Saturday, May 1, 2010

Welcome to Galapagos, I mean Japan (same same but different)

Writing about Japan has been very fashionable lately, but no, not for the reasons you might think. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nothing about manga and J-pop in this new crop of Japan-themed articles. Rather, Japan’s “Galapagos syndrome” seems to be the new buzz word.

For those who don’t know what it means, or never heard the phrase, it was originally used to describe Japanese cell phones – so advanced and so “evolved” that they resembled nothing like what the rest of the world was using at the time. I don’t know what kind of phones are available overseas now, as I always used the cheapest and most primitive model, but about eight years ago I was really disappointed when trying to buy a new cell phone in the “Western” world. They were thick, ugly, primitive and expensive. And that was when I decided to use the simplest and the cheapest one and all the while longed for a high tech Japanese gizmo. And that explains why Japan does not import as many high-tech items from western countries as it exports, because really, what for?

(Actually, the Galapagos syndrome concept is not that new. Here's a book published in 2008 citing even older research. Personally, the first time I heard the phrase was in 2005 when someone was discussing technology.)

"Japanese Industry Becoming Galapagonized" (or something along those lines) by Tomohiko MIYAZAKI

But anyway, where were we? Ah yes, those articles about Japan.

You see, the experts are all crying that the “Galapagos syndrome” is spreading across the Japanese society. No, it doesn’t mean that the Japanese society is turning into cell phones, but rather that it is evolving in its very own, very peculiar and very cut off from the rest of the world direction. That Japan is once again choosing to look inward rather than outward and is closing itself to the world. In a different way than back in the olden days, that’s for sure, but with the same, very destructive end result.

Those experts are all highly educated scholars, but they are all westerners, and sometimes, the view they present (like the one in the Huffington Post article, more about it soon) is so superficial that the Japanese person (sitting right next to me) who actually read the article, was shaking his head in disbelief (no, he was not headbanging to a Nirvana song, though you might be excused for thinking that). Actually, he said he read very similar articles in all sorts of Japanese media quite often.

“Maybe those western experts who can obviously understand Galapagian, sorry I mean Japanese, simply translated them into English?” he suspected.

You see, the guys (why is it always guys writing those types of articles anyway?) see the problem from a very western point of view. And that’s to be expected, they are westerners, after all. But the solutions they offer also come from a very western point of view, and as such – they are unrealistic and pointless to the average Japanese.

What surprised me was that even a Japan-based expert, the head of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan, Robert Dujarric, while discussing this issue in his Japan Times exclusive, also came up with a stack of ideas that are totally implausible for the average Japanese. Isn’t Mr. Dujarric in Japan? Doesn’t he see the situation here? Or is he so high up in his academia ivory tower that he lost all touch with the average salaryman’s (or even Japanese researcher’s) reality?

He proposes that,

“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.”

Hahaha! Yeah, and that will happen, like, never.

Anyway, I’m not here to ridicule Mr. Dujarric’s (Dr Dujarric’s?) views, regardless of how far removed from the everyday Japanese academic reality they might be. If he wants an in-depth commentary on the issue, he should talk to Dr. Trouble. Dr. Trouble knows a thing or two about the subject. And yes, he is a Japanese scientist “who has both studied and taught for several years overseas and published in foreign journals.”

The piece in the Huffington Post is even more disturbing. Written by Devin Stewart, Program Director and Senior Fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, it presents the correct facts supported by the correct data. Yet the solutions it proposes are akin to attempting to treat cancer with prayer alone.

But that’s not all. The idiocy of some of the advice quoted in Mr. Stewart’s article is simply mind-boggling. Akiko Ikeda-Wei, a New York based sociologist, advises her countrymen to:

“look for opportunity away from home--and don't look back. ‘If I were one of them, I would forget about seeking employment in Japan and leave, and look for a volunteer job somewhere in Africa or in the Middle East and try to use this opportunity to explore something new and innovative that can help others who are in great need.’ ”

I guess either Ms. Ikeda-Wei married rich or has no children. Because the last time I checked, volunteering somewhere in Africa or in the Middle East was not a viable option to feed, clothe and educate a family of four, support a set of elderly parents and prepare for one’s retirement. I guess Ms. Ikeda-Wei has been out of Japan for a tad bit too long and already begun to forget the realia of life in her homeland.

What puzzles me is why all those experts with fancy degrees and prestigious titles can’t see the really simple solution to the problem they're discussing. I suppose it’s because it’s been a while since they had to deal with the Japanese school system at its most basic, elementary level.

To force Japan to open itself up and slow its Galapagos syndrome, the country’s entire educational system must be reformed. Japan’s closing to the outside world has not happened overnight. And the superficial solution ideas along the lines that Japan must “support its soft power and foreign engagement institutions” will not be successful unless the masses at large are ready for them. (It actually surprised me a great deal that a Japan expert would voice such obvious and counter-productive drivel.)

And the masses at large will be ready to change only if the way they are educated is changed. And changed drastically.

Before the Galapagos syndrome can be tackled, the tall poppy syndrome has to go. And that won’t happen unless the way the Japanese people are educated, starting with kindergarten, is totally revamped. And that won’t happen any time soon. Even if drastic changes were to be instituted today, we would have to wait about 20 years to see the first results.

Unfortunately, there will be no significant changes, regardless of which political party (Liberal Democratic Party or Democratic Party of Japan) happens to be in power, Japan will continue to look inward, and foreign experts will continue to offer their unrealistic advice.

But then again, who am I to voice an opinion on the subject? I’m not a fancy schmancy expert, I’m just a lowly foreign peg at the very bottom rung of the school system watching the next generation of tall poppies lose their heads.


Image by Isolino (Flickr Creative Commons)


  1. I know nothing about Japan, and I have never been there. But I do know
    - one 17-year old girl who is half-Japanese half Polish (now happily living in Poland)
    - a Polish girl whose daughter is studying Japanese in Japan
    And I heard lots of anecdotes and stories about local quirks.
    From their stories Japanese school doesn't seem like a happy place that encourages individuality and expression...
    Maybe it would be possible to campaign some changes at least?

  2. Ellen JardenskyMay 1, 2010 at 7:19 PM

    japan is a semi-police state run as a non-democracy that brainwashes and mindcontrols its people through education and culture. smart people, brutal government. things will never change there.

  3. About the police presence and the internet control - I think you are confusing Japan with China here. :) or that Polish girl in a Japanese dorm is bsing you, big time.
    And the people here don't have to convince each other to do or think anything, because they just blindly follow, be it fashion, or ridiculous school policies, or whatever else. They may not like what they're following, but damn, you're told to follow and so you just do. This is why I said that the entire education system needs to be changed. But it won't come from the people, unfortunately.

  4. Well, looking at it from this angle, maybe everything there is so ordinary, that they have in invent stuff to tell, so that people don't get bored ;>

  5. I wouldn't say that "everything", but as I'm sure you're finding out now, many things are indeed quite ordinary here. The problem is that "ordinary" is a very flexible and hugely relative concept, especially when talking about Japan.


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