Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

How Japan sees the world and its own place in it?

Reflections after participating in the MIRAI program of intercultural exchange
17 January, 2018 - 18:13

Informal training sessions, which aim at improving mutual understanding between different nations, have long been part of foreign policy toolkit of international organizations and states. For a state, intercultural exchange is a great opportunity to inform the world of itself or exert ideological influence. Japan, which has long been characterized by some degree of marginalization in international public policy, launched a program of student study visits as late as 2015, which covers Asian, European, North and Latin American directions and is intended to attract more than 5,000 people per year. It was in the framework of the European direction of the program, called MIRAI (“The Future” in Japanese), that I visited Japan in early December.


Following the American model of public policy, the MIRAI deals primarily with international reputation. At the same time, it emphasized its difference from that of the States, which I will tell about first (although it came up at the end of the program of my visit). At the last session at Waseda University, the final task was a discussion question: “Is the Japanese export of sustainable development innovations an alternative to establishing a global agenda and international diplomacy?” As to the alternative, the logical question arises: Why is diplomacy not effective for Japan? Therefore, it would be appropriate to mention the state which is actively using international diplomacy, that is, the US. We discussed the issue in a group of eight European and two Japanese students.

Somewhat timidly – not because they were reluctant to reveal it, but because they were personally timid – the Japanese students reminded us that Japan had never been the initiator of any UN project. Almost always, such projects are proposed by the States, the initiatives of which Japan approves and finances. After all, it has been Japan that provides most funding to the UN. The tacit agreement to provide the States with an international diplomatic advantage does not negate Japan’s need for self-promotion in business, so the alternative is the export of sustainable innovation that is designed to help other countries and strengthen the international image of Japan.


Before my trip, I heard little about the ecological component of Japanese technology, as I associated Scandinavia with the primacy in the sustainable development. I recall a Japanese mentor of the program noting during a conversation at a Tokyo skyscraper that the Japanese welfare model was much more similar to the Scandinavian model rather than the neo-liberal American one. Meanwhile, a participant from Finland told us about the popularity of Scandinavia among the Japanese. Many of them move there because it offers attractive social security provisions for people with disabilities. But there are quite a few tourists too, and perhaps shared values play a role in that as well, indeed.


Now, let us turn to my impressions from the first day in a lecture hall of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. It was the very first lecture that confused the audience made up of European students. Its theme was: “Do we really need business leaders?” “Name the business leaders in your countries,” the lecturer asked. Participants with Western ideas about business leadership listed successful businessmen. It was necessary to listen to the presentation to the end in order to understand the Japanese notions, and it was a quite confusing experience. The lecturer is a Japanese researcher and economist, author of a book about Japanese entrepreneur Eiichi Shibusawa, an entrepreneur who developed the corporate environment of Japan during the Meiji-era modernization. Though he worked in business, Shibusawa was primarily a social entrepreneur; his goal was not the individual enrichment, but the economic development of Japan. Actually, Shibusawa came to develop Japan’s economic capacity from the Japanese government, seeing it as a greater positive influence for modernization.

It was not about individual enrichment, but about social development. Quite different paradigms. Looking at the handout from the lecture now, I see that the lecturer deliberately started the discussion with an unclear definition of business leaders so as to contrast Western and Japanese notions. For this, he offered comparative tables of the Western and Shibusawa capitalism, where the first runs on growth, while the second sees cooperation, morality and fair play as important. And the following definitions were proposed: “ethical capitalism,” “human face” of Japanese business. He then put the final question to the participants: “How did your state manage to adopt capitalism without such a person?” And it was preceded by a remark: “Apparently, there were no such business leaders as Shibusawa in your countries.” The advantages of collective-oriented capitalism over individualist one are clearly seen in Japan’s wonderfully comfortable and world’s fastest trains, in the perfectly clean streets of the 12-million city of Tokyo where there are no garbage dumps to be found, in the subway and on the crazy crossroads, where the Japanese manage not to push each other.


The rest of lecture time was devoted to the issues of international politics. Most attention was given to nuclear disarmament. On the first day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held presentations about the recent situation around North Korea; the South China Sea issue; and Japanese nuclear disarmament efforts (it was a kind of a condensed digest of critical issues). One way or another, the problem of nuclear weapons united all three themes. Say, the disputed islands of the South China Sea, which several countries claim as their own, are threatening international security as a possible illegal base for nuclear weapons. Japan abandoned its claims to the islands back in the last century and acts as an arbiter between the parties to the dispute, while adhering to a neutral position. The lecture on the impossibility and importance of the negotiations with North Korea and the Japanese efforts and powerlessness in world nuclear disarmament were not the only ones to deal with nuclear security.

An excursion to Hiroshima, which hosts the atomic bombardment museum and memorial, and a meeting with the daughter of a female survivor of that disaster enabled us to approach the way the Japanese feel about the importance of nuclear security. Their memories are emotional, strong, but somehow strikingly deprived of self-pity. “I do not know whether it is good or bad, but the Japanese can forgive and forget,” said our Japanese mentor, who studied in America. On the way from the memorial to the museum, he reminded us of Barack Obama’s visit the year before last. Many hoped that he would apologize for the tragedy, but the mentor himself noticed: “I do not think that an American president will ever apologize.” And he offered such an idea as well: “Only those who have such a tragedy in the historical memory can fully understand its horrors.” I do not know how good or bad it is to lightly forget about injustices suffered at the hands of other states, but I believe it to be good rather than bad. And I am almost certain that it is bad to be unable to leave one’s nation’s bloody past behind, as I recall the statement made by a German member at the closure of the MIRAI event, who, recalling the Second World War and Adolf Hitler, said: “It would have been better for the bomb to fall on Germany.” Of course, God forbid that any country has to actually suffer it!


Nuclear disarmament is connected to the issue of peace, and we attended a lecture on the Japanese approach to international peace-keeping operations at Waseda University. The lecturer emphasized that Japanese peace assistance, mainly in post-conflict societies, was of “apolitical, purely technical nature.” “Democracy, human rights – all this beautiful terminology – has not been applied by Japan as a rationale for its assistance.” And there is no denying to it, as while participating in international operations under the UN aegis, Japan never proposes any legislative acts of the organization; rhetoric and legislation are the province of the States, whose decisions Japan unconditionally agrees to and adapts its own legislation to them. The lecture focused on the UN’s increased focus on peacekeepers’ efforts to protect civilians which came due to the defeat in the Zimbabwe conflict settlement, after which legislative changes were made, and Japan had adapted its own legislation to reflect that.



However, Japan’s Basic Law is adapted to preserve peace as well; it is often called a “peaceful constitution.” “The main difference from many other states is the prohibition on maintaining armed forces,” said the lecturer. “However, they also exist in this country,” he added immediately, “only we call them the Self-Defense Forces.” The difference is still there. Japanese troops cannot be deployed outside of Japan, even as peacekeepers. However, legally, Japanese civil society organizations may be present in conflict zones, so it turns out that the Japanese government, when it is interested in preserving peace, indirectly recruits them. In fact, this is the “all-Japanese approach” to international operations in practice, for which NGOs often criticize the government – they say it should not exploit them.

The inability of the armed forces to go beyond its borders is also reflected in aviation capabilities: Japan may only have short-range aircraft. Thus, Japanese aircraft need four transfers to reach the US. However, according to the lecturer, this should change shortly for the sake of greater efficiency.


Half of the program was cultural in nature: visits to Buddhist temples and an ancient theater in Kyoto, museums and observation decks in Tokyo, a holy island near Hiroshima. In this way, the organizers offered us an opportunity to feel the cultural wealth of Japan, which the warring countries were aware of during the Second World War as well, and deliberately avoided it during the bombing campaign as part of the global heritage. One of the lectures was culture-themed too and dealt with Japanism. In other words, the fashion for Japanese culture in the world. The first wave came in the 19th century, after the “opening of Japan”: then the Europeans massively admired the porcelain, kimono, Japanese theater; European literature was full of Japanese motives. The second wave is contemporary and driven by anime. Still, the lecturer stressed that it was not so much the spread of Japanese culture as that of a global, globalized one. The lecturer, who was a teacher of liberal arts, did not offer his own understanding and evaluation of “Japanism.” When asked by one of the participants whether anime was spreading a negative image of Japan, the lecturer was confused. He answered that he expected a new global culture to emerge.

That was the only occasion that we heard about the “world identity” in Japan. Outside the walls of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, at a student cafeteria, I listened to students speaking of very different things. In general, it is noteworthy that the Japanese strongly emphasize their difference, in a firm but non-hostile way. And while Japan’s policy is changing under the pressure of new challenges, primarily the greatest of them which is the aging of society, it does not seem that the Japanese are willing to accept migrants as a possible way of solving the problem.

“We are allergic to foreigners,” I suddenly heard from a Japanese student who was seeking the right word in English when asked about the perception of local foreigners by the Japanese. I would like to note that this was a student who tried to communicate as much as possible with Europeans during an informal supper at the university campus. He dreams to travel a lot around Europe in his middle age, when he earns enough money. I then asked about allergies. He answered that he meant the complexity of communicating with people of another culture, because the Japanese are very serious about local traditions, and foreigners cannot accept them.

Even during the visit program, the organizers were finding it hard to tolerate the Spanish participants’ late appearances. The tradition is the law. And though some changes have taken place in migration policy, the vice prime minister for foreign affairs listed migration among global challenges, not solutions during a solemn address to the MIRAI participants. And even if something would change, then, probably, it would happen very slowly, I often heard from Japanese.

There is no reason to suppose that this project was about spreading a new global identity, as sometimes happens with similar American or European projects. Rather, the goal was to create a positive image of Japan for the business environment, diplomatic relations and, just as importantly, to draw world attention to the issue of peace. Peace and nuclear disarmament.

Orysia Hrudka is a student of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy

By Orysia HRUDKA. Photos courtesy of the author