Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I'm at a mountain retreat with a 40 or so "leaders" of Japan. I blogged about my first trip and the discussion we had two years ago. It's a cross-sector group of people that get together every year to discuss some big topic. The topic this year is the future of Japan. This is one of the few Japanese meetings of this sort that I continue to attend because of the diversity of the group and the frankness of the discussion. It always feels like I'm peering into the heart and soul of Japan.

We covered a number of issues including Japan's relationship with Asia and the US, the aging population and the decreasing population and the economy. As usual the opinions were all over the spectrum and the debate heated and emotional. As most of you already know, the Japanese economy is recovering, but mostly because of the increase in the Chinese market. Interestingly, it's things like cement and construction in China that is helping to revive the Japanese economy fueling the dying public works industry in Japan. Most people agreed that Japan needed to work with China, but HOW to interact with China and the rest of Asia was a point of considerable debate. I am happy to report that most people thought that we needed to deal with the war history and that it was a bad idea for Koizumi to be going to Yasukuni Shrine. However, many Japanese thought it wasn't the business of China or any other country to tell Japan what to do. In fact, it was the opinion of several experts that Koizumi was going in part to spite China as evidenced by his going to the Shrine right after meeting with the Chinese delegates, etc.

One issue I brought up was how unhappy I was about Tokyo Governor Ishihara's anti-Chinese comments. (I blogged about this before.) One surprising response I got was that at least one person in the group thought he should be allowed to say what he wanted and that they didn't find such comments particularly annoying. I was pretty flabbergasted. Even some of the rather moderate people shrugged and pointed out that he was a net positive because of some of the fiscal policies he has pursued. After my rant at Davos I heard a rumor that he told at least one industry head that I was a "public enemy". I think it's something like pointing to the crazy uncle, and it is clearly unpopular to point out our Governor's faults. I did make the point that we can act as friendly as we want but as long as the two most powerful politicians of Japan were making clearly anti-Chinese gestures, whatever the reason, we would never have harmony with China.

We tried to get down to the reasons. One reason people gave for Koizumi's shrine visits was that the percentage of the population whose family have died in war feel strongly that the government should acknowledge them. There were two people who has ancestors in Yasukuni, but both of them felt the visits were inappropriate and felt that they should remove the war criminals. Various people gave Shinto practices and other things as reasons, but I didn't feel they were very strong arguments.

Then we talked about Ishihara and plain old-fashioned racism. A university professor pointed out that it was a problem, and described his theory on what may be one of the causes. Japan imported single-race nationalism as a unifying concept from Germany during the Meiji period. The Japanese word, minzoku, which refers to its people comes from das volk. Japan forced a national dialect and basically centralized control and stamped out a great deal of diversity in order to empower the central government under this process. Before this, Japan was more diverse and more tolerant. Later, this would blow up as a working philosophy in Nazi Germany and Japan. However, as a strategy of combating the threat of communism in Japan, the US occupation and the Japanese government allowed these nationalists and the sense of racial purity to remain and fester in modern Japan in order to fight the more liberal emerging left-wing of Japan. Most people agreed that Japanese needed to increase immigration to deal with the population and aging problem, but that with this latent racism and intolerance for diversity immigration would not work well.

I realize this post is getting a bit long and I have one more day at this retreat. I'll try to post anything else that comes up in the discussions.


Holy crap. These are the same hackneyed arguments that were tossed around in the 1980s. And the 1850s. And the 1280s. Retreat into the future!

I agree that we should be focused on the future, but discussions in Japan (and China I think) tend to quickly focus on the past and arguments and theories of the impact of history on the present. It's something that can't be avoided and "aruging through" this stuff is important in at least understand where people stand on these issues. More often, these arguments are not made and are sort of considered "common knowledge" by people confounding attempts by others to try to understand WHY some people believe what they believe in Japan...

And one thing that got lost in my translation. The offical theme is 日本の針路 or "course; direction; compass bearing" of Japan... not exactly the future.

i rather worry and strongly doubt about "demonization" of yasukuni by mass media especially by those of japanse, chinese and koreans. in order to understand this hype related to yasukuni and direct to a constructive discussion, i feel it is necessary to know not only history of yaskuni but also history of press reports on this matter and transition of their attitudes over the time.

Can't help but chime in here...Joi, we met at USC on your recent visit there. I told you we had a new book coming out on Japan and its recent revival. Well, it's out and it's called "Japan's Business Renaissance" - you can see more about it here: Might be of interest to you and your conference mates...

It is interesting that you say Japan was more open and tolerant before the Meiji period. But wasn't Japan even more insular before that time? It wasn't until 1854 that Commodore Perry forced Japan to open to the West, which eventually led to internal revolt and war, followed by the Meiji period.

I know that is a long time past, but I have always wondered what influence these events have even today. Does that experience still have relevance, and did it perhaps precipitate the nationalism you point to during the Meiji period?

I think the Japan was insular with respect to the rest of the world, but I think (I'm not an expert) that the Edo period had more diversity within Japan.

One interesting Commodore Perry store I heard was that when Perry cited breach of International Law when Japan tried to turn him away without providing supplies, apparently the Japanese negotiator at the time cited International Law and told Perry that it was illegal to sail into the harbor without proper procedure or notice. The point was, that the people who negotiated with Perry were well versed in International Law and although Japan was "closed" the Japanese elite at least were busy studying the rest of the world.

About Japan being more "insular" before Meiji, I'd like to mention the fact that a lot of Edo's "insularization" was toward the West, christian culture and colonialist ventures in Asia by western powers. There is a lot of very interesting research that shows business relations with China and Korea in areas not so tightly controled by the Shogunate remained very active. I think this myth of the insularity of Japan has to be taken with some salt, especially when one considers how easy it is today to import illegal migrants by containers even though our societies are highly centralized and controled. Think about what it should have been to smuggle/trade goods in areas not in so good terms with the Shogunate, specifically in the Kyushu and Japan See areas. I am not aware (but I am not a specialist either) that much historical documents remain of that period that give a lot of details about the reality of controls in areas that historically have lived with over-sea trade with China and Korea.

For an interesting look at the notion of sakoku, take a look at Marius Jansen's China in the Tokugawa World. He says the Japanese term "sakoku" was first coined in the translation of a Westerner's diary (Sorry, I don't have the book handy, so I can't tell you whose it was). The argument is that nations like China and Korea were to some extent "closed" as was Japan--that was largely the way the region was at the time. It was in the encounter with the West that Japan was seen as "closed."

Oh - and there were lots of Portuguese traders in Japan - and so, Japanese Christians - around in Japan till Ieyasu Tokugawa took over

He suppressed Christianity in Japan, and restricted the Portuguese to two or three small enclaves near the big harbors (yokohoma or somewhere like that).

Having portuguese empire builders (always a rather scheming bunch and noted, like the spanish conquistadores of south america, for greed and rapacity), and the machinations of churchmen (jesuits I guess) around as political threats just didnt appeal to Ieyasu after he emerged the winner in the civil war that more or less ended with the battle of Sekigahara. Perhaps the fact that Nobunaga Oda tended to support / encourage the portuguese and jesuits (or by some accounts was a christian himself, not sure) might have helped

Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" deals with an earlier period where these feudal lords were just starting out in their career, and Ieyasu / Nobunaga were actually on the same side, against Takeda Shingen .. there's this small scene in the movie where a gray robed christian monk intones a latin blessing .. Nobunaga throws up a martial salute of the sort that has been seen elsewhere as a roman Ave and the nazi salute - an outstretched arm .. roars "Amen" and rides on. "Eminence Grise" / "the gray eminence" for a behind the scenes operator came into currency much later, and elsewhere (france with cardinal richlieu rather than Japan) but I think Kurosawa was trying for the same concept, with the hooded, almost menacing shape of that lone priest standing on a hilltop, watching Nobunaga's troops as they file past and intoning a Latin blessing.

Joi, FWIW I'm also of the belief that Yasukuni is a domestic issue and indeed none of China's business. However since I can't vote here, my opinion is worth what I charge for it: nothing. I'm curious as to what historical sources can becited for the assertion that "Japan was more diverse and more tolerant." Is this your assertion or are you stating the fact that "a university professor" said this?

As I understand history, such a statement is at odds with the Taiko's formalization of the four castes, survey of land ownership and restrictions on weapons ownership. The policies of the Tokugawa shogunate could be said to merely re-inforce the formalization and closing of borders which were instigated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Suresh, Oda Nobunaga certainly tolerated Portuguese/Jesuit presense for the weapons and trade they brought as well as their potentially de-stabilizing influence on his enemies at the time, but there does not seem to be any primary source material to indicate that he ever embraced Christianity personally. The Tokugawas merely enforced laws banning Christians and restricting foreign trade to certain ports which were initated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At no time during the period from first contact by the Portugese (~1545) to en enforcement of the expultion edicts were there ever "lots" of traders allowed on Japanese shores. All governments during this period were far too cautious to allow enough of a presence to create any risk.

JC Helary, certainly there was a fair ammount of unauthorized trade occuring, but official contact between Japan and its neighbors was indeed quite limited.

Japanese people put up with Ishihara because he is one of the only people on the national scene who has opinions. He is an annoying racist to non-Japanese but provides some kind of entertainment to Japanese people. It is weird but people in Japan seem to not worry so much about his racist comments. I think he might just remind people of older Japanese people that they know, he just represents the attitudes that have existed in Japan for hundreds of years. You know the old adage "any press is good press" well that certainly applies to Ishihara. When he says something racist, his core supports love him for it and the majority of people just ignore him. So he gets to constantly reinforce his base and pays no price for it at the ballot box.

Japan will never accept mass immigration. The last attempts when Japan brought over large groups of South Americans did not work out that well. Those people are still trying to integrate with Japanese society. Only micro immigration will work here because only a highly motivated individual with a strong interest in Japan can integrate with Japanese society.

Chris - Ieyasu definitely strengthened what was already a long drawn out policy, but probably the force and efficiency with which he did all that made him stand out in my mind.

And thanks for the information about Nobunaga. Most of my rather superficial knowledge of japan comes from watching Kurosawa movies and reading what I can as "background" for the movies, so I'm probably the wrong person to pontificate about it.

But if even Kurosawa, who tends to be VERY painstaking about authenticity (right down to having custom made costomes and weaponry instead of trusting to luck and clueless theater goers to gloss over mistakes) decided to imply that Nobunaga as more or less a christian ...

After all he can be counted on to have done lots of research before Kagemusha. He did accurately portray the way Nobunaga fancied himself as a connoiseur of the tea ceremony and a poet, in that movie .. and picked an actor that looked rather more like the portraits of the man that I've seen online than most others (thank you, :)

Great post!

A very minor typo: "Volk" in "das Volk" takes a capital 'V'. It's because all nouns are capitalised in German ("Dasein", "Zeitgeist", "Gemütlichkeit", etc..). (Nothing to do with ill-placed nationalism.)

pepeluali, what do you mean "put up with Ishihara"? He was elected to office, and maintains pretty good approval ratings. Jerkass tho he may be, he's really quite a decent politician and for the most part I think he's done good work. I disagree with his choice to start a state run retail bank, but I do understand why he did so. Also its really funny how his inferiority complex comes out around Rudy Guliani or Michael Bloomberg.

how did you get involved with this group?

Emily: This was the 22nd annual retreat. It was started several generations of IBM Chairmen ago when IBM Japan decided to help support local communication and leadership. The members nominate other members and IBM manages the logistics and other aspects of the Event. For some reason, they have split it into three generations. The Amagi Kagi for the most senior members, Izu Kaigi for the next "layer" and Fuji Kaigi for the young leaders. For some reason I was selected to join Izu Kaigi although from an age perspective I'm probably in the Fuji Kaigi bracket. I think I'm the youngest member at 39. Most of the members at the Izu Kaigi are in their 40's and 50's with a few in their 60's. I think most of the members of Amagi are retired. It really is a broad group consisting of fashion designers, academics, historians, writers, industry leaders, fund managers, polticians, bureaucrats, board members of sports leagues, etc. There are also a number of non-Japanese, but all of the discussion is conducted in Japanese. Since the group has been meeting for decades, there is a great deal of candor and debate which probably would only be possible because of the level of friendship and trust between the members. It's a very interesting format.

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