Who says Japan wants to become like Europe?
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
As a spin-off to Japan's co-hosting of the World Cup numerous articles have appeared in the foreign press describing Japan in a manner that is rarely reflected in newspapers overseas. The little that people outside of Japan know of this country is dominated by reports on Japan's business culture and industrial capacity leaving most ignorant of who the Japanese are as a people. However, via football a number of people have come to know Japan somewhat better. The problem is that the message may be distorted somewhat with news writers often reporting the superficial without knowledge of the reasoning that lies behind what is apparent to the eye.
This week's media review will introduce one such article that appeared in the Spanish daily El Pais entitled, "Football Rises, Japan Falls" on June 30. The author of which is a journalist named John Carlin who is half-Spanish and half-American. The importance of introducing this article lies in the fact that many Spanish readers, including those in South America, will be influenced in their opinion towards Japan by the conclusions reached in this article, a fact that Japanese need to be aware of if they want to change their image overseas.
The article in question captured Japan as a country caught between stagnation and rejuvenation and concluded with the notion that Japanese wanted to become like the Europeans. Like people who understand what quality of life means.
John Carlin began his article by describing the public's response to the success of the Japanese national football selection as the emergence of a new, permissible form of nationalism. Something that hasn't been seen on the streets in Japan since its victory against the Russians in 1905. In describing the scenes on the Japanese streets after their victory against Tunisia, Carlin commented that the Japanese were dancing like the Brazilians, the Spanish and the Argentineans do after their sides win a big game. He compared Japan's fanaticism to an exploding champagne bottle after having been capped for too long.
As the Japanese waived their flags in a nationalistic fever, Carlin asked "but what does this benign nationalism consist of? What is this national identity that has sprung up so spontaneously?" The answer was that nobody knew with certainty, "the only thing that was certain," claimed Carlin "was that people were breathing a new air in Japan". The question was, what did this consist of and where was this going?
After posing these questions the author turned to describe the cold, cramped and sub-human conditions in which the Japanese live. He commented that below the superficial aspects of Japan where trains run on time, where all is neon pink and where the face shows no signs of the heart, there lies an autocratic system that is resistant to change.
He went on to document the political corruption of the LDP, to paint the islands in a monotonous concrete gray and to portray the Japanese as robotic people whose only moment of escape was on the train when they all took a break to sleep, some with their mouths open and others better behaved.
"Japan is the only industrialized country that is a net exporter of people", claimed Carlin on the second page of this lengthy article. The reason being that the society in which they live places mental borders from within which no one is permitted to differentiate themselves. It is a regimen that worships order and dismay's individualism. Of course not all is bad, claims Carlin. As a result of this "robotic" discipline Japanese have produced a society that is safer than almost any other, so safe that women can walk through Tokyo anytime of night without fear.
However, this does not compensate for the negatives, states Carlin. Life is miserable, people are forced to live in tiny apartments, they commute in packed trains, they have few places to go for leisure and have little time away from work.
In terms of Japan's hospitality Carlin has little good to say about Japan. He comments on their love-hate relationship towards foreigners and reports on an experiment where a foreigner called twenty hotels in Tokyo to request a room during the second week of the World Cup and was told that there was no room. Later this foreigner had his secretary call the same hotels with the response being that almost half had vacancies. It was no wonder, stated Carlin that Japan ranked 32 in the world in tourism statistics behind Tunisia and Croatia.
In conclusion, the author spoke of the admiration that Japanese felt towards Europe. Unlike Americans, who work too much and have no history, Europeans have a refined culture of siestas and wine. They also know how to play football, which is no doubt the new passion in Japan. Europe, claimed Carlin, was a continent where values of individualism, responsibility and prudence come together in a peaceful manner giving rise to new and creative initiatives which better the group and the individual. He ended his article by quoting an Asahi Shimbun article, which stated that the World Cup has helped Japan deal with diversity, something that will help Japan reconstruct its identity.
Although, John Carlin's bias as a European is noted, there is truth behind the idea that Japanese often admire and hope for an easier life. One with more vacation, more family time and less commuting to work. Nevertheless, the picture put forward was extremely negative and ill conceptualized. Although Japanese may want some of the comfort that Europeans have they do not want to become European. Many take pride in being Japanese, a concept that is transforming and allowing for multiple identities as younger generations continue to challenge and invent new traditions.
Admittedly, not all is well with Japan. There are xenophobic elements, which need to be dealt with in a healthy way. A struggle that needs to be led by the government and followed up through the media with a commitment to eliminate all forms of racism. The economic and political situation remains bleak with little progress being made in terms of reforms. However, not all is gray in Japan. While the larger cities may be rather intolerable for most foreigners, rural Japan offers tranquility rarely available in most parts of Europe.
Although there are many other issues that can be discussed to refute the arguments put forward by Carlin, it is sufficient to state that Japan's hosting of the World Cup has opened new doors for Japan to offer an alternative glimpse of its people and land. In some respects, this opportunity has done much to reinforce previously held attitudes of Japan as a difficult place to live. Nevertheless, the world is now more receptive to Japan. The world see more than a product that states, "made in Japan" but now know the faces behind them, screaming and cheering, even crying for their team over something that both Japanese and the rest of the football loving world have in common: a passion for the game.