For Japan to thrive, the wall must come down

More than 20 years have passed since the Berlin Wall fell, yet Japan remains shut out from the rest of humanity by its own wall. Though it is a shapeless partition that we cannot touch, it nevertheless cuts off the country from the world beyond its shores. What are the characteristics of this invisible barrier?

It serves as much to prevent inbound flows as outward ones. Japan is the only major developed nation where almost none of the men and women of influence — in the realm of ideas, business or government — are from foreign backgrounds. Tokyo, as opposed to other global metropolises, has no cosmopolitan flavor. There is a striking paucity of Japanese people teaching in foreign universities, writing about the humanities and social sciences or contemporary politics in scholarly journals or mass-circulation magazines and Web sites, and working in multinational corporations, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.

This intangible forcefield harms Japan much more than is generally realized. It condemns Japanese universities, especially in the humanities and social sciences, to international irrelevance. This is not to say that Japan lacks great researchers — it has plenty of them. But they operate in an environment with few foreign colleagues and students (except for a few Asian countries), are under-represented in international conferences, and rarely publish in global journals. Thus, their ideas remain locked within the boundaries of the wall.

This sad state of affairs deprives the country of international influence. As so few Japanese thinkers are heard abroad, the intellectuals, business and government leaders, activists and others who set the worldwide agenda in areas as diverse as economic priorities and fisheries managements are very rarely Japanese. Japan has an enormous stake in climate-change policy, but not one Japanese is playing a key role in shaping the global debate on the issue.

Isolation hurts Japan’s economy, especially in services. Unlike their industrial counterparts, service companies such as hotels, transportation, Web-centric businesses, entertainment and software businesses require a global mind-set and cultural awareness to be successful overseas. If so few Japanese conglomerates have managed to establish themselves in the premier league outside of manufacturing, it is partly due to their mono-cultural and exclusively Japanese management. It puts them at a severe disadvantage when competing with foreign rivals run by multinational and multicultural staffs.

The wall is partly to blame for the country’s greatest handicap. In the past decade, feminization has made great strides worldwide. The situation is far from perfect, but many societies are now making much better use of the talents of the half of the population that happens to be female. One reason Japan is so far behind is that it is cut off from these global trends.

How can Japan, in former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, tear down this wall? One way is to encourage Japanese to make a name for themselves overseas. Universities could give preference to professors who have both studied and taught for several years overseas and publish in foreign journals. Government agencies could make service abroad in international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization a major asset when considering hirings and promotions.

In the private sector, hopefully more businesses will realize that success, especially but not only in service industries, calls upon a global mind-set. This will entail hiring more foreigners in management positions and internationalizing Japanese staff. Anybody familiar with the Japanese hospitality industry — hotels, airlines, airports — knows how much more competitive it would be if it were more international and less parochial.

Japan has made a remarkable effort to welcome foreign students. But for Japan to attract dynamic and ambitious young men and women, they must be convinced that, though they are not Japanese, they will be able to join the business and academic elite of the country.

Knocking down the wall will be hard. As was the case with Berlin’s barbed wire, it protects the establishment. Japan’s best and brightest will benefit from cultural globalization, but many men who have been sheltered by the barriers that surround Japan (and from competing with women) will find the process traumatizing. But if the nation is to thrive in the 21st century, the wall must go.