Perhaps the only commentaries that oversimplify Japan more than the “rising nationalist” commentary are the “Japan declining” and “Young people turning inward” commentaries. Thankfully to balance Joseph Nye’s Financial Times op-ed we have Gerald Curtis, through Shelia Smith over at the Council for Foreign Relations, who has produced one of the more succinct disposals of both oversimplifications.
To be sure, Japan’s debate on national identity is in flux, its political system is pushed to a potential breaking/transition point, and the societal narrative about how to deal with a rising China has radicalized to some degree. But the issue is a far more complex one than of “rising nationalism.”* Likewise with the issue of Japan’s decline – as with the rest of the developed world this is a complex discussion, although Curtis should not need to point out the obvious that the reducing influence of the West need not be seen as an inherently bad thing. There are of course some obvious areas where Japan can clearly do much better. As do we all.
However the one narrative that particularly bothers me is the oft-repeated mantra that Japan’s youth in particular are turning inward. There is no actual evidence for this other than poor anecdotes, although it seems some (including Nye) have mistaken a decreased tendency to worship everything American for turning inwards. My own experience is that, in the cities at least, Japanese of the younger generations are considerably less, er, unusual, than the older generation when they have a conversation with my foreign self.** While there are less Japanese going to the US for work assignments and transfers and professional/graduate training (such as MBAs, although frankly that need not be a bad thing!) a careful look at the emigration statistics show that there are still plenty of Japanese PhDs and researchers going overseas (at one end of the spectrum) and a considerably higher number of “normal” Japanese travelling overseas; and usually to places less comfortable than Guam and Hawaii that the older Japanese generation are very fond of. Curtis is exactly right when he says:
Some people talk of Japan’s increasing inward lookingness, especially among young people, suggesting that there has been a decline in cosmopolitan attitudes. For someone who has been around Japan for as long as I have this is an especially puzzling observation. Has the number of Japanese who are fluent in English declined? No, quite to the contrary, there are more people comfortable in English and comfortable in non-Japanese settings today than ever before. Are young people becoming more inward looking? There is little evidence to support such a supposition. The number of Japanese who go abroad to study has not declined as a percentage of their age group. What gives the impression of inward lookingness is that the total number of people, including especially young people, has declined and that fewer of those who do venture abroad come to the United States. They are going to China and South Korea and to English speaking countries where tuition and living costs are lower than in the United States and where the competition to get into university is not as intense. Japan’s problem is that too many people in the older generations remain inward looking, robbing young people of the incentives to take risks and do unconventional things.
I have nothing else to add.
* I came across an article in my research dated 1980 which seems to be predicting more or less the same thing as many are today re: rising nationalism – I am sure this narrative stems far further back to 1945.
** To compare apples with apples.