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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 30, 2005)

Japan Needs to Establish New Human Connections and Communications

Kazuyoshi KITAOKA (President, Japan America Television Inc.)

Stifling Atmosphere in Today's Japan

In my previous essay, "Warning: Japan's Ideological Seclusion" (, I gave a warning about the attitude of "ideological seclusion" in today's Japan. Everyone seems to be looking inward, unwilling or unable to see the reality of a rapidly globalizing outside world. This is becoming a serious weakness of the Japanese people, both young and old.

One of the reasons why this kind of stifling atmosphere prevails in Japan is that people are suppressed under very old-fashioned and rather narrow human relationships. The traditional style of human connections is based on exclusive and hierarchical relationships, often formed within certain organizations such as companies and schools ("habatsu" and "gakubatsu"), and is still dominant in the workplace as well as in the daily life of the average Japanese. While such connections might be useful to protect established communities with vested interests, they have now become an obstacle to the development of a more open and creative society in the age of globalization.

As a result, in Japan there are still so few people who can launch a venture business from scratch by connecting with various kinds of specialists needed for business such as engineers, lawyers and accountants. This is because their human connections are mostly old-fashioned and confined to a certain group of people, typically their fellow "salarymen" within the same company or the same industry. Although they happen to know other specialists in connection with their business, for example, just knowing others is not enough for them to persuade others to share their objectives as well as risks.

Naturally, young people hate and reject old-fashioned human relationships. But they tend to slip into either virtual relationships such as online chats and games ("otaku"), or total withdrawal from reality ("hikikomori"). Needless to say, this is not unrelated to the fact that there are about half a million young people who are "Not in Education, Employment or Training" (or "NEET") in Japan, as well as two million "freeters" who hop around part-time jobs with no firm social commitment. Even though some of these individuals appear to engage in a variety of online activities, their worlds are often very small in reality, forming congenial relationships among a few computer geeks and maniacs. The danger is the fact that they themselves are living in illusion and never realize how narrow their relationships with others really are.

Importance of Personal Values and Opinions

In order to break the vicious circle of closed human relationships or no relationships at all, what Japan needs now is the establishment of new kinds of human connections and communications. First, a person must have his or her own values and opinions, as well as common sense. That is a minimum requirement for a person to relate to others in a socially meaningful way, because one cannot add any value to one's human relationships without one's own opinions. This is often lacking in the traditional type of human connections, where every group member is expected to accept the group's values and opinions rather than expressing his or her own.

Furthermore, a new way of communicating with others should be developed in Japan. Agreeing with everything that others say is not a good way to communicate. No communication is even worse. While following socially accepted protocols and common sense, one should express one's views and opinions and listen to others. Then try to learn from each other for a better understanding of objective facts and alternative interpretations and value judgments. As a result, one's knowledge is enriched and becomes wisdom, which is more useful for life in an unpredictable world. In this sense, it is more advantageous to connect to different kinds of people, leading to synergy, rather than to a homogeneous group of people, producing nothing new.

Once a person starts to communicate with others in different fields, one's perspective becomes wider and understanding becomes deeper, resulting in stronger interest in communicating with more people in various fields, including people in other countries. That would lead to the virtuous circle of new human connections and communications. In this process a person could meet others willing to share his or her objectives and even risks, to launch some new business or volunteer activity together. It should be emphasized that face-to-face communications are crucial to nurture mutual trust and fellowship, which will form a basis for useful online communications in the information age.

In this regard, we can learn from the Western world, where the spirit of debate and open communications can be widely observed. In fact, face-to-face communications are still crucial for Westerners in making socially important decisions in almost all areas, from job recruitment to presidential elections. As a result of social interaction across different organizations and fields, social mobility is quite high, resulting in an efficient and desirable reallocation of human resources.

In Japan there exists no real obstacle to start the virtuous circle of open connections and communications but our attitudes toward others. It is true that social policies such as education and training may play an important role to help establish new types of social relationships. But we should not use such possibilities as an excuse not to take a first step ourselves--to have our own opinions and to start communicating with others. We can do it now and the social atmosphere will change over night.

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