Shifting Society 18 - Japan's dual challenge: how to generate ideas and communicate effectively in English

Effective communication:
"The Whisper" by Bella Brisel

With the emergence of China as Asia's largest and most aggressive economy, Japan has been left to wonder how it should safeguard its position as a major force on the international stage. Already, in its own perception at least, its relative position has been downgraded by the formation of the G20, which has effectively replaced the long-standing G8 structure. The G8, originally formed as the G6 in 1975, with Japan as the only non-Western member, was subsequently enlarged to include Canada and Russia to form the G8.

The enlargement of the forum no doubt reflects the gradual shift from a Western, largely US-driven world order to a multi-polar world, where China and India and Brazil and other emerging powers now form part of the decision-making processes. As such, the "dilution" of the G8 does not only concern Japan but Western nations as well. Yet it is arguably Japan that feels most sidelined by the new line-up. Why is that?

Ever since its defeat in 1945 the Japanese have been extraordinarily sensitive to how they are perceived in Western – especially American – eyes. Over time they came to feel that their economic and technological achievements and their unwavering dedication to peace had rehabilitated them to what they called in the 1960s "A-class status" among the world’s nations. Having attained this status as formalized in their G6 inclusion they then apparently came to regard it as a kind of inalienable right, not in need of constant maintenance by proactive diplomacy or independent initiatives. What they failed to see is that sustaining a high GDP alone is not enough: energetic involvement on the world stage is equally important.

Outside Japan the prevailing opinion seems to be that Japan's actual voice in the G6-G8 structure has always been weak. The country has been seen as following America's lead on most issues, and not advancing proposals of their own. Their passive attitude has been blamed on both an absence of ideas and poor communicative skills.

The problem is not confined to foreign affairs either. The newspapers are replete with columns demanding a clearer and more persuasive voice from the country's leaders, be it in academia, national politics, corporate management or, indeed, diplomacy. We are not talking about know-all foreigners wagging an opinionated finger at the Japanese: the majority of these articles and reports are by Japanese writers and commentators.

Introverted trees, Tokyo 2010

Below is a selection of opinions gleaned from the press over the past year. They are aimed variously at Japanese ineffectual communicative skills, the paucity of original thinking, and a reluctance to speak up.

On China's rise: "China has been blessed with leaders that have a long-term and strategic vision to rank among the world powers… China is several steps ahead of Japan… Experts…slam Japan's foreign policy as nonexistent, saying its leaders need to …send out 'meaningful messages.'" (Motofumi Asai, a former diplomat and now president of the Hiroshima Research Center, quoted in the Japan Times, 01-01-2010)

On Toyota's ongoing problems: "As was vividly illustrated by the obfuscating delays by its …chief executive officer, Akio Toyoda …Toyota has a serious global communication problem. That problem is a reflection of a broader Japanese weakness in foreign languages, especially in English. But as a dominant player…that excuse is just not good enough." (Jean-Pierre Lehmann in the New Straits Times, Singapore, 04-22-2010)

On English education: "Japan seems to be the only country …where high school English-language textbooks are full of the native language of the learners…. Never has this author encountered a Japanese high school [English] textbook where the learners are given a command or instruction in English." (Najma Janjua, in The Japan Times, 03/31/10)

On voicing opinions: "In Japan an opinion is regarded as something very personal. To criticize another's opinion is easily taken as a personal attack." (Masaru Tamamoto, Japan, quoted by Joan Veldkamp in the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, 04/15/09)

On the effect of expected international financial and accounting regulation on Japanese banks: "Japan lacks a voice both in the regulation of capital adequacy ratios and the review of account standards…Japan is overwhelmed by superior numbers at the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision." (Masaki Masuda, in The Daily Yomiuri, 07/29/09)

Professor T. Masukawa,
Nobel Prize laureate

On the role of English in academic communication: "As a scientist, I want to communicate with people around the world. I could have done that if I was able to speak English." (Prof. T. Masukawa, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics, as quoted in the The Daily Yomiuri, December 2008)

On the absence of open debate: "In 10 years or so…Japan could lose its status vis-à-vis the rest of Asia. Stagnation is already having a big impact…Most troubling is the absence of open debate about these matters…Hard questions are not asked, and straightforward answers are considered too crude to be given." (Guy Sorman, French philosopher and economist, The Japan Times, 09/19/09)

On the new Japanese government's desire for an "equal partnership with the U.S.: "But people in the U.S. would say they welcome an 'equal partnership' with Japan if Japan is willing to become more involved [in dealing with global challenges.]" (Yukio Okamoto, former diplomat, now president of his own consulting firm, quoted in The Japan Times, 10/29/09)

On the state of interpersonal relations: "There is this lack of communication. There has been a sharp increase in the number of people suffering from depression…Individuals maintain shallow relations with each other." (Psychiatrist and well-known commentator on social issues Rika Kayama, quoted in The Japan Time, 01/01/10)

On the international ranking of Japan's top-level universities: "Japanese universities don't rank high partly because professors lack international networks with other researchers around the world and aren't quoted very much." (Prof. Motohisa Kaneko, University of Tokyo, quoted in The Japan Times, 01/04/10)

These are just some of the voices urging a stronger voice for Japan, both in terms of generating ideas and communicating them in English. But there is little evidence that the country's leaders are listening. A rather extreme example of the government's ignorance of the need for effective (English) communication was provided by Mr. Kazuhiro Haraguchi, Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications in a speech given on January 14 before the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. The assembled journalists were given a copy of the speech, in English, which the minister then read out. The speech, I am sorry to say, was partly incomprehensible, because of the woeful quality of the minister's English. For what are we to make of sentences like "The disparity extends and the fascism expands by the energy of malice and discriminated sorrow?" Whether the culprit was a translator or the speaker himself I don't know, but the performance surely was problematic for a minister of communications.

A root cause of the problem may well be the essentially introverted nature of Japanese society, which places "feeling" higher than rational arguments. The very traits of "traditional Japan" that have been praised by generations of aficionados of Japanese culture – modesty, group consciousness and a reluctance to stand out or take the initiative – have proved to be serious handicaps in the age of globalization.

Can we expect a change of direction now that Japan is mercilessly exposed to the eloquent rhetoric and aggressive initiatives of an ever more interdependent world? Well, perhaps. But first there must be widespread realization that this is indeed a matter of the highest priority. For starters, the educational system must be revamped with the aim of teaching the young the crucial importance of independent thinking and fluency in English.

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© 2010 Hans Brinckmann