinghua University. He himself enrolled at PKU, and last year he began a period of study at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The first surprise awaiting Zhang at this elite Japanese university was how little Japanese students applied themselves. He had heard a lot from a Chinese friend studying at Harvard about how hard one had to study at an American university to keep up with classes. Studying in Japan, by contrast, has been a bit of a letdown, says Zhang. The professors assign few papers and offer little feedback. And whether because of the bleak economy or something else, Japanese college students strike him as “kind of cheerless and apathetic.”

In fact, until fairly recently, the best Chinese students typically bypassed Japan and flocked to the United States to study. But over the past few years the dynamic has begun to change.

Japan as a Study Destination

As of the end of 2008, Japan had about 2.22 million registered aliens living within its borders–the largest number ever, according to the Ministry of Justice. Chinese and Taiwanese citizens, totaling about 655,000, outnumbered resident aliens of all other nationalities, including Koreans, whom they passed in 2007.

Chinese students also account for the largest number of foreign students by far (about 80,000), with Korean students occupying a distant second place (about 20,000), according to a 2009 survey. In fact, a full 60% of all foreign students in Japan are Chinese. The biggest reason for this increase is doubtless China’s own globalization. A growing number of families (not merely the exceptionally wealthy) have the means to send their children overseas to study, and the Chinese government encourages it. Another contributing factor is the “300,000 international students plan” launched in 2008 at the initiative of then Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo. By making it easier to obtain scholarships and student visas from Japan than from most Western nations, Fukuda’s program led to a major influx of students from China.

The majority of Chinese students in Japan are in their 20s and thus belong to the “post-1980 generation”–meaning that they are products of Beijing’s one-child policy. Born after Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reforms in 1978, they have lived without privation for as long as they can remember and have spearheaded new patterns of domestic consumption as well as various social trends. Like the Japanese born after the economic bubble of the 1980s, they present a clear contrast with earlier generations in terms of values and lifestyle. In another dozen years or so, they will constitute the core of Chinese society, the people who will determine the direction of the nation.

In Japan these days all eyes seem focused on the impending “turnabout,” as the nation faces the virtual certainty of being ousted by China as the world’s second largest economy in 2010. It is a natural focus for the media these days in their eagerness to provide fodder for Japanese self-flagellation.

What puzzled me was this: Why have these up-and-coming elite Chinese students chosen Japan as their destination today, when rapid economic growth is a distant memory eclipsed by not one but two “lost decades,” and the entire nation is mired in malaise and frustration?

Gross National Maturity

Academics are not the only reason Zhang came to Japan to study. Eager to understand the forces that powered Japan’s economic growth in the past and to learn more about Japanese culture and history, Zhang takes advantage of school breaks to travel as much as he can around Japan. So far he has been to Kyūshū and the Kansai district around Kyoto and Osaka.

In some of the regional cities he visited, he was stunned by the deserted business districts that testify to depopulation and economic decline. On the other hand, in Kobe (where he had lived briefly in his infancy), he saw a city so thoroughly rebuilt that one could scarcely believe it was the same place reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1995, and he found himself moved by the beauty of the cityscape and the perseverance of the citizens.

“In every city I saw a well-developed infrastructure and a high level of culture, with concerts and exhibitions going on all the time,” says Zhang. “People in the regions are practically as well informed as Tokyoites. Although Japan may not have the same dynamism as before, I still think it’s a remarkable country with great strength at its core. The truth is, now that I’ve come into contact with real Japanese people, I can’t imagine how Japan could have been a militarist nation in the past.”

What does Zhang think about China overtaking Japan as the number two economy?

“This silly hype about the second-highest gross domestic product, right? Quite frankly, it’s odd to me how sensitive the Japanese are about it, talking about a crisis and carrying on over who’s ahead of whom. If you look at per capita GDP, China doesn’t even come close to Japan. Besides, these figures change from year to year. It’s a mistake to approach relations between countries in terms of which is on top and which is on the bottom. We don’t get so worked up over those statistics. China is in a high-growth period, but there’s still no innovation going on. I think our leaders are still very concerned.”

Zhang is not unique in his views. The Chinese students I interviewed had surprisingly positive views about Japan. Take Li Jing, a 24-year-old woman enrolled at a Tokyo university.

“Right now the eyes of the world are on China,” says Li, “but our economy is still dependent on exports, and all the development is concentrated in the coastal cities. There are problems with the way the economy is growing. We may overtake Japan in GDP, but people aren’t feeling the benefits of that growth. On the contrary, there’s a growing sense of inequality. And when it comes to the maturity of the society and the people’s living standards, China is far behind Japan. To me, China is still running along a different track; it’s still a developing country.”

Li acknowledges that many of her friends back in Beijing fervently believe in “China as number one” and seem more swollen with national pride each time she goes home to visit. “I was like that, too–a frog at the bottom of a well,” she admits with a rueful smile. “Until I went abroad to study, I was certain that China was the most wonderful country in the world.”

Another Chinese woman who feels Japan has broadened her horizons is Wang Ting, age 26, from Fujian Province. Wang graduated from a Japanese university and now has a media job here.

“Coming here and living in an advanced country like Japan, I came to see how diverse people’s values are,” says Wang. “I think one of the biggest benefits of studying abroad was that I stopped being preoccupied by things like borders and nationalities. I have a job now, and my life has settled down, so last year my parents came from China to visit for the first time. Once they saw how nice the streets were and how polite everyone was, they were completely reassured. They couldn’t get over the fact that their shoes stayed clean for a whole week without polishing. The Japanese take things like that for granted, but for people from the Chinese countryside, it’s quite amazing.”

Yang Guanghui, a 22-year-old fourth-year university student and a great fan of Japanese anime, speaks with enthusiasm: “When I first came to Japan, I was so impressed by every little thing, like the fact that there was always toilet paper in the station rest rooms, and the convenience stores offered so many services. The social infrastructure is in a whole different league from China’s. The Japanese people themselves may not realize what a high level they’ve achieved, but Japan has a certain calm that China lacks. It’s a society where people can get what they need. Japan may not be growing economically, but it’s a very comfortable place to live. And while it’s world ranking might drop to third, I don’t think it’s going to keep falling lower and lower.”

Getting a Leg Up

After four years in Japan, Yang began to think about finding employment here. He attended the Foreign Exchange Student Jobs Fair sponsored by Japan Data Vision, a personnel services firm to which businesses outsource the hiring of new graduates. The fair provides an opportunity for foreign students interested in working in Japan to market themselves to Japanese companies.

The ranks of elite Chinese students looking to sign on with Japanese companies have grown year by year, and they appear to be making steady inroads. This is partly because Japanese corporations, with their expanding overseas operations, have begun to seek a more diverse workforce. Some are also counting on non-Japanese employees to bring to the organization an energy and ambition all too often lacking in Japan’s blasé young people.

Another who traded his student status for a work visa is Liu Zhiyuan, age 28, who was hired by a major Japanese corporation this past spring after earning his master’s in management of technology at the University of Tokyo. Born and raised in Shanghai, Liu graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University (the alma mater of Jiang Zemin) and found a job with a European-based information technology firm in Shanghai. After working there for three years, he decided to pursue advanced studies in Japan.

“Since I’m in science and engineering, I naturally considered studying in the United States,” he says. “But there are so many Chinese students in America. An MBA is almost useless there unless it’s from a super-elite university. It might be helpful for building connections, but when you consider the cost of tuition, it would mean taking out a loan, studying, and then working like a dog on Wall Street to repay it, whereas in Japan I can cover the costs with my savings supplemented by a scholarship. And by learning Japanese as a third language, I’m killing two birds with one stone.”

For most Chinese students seeking to study abroad, the United States is still the prime destination, with Japan widely regarded as second choice. But America may not always be the best option when one considers such factors as distance and the difficulty of gaining admittance to a top university.

“It depends on your field,” says Liu, “but since my aim is to go back and enter the Chinese business world, it seemed to me that it would be more of a plus to study in Japan, which is more familiar and has closer relations with China than the United States. Although China has caught up quite a bit in technology, the Japanese are still way ahead in terms of the quality and care of their work. From the beginning I was considering employment in Japan as an option.”

According to Liu, Western companies operating in China generally have a large number of business interests in Japan as well, and where engineers are concerned, experience in a Japanese company is a major asset. Even in Shanghai, where the competition is intense, a management-level engineer proficient in English and Japanese would have a definite edge.

Stepping Off the Roller Coaster

The pressure to keep charging full speed ahead in the booming Chinese economy can take its toll. Moreover, since Chinese companies do not follow the common Japanese practice of recruiting new employees once a year from the current crop of college seniors, even graduates from elite Chinese universities have no guarantee of finding a good job at the outset. Many such graduates see Japanese companies–which are willing to pay young people fresh out of college while training them over a period of several months–as a valuable steppingstone. And even compared with businesses in Shanghai, which boasts the highest entry-level salaries for college graduates in China, Japanese firms offer much better pay–about five times as much on average.

The pressure on China’s young elite is compounded by the fact that, unless one enrolls at a remote university, living with one’s parents is the norm. Small, low-rent apartments are almost unknown in China, so young adults stay at home until it is time to marry and buy a home of their own–or, as is often the case, receive one as a gift from their parents. In any case, as the sole focus of their parents’ hopes and dreams, the post-1980 children can find the pressure suffocating. Many of them think of study in Japan as time off–an opportunity to live independently, free from parental pressure and interference. In essence, they are using study abroad as a temporary escape.

“In Japan there are people who get ahead without graduating from college, and there are people who seem to enjoy life even though they don’t make much money. It’s completely different from the value system in China today, where everything is measured in monetary terms,” says Yang. “When I first came to Japan, I had the image of a high-pressure society where everyone walks fast everywhere and puts in a lot of overtime at the office, but having lived here a while, I’ve come to see it as an easygoing society where people are considerate of one another and don’t compete so fiercely. China is like a roller coaster by comparison. Living in Japan is soothing, almost like soaking in a hot spring. Maybe living a settled, relaxed life in Japan is a kind of warm-up for me before I get on the roller coaster again.” [Laughs]

Needless to say, not everyone from China finds Japanese society so congenial. Some speak of the anguish of trying unsuccessfully to gain social acceptance from their Japanese colleagues. Liu recalls his frustration with what he saw as anti-Chinese bias in 2007 and 2008, during the controversy over tainted frozen gyōza [dumplings] imported from China.

“I was upset by the Japanese media’s one-sided reporting,” he confesses. “The government doesn’t control media coverage the way it does in China, so why were all the media outlets bashing China in unison? I couldn’t understand why one incident should provoke such a barrage of negative reporting–especially since the rule up to that point had been that the quality goods go to Japan and the Chinese eat what’s left over. I got to the point where I was thinking, ‘If they’re going to be that way, then maybe we should stop exporting so much to Japan.'”

It was shortly after my interview with Liu that Japan and China reached a resolution of sorts on the tainted gyōza incident. I found myself wondering how the Japanese would react if the same sort of incident occurred today. In the two years since the scandal, China’s economic development has accelerated, and the Japanese have become obsessed with their own failure, as seen in the media’s continual references to Japan’s being “overtaken by China.” Our image of the Chinese nation has changed markedly. One recalls how quickly the superior attitude the Japanese adopted toward the United States in the 1980s, when the booming economy nurtured the idea of “Japan as number one,” turned to an ingratiating one after the bubble burst. Is the same phenomenon occurring with China?

Insights from a Shintō Shrine

I asked Zhang Cheng to share his views on Chinese society today.

“I think China is in a transition period, just like Japan. If you took away China’s number two global ranking right now, there would be nothing left. As you know, the characters for China [Zhongguo, or Chūgoku in Japanese] mean ‘the middle kingdom,’ the center of the world. After our defeat in the Opium War, there was a long period of chaos, and at length our current system was established. But sixty years later, that system is no longer loved. The nature of the state is in question, and ethnic conflicts are breaking out. So, the government is trying to create a Chinese identity, saying, ‘This is what it means to be Chinese.’ But it’s a work in progress.

“The Chinese people haven’t acted spontaneously since the Tiananmen Incident. With the government controlling political expression, the people have kept silent and poured all their energy into making money. But I don’t think this situation can continue indefinitely. From hereon in, China is going to have to do battle with itself. We’re about to enter a very difficult period. I don’t think our government is going to have time to waste on bashing Japan or sticking its nose into Japan’s affairs. [Laughs] It seems to me, though, that in the final analysis, what our governments do is less important than how people relate to one another, person to person.”

Zhang spent two weeks in late December and early January at a Shintō shrine as part of a program that offers participants a taste of Shintō priesthood training. By his own testimony, the experience refreshed his spirit and helped him appreciate the Japanese reverence for nature and gratitude toward countless unseen kami. Zhang says he realized that there is a unique Japanese spirituality underlying the habit of cleaning even in places that no one can see or the sense that “heaven is watching” when one does something wrong. He became aware that, even though it may not ordinarily be apparent, this spirituality informs Japan’s social mores and shapes the identity of the Japanese people.

Leaving aside the concern many of us feel over the rapid erosion of this “Japanese identity,” it is certainly gratifying to hear that a Chinese exchange student was able to appreciate it with only two weeks of training.

No one forecasting world trends in the twenty-first century can afford to ignore either the United States or China, and in the latter country the post-1980 generation is poised to become the dominant force. About 80,000 members of that generation are currently studying at Japanese universities, scrutinizing Japanese society, and each day absorbing elements of Japanese culture. This is something the Japanese need to keep in mind.

Japanese society today offers a maturity that China has yet to attain, but how will it look in the years ahead? After China has overtaken Japan in GDP, will this nation remain worthy of emulation, even as “number three”?

At the moment I get the feeling that we are simply in a daze, bereft of confidence and fixated on our lost status as number two. It seems to me that we need to accept the reality of our economic decline and set about working to make Japan a society we can be proud of all the same.

Translated from “Chūgokujin ryūgakusei no shitataka na moratoriamu seikatsu” Chūō Kōron, July 2010, pp.182-189; abridged by one-fourth. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [July 2010]

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