After more than a decade in Tokyo, I am struck by the countless foreign diplomats and businesspersons who lament Japanese parochialism. They forget the huge obstacles Japanese face in understanding the world scene.
“Western software” from Europe and the New Worlds it spawned in the Americas and Oceania have lorded over the world for centuries. What Pericles said of Athens applies to the West: “We have compelled every sea and every land to yield to our daring enterprise, and we have strewn the world with everlasting reminders of deeds both bad and good.” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book 2, 41).
Western intellectual hegemony is stronger than before. China is more open to Western influence than before, as illustrated by the inflow of Chinese students to the West and much deeper personal intercourse between the Middle Kingdom and the West. Other regions, such as Central Asia, in the “non-West” are also in greater contact.
History and culture tie most of the world to the West. In the former colonies, the elites, even if antagonistic to their former rulers, are at least partially Westernized. Euro-U.S. imperialism gave birth to a global Western-centered migratory system, from which Japan is the main outlier, which has grown in recent decades now that Chinese and citizens of the late Soviet Empire can travel and emigrate freely.
But Japan was never colonized, nor even semi-colonized like parts of China (and fully for Hong Kong and Macau). Its small Asian empire was short-lived. English, Castilian, Portuguese, and Arabic boast more native speakers outside of their homelands than in their birthplaces. Chinese plays a big role in parts of Southeast Asia. But Japan’s linguistic footprint never expanded permanently. As Japanese was not superseded at home by an internationalized language (as Hindi and Bengali were by English in South Asia), Japanese is a major but “one-country only” language. Nor was Japanese religion exported as Christianity and Islam were. No more than a tiny minority of Japanese converted to the large monotheistic faiths, unlike numerous Koreans, Chinese, and Southeast Asians. Japan is shut out of the intercontinental networks of the Abrahamic denominations. Buddhism, strong in Japan, is international but without the transnational connectivity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Japanese, unlike Chinese and Koreans, will meet few individuals overseas who were born in the old country. Nor will Japanese, in a society where more than 97 percent of the residents are indigenous, find diversity at home. (Japanese themselves came from elsewhere, but so long ago that they can be called natives.) A refusal to bring in more than a few migrants, despite the demographic abyss, perpetuates this quarantine.
Japan’s amazing modernization under Meiji (1868-1912) buttressed its insularity. By the early 1900s, an independent Japan had set up its own schools and universities. Western instructors, brought in to bring the country up to speed, were then gradually dismissed. Since then, despite protestations to the contrary, latent xenophobia has defined the educational establishment. Today, Western – first and foremost U.S. – education (and emigration) is much more common for privileged Chinese and South Koreans than it is for their Japanese counterparts. Western universities are far more active in China than Japan. Moreover, to avoid economic subjugation, Japan restricted foreign enterprises. As a result, even in the early 21st century, Japan has very little foreign direct investment. Not withstanding the official mantra of the Abe administration, it won’t get a lot more.
The United States is Japan’s only ally. Political relations with Asia are underdeveloped. Japan lacks multilateral ties which members of the EU, NATO, NAFTA, ASEAN, and other regional organizations enjoy with each other.
America has been central to post-1945 Japanese diplomacy, but Japan has been relatively peripheral to the U.S. During the Cold War, America concentrated on the Soviet Union, Europe, and locales where it was fighting communism (such as Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba). Since the demise of the Soviet empire, American attention has partially shifted towards Asia, but to China rather than Japan, and also to Southwest Asia.
Despite Mike Mansfield’s hyperbole, “The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none,” Japan seldom makes it to the very top of the American agenda.