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By: inoljt,

 photo Fax-Machine-US-CPSC-CC-Flickr_zpse37fce4b.jpg

Japan is one of the world's most advanced economies. In some ways, however, its economy is quite isolated. This is a result of both geography and history. Japan is both an island alone and a former colonial power heartily disliked by its immediate neighbors.

This is different from most other advanced economies.

More below.

Any Western country has close links with the rest of the West. Take the United States. American culture is fairly similar to Western culture, and there is a deep degree of mixing between the Anglosphere, the United States, and Western Europe. In that sense the market for American companies is not just 300 million people, but rather 800 million people.

Japan is different. Japan should have just as close a connection with East and Southeast Asia as the United States has with Western Europe and the Anglosphere. But due to its colonial past, it doesn't. In a sense Japan is like Israel, surrounded by hostile neighbors. The irony is that there are a lot of similarities between Japan's culture and its path of development compared to those of its neighbors. But its neighbors would rather pretend that this similarity doesn't exist.

So Japan is left isolated. But Japan is also a big and wealthy country, with well over 100 million people. It can afford to remain splendidly isolated. Japanese companies can market to the 125 million Japanese consumers and ignore the rest of the world.

This is bad for both Japan and the rest of us. Japan, in its isolation, has developed a number of unique practices and products. Some are better than the rest of the world's; some are worse. In an ideal world we would copy what Japan does well, and Japan would copy what we do well.

This happens, but not enough. For instance, Japan has incredibly advanced cellphones. Long before Apple came up with the iPhone, you could check your e-mail, pay for your groceries, surf the web, and watch TV on a Japanese cellphone. In fact, in the United States you still can't do some of these things with the iPhone! Unfortunately, consumer tastes in the West were too different for Japanese electronic companies to penetrate. The natural thing for them to do would have been to market to China and Korea, and from there spread the technology to the rest of the world. Too bad China and Korea hate Japan.

The opposite story holds true with something surprising, the fax machine. Today faxing is almost a relic in most of the world. Few young people even know how to use a fax machine, and I am not one of them. In their splendid isolation, however, Japanese companies are still highly dependent on the fax machine. An enormous amount of energy, paper, and time is wasted faxing in Japan. Here Japan would do well to copy from the rest of the world and abandon this increasingly unique Japanese practice.

In an ideal world, Japanese companies would have spread the smart-phone to us years before Apple came up with the idea, and our advances in technology would have convinced Japanese companies to abandon the wasteful fax machine years ago. Both sides would have been better off. Alas, this hasn't happened. Instead, Japan and the rest of the world continue to remain too far apart, to the detriment of both.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thoughts, comments? (9+ / 0-)

    by Inoljt on Thu May 09, 2013 at 10:20:13 PM PDT

  •  The problem with Japan (7+ / 0-)

    real or imaginary (more than likely, somewhere in between), is that the Japanese, unlike the Germans, haven't really own up to all of its misdeeds during WWII (or they give the perception, thereof). This, plus the various territorial disputes that they are embroiled in, has left a bitter taste in their neighbors' mouth.

    The latest row is about Japanese PM Shinzo Abe's (whom, to many of his neighbors, is viewed as a history revisionist) cabinet ministers who went to a shrine honoring war dead; however, many of these men were convicted of war crimes. The Abe administration says that these individuals went there as 'private citizens' not as representatives of the government. Japan's neighbors didn't see it that way. Abe's administration has been back-pedaling on this issue ever since.

    IMHO, it's the perception that the Japanese seem unwilling to own what they did to their neighbors during WWII is the biggest barrier between them and their neighbors.

    •  How one educated Korean sees it (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Oh Mary Oh

      In another part of the series he discusses how Japan's postwar reactions have been taken by their victims.

      Freedom isn't free. Patriots pay taxes.

      by Dogs are fuzzy on Fri May 10, 2013 at 12:33:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Many would disagree (3+ / 0-)

      In fact, some Japanese are beginning to think the world (or at least their neighbors) are treating them unfairly because, in their minds, Japan has come clean and apologized.

      They will point out that PM So-and-so made a speech and said "We're sorry", so why the problem.

      What they don't quite grasp is how shallow this appears, and I agree that Japan has failed to take the truth and reconciliation of this history to heart to the degree that Germany has and continues to do, quite remarkably in my opinion. Many/most nations could learn from the German example.

      "However ......."

      However, I do think that the current frictions are an opportunity to address the underlying problems that have enabled this political disfunction, namely, the parent-child relationship between the US and Japan that has shielded Japan from this reckoning while also stunting it's political growth.

      Now there are cracks in the wall that are hard to cover over, and if the Japanese yearning to be a "Normal" nation are strong enough, a reconciliation must be done to establish the prestige and trust to do so.

      I would not expect it to get done in the near future as Rightist sentiments are in accent under the Abe administration, which only fans the embers we would like to extinguish, but sometimes a leader like Abe can work as a positive irritant that ultimately promotes change.

      We East Asians need to move on. But first we need to begin the process of washing laundry. We all have some.

      {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

      by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 01:36:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Yeah it is kind of strange how Japan has island (0+ / 0-)

      disputes with all three of its neighbors.

      by Inoljt on Sat May 11, 2013 at 10:15:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Japan is a "crystalline" civilization (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FG, Oh Mary Oh, Pandoras Box, koNko

    that has evolved such unique cohesion that they find it almost effortless to internally evolve, but external phenomena just kind of run off its surface like water over oil.

    It only first embarked on the path of military colonialism when Commodore Perry broke its enforced isolation at the point of a cannon, and then only started pursuing corporate capitalism, consumer technology, and yes, baseball in the traumatic aftermath of WW2.  Basically, it only internalizes external phenomena when it's psychologically (and/or literally) shattered.

    To this day, foreigners who live in Japan, no matter how long they live there - even those who pursue and receive Japanese citizenship, marry Japanese people, and raise their kids Japanese - are never accepted as anything other than guests.  And it's not out of hostility, but simply that there's not the assimilationist social chemistry you see in the West.  Japan and Other simply do not interact much - they coexist.  

    Even if no one had challenged them, that would have doomed their 20th century Empire - empires have to bind themselves into the roots of their conquests or they simply slide off the surface the moment internal problems make it difficult to sustain far-flung possessions.  And that's a big part of why they're still loathed by their former conquests, and also explains the other reason for the hatred - they can't nationally accept guilt, because guilt is based on an external perspective that doesn't translate well into a crystalline civilization.  It can be forcibly attached, but it can't bind into the social fabric, and just sort of leeches out over time.

    Nazism had been a crystallization of German militarism, but it was something that evolved on top of a more fundamental individualist egoism that could be fallen back upon when the military/authoritarian culture was shattered.  They were still highly orderly, and they still have serious issues understanding how assimilation works (they still don't seem to get the fact that it's a mutual process), but the crystalline structure of their society altered to allow more space for other social elements to move and mingle.  That, in addition to the individualist basis of Western culture, has allowed German guilt over WW2 to persist while in Japan it just dissipated into thin air.

    To extend the material metaphor, countries like the United States and Brazil are pure solvents - you put people from anywhere in them, and they will join and change the whole.  We're a reactive substance.  Japan, however, is a diamond - you can cut it, and break it, and change the shape of its surface, but its substance remains what it is except under the most extreme conditions.  A country like Germany is somewhere in between - a form of rock with various elements and structures in it.

    I'm often fascinated watching how the Japanese perceive other cultures in their entertainment, particularly anime.  They don't quite understand that other societies aren't crystalline like theirs, and thus misinterpret a lot of things as being intrinsic that are actually fluid processes.  

    And the reverse is also true - people in the West think Japan is part of the West because it adopted our superficial forms and allies with us geopolitically, but when you look at the fine grain it's nothing we understand.  It's basically an authoritarian culture that commands its people to behave individualistically in superficial ways while fundamental behavior is ruthlessly synchronized.  If you read the works of Japanese people who are natural individualists, they're basically all howls of utter desperation.  They feel buried alive.

    In the immediate trauma after WW2, an element of existentialism much like that in Germany entered Japanese awareness, but it never found any sort of social grip like it did in Germany and just disappeared.  Which is a shame, because it led to one of the greatest films of all time, and totally unlike what would stereotypically be identified as Japanese cinema - The Human Condition.  I highly recommend it.  

    Today's trivia becomes tomorrow's sacrament.

    by Troubadour on Fri May 10, 2013 at 12:57:25 AM PDT

    •  Japanese (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Assimilate ideas better than people. See my remarks above.

      {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

      by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 01:42:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Only ideas that are resonant (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        koNko, Pandoras Box

        with the "frequency" of Japanese society as a whole - i.e., memes from outside that serve to strengthen what Japan already is rather than changing it.  

        I find Japan fascinating, so I've spent a lot of time randomly going through materials about various aspects of it from both Japanese and from foreigners living in Japan, and what I sense is that there's a kind of existential horror of being the atomic individual that underlies Western culture.  And it's because you're not really allowed to connect person-to-person on a regular basis - everything has to be within a rigid framework of practical relationships - so if you become socially alienated, there's nowhere to turn.  

        People shy away from each other on a personal basis - interpersonal behavior has to follow certain stereotyped patterns, even in the kawaii culture that's supposedly so soft and benign: Japanese are afraid of real emotions, and learn to alienate themselves from themselves with ritualized interactions - even the fun is ritualized and carefully integrated into the social structure to the point that they sometimes find it hard to even imagine that anything else exists or is even possible.  This creates all sorts of weird social patterns and fatalistic thinking.

        Don't mistake this for ridicule: Japan is a beautiful, amazing culture.  I'm fascinated by it, and have these thoughts about it precisely because I've spent a bit of time looking at it.

        Today's trivia becomes tomorrow's sacrament.

        by Troubadour on Fri May 10, 2013 at 02:52:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yours and koNko's perspectives (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          koNko, Troubadour, Pandoras Box

          on this issue are interesting and fascinating. Never thought of this from these points of view.

          Can never say this site doesn't sometime make you think!


        •  Tribes (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Troubadour, Pandoras Box

          They are everywhere! Hipsters in plaid shirts. Businessmen in tasseled loafers and blue jackets.

          Part of Japanese culture is an appreciation of the contrast between artifice and nature, and you see this everywhere.

          So certainly the tribes of Japan dress and play the roles, but I find them also quite friendly and able to let their hair down.

          And some of the social convention is the means by which people preserve civilization. It can be uncomfortable to outsiders unsure of how to act, but comforting to those on the inside.

          I don't think Japanese are afraid of real emotions, they just restrain them in public and channel them into socially acceptable forms. We could say the same for Swedes verses Italians.

          In fact, some Japanese have the belief they have "emotions" others lack and have an "emotional brain". Interesting concept! Could it be they have normal human emotions in a Japanese setting?

          Shyness: Asian specialty! Chinese have that a lot too. Too much studying and not enough partying make Jack-san a shy boy.

          {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

          by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 04:13:47 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  That brings up deeper philosophical questions (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Pandoras Box, koNko

            about whether an emotion unexpressed is even really felt, because we know for a fact that suppressing the expression of emotions tends to suppress their conscious experience while subsuming them into patterns that become strange and circuitous.  Those are the "unique emotions" you're talking about - they're just overly elaborate forms of standard ones because they're not allowed to openly, spontaneously express them.  

            It's also important to note that Japanese aren't just made to feel like they shouldn't express spontaneous emotion, but that they should express - and force themselves to feel - socially appropriate emotions.  This isn't trivial things like putting on a fake smile to be pleasant: Based on everything I've seen, you're really supposed to show balls-out enthusiasm for your work, unqualified child-like awe of and vulnerability toward superiors and elders, stern paternalism toward subordinates, diligent attention to the status of everyone you address, and do so at all times.  

            They give foreigners more of a break from these rules because they realize it's easy for outsiders to get lost in their society, so you can get away with a lot more if you're not Japanese - but only at the cost of having much weaker prospects.  But a Japanese who truly acts like a Westerner - and doesn't just adopt fashion statements from the West - would be seen as an unstable idiot and/or a malicious anarchist who makes life difficult for everyone else.

            I would say it's a very different thing from the emotional blandness of Swedes: Japanese culture forces behavior into this crystallized lattice of forms that creates a lot of pressure and neurosis from unexpressed feelings.  My perception of Swedish culture is kind of the opposite, and in a weird way: They're not encouraged to suppress emotion, nor are they encouraged to express like Italians - they're encouraged to be bland and medium, and to basically let their feelings dissipate away by acting on them in ways that satiate rather than enhancing passionate emotions.  It's part of the navel-gazing existentialism that's been part of their culture ever since they stopped freezing to death every winter.

            Asian shyness is all part of that deep fear of running afoul of one of the countless social intricacies that even people born into it find bewildering and frustrating, and Japan takes it to a level above even other Asian societies.  Because of their historical isolation, their culture evolved into a highly-integrated organism so cohesive it has more in common (in terms of attitude) with Amish communities or ancient Sparta than other global nation-states.

            Today's trivia becomes tomorrow's sacrament.

            by Troubadour on Fri May 10, 2013 at 04:58:15 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  Afterthought (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Troubadour, Pandoras Box
          I find Japan fascinating, so I've spent a lot of time randomly going through materials about various aspects of it from both Japanese and from foreigners living in Japan, and what I sense is that there's a kind of existential horror of being the atomic individual that underlies Western culture.  And it's because you're not really allowed to connect person-to-person on a regular basis - everything has to be within a rigid framework of practical relationships - so if you become socially alienated, there's nowhere to turn.  
          To some degree this is true, not just of Japan, but Asia in general.

          The first comes from the concept that individuals are subordinate to the group, specifically, family or clan. It's not to say we don't have a self-identity, but rather that it is connected to the whole of the group including the obligations that implies, which have been codified for centuries. Good is the dutiful family member that fulfills it's role. Bad is the self-interested individual that puts themself above others. Rude. Uncivilized. Weak. That's what we think.

          The second relates to the first but is also reinforced by the feudal history of Asia, particularly Japan and China, where loyalty has a high value.

          In Japan, you can use the word "circle". You are in our out. Once in, you can stay in unless you betray or chose to leave.  Inside you have a place. Outside, none. You are correct about that.

          In China, it's "clan", which begins at home but extends to those practical relationships you mention and beyond to "my people" and "my country" (regional, not national in the modern sense). The sense of kinship and obligation to people from "my village" is very strong. That's how the country got built.

          Most of Asia is the same. And if you look at some other historically feudal states, such as Italy, you find much of the same mentality. In fact, if you compare the feudal political systems of Japan and Italy, they may be indistinguishable at some level, which I find rather humorous give the difference in temperament. Now we find the US political system going that way but there are only 2 clans, and one has been dominated by impractical idiots! OMG.

          "Big Brother/Big Sister". We have that. Sure.

          {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

          by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 04:37:41 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Fascinating observations. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Broadening the scope to Asia in general, what would puzzle me is why India went the way it did vs. China: Both very fertile agriculturally, both protected somewhat by natural barriers from the historical chaos of Eurasia, and yet the feudal society of China produced a unified, civic empire with a cooperative, conformist philosophy while India remained disparate and kaleidoscopic.  

            But returning to Japan, I think its differences with Italy come from their respective formative circumstances: Japan was an isolated distillation of China, with all its inclinations, while Italy was a distillation of centuries of intersecting martial insurgencies within a bottled geography - the Gauls to the North and West, the Greeks from the Adriatic, and the Phoenicians (and descendent cultures) out of the Mediterranean.  

            So Japan converged on a rigorous common identity, while Italy has always had the focused chaos of its cultural formation in its DNA, periodically revamped with new blood (literally) - Goths, Arabs, Frenchmen, etc.  That never happens with Japan: The US is really the first external culture to impose itself on the Japanese in a major way after ancient China.

            Today's trivia becomes tomorrow's sacrament.

            by Troubadour on Fri May 10, 2013 at 05:30:59 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Couple of points (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              What Japan and Italy share is a history of feudalism and city states that ultimately evolved into nations, largely based on commerce, and I believe their political tradition reflects this.

              People tend to think of Japan as a unified country under an all-powerful emperor, but the formative period was quite the opposite; allegiance to the emperor was tenuous at best, secured with hostages and financed with tributes.

              What finally united Japan was the rise of industrialism and mercantile trade along the "Post Roads" such as the Tokido and Nakakasendo highways, which created a rich merchant class with increasing political power, from which many of the major Japanese trading companies and banks today, evolved (and still rule).

              At the time European traders (and the colonists) showed-up en mass in Asia, China and India were the wealthiest nations on earth and both had highly developed societies, so I would not sell India short.

              There are many differences, but perhaps the most important was the early systemization of a professional bureaucracy in China and the development of currency, taxation and generally, greater organization of society. (Jesus, we only abolished 2,000 year old rural taxation system in the past 5 years!) But the result was cultivation of an educated professional class.

              I'm not really knowledgeable enough to capsulize India's development, but my impression is that regional city states developed and competed in a more laissez-faire fashion with the effect Indians excel at flexibility, financing and logistics. India today is still dominated by regionally powerful families and political blocs than by the central government.

              So you could say China developed by running things between the lines and India by connecting the dots. Whatever works.

              I also have to say India was a more accessible target for colonization, and the effects more profound. Although China got scared by the process, I tend to think it only compounded the internal rot of the imperial system at that historical juncture.

              No one stays on top forever, it goes against nature.

              {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

              by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 09:55:29 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  Re: The Human Condition (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I'd agree The Human Condition is not only one of the world's great films, but the single most introspective post war film in terms of the subject.

      In fact, the post-war period through the mid 1970s produced a lot of great films in Japan, but regrettably many released during the post-war US occupation of Japan were censored and cut so the edges blunted somewhat.

      So a lot of the soul-searching was done by allegory in jidaigeki (period drama) or yakuza dramas. For example, the acclaimed Kurosawa worked both of those genres in the late 40's and early 50's and it's really his best work.

      Same can be said for many period dramas of the Chinese cinema from the mid 1980's.

      400ppm : what about my daughter's future?

      by koNko on Sat May 11, 2013 at 02:40:19 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Somewhat disagree (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Clive all hat no horse Rodeo, FG, sny

    As a 20+ years employee of a Japanese company in China who frequently travels throughout Asia and occasionally points west, I'd like to offer a few observations.

    Japan, like many island nations, has been shaped by that fact, but equally by it's interactions with other peoples, first in the region, and more recently with the rest.

    In fact, I would argue that Japanese society has embraced ideas and things from outside, assimilating them and making them "Japanese" much more and much faster than many other societies, whether it is the enormous cultural exchanges with China and Korea going back a millennia, or the more recent embrace of things British, American or French.

    In doing so, Japanese have often imbued their own values and ideas, changing and improving upon what was borrowed, which is a good thing.

    Likewise, Japan has, for at least the past 150 years, exported culture and ideas around the world, expanding it's influence, particularly through the export of popular culture, technology and methods.

    The recurrent frictions between Japan and it's neighbors not withstanding, one can find them appropriating and using what Japan has exported even as the political background noise becomes occasionally shrill.

    Where we agree is this: Japanese often see themselves as a unique society and people, and resist breaches in the wall that do them no good. For example, as a rapidly aging society, Japan would benefit from more immigration, providing a path to citizenship to the best and brightest who have settled there, yet there is still great resistance to accepting this under the belief it would dilute the culture, which is somewhat illogical given how freely Japanese embrace what comes from outside.

    Of course, this is not a unique problem. People all over the world tend to think the same way, including, even, the great melting pot of the USA. I might question "What is American?" but I'm sure there is an answer beyond "Not Canadian" or "Not Mexican" even though they share a continent and some significant cultural similarities as well as differences.

    I'm all for cultural and economic exchanges in every direction, starting people-to-people, and sharing ideas, so thanks for the opportunity.

    {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

    by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 01:19:31 AM PDT

    •  Thank you for the perspective. (0+ / 0-)

      I'm actually curious about your work.

      Do you work in China? Is the work environment mainly in Chinese, English, or Japanese? How do you adjust for cultural differences?

      I understand if you don't feel like you can answer this question, but I'd be really interested to hear your POV.

      by Inoljt on Sat May 11, 2013 at 10:13:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Fax machines? Really? So they like stuff in... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    writing, on paper.

    I'll bet you can't buy beer in a machine in America. Who's backward?

    'If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.' - J. Lennon

    by Clive all hat no horse Rodeo on Fri May 10, 2013 at 01:58:43 AM PDT

    •  Or underwear. (1+ / 0-)

      One finds remarkable things in remarkable places from vending machines in Japan.

      Where else can you buy espresso and video games at the side of a deserted rural road in the middle of nowhere?

      But if you want beer and cigarettes, don't forget your ID in case the machine cards you!

      {Not a sigline. You are hallucinating.}

      by koNko on Fri May 10, 2013 at 10:05:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Meh, I bet POTUS George W Bush (0+ / 0-)

    and his "150 years of friendship between our countries" has quite different views on Japan.

    But I suppose he's been known to be wrong about things from time to time.

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