Japan is swimming naked
There is an old Chinese tale about a farmer who caught a rabbit that had succumbed after running head-first into a tree stump. The farmer then neglected his land while waiting for another rabbit to collide with the stump. In fact, the farmer represents Japan while the rabbit stands for the Korean War boom (1950-1953). That was when Japan stopped ploughing the land to cultivate the new seeds of industry.
After its long period of isolation for 214 years from 1639 to 1853, Japan suddenly found itself in a world of competing military powers. Fortunately, under the guidance of Naosuke Ii, the most powerful official at the time, Japan signed treaties, first with the US and then with UK, that brought to an end its prolonged seclusion.
Naosuke Ii was a wise and inspired navigator and helmsman for Japan. He was the only figure in modern Japanese history to steer the country in the right direction with his unerring insights and wisdom. He did not release the steering wheel despite the threat of assassination by ultra-nationalists. Unfortunately, they followed up on their warning and in 1860 deprived the nation of its farsighted navigator and helmsman.
In 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh visited Japan for a meeting with the Emperor to mark Britain’s assumption of its role as Japan's navigator and helmsman. The two countries’ burgeoning friendship was enshrined in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance established in 1902. Under the leadership of the UK, Japan grew into one of the strongest naval powers after the UK and the US, as illustrated by its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
However, Japan lost the trust of the UK as the two countries’ interests in China diverged. In 1923 the UK decided to relinquish its role as Japan’s navigator and helmsman, leaving Japan to operate with only an accelerator and an engine as it careered along a reckless course that culminated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki precipitated the end of the war, the US took on the role of Japan's navigator and helmsman, transforming it into a benign manufacturing centre and provider of bases and ports to meet the needs of the US military. When the US realised that the future would depend on Information Technology rather than manufacturing prowess, it discouraged Japan from following the path of IT.
Harvard University Professor Ezra Vogel's book Japan as Number One, published in 1979, turned Japan into a farmer transfixed by the tree stump. Japan foolishly assumed that manufacturing industry was the foundation of national growth and that no other nation could supplant it as the world’s preeminent producer of industrial goods. It really seemed to believe that it was No.1!
The tree stump that Japan idolised comprised sectors such as shipbuilding, car manufacturing, railways and home electronics. The IT rabbit was not attracted to the stump Japan was watching.
One is reminded of the British sitcom series Mr Bean, starring Rowan Atkinson. In one episode, Mr Bean jumps into a swimming pool from a diving board. The force of his entry into the water pulls off his swimming trunks. He gets panicked but keeps swimming in search of them, believing nobody can see his nakedness below the surface. Suddenly a lifeguard whistles to order everybody out of the pool.
Coronavirus has revealed that Japan is Mr Bean and has lost at least eight pairs of swimming trunks.
Eight pairs that Japan has lost
The second pair concerns Japan’s reluctance to embrace teleworking. Most companies prohibit their employees from taking their work PCs home. People can only access their firms’ servers from those PCs on company premises. Employees are not accustomed to using Dropbox or other sharing tools. And machines in factories are not controllable remotely.
The third pair is the fact that Japan does not recognise online signatures or methods of authentication. All significant communications with governmental organisations have to be stamped with one’s personal seal using cinnabar ink. Banking documents, invoices, statements and quotations by companies are all stamped in this way. Meanwhile, intra-company approvals usually require the use of a number of original seals. This is why, even during the coronavirus lockdown period, most Japanese companies required their employees to travel to their offices in packed trains to stamp documents with their personal seals.
The fourth pair has to do with Japan’s slow progress in embracing contactless payment systems. Even credit cards, which are rarely employed in Japan, have to be signed by ballpoint pen or require the use of PIN pads, in both cases involving contact with possibly contaminated surfaces. Roughly 75% of payments in shops are in cash, involving the handling of possibly Covid-infected coins. The same thing applies to curbside parking meters, which are only operated by inserting coins, and to most vending machines.
The fifth pair entails the lack of protection for the confidential information Japanese companies send by email. There is the ludicrous situation in which sensitive data is sent by email in a zip file, followed immediately by another email, accessible to anyone, letting the recipient know the password for unlocking the file. Thus, unintended recipients can easily gain access to the data concerned.
The sixth pair concerns Japan’s rigid employment system. Japanese companies tend to employ new college graduates in April each year, all at the same time. Companies agree with each other not to employ new college graduates in a rolling employment system. They all start interviewing new college graduates simultaneously and send out provisional promises of employment to the applicants in an almost synchronised manner. This year the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the process, and many students suffered the cancellation of the provisional promises they had received.
The seventh pair is bound up with the unsophisticated remarks often made by leading Japanese politicians. Finance Minister Taro Aso, in fact the Deputy Prime Minister, when recently asked the reason for Japan’s low coronavirus death toll, answered by using a term that suggested the Japanese were of a superior cultural level. He thus managed to imply that Americans and Europeans were of a lower standing. More controversially, in another remark he intimated that African Americans were of an inferior level because their infection and death rates were higher than those of white Americans.
The eighth pair is connected with Japan’s laggardly progress in the fields of 5G and webinar technology. Huawei, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Samsung, all non-Japanese companies, are dominant in terms of international patents for 5G technology. The same is true for webinar technology, where Zoom, Skype and Google Meet, likewise non-Japanese firms, lead the way. This fact is in stark contrast with vehicle technology, where Japanese companies still have a commanding presence. 5G is essential for such areas as teleworking, telemedicine and autonomous driving. Webinar technology, provided by the likes of Zoom, is indispensable for online education as there is an irreversible trend whereby the future of education will be less classroom-based and increasingly online. Not only is online education less susceptible to Covid-related infection, but it is cheaper and more flexible, offers an ever more diverse array of subjects and is easily accessible.
Japan must find a new leader
The new Naosuke Ii must be a person who should launch Japan on a course of fundamental change based on a new and invigorating philosophy. He or she should be prepared to face no matter what obstacles in leading the nation to eliminate anything and everything it has relied on to chart its course since the end of the Douglas MacArthur era.
In essence, the new Naosuke Ii must turn Japan away from its postwar policy of devoting itself to manufacturing industrial products, while sacrificing Nature along the way. The new norm for Japan should be one in which we human beings retreat from our assault on Nature and instead revere it with humility. Otherwise, we will be hit by a succession of new viruses at a rate that outpaces our ability to develop appropriate vaccines.
The new Naosuke Ii needs to establish Japan's strategy of retreat from its current erroneous course so that it can take its proper place as a humble nation in the Universe that God created. Remember that human beings were the extreme minority on Noah’s Ark.
Japan is one of the world’s most ageing nations, with 40% of the population over 70 years old and a national debt totalling 250% of GDP. It is therefore the most appropriate nation to lead the retreat. When all is said and done, Japan should squarely consider the choice before it: “Retreat or die.”