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Culture, No.1  Jun. 4, 2010


TAKAGI TŌRU The “economic superpower” banner that Japan has proudly carried for so long has started to fade. One thing I can say from my own experience is that it is definitely getting harder to research stories overseas than it used to be.

When I first started traveling overseas as a journalist back in 1996 or so, all I had to do was describe NHK as the “Japanese BBC,” and people were generally more than happy to make time for an interview. They obviously felt that it was to their advantage to appear on Japanese TV. Nowadays, it’s a struggle to get people to even see me. And I don’t just mean in Europe and the United States–the same is true of countries like India and Turkey that are supposed to be friendly to Japan. People just aren’t interested in Japan anymore.

IKEUCHI SATOSHI There is no doubt that Japan has become a less prominent international presence–both in the Middle East, which is my area of specialization, and in Washington, where I spent about three months last year.

In the Middle East, the only sense in which people are aware of Japan at all is as an economic power. Previously, Japan was also seen as unique among Asian countries in having successfully modernized while holding onto its own traditional culture. But plenty of countries in Asia fit that description today. Nowadays, the only thing that makes Japan stand out is its economy. And even here, Japan is being squeezed by competition from China and South Korea. Whether their image of Japan reflects reality or not I don’t know, but there’s no doubt that for a lot of people in the Middle East, Chinese and Korean goods are better matched to their needs–not least in terms of cost.

In the United States, on the other hand, people are aware of Japan as a prosperous society–an economic power and a producer of high-quality goods. But they tend not to know that Japan has the world’s second- or third-largest gross domestic product. The general impression is that we’re about fifth. Only a relatively small number of Japan specialists realize that Japan is actually a bigger player economically than countries like Britain and France.

Another factor is the influence in the United States of a mind-set that looks at everything in terms of investments and short-term returns. The biggest considerations are not political–questions like “Is this country likely to be a long-term partner?” and so on. Instead, everything is approached from the perspective of the so-called investor mind. Given that Japan is undergoing zero growth while China’s economy is growing by as much as ten percent a year, the returns you can expect are obviously different. From this perspective, it makes sense to concentrate on China.

TAKAGI But Japan is not the only country with low growth–the same is true of all the world’s leading economies.

IKEUCHI Right. And some American investors do understand the advantage of incorporating Japan into their global asset structure. For these people, Japan represents stable assets and will always be attractive as a “buy” for that reason. But the opinion of these knowledgeable insiders doesn’t carry much political weight. The true homo economicus doesn’t blab to other people about the money he is making.

The Disappearing Japanese

TAKAGI In a discussion seven years ago, you remarked, “Japan has chosen a low profile for itself. Up to now this approach has been the one that worked best for the country. But now Japan stands at a crossroads and needs to decide whether to continue with the same approach or to adopt a new strategy of putting itself forward and communicating its message more proactively to the world.” Seven years on from that discussion, it seems to me that the situation in Japan hasn’t changed at all. If anything, we’ve moved further in the wrong direction. How do you see things?

IKEUCHI One reason for Japan’s waning global influence is the fact that newly emerging economies are selling products better suited to the international market. But another major factor is that the Japanese as a whole have disappeared from the international scene.

In Japan we can’t–or at least we don’t–cultivate people with the necessary skills to engage with the world to anything like the same extent as, say, China or Korea. Whether this is a good or a bad state of affairs is difficult to say. In a sense, the fact that Japan doesn’t produce large numbers of internationally oriented workers may reflect our advantages. The phrase “oil curse” describes the phenomenon seen in oil-producing countries, where political systems are often oppressive, where human resource training is limited, and where development is often either stagnant or unbalanced. Similarly, it may be the case that Japan suffers from a kind of “wealth curse.” The fact that we can always get by somehow or other on the strength of our domestic markets makes it harder for the country to spread its influence overseas.

In this sense, Japan’s position is exactly the opposite of the aggressive human resources development policies followed in the United States. In the decade or so since 9/11, the number of Middle East and Afghanistan experts has soared, and there is now no shortage of people with the skills to develop businesses in Iraq. In Japan, though, the number of people with these skills has hardly gone up at all. Japan has played a role in Afghanistan, of course, so that we now have more personnel with on-the-ground experience. But these are not exactly the kind of people you can easily assign to go and put their experiences to work in the World Bank or the United Nations. It’s not surprising that Iraq’s oil rights have all gone to Europe and the United States and China–Japan just doesn’t have enough people capable of flying in and getting the work done on the ground. We lack both the intermediate-level workers who can take charge of developing businesses overseas and the elite people with the expertise to provide leadership.

Unless the economy really tanks, it may not make sense for intermediate-level workers to choose to go to a difficult place. But things are different for the elite. The global standard is for these people to pinpoint the areas where human resource expertise is going to be needed in the future and make those areas a priority for upfront investment. I think Japan’s elite has grown complacent. They settle comfortably in elite areas and lack initiative. Often they’re not even conscious of themselves as members of the elite.

The Japanese system doesn’t build up ability or expertise in individuals. Instead, the system works to accumulate knowhow within itself. But if the system loses its energy and drive, then all the talent built up in the system fails too. And if that happens, the intellectual capacity of Japan as a whole will decline. People make excuses: That’s the way the system is, there is nothing I can do about it. But the whole point of being in the elite is that you can change the system you’re a part of. Quite frankly, I think a lack of awareness on this point amounts to dereliction of duty.

TAKAGI It really can be hard to change the system if you’re just a regular “salaryman” in Japan. But one starts to feel ashamed, hearing the same lame excuses all the time.

What Futenma Issue?

TAKAGI Since last year, the planned relocation of the US Marine Corps base in Futenma, Okinawa has been the big topic in the Japanese media almost on a daily basis. Yet there is a surprising lack of interest in the issue in the United States. Last December I had a meeting in Washington with Jim Harff, the central figure in my book Dokyumento: Sensō kōkoku dairiten [War Advertising Agency: A Documentary). I asked him what he thought about Futenma. As I half-expected, he wasn’t even aware the issue existed. “I knew the US has around fifty thousand troops in Japan,” he said, “but this is the first time I’ve heard of this debate. How far is Okinawa from Tokyo anyway?” Harff is a true Washington insider, and runs a PR company just two blocks from the White House. He came through the financial crisis unscathed and has a conduit into the political and media worlds. And he hadn’t even heard of the Futenma issue, at least as recently as the end of last year.

IKEUCHI People who aren’t in the picture really know nothing at all. But the relatively few Japan specialists, who are aware of the issue, understand quite well that it’s a problem with no solution. That’s the situation we’re in. In terms of its possible impact on the US-Japan alliance, the issue has the potential to shake the alliance only if it is turned into a political issue. Specialists on both sides know that issue is likely to become politicized if they open their mouths, so they do their best to say nothing. Even Americans start to act like the Japanese after they’ve specialized in the country for a while! But with all its pointless picking and prodding at the question, the Democratic Party of Japan has turned it into a political issue.

TAKAGI Who holds the power to influence Japan-US relations in a situation like this, where there is no longer widespread interest in Japan? You wrote a provocative piece in the Daily Yomiuri recently [December 4, 2009] arguing that the whole Japan-US relationship was now being shaped by a very limited number of so-called “Japan hands,” the kind of people we’ve just been discussing who actually understand the Futenma issue. I understand there was a big response to the article in the United States.

IKEUCHI At the moment, the problem is that the Japan hands that do exist aren’t functioning properly since new administrations came into office in Japan and the United States last year. This infusion of new blood will probably serve to strengthen Japan-US relations in the long term, but in the short term no one in the United States really knows much about the Democratic Party of Japan government. “Who am I supposed to talk to?” they ask. “Ozawa?” It’s a bit like when a new government takes power in some small country in Africa. The people in the administration don’t know who to talk to, so they grab hold of the first African they can find. “Who do I talk to?” He gives them the name of somebody and without knowing anything about him they call this person to say they can fix him up with the president. Japan now finds itself in a situation quite close to this caricature.

Another problem is that there aren’t really any English-language versions of the major Japanese media. This is a big factor in Japan’s inability to communicate its message effectively. Two of Japan’s major newspapers do have English versions, but they hardly make any effort to use them to reach out to the world. Both make very little content available online, and both have websites with very limited search capabilities. There can’t be many foreign readers who use these publications to increase their understanding of Japan.

In fact, most copies of the English editions are bought by Japanese people studying English. That way they can tell themselves they’re reading the newspaper in English. Occasionally these English editions carry translations of my articles. I try to make changes to make them more suitable for readers in the English-speaking world, but the editors tell me not to bother. “This is going to be read by English-language students in Japan, and if the Japanese and English versions don’t match our readers will get confused.” It’s absurd. Japan must be the only country in the developed world that produces English-language versions of its papers as texts for people studying English.

The Toyota Recall and the PR Deficit

TAKAGI In terms of making Japan’s presence felt in the world, there’s a big difference in effectiveness between so-called lobbying and the kind of public relations work done by Jim Harff. I don’t have a negative view of PR. As I wrote in my book, good PR is not a question of tricking people. It’s about choosing your information carefully and making sure you direct it to the right channels. This is a much safer and more effective approach.

I talked about the recent recalls at Toyota with Harff. What he told me went something like this: “I was shocked that a company of Toyota’s caliber didn’t have a crisis management communication strategy in place. If it were up to me, I’d get rid of the executives in charge of public relations, fire the PR consultants, and start over from scratch.”

IKEUCHI There’s an expression in Japan: “Position talks.” It’s a phrase that’s particularly revealing about the problems of Japanese-style communication. People will accept anything if it comes from a position of authority. It is as though the position itself were doing the talking. This means that information tends to flow in one direction only, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy.

In Japanese society, position talks. But if you want to sell products in a totally different social environment like the United States, you need to change the way you communicate. It’s not a question of whose way is right. Often the reason American companies can’t break into the Japanese market is that they aren’t communicating in the way Japanese consumers expect. When this happens, the only thing a company can do is to work hard to bring itself into line with its customers. A PR firm can help with this. Also, PR is based on the fundamental concept that it is not always enough to depend on your position to speak on your behalf. Your position within a hierarchy is not something that exists a priori: It’s only by communicating your message effectively to your audience that you establish a position for yourself at all. Understanding this fact is crucial to appreciating the significance of PR itself.

TAKAGI A few years ago, when Abe Shinzō was prime minister, a bill was passed in the US House of Representatives calling on Japan to apologize to the “comfort women” recruited to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers during World War II. This is another area where I can’t help asking myself whether Japan did all it could in terms of getting its PR message across–telling the world that when it comes to human rights and freedom and democracy, Japan and the United States share basically the same morality.

IKEUCHI At the time, some Japanese commentators banded together to place a full-page ad in one of the leading US papers, giving a one-sided view of the affair from their own perspective. But since this was a paid advertisement, they had essentially bought space in the paper, thereby undermining the credibility of what they were saying. They would have done better to have written in via the letters page, exposing the contradictions in their opponents’ arguments, and putting their case in a way that would have struck American readers as reasonable and logical. In the United States, even getting people to understand that Japan is a free and democratic country is no easy matter. How can we effectively ensure that the Japanese perspective is part of the debate within the United States? Part of the problem is that people don’t even realize how difficult it is to communicate effectively.

Being Ignored

TAKAGI If shifting to a more proactive strategy is going to be so difficult, it’s tempting for Japan just to keep on with its current low profile. But would the international community allow that?

At the end of last year, I interviewed Kent Calder and Karel van Wolferen. The two of them come at things from completely different angles, particularly on the subject of Japan-US relations. Van Wolferen insists that Japan can afford to irritate the United States as much as it likes, while Calder stresses the importance of establishing a constructive relationship. But they had one point in common. Both men agreed that unless Japan assumes a higher profile and starts to provide international leadership, it will struggle. Of course, both Calder and Van Wolferen are Japan specialists, so in a sense they need Japan to be successful to maintain their own positions of influence. But I think that as well as a sense of alarm at the prospect of Japan just vanishing from the world stage, there is also a sense that the United States can no longer afford to support Japan both politically and economically.

If this increasing invisibility continues, it will become obvious to international opinion that Japan is failing to play an active role in the world’s important issues, and criticism will mount that Japan is “not fulfilling its responsibilities.”

IKEUCHI I don’t think the world would ever forbid Japan from maintaining its low profile. We’d simply be ignored. “You keep shelling out the money, and we’ll take care of the rest.” But people would think it was strange, and they’d start to ask themselves: “What’s wrong with Japan?”

In his controversial book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington makes an interesting observation. As China builds up its economic and military power and the American hegemony weakens, he says, because Japan is essentially a “bandwagoning” country, it will align itself to Chinese influence, just as it previously relied on Britain and the United States. Japan has always taken shelter under the wing of a more powerful country. It is a pretty contemptuous way of looking at Japan, but I think he’s exactly right.

It would not be in the interests of the United States for Japan to become so close to China that it entered an arrangement similar to the Japan-US alliance. This means that the United States can’t simply sever its connections with Japan altogether. Instead, its aim is to keep the relationship at a distance–not drawing any closer but not pulling apart either. From the Chinese perspective, meanwhile, a Japan with close ties to the United States is in a stronger position than China. The Chinese don’t like this idea, so they try to weaken the Japan-US relationship. But since a complete break would lead to regional instability, the Chinese too try to keep this relationship in balance, neither too close nor too far apart.

In this context, I don’t think the United States or China is likely to criticize Japan for failing to pull its weight. They are more likely to worry about mounting frustrations in Japan about the country’s limited role. They don’t want a right-wing administration to come to power and fan the flames of nationalism.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japan’s Trump Cards

TAKAGI I think Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be taken seriously as resources we can use in terms of getting our message across to the outside world. In the Islamic world, even Osama bin Laden uses Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his speeches. Radical Muslims have often told me, “Japan is a great country. Just sixty years ago, you guys really stood up to the Americans.” Unfortunately, the next question is normally, “Why doesn’t Japan take revenge for Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

IKEUCHI I think if Japan were able to communicate its own version of what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki more effectively, it could become a winning card against the United States. This version of events doesn’t fit with the proud American self-image of itself as a country of civilization and humanitarianism, and people would be bound to ask whether there was a racist aspect to the American willingness to drop the bomb on Japan.

Japan should also take a different approach in its discussion of the war. When it comes to responsibility for World War II, for example, we have been educated that the entire country should atone and apologize for having started the war, rather than putting the responsibility onto Japan’s leaders alone. But people haven’t really absorbed the true significance of this, and the country is often criticized for the inadequateness of its apologies. In fact, no country in the world that has issued as many apologies as Japan just for fighting a war. It would be interesting to see Japan redefine the way it has apologized, and strike out ideologically by showing how high our moral position really is.

TAKAGI In Germany the war is dealt with in a clear and unambiguous way. The message that “our leaders at the time were evil,” for example, is communicated by memorial services for the victims, in a way that is visual and extremely easy to understand. But in Japan, I wonder how much effort goes into ensuring that our official position is immediately understandable to the rest of the world–for instance in connection with the historic speech that Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi delivered in 2005 on the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Also, I don’t think people in Japan understand the importance of having the upper hand morally. People say that morality has no part to play in international politics, and that jostling for position is the only thing that counts, but gaining the moral upper hand is an indispensable part of any diplomatic strategy nowadays.

IKEUCHI People don’t understand what pragmatism or morality really mean. So it doesn’t occur to them to use morality as part of a pragmatist strategy. Instead, it always ends up being one or the other.

TAKAGI President Barack Obama’s announcement that he wanted to eradicate nuclear weapons can be seen as an attempt to tie morality in with political power in that sense. It was a PR strategy based on cool calculations in the face of a genuine threat from nuclear terrorism. This is an area where Japan has much to learn.

No Alternative to Western Standards

TAKAGI If Japan is going to adopt a more high-profile approach, I think we’ll have to stop adapting to Western standards and resolve to shift the balance of the global framework through Japanese standards instead. I can’t see us achieving any real results otherwise. What do you think? In the Islamic world, the Internet age has brought people together beyond the nation-state though their shared identity as Muslims. This has given a massive boost to their presence in international society. Muslim values have even become a competing alternative to Western standards.

IKEUCHI The advantage of a shared system of values that goes beyond the state is that it makes a group less likely to fragment. Societies like China’s, for example, where very poor people and multimillionaires exist alongside each other, are almost certain to break apart. “We’re operating under a state-planned economy. So why am I so poor? The state must be leading us in the wrong direction.” But with Islam, things are different. However poor he may be, a villager in the Indonesian countryside does not conclude that there must be something wrong with Islam. And it doesn’t cause civil unrest or a decline in public order. It has only positive effects on the world. It may well be that as the process of globalization progresses, we will see the emergence of several distinct regions united by their own standards and values in the same way as Islam unites the Muslim world. But Japan will have to adopt Western standards. For one thing, Japan doesn’t have any alternatives of its own to offer.

TAKAGI You certainly put it bluntly.

IKEUCHI The only things recognized internationally as uniquely Japanese are commercial culture like anime and manufacturing methods like Toyota’s. These are both things we can be proud of, but they are never going to be alternatives to global standards. To get your standards recognized, you need the power to silence people trying to shout you down and insisting that your standards are not standards at all. However much a person may rail against the United States, no one comes out and says: “Starting from tomorrow, we will no longer recognize the dollar.” So America remains strong. The same is true of Islam. The shared understanding that Islam has its own legal system based on the Koran that no one may openly oppose serves not only to bind Muslims together but also to limit the scope of non-Muslim speech and action.

Realistically, the best thing Japan can do in terms of communicating its message to the world would be to establish in itself in a position from which it can say, “When Western standards are not suitable for Asia, we will translate them for you.” The tendency is particularly pronounced in China, but it’s something common to many countries in Asia that the authorities tend to direct people from above–a paternalistic approach. As Asia grows economically and gains in self-confidence, the regional order may move closer to the paternalistic Chinese model. This will be more difficult for Japan.

It is not a question of whether America or Asia is better; it’s simply that Asia needs slightly different standards. Otherwise, it will develop into a region with limited freedom, dominated by the leading power. Japan plays the important role within Asia of translating these other standards. I can’t see any other role we can play. This happens to be the role we have played historically as well.

We can view the European and American approach as standard and use this to influence China. At the same time, when we see a weakness in those standards, we can band together with China and the other Asian countries to bring about a change.

TAKAGI I agree that it’s hard to see any other role for Japan. There are two problems I can see with that. Included among the Western values is an acknowledgement that World War II was a just war in which the Allies, united by a shared belief in democracy and human rights, defeated the Axis powers, which were contemptuous of these values. Does Japan have the magnanimity to accept this view of history? The second question would whether Japan truly holds these values in the first place.

Translated from “Sekaijū kara Nihonjin ga ‘kieta’!?” Chūō Kōron, June 2010, pp. 175-85, slightly abridged. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha.) [June 2010]