Holiday post: Japan Times editorial calling for the removal of its own Berlin Walls


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Hi Blog.  As a holiday post (enjoy your first shard of Golden Week, everyone), here’s an excerpt of one person’s essay in the JT calling for change in Japan’s approach to the world.  Much of what is said there has been said here.  Enjoy.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo.


For Japan to thrive, the wall must come down
By ROBERT DUJARRIC, Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus
Special to The Japan Times, Wednesday, April 14, 2010, Courtesy of Kevin

More than 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall fell, yet Japan remains shut out from the rest of humanity by its own wall. Though it is a shapeless partition that we cannot touch, it nevertheless cuts off the country from the world beyond its shores. What are the characteristics of this invisible barrier?

It serves as much to prevent inbound flows as outward ones. Japan is the only major developed nation where almost none of the men and women of influence — in the realm of ideas, business or government — are from foreign backgrounds. Tokyo, as opposed to other global metropolises, has no cosmopolitan flavor. There is a striking paucity of Japanese people teaching in foreign universities, writing about the humanities and social sciences or contemporary politics in scholarly journals or mass-circulation magazines and Web sites, and working in multinational corporations, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.

This intangible forcefield harms Japan much more than is generally realized. It condemns Japanese universities, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to international irrelevance. This is not to say that Japan lacks great researchers — it has plenty of them. But they operate in an environment with few foreign colleagues and students (except for a few Asian countries), are under-represented in international conferences, and rarely publish in global journals. Thus, their ideas remain locked within the boundaries of the wall.

Rest of the article at


17 comments on “Holiday post: Japan Times editorial calling for the removal of its own Berlin Walls

  • GiantPanda says:

    Excellent article. However I get the feeling more and more these days that Japan is turning away from the outside world and back into its shell. Its as though they have decided they cannot win the race, and have withdrawn from the competition altogether.

  • jjobseeker says:

    Also agree it’s an excellent article, the opinions of which have often been, and as eloquently, expressed here. However, I too, agree with GiantPanda that there seems to be a growing sentiment among those men and women in influence to shore up the wall. To keep out the foreigners, their ideas, and especially to keep Japanese from seeing the world. After all, if the general populace start getting a taste of how things should be, they might actually start effecting change in this country through their political decisions as well as economic ones. This, of course, is a threat to “their pile (cash, power, what have you).” And they will fight tooth and nail to keep it. Sadly, the general populace is too easily swayed by scandal and image to focus on real issues. They have been bred and educated to follow and that has always been to “their” advantage. Frankly, I can’t see major change in my lifetime. But maybe…

  • I think Japan just prefers not to engauge. Since that way it does not have to answer tricky or awkward questions…nor does it have to accept the inhamanities of its past.

    The world is getting smaller, and each country, even today, Russia acknowledged its past by publishing its own merky past with Poland, come under ‘global’ scrutiny which it cannot ignore.

    This is all about openness and accountablity. Both of which does not sit well with those in power in Japan. Hence the extreme reluctance to engauge with the wider world….in any form.

  • Mark Hunter says:

    Hate to burst your bubbles people, but where is the evidence that Japan actually needs to open to anyone? Knee jerk reactions aside, I challenge the critics of current Japanese policy to show exactly how the status quo is leading the country to ruin? Yes, the growing age of the population is an issue, but where are the arguments to convince us that change actually must happen? Why can’t Japan have 50 years of semi hard times followed by a long future of Swiss-like obscurity? (devil’s advocate)

    — Er, because a hardworking, well-educated, kind, gentle, and peaceful people deserve better?

  • “– Er, because a hardworking, well-educated, kind, gentle, and peaceful people deserve better?”

    The question isn’t do they deserve better, it’s do they want better.

    And that’s the problem with this analogy, do the Japanese people really want a change? The people in E. Germany did, I don’t think the vast silent majority of Japanese want to change. They’re happy with their place in the world today. They’re complacent, generally happy, and content to go about their daily lives as long as nothing threatens their routine.

    And that’s why Japan will never make a serious jump in any direction without something serious rocking the boat. Because the people are generally happy with the status quo.

    — Or believe that there is nothing they can do to change it. I wouldn’t conflate complacency with happiness.

    We’re not being terribly scientific here. Opinion polls, anyone, and done with a lack of typical media bias that tries to show that “We Japanese all just one happy family here”?

  • I feel Japan will continue on this course until some catastrophe befalls it that breaks up the status quo. Or when people demand directness and accountability in Japan’s obscure, and ambiguous political environment, and do away with the idea of “harmony”.

    Japan is slowly sinking into obscurity and I think their elite like it this way, no accountability, and a tame populace.

  • “Yes, the growing age of the population is an issue, but where are the arguments to convince us that change actually must happen? Why can’t Japan have 50 years of semi hard times followed by a long future of Swiss-like obscurity? (devil’s advocate)”

    Why would anyone want 50 years of semi-hard time? I’m sure there’s a few generations that don’t want to spend most of their adult lives paying for their parents’ mistakes for their children’s sake. I don’t think it really matters much what today’s aged population wants, especially if what they want negatively impacts future generations. Japan is going downhill towards a brick wall and in a few years it will be too late to hit the brakes.

  • >almost none of the men and women of influence — in the realm of ideas, business or government — are from foreign backgrounds.

    I doubt it. Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank Group and the richest person in Japan is a naturalized citizen. Sadaharu Oh, the former head coach of the national baseball team, is not a Japanese citizen but a Tiwanese. There are several Diet members of “foreign background” like Renho or Turunen marutei.

    — That’s two dietmembers. One baseball coach. One shachou. Now stack them all up against the number of people in similar positions of power and see if that comes out to more than 1.7% (i.e. the registered NJ population). Just pointing out a couple of exceptions does not void the original assertion of under- to near-nonexistent representation.

    And a cursory search of the web reveals that Son-san is not the richest person in Japan. Do your homework before commenting.

  • I tend to put all the blame with the amakudari system that promotes thoughtless spending, and comfortable inaction. People try to escape from the problems they face by just ignoring them or half assing the solutions.

  • ho is talking complete can this be classed as international.
    sons grandfather came to japan from korea –
    oh was born in tokyo to a japanese was renho.

    how can these people be classed as examples of an international elite?
    that these people are being used as examples of foreigners just shows how racist the system is.

  • Does Japan need to change, or not? While most people in Japan will enjoy a happy life for many more years to come, decline is evident. I also agree that change is necessary, and new, foreign ideas can help.

    Today’s Japan Times has an interesting article on that subject:

    Reliance on technology may leave Japan behind
    Lack of understanding of emerging markets, poor productivity hinder firms’ global growth

    The data about decline are mentioned:
    “Japan spent ¥19 trillion in R&D, had 710,000 researchers in natural science, humanities and social science fields and newly registered 140,000 patents in 2007 — all ranking No. 2 in the world. Still, Japan fell from the world’s No. 3 in 2000 to 13th in 2007 in per capita gross domestic product, while slipping from the top position in the Swiss-based International Institute for Management Development’s competitiveness ranking in 1993 to 24th in 2007, he observed”

    Most people are still happy, because they have enough money. However, with the above mentioned trend continuing, there will be more people with less money, and becoming less happy.

  • Debito, I made that small list because the author wrote “almost none are from foreign backgrounds”, not “below population average”.

    Masayoshi Son was the richest person in Japan in 2007 ranking 129th in the world. You can check it here.
    If you need more, I can list Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Motors (Stock code 7201), Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony (6758), Song Wen-Zhou, former CEO of Softbrain (4779), Ying Luo, CEO of GNI (2160), 厳浩, CEO of EPS (4282) and so on in the business world.

    In the sports world, I can list Harimoto Isao, Kisugasa Sachio, Asashoryu, Hakuho, Koto-Oshu, and so on.

    Still “almost none”?

    — Pretty much. 屁理屈をよして。

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    HO and Debito, when we say “background”, are we talking about ethnic background or cultural background?

    Most of the people mentioned above have partial non-Japanese backgrounds, but are culturally Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was raised in Japan (he played at Koshien in high school) Harimoto and Kinugasa are also culturally Japanese.

    Fortunately, in the world of baseball at least, being ethnically and culturally foreign is less of a barrier than it once was. Bobby Valentine is one of the most beloved managers in the game; Marty Brown has also been successful, and Tuffy Rhodes stayed with the Buffaloes long enough (over 10 years) to be taken off the “foreign player” list and become “assimilated”, as it were.

    If we see a guy like Tuffy return as a coach and maybe manager, we’ll know that NPB is making some real progress. (Not having received any offers this year at age 41, he’s back in the US coaching at his son’s school. He might be permanently retired from playing now.)

    I suspect that the total comes out to less than the 1.7% that proportions would dictate, but in baseball at least, I’m not ready to give up. In the world of sports, talent is what matters, and teams and leagues who don’t see that will fall behind.

    — Well, bear in mind to whom we’re talking. To apologists and pedants like HO, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a matter or culture or ethnicity. We’ll claim one thing when Japan is being criticized, claim the opposite when it’s being praised, and probably use the same data. We’re not on a search for truth in a discussion with this person. We’re only here to defend Team Japan. And keep the Walls that Dujarric mentions intact.

  • GiantPanda says:

    The problem goes two ways. It’s not just the acceptance of those with “foreign” background (ethnic or cultural) within Japan, its the drive of Japanese to go and make something of themselves in the outside world. There are a handful of brave, talented and brilliant individuals, but they had to push mighty hard against some pretty heavy cultural programming. And most of them never go back to Japan.

  • I have to laugh at the Sumo wrestlers listed by HO as supposed evidence of openness to foreigners, when very recently sumo’s response to their success was to further limit participation in the sport by foreign-born wrestlers (naturalization doesn’t even enable them to be counted as Japanese). Hakuho, et. al., are people who succeeded here in spite of barriers, and bringing up sumo only serves to further support the arguments in Dujarric’s piece. Consider Ichiro, Matsui, and other baseball players in the US; it’s practically unthinkable that Major League baseball would respond to their success by putting limits on non-American players.

  • Lets be honest guys,even Japanese with their beloved baseball are sure to ignore the fact that a player is a foreigner from time to time. That being said, perhaps many fans are open minded because they understand and respect a players skill no matter where he is from. If this is so, and a Japanese person can actually cheer for a foreign player, then perhaps that same Japanese person might not be one of the ones gawking, talking loudly, bullying, or being racist against foreigners in public.

    Humans can more easily accept a black football star than a black president, just as a Japanese can more easily accept a Caucasian sumo star compared to a Caucasian voter.

  • “Humans can more easily accept a black football star than a black president, just as a Japanese can more easily accept a Caucasian sumo star compared to a Caucasian voter.”

    I realise this post from Matty is old hat (almost a year ago to the day), but I chanced on it today and I’m amazed nobody’s picked up on it before. Bloody hell, Matty, look what you’re saying:
    1) You’re comparing and contrasting “humans” and “Japanese”, not a wise move, and
    2) Who are you referring to as “Humans”? I expect most Zambians, Angolans, Congolese etc. etc. have no problem with the idea of a black president.

    I’m sure you’re a nice guy and weren’t setting out to offend anybody, but, especially on a site so concerned with racial issues, be more careful, mate!

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