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Slowing Japan's Galapagos Syndrome

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Enjoy, a play by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, opens with two characters working at a comic book cafe in present-day Tokyo who spend nearly the first act solely ruminating about the etiquette of public toilets. The brilliant drama reveals the world of a Japanese generation of self-centered but lovable slackers who are accused by their peers of "destroying the future of Japan." While watching this play in Manhattan this month, it occurred to me that like these characters, who were lost in the minutiae of their own lives, Japan too has turned inward.

It's true that shyness is so common in Japan that it almost considered a virtue. Where else would one find DVDs for sale to practice "just looking" at people or "Miterudake," as the product is called? But given its cultural proclivity for and historical experience with isolation (during its policy of sakoku), the last thing Japan needs is a reason to curl up inside its shell. An isolated Japan would be especially unfortunate as it would further erode the country's relevance in international politics as well as its economic competitiveness and prosperity.

Amid economic doldrums and deflationary mentality, a declining population and growing anxiety about Japan's place in the world, and an enormous letdown after high hopes in the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), there is a danger that Japan might further withdraw. Japan's "Galapagos syndrome," a phrase originally coined to describe Japanese cell phones that were so advanced they had little in common with devices used in the rest of the world, could potentially spread to other parts of society. Indeed signs suggest it is happening already.

The first sign is the current generation of Japanese in their 30s and 40s who have been distinguished by market experts for their adeptness at online shopping and generally avoiding the rest of society. More dramatic is the number of hikikomori or shut-ins who have given up on social life. According to a Japanese government website, the figure may stand at 3.6 million or about 3 percent of the entire population. This figure is far larger than the previous estimate of 1 million by renowned Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saito.

As I argued earlier this year, Japan as a nation seems to be withdrawing and giving up on the world. Akiko Ikeda-Wei, a Japanese sociologist based in New York told me recently, "I am saddened by Japan's economic slump that has caused misery: the record-high unemployment rate and extremely unsettled and insecure feelings among thousands of Japanese employees."

Echoing many of the Japanese professionals I have met in New York, Ikeda-Wei advised her countrymen to look for opportunity away from home--and don't look back. "If I were one of them, I would forget about seeking employment in Japan and leave, and look for a volunteer job somewhere in Africa or in the Middle East and try to use this opportunity to explore something new and innovative that can help others who are in great need."

The problem is that the attitude of Japanese younger people today results in just the opposite. While her advice might be apt for many Japanese, "The fact is actually the other way around. Young people especially have become more inward-looking than ever, totally not interested in going abroad to work or to study," she said.

An odd expression of this phenomenon is in the puzzling decision this month by Japan's largest business newspaper Nikkei to dissuade readers from linking to its website. As part of its strategy to require readers to pay for access, Nikkei has stipulated that people who wish to link to its website must fill out a written application. Nikkei's print circulation surpasses that of the New York Times and even The Wall Street Journal. But in the Internet world, the move looks as if the company were saying, "We are doing just fine with our print edition, so go away, Internet."

Jean-Pierre Lehmann, a Japan expert at IMD Business School in Switzerland, has noticed a shift in attitude at companies such as Toyota Motor. In the 1980s, Lehmann would accompany Western managers to Japan to learn about its venerable production techniques. But over the course of the decade, he noticed "a subtle change." As he wrote this month in the Taipei Times, "Western management delegations continued to be politely received, but more often than not professional guides were appointed to show them around, and there was no dialogue with the Toyota managers, who previously had been keen to teach and learn. On the contrary, there was an undisguised sense of condescension toward the visiting foreign executives."

Most distressing is that, like the creatures of Galapagos, the products of Japanese research and knowledge generation are becoming increasingly evolved yet nonetheless separate from global society. As recently chronicled by Japanese economy experts Hajime Ito and Jun Kurihara, Japan leads in number of patents in solid waste management and is number two after the United States in air pollution control, water pollution control, medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology. Yet despite these impressive accomplishments, the country lags in cited research or core articles in the same fields, not even making the top ten. Why is this the case?

Ito and Kurihara point to one possible cause: Japan's lack of international cooperation in the area of knowledge creation and the falling number of Japanese students attending U.S. universities.

At elite American universities like Harvard and Berkeley, the number of Japanese students is falling and relatively small compared with their counterparts from South Korea and China. Japanese enrollment at Harvard has been declining for 15 years while enrollment from China and India has more than doubled. Only five Japanese students attended Harvard as undergraduates in 2009, and only one of them matriculated as a freshman. According to a study by the Institute for International Education, overall India is the leading sender of students to the United States, and while Japan was the fourth largest sender, its number was down by 4 percent to 33, 974 in 2008, down for a third straight year. Since 2000, undergraduate enrollment in U.S. universities has dropped 52 percent. These are figures incommensurate with the world's second largest economy.

In March, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust even made a special trip to Japan to encourage more Japanese high school students to apply to the university. Faust met students in Japan who preferred to stay in the comfort of their own homes rather than going abroad. A Washington Post article this month featured students from Japan who passed up degrees from top U.S. universities to stay in Japan.

To be sure, Japan's population is shrinking and the number of children under 15 has declined for 28 consecutive years. But these trends don't entirely explain this more inward-looking attitude, which comes from a combination of domestic political dysfunction and economic malaise that has crept into popular culture. While Japan was once a larger consumer of American degrees, "an international degree is not as valued" in Japan, Faust is quoted as saying in the Washington Post article. While U.S. college degrees are becoming ever more expensive, enrollment from developing countries India and China have nevertheless led the pack and have risen in 2008 by 13 and 20 percent respectively.

Pointing to the falling enrollment of Japanese in U.S. top universities, Ikeda-Wei told me, "Economic difficulty is already sad enough but I am even more saddened by this very short sighted, pessimistic, and unproductive attitude of young Japanese." She concluded, "If young people's attitude remains as such, it is very difficult to hope for Japan's bright future."

Okada's play Enjoy whose endearing characters brought the world of Japan to audiences abroad was made possible by support from Japan Foundation and Japan Society, as well as the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. With a declining population and exploding government debt, the future of Japanese military or "hard" power is uncertain. That is why for Japan to remain relevant, prosperous, and influential, institutions like the Japan Foundation, which is supported by the Japanese foreign ministry and promotes international exchange, and the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), which is supported by the economy ministry and promotes international trade and investment, have become increasingly important. (Full disclosure: I have worked with both institutions.)

"Isolation hurts Japan's economy, especially in services," Robert Dujarric of Temple University Japan has recently noted. "If so few Japanese conglomerates have managed to establish themselves in the premier league outside of manufacturing, it is partly due to their mono-cultural and exclusively Japanese management. It puts them at a severe disadvantage when competing with foreign rivals run by multinational and multicultural staffs." Japanese language, which is considered by experts to be among the most difficult to learn, is highly adaptive to the Japanese high-context culture but irrelevant in most of the world outside this island nation.

Institutions like the Japan Society in New York can act as powerful vectors of positive influence, coalescing Japanese innovators abroad to bring change to Japan. Unfortunately, just as the role of these cultural and economic institutions has become more critical, the mood in Japan for spending has unsurprisingly turned sour. While the government's approval rating has fallen to 24 percent, the one bright spot for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been the public spectacle he has made of the budget review process or "shiwake." Like corporate restructuring or "risutora" years ago, "shiwake" has become a word laden with controversy in Japan today--to some it is the democratization of the country's spending process, bringing openness and transparency; to others it is a sign of the country's decline and malaise. The fears were epitomized by a now-infamous comment downplaying scientific spending by a Japanese lawmaker who asked, "What's wrong with being number two?"

For Japan to slow its Galapagos syndrome, it will need to support its soft power and foreign engagement institutions. The question mark in my mind is: Do the majority of Japanese want to slow their country's withdrawal from the world or would they prefer a comfortable decline? That's to be determined.