Friday, January 8, 2010

The language barrier makes Japan so unique, but is it really beneficial?

This is a good essay about "foreignness".

The Others

This is well-written about how expats would feel after spending many years in a foreign country. Since I have also lived outside of Japan for nearly 6 years, this essay is very persuading to me. The funny part about this essay is a paragraph that describes Japan as "the last remaining place you can feel truly foreign in the world"

The most generally satisfying experience of foreignness?complete bafflement, but with no sense of rejection?probably comes still from time spent in Japan. To the foreigner Japan appears as a Disneyland-like nation in which everyone has a well-defined role to play, including the foreigner, whose job it is to be foreign. Everything works to facilitate this role-playing, including a towering language barrier.

I laughed a lot. This is painfully true. After visiting more than 20 countries and spending several years, I have come to the conclusion that Japan is so unique that no other country is alike. This uniqueness was brought by the geographical isolation, the huge market with purchasing power, and the language barrier.

Chikirin, one of the most popular Japanese bloggers, showed in her recent post her optimistic view on Japan's future. According to her entry, there are three reasons why she believes in Japan's bright future:

1. Uniqueness of Japan is valuable
2. Younger generation is increasingly more excellent than the elder
3. The global economic center of gravity is shifting toward Asia

However, she did not forget to mention that even though Japan owns numerous aspects of its valuable uniqueness, Japan has been failing to turn it into money effectively so far. I believe that the fundamental reason why it happens resides in Japanese's lack of communication skills with outsiders. The language barrier, that is, lack of English proficiency of Japanese people, plays an important role. Most Japanese including intectuals are monolingual and so myopic. They don't know and are not willing to know what is happening outside of Japan. Naturally, they can't imagine how outsiders look at Japan. Japanese people don't know what foreigners find valuable in Japan and what they don't.

Japanese need to learn how to communicate with outsiders. Japan used to be called "the factory of the world". It has completely become a past. New industries with high added value often involve services(not goods) and languages, communication and media often play a critical role. We Japanese need to be more proficient in English to work with non-Japanese people. When these conditions are met, Japanese economy will be properous again like the past glory days.


Anonymous said...


I am a Japanese American who grew up in Japan. I left Japan about 20 years ago and have been working in the US since then. More than 20 years ago, I thought about the same thing as you wrote. Back then I thought that Japan was very unique and most of Japanese people had considerable language and cultural handicaps to do business globally.
Fast forward 20 years, I came to think that Japan is not really unique and it’s more like a typical modernized East Asian country. That is because I worked with Chinese people and Koreans from big cities and realized that newly modernized East Asians are quite similar. The issues that they face from corruption to rapidly aging populations are similar. They all like to study English, but only a limited number of them will be viewed as “fluent in English” here in America. They all care about their traditions, but very quick to adopt new technologies. Strong rivalry between different ethnic groups (we all are Asians and individuals in America), conformity to the authority, the list goes on.
I would say the sense of uniqueness of Japan can be tied to a kind of “Japanese exceptionalism”. I think that for most Americans Japan is not so unique nor exceptional (except for Japanese bureaucrats. They are exceptional in the wrong way). Some Japanese businesses (like Japanese Anime) already penetrated American market despite the language and cultural handicaps. In American market, they are using two kinds of strategies. One is to appeal the customers that “we are not different from American businesses” (some auto manufacturers do). Another one is to show the customers that “we are nothing like regular American competitors (Anime and Mange approach). I guess some Japanese people are already overcoming the language and cultural handicaps.
This is not to say the language and cultural handicaps that Japanese people have were lowered. I would say most of the Japanese people with a college degree have a hard time to communicate with typical Americans. The challenge for Japanese people to learn English is that most of them think that they don’t have any urgent need to speak in English. Even when young Japanese people realized that their country will became super aged country with a smaller market (in a relative term a lot smaller I would say), their teachers, parents and supervisors don’t feel compelled to improve their English communication skills. In one sense Japan is a victim of her own success. Japan became prosperous without improving Japanese people’s foreign language skills and proud Japanese people cannot see the strong need to learn “global languages” that may make them aware that Japanese is nothing more than a local language. Anyway, I had fun reading your blog. Take care.

Andy M.

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