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Explaining Japanese Parochialism

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Tokyo Report

Explaining Japanese Parochialism

Japanese face enormous obstacles understanding the world scene.

Explaining Japanese Parochialism
Credit: APEC 2013

After more than a decade in Tokyo, I am struck by the countless foreign diplomats and businesspersons who lament Japanese parochialism. They forget the huge obstacles Japanese face in understanding the world scene.

“Western software” from Europe and the New Worlds it spawned in the Americas and Oceania have lorded over the world for centuries. What Pericles said of Athens applies to the West: “We have compelled every sea and every land to yield to our daring enterprise, and we have strewn the world with everlasting reminders of deeds both bad and good.” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book 2, 41).

Western intellectual hegemony is stronger than before. China is more open to Western influence than before, as illustrated by the inflow of Chinese students to the West and much deeper personal intercourse between the Middle Kingdom and the West. Other regions, such as Central Asia, in the “non-West” are also in greater contact.

History and culture tie most of the world to the West. In the former colonies, the elites, even if antagonistic to their former rulers, are at least partially Westernized. Euro-U.S. imperialism gave birth to a global Western-centered migratory system, from which Japan is the main outlier, which has grown in recent decades now that Chinese and citizens of the late Soviet Empire can travel and emigrate freely.

But Japan was never colonized, nor even semi-colonized like parts of China (and fully for Hong Kong and Macau). Its small Asian empire was short-lived. English, Castilian, Portuguese, and Arabic boast more native speakers outside of their homelands than in their birthplaces. Chinese plays a big role in parts of Southeast Asia. But Japan’s linguistic footprint never expanded permanently. As Japanese was not superseded at home by an internationalized language (as Hindi and Bengali were by English in South Asia), Japanese is a major but “one-country only” language. Nor was Japanese religion exported as Christianity and Islam were. No more than a tiny minority of Japanese converted to the large monotheistic faiths, unlike numerous Koreans, Chinese, and Southeast Asians. Japan is shut out of the intercontinental networks of the Abrahamic denominations. Buddhism, strong in Japan, is international but without the transnational connectivity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Japanese, unlike Chinese and Koreans, will meet few individuals overseas who were born in the old country. Nor will Japanese, in a society where more than 97 percent of the residents are indigenous, find diversity at home. (Japanese themselves came from elsewhere, but so long ago that they can be called natives.) A refusal to bring in more than a few migrants, despite the demographic abyss, perpetuates this quarantine.

Japan’s amazing modernization under Meiji (1868-1912) buttressed its insularity. By the early 1900s, an independent Japan had set up its own schools and universities. Western instructors, brought in to bring the country up to speed, were then gradually dismissed. Since then, despite protestations to the contrary, latent xenophobia has defined the educational establishment. Today, Western – first and foremost U.S. – education (and emigration) is much more common for privileged Chinese and South Koreans than it is for their Japanese counterparts. Western universities are far more active in China than Japan. Moreover, to avoid economic subjugation, Japan restricted foreign enterprises. As a result, even in the early 21st century, Japan has very little foreign direct investment. Not withstanding the official mantra of the Abe administration, it won’t get a lot more.


The United States is Japan’s only ally. Political relations with Asia are underdeveloped. Japan lacks multilateral ties which members of the EU, NATO, NAFTA, ASEAN, and other regional organizations enjoy with each other.

America has been central to post-1945 Japanese diplomacy, but Japan has been relatively peripheral to the U.S. During the Cold War, America concentrated on the Soviet Union, Europe, and locales where it was fighting communism (such as Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba). Since the demise of the Soviet empire, American attention has partially shifted towards Asia, but to China rather than Japan, and also to Southwest Asia.

Despite Mike Mansfield’s hyperbole, “The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none,” Japan seldom makes it to the very top of the American agenda. In the past 25 years, nearly all of America’s NATO Allies and Australia have bled alongside their U.S. comrades in arms in multiple theaters. Japan has been conspicuous by its absence from the battlefields, further marginalizing Tokyo in Washington.

Few men and women with Japan expertise have risen to the highest echelons of the U.S. government. More broadly, almost all Americans don’t know anything about the country. Thus, Tokyo’s main “pipe” to the outside world in the realm of political and military affairs actually pays relatively little* attention to Japan. Though the alliance with the U.S. has benefited Japan (and the U.S.) enormously, the sole focus on America contributes to “disconnect” Japan from what is happening overseas (and makes Japan less valuable to the U.S.).

Own Ecosystem

Japan, with a GDP more than 20 percent larger than Germany’s and with twice as many citizens as Italy has, can still thrive within its own ecosystem. Except for trade, it requires little overseas intercourse. Ill-informed (and often monolingual) foreigners ask “why do so few Japanese know English?” The answer is simple: They don’t need it. Everything is translated and most don’t interact with outsiders. So, mastering a complex foreign language wouldn’t be more useful to them than Japanese is to a Kansas farmer.

When Japanese graduate from their domestic schools and universities, they get a job with a domestic company working other fellow Japanese with 16 fully Japanese great-great grandparents. Obviously, this is not the ideal environment to understand foreign cultures.

This feeds the insularity cycle. As most Japanese won’t be able to operate overseas, they are rarely found in multinational corporations, international organizations and NGOs and nearly invisible in global academia.

In summary, Japanese live in a world where as soon as they step off the archipelago they are foreigners. This may seem obvious, but it is actually not the case for most other nationalities. A New Zealander can fly to London and still feel “at home,” a Gabonese in France or a traveler from Buenos Aires in Miami will not be totally out of place. Any EU national can work in another member country. A Swede landing in California will still be in a society that is defined by its western European roots while an Indian will at least find many compatriots. A Chinese can discover a Chinese diaspora with well-established professionals who can explain the complexities of the local scene in almost any large foreign city. But a Japanese will really be “abroad” everywhere. Few people will have lived in Japan, counterparts in government and business are unlikely to know much about his country, and it’s unlikely anybody will have graduated from a Japanese university or will discuss a contract in flawless (or even imperfect) Japanese.

This situation is embedded in history and the economic, educational, and social structure. We should not expect to see more than a slow change – and it might be towards more rather than less isolation. What is surprising is that there are nevertheless some outstanding cosmopolitan Japanese.

Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan ([email protected]).