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Japan Must Open Up

This article tries to address Japan’s major weaknesses and proposes a handful of policies which could help Japan recuperate its position and influence in the World

Japan at Night, May 2014 (source: NASA, https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/30517)

Japan is the World’s most technologically modern and mature society and belongs to the handful of nations that can teach the rest of the planet how to move forward on the path of technological progress and sustainability. Japan has however fallen in a trap where it has remained for the past two decades: stagnation. Japan’s stagnation is not only economic. Japan has become a stagnated society. This article tries to address Japan’s major weaknesses and proposes a handful of policies which could help Japan recuperate its position and influence in the World.

A handful of intellectuals from Spain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Regenerationists, were in a position to propose home improvement because they were brutally honest. Nobody likes to be brutally honest. We all like to think that we are smarter than we actually are, that we are more handsome than we actually are, that we are better drivers than we actually are, that we are in better shape/health than we actually are. For instance Americans will never recognize that they have a serious issue with guns, the (private) healthcare system and defence. The Germans will never recognize that their management of the Euro crisis with a policy largely relying on austerity measures has been a failure, particularly for Southern Europe. So on and so forth…

The problem with a brutally-honest attitude is that one can only receive retaliation from the counterparty if in addition there is not a proposal for recovery. This will be the approach with Japan in this article, namely to offer a proposal for recovery once the major weaknesses have been identified.

Japan is today an over-indebted, old and patriarchal society, economically stagnated, afraid of foreigners and functioning on a male-predominating corporate culture. Japan needs to open up and welcome more migrants and more tourists. Japan needs to export more students abroad which could only enrich Western University campuses. Japanese need to reduce working hours, relax and enjoy la dolce vita that Italians have invented and to which Southern Europeans are so used to, particularly the Greek and the Spaniards. In the meantime Greeks, Italians and Spaniards could learn to work harder and more productively as the Japanese do.

If the World were to find inspiration in one country it would be Denmark, New Zeleand or Japan. Japan is the sixth’s most peaceful country in the World. The only three categories where it fails in The Global Peace Index are Women in parliament, Gender ratio of population and Hostility to foreigners. Japan’s income inequality was also one of the World’s lowest although in recent years the Gini coefficient measuring income inequality has skyrocketed from 24.9 (1993) to 37.6 (2008). Japan’s public debt over gross domestic product exceeds 200% although a majority is in domestic hands so usury does not necessarily take place.

The Japanese are extremely bad English speakers. Any person who has had exposure to Japanese colleagues will realize that on average their English is very poor, probably worse than that spoken by the neighbouring Chinese. In the article “Why are Japanese so bad at English” Ken Seeroi reviews the reasons that explain this weakness. Seeroi remarks that “There’s a huge difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it”. Seeroi adds:

Everywhere they look, most of the words are still in Japanese. The majority of the people look Japanese. It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist, except on TV. The chances of a Japanese person having to use English appears to be about on par with needing an abacus. So in the schools it gets scarcely more attention than Art class or P.E., not that those aren’t also great subjects.

Japan has to open up and encourage travelling and studying abroad as well as receiving more migrants. In order to do so it is vital that Japan joins a larger space like that of Australia and New Zealand, or more particularly Canada and the European Union. Japanese should be freely able to travel, study and work in the European Union (Schengen Agreement), and reciprocity would allow Europeans to travel, study and why not settle down in the Far East.

Japanese society is aging. There is no need to claim this is an urgent priority when we look at the most recent population pyramid to the discussion. Japan needs to both incentivize births and embrace some of the younger population from the developing World. The same urgency applies to countries like Italy or Spain where current demographic growth is negative and where moreover fertility rates should return to the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. For instance France and Ireland in Europe have managed to maintain fertility rates above the replacement threshold. We all know that the French are great lovers, Mademoiselle.

The question with aging societies in the developed World is how we as a society will be able to maintain the pension and the welfare systems for the elderly if the number of retirees outnumbers that of employed. In the meantime billions in the developing World remain unemployed. These asymmetries will have to be corrected sooner or later directly (anticipating to collapse) or indirectly (reacting to collapse).

Japan’s hostility to foreigners may undermine the country’s ability to attract permanent residents and tourists. In 2011 there were 1.18 million Japanese living abroad. For the same year the number of registered foreigners in Japan was 2.07 million, an amount that has practically doubled since 1990. According to the Japan Tourism Management Company the number of foreign visitors in Japan has practically doubled since 1994 and exceeded eight million in 2012. This number is well below that of other developed nations (in per capita terms) with similar or worse infrastructure levels as those of Japan, particularly France, Spain or Italy. A recent article on The Japan Times explains why incoming tourists are on the rise “The growth in the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan is attributable not only to the cheaper yen but also to simplified visa procedures for visitors from Southeast Asian countries”. More efforts can and need to be embraced in order to maintain this growth and diversify it as around 80% of tourists are coming from Asia alone:

Nationwide efforts must be launched to use multilingual signs and other information tools at tourist spots and facilities such as hotels and restaurants used by foreign visitors. The government and the tourist industry must work out effective ways to make tourist resources such as scenic areas, cultural assets and hot springs attractive and easy to reach for foreign visitors.

Six Japanese Universities rank in the World’s top 100 according to QS World University Rankings 2013. Five Japanese Universities rank in the World’s top 200 according to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014. The Erasmus Program has been a clear success since its inception in 1987 in the European Union. A similar program with Japanese and Canadian public Universities should be a priority for both the Canadian and the Japanese governments. Japanese students would leave the island mentality behind and be exposed to an international environment where they could learn to not be hostile to foreigners and significantly improve their English skills, and why not skills in other important languages like French or Spanish. Japan attracts 4% of the World’s 3.7 million international students, behind the United States (18.5%) or the United Kingdom (10%). More availability of English curricula and more exchange programs with European countries could boost the percentage and approach it to France’s or Germany’s which hold a 7% market share according to the OECD. QS Intelligence Unit blatantly concludes “The English language seems to be a big factor in attracting students, which has seen many non-Anglophone countries offer courses in the language”.

Let’s review Japan’s strengths: the World’s most technologically advanced country, one of the World’s most peaceful and wealthiest societies, the World’s leading exporter, a strong performer in education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, full employment… Japan is closest to an ideal society if there were to be Thomas Moore’s Utopia.

As it is said in the Spanish language: Japan must put the batteries on (Japón debe ponerse las pilas). Otherwise it risks remaining an old and stagnated society.

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