Japan’s New Leadership Role

Q&A with 2008 IRP Fellow Amelia Newcomb

Fellows Fall 2008

By Amelia Newcomb

May 26, 2009

Amelia Newcomb is the assistant international editor at The Christian Science Monitor. During her five-week IRP Fellowship Newcomb traveled to Japan where she explored the country's ascending role as a global influence on the green movement and popular culture. On her return, she sat down with IRP Director John Schidlovsky to talk about Japan. Excerpts of their conversation:

Q: You haven't been back to Japan in roughly 10 years. How has the country changed?

A: In one way it seemed a little more relaxed in Tokyo. It's still a very bustling, 24 hour metropolis, but it seemed a little less constrained in some regards. What really struck me was the feeling that the country was looking less towards others to gauge its progress. If you look 20 to 30 years ago, there was a lot of measuring itself against America and what Americans thought of Japan. I didn't have that feeling this time. It seemed like there was a quiet confidence that Tokyo is a major center in and of itself. This is despite talk of Japan being overwhelmed by its social problems, economic woes, concerns about another recession, and deep frustrations about a political deadlock.

Q: In the past, during Japan's economic peak, it was a very homogenous society and Asian visitors to the country were made to feel as if they were not particularly welcome to take up residence. Has the attitude toward foreigners changed?

A: I still think that is a big hurdle for Japan. The welcome mat is very limited for foreigners. You see some gestures. This year they are bringing in 200 Indonesian nurses to help with the shortage of care workers for the elderly. They are making concessions like that and you do see workers from other Asian regions, but there are no interests in letting that go very far.

Q: In this country all the talk these days is about China and India as emerging global economic powers. You don't hear much about Japan. You've made it clear since coming back that the United States and the world should not underestimate Japan. Do you think ignoring Japan is a short term condition, will they come back to play a leading role in the world stage as they did in the '80s?

A: In many ways they still do play a leading role. Americans have gotten used to the fact that they control what we once saw as a horrifying large percentage of the auto market, but now we have become accustomed to it. The problem lies in the reality that as a country with the world's second largest economy a lot of people feel they should have a more assertive diplomatic voice and take on more international initiatives. If Japan can find a way to do that it will gain more notice.

The recent economic crisis has attracted more attention from people trying to learn lessons from the financial crisis Japan suffered just 10 years ago. It'll be interesting to see how much the Japanese government and Japanese banks try to step up and play a more global advisory role as oppose to just providing money and buying up international assets. Increasingly as we move towards a more multipolar world there's opportunity for Japan to step up its presence. They do play a security role -- for example, while there was a lot of wrangling, they just agreed to re-up on refueling support in the Indian Ocean linked to the Afghanistan mission, which was controversial in Japan.

On the environmental front, Japan is very well positioned to do more. You see them participate in consortiums in Asia that are trying to do everything from making sure that high tech waste gets brought back to key areas where proper recycling can be done to marketing its know-how in energy efficiency.

Q: Will they bring that role and leadership capability to their Asian neighbors as China and India begin to rapidly industrialize and pollution increases?

A: I think they are. They have a number of initiatives in South East Asia that have been pilot projects. I visited a company that is a leader in recycling high tech waste like gold and other precious metals from cell phones and computers. There are a number of initiatives in China and elsewhere. In the case of China, they have to tread delicately due to the troubled history between the two countries. They have to make sure those relationships are handled properly. When I was visiting this high tech recycling firm, there were both Chinese and Korean visitors there.

Q: You looked at Japan's cultural influence on the world. Why do you think that has grown so rapidly?

A: If you look at manga or at the work of some young writers, especially women producing good work in Japan, they tend to take a very nuanced look at things. They are willing to look at the gray areas of life. Things aren't necessarily all good or all bad, there aren't heroes and devils. Everyone has a good side and bad, heroes can be complex, troubled figures. They are also willing to delve into a lot of psychological issues that are prominent in today's world; how people handle power, money, family, distance, technology, and isolation. All these sorts of things are well suited to an ongoing form that manga exploits really well.

In talking to various manga writers and artists they interact a lot with their audience, they listen carefully to what their audience says. They expect a lot of their readers. They expect them to get to know the characters and to plumb their motives. They really focus on character development, what they do and what motivates them. That really appeals to a broad base of people. A lot of the big questions in life, existential questions, are fairly common across boundaries.

Also, If you look at anime and manga, the visual appeal is very high, and we live in an increasingly visual age. In a manga you can cover a lot of information in a concise manner. The same goes for graphic novels, which have become much more popular. That kind of story telling is gaining an audience. It's remarkable how much you can convey in a really short dialogue.

In the area of literature, I interviewed Mieko Kawakami, who in 2007 won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's most coveted literary award for budding novelists. The title of her novel is "Breast and Egg." It delves into issues of beauty and life's stages through three women - mother, daughter, and the mother's younger sister. Kawakami has attracted attention for writing in her Osaka dialect in a way that one observer likened to rock and roll, or rap, because of its speed.

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