From Not Admitting to Not Hiding: Japan's Farewell to Inscrutability
By Noriko Hama (Research Director, Mitsubishi Research Institute)
A one-day conference entitled "Reporting Japan" took place in late April in the city of Cardiff, Wales. Journalists, academics and even the odd economist or two gathered there to discuss how the British media have reported matters Japanese over the past nine years or so. The meeting was in the nature of a follow-up to a previous "Reporting Japan" conference, likewise held in Cardiff in 1992, as one of many "Japan Year" celebratory events that took place throughout that year. 2001 being once more a Japan Year in the U.K., it was thought worthwhile to revisit the subject.
The event was certainly timely enough, with Junichiro Koizumi, the newly appointed maverick Japanese prime minister, generously displaying his long and wavy hair in the global media. Yet the findings of the Cardiff University study team on British media perceptions of Japan were by no means particularly flattering. Inscrutable, arrogant and silent were very much the reoccurring expressions that were used to portray Japan. To be sure it was very much the tabloid papers, which tended to resort to this kind of stereotyping. Still, it is after all the popular press, which are the more revealing when it comes to the general state of public perceptions. They are ignored at one's peril.
Clearly, silence has a lot to do with the other two epitaphs that tend to be attached to us. If you keep your mouth shut, people just may think you are clever, but it also leads to a lot of misunderstandings. Mere shyness and sheer nerves can all too often be taken for arrogance.
Yet lack of communication skills is by no means Japan's only problem these days. Some while ago I happened to overhear somebody on BBC television saying he had for a long time thought that the Japanese were people who did not make mistakes, but now he realizes the actual fact of the matter is that they are a people who did not admit to making mistakes. Not a very nice thing to enter Japanese ears, even via the BBC.
However, it has to be said that there is much in recent Japanese developments that actually lend validity to the commentator's statement. For the year 2000 saw a proliferation of what appeared to be very un-Japanese mishaps up and down the country. One such event was a hitherto highly respected dairy product manufacturer's shipment of contaminated milk products to distributors. Yet another well-known carmaker was exposed for a systematic cover-up operation to conceal the fact that they had been recalling defective vehicles en masse from the public over a prolonged period. Hospitals were apt to mistake one patient for another and operate for the wrong ailment. They were equally apt to leave surgical equipment behind inside patients' bodies when they operated. Going further back into the year 1999, there was the near-meltdown incident in a nuclear disposal plant in Tokaimura.
Invariably in such cases, the initial response was to pretend that nothing was wrong. So paralyzed were people with the notion of perfectionist Japan, of the zero-defect accomplishments of the past, that they simply could not bring themselves to admit that the impossible had happened. The Titanic may sink and the emperor may be naked, but people were jolly well not going to admit to such scandalous realities.
The collective inability to admit one's mistakes is symptomatic of a socio-economic system that is losing contemporary relevance and is therefore imploding upon itself. That has been the case from gladiatorial Rome down to the Pax Americana of the not too distant past. Japan's existing systems and practices at virtually every level of society are the product of the immediate postwar years, where the imperative was to get a savings-short and generally resource-starved nation back onto its feet again. Half a century on, Japan is now the largest net creditor nation in the world, one of whose major concerns is what to do with its excess savings.
The mismatch between Japan's vastly altered economic circumstances and its outdated institutions runs deep. Nowhere is this more manifest than in the banking sector. Banks still operate under the guiding principles of the savings-short era, even though the environment is now one in which money sloshes about everywhere, crying out to be invested lucratively. Small wonder that they went in for a lot of panic lending, the culmination of which is the mountain of non-performing loans with which they have landed themselves. The bad loan mountain is one among many indications of what happens when you take to not admitting your mistakes in a timely fashion.
"The owl of Minerva takes off at twilight," says G.W. F. Hegel, the German philosopher. Minerva is the goddess of wisdom and the owl is her messenger. A new age calls for a new wisdom. The old era of Japan is well into its twilight. It is about time the messenger of the new dawn was allowed to take flight. Making that happen is Junichiro Koizumi's task. Being no sufferer from the silence disease, and being fittingly eloquent in his advocacy of the "no pain no gain" way out of Japan's very many chronic troubles, Mr. Koizumi certainly seems equipped for the job. It remains to be seen to what extent he can match the richness of his words with content.
The owl of Minerva is the stuff of Greek mythology. Meanwhile, in the biblical world of the New Testament, Jesus Christ queries of his disciples: "What father among you if his son asked for a fish would hand him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg, hand him a scorpion?" (Luke 11, ll 11-13). His point of course is that if even evil men are capable, as parents, to provide good things for their children, we may be assured of overwhelmingly good things being bestowed upon us by the Heavenly Father. Yet in the emphatically non-biblical world of Japanese policy and politics, recent developments have demonstrably been all about the total inability to tell the difference between the egg and the scorpion. Fundamental reform was what we needed. In its stead, we were given one economic stimulus package after another ad nauseam.
The Japanese people's opting for Mr. Koizumi is good indication that they at least are capable of telling eggs and scorpions apart. They have expressly said no to the scorpion of wastefully poisonous public works. They would rather have the nutritious egg of meaningful reforms any day. Such a collective awareness could be the thing that takes us beyond not admitting mistakes to actually not hiding them. And if we stop hiding our mistakes, that road may actually lead us all the way back again to not making them. Concealed problems are always more difficult to deal with than revealed ones.
It is to be hoped that when next a "Reporting Japan" event is convened, the foreign media perception of Japan will have become one of a people who are able to talk about themselves openly, warts and mistakes and all. If Mr. Koizumi is able to contribute towards that end, he will have done the nation a good service.