What the world can learn from Japan

Iconic ‘Earthrise’ image of our island planet taken in 1968 by NASA

First published by The Japan Times

Japan’s history of rapid growth, bubble economy, followed by economic slowdown and deflation will invariably spread to other nations with aging populations. History, however, rarely repeats itself exactly. By the end of this century, the population of the Earth will likely peak at 10 billion. Expanding middle classes in emerging economies cannot all achieve an American lifestyle. Energy consumption per capita alone would outstrip global supply. How can our resource-limited planet cope with global rising materialist expectations?

From the start, the Japanese already knew unlimited growth was unsustainable. Their island nation lacks natural resources. Even so, Japan became the most successful, modernized and advanced economy. Now it is at the forefront of solving advanced social problems, most notably population aging. Other countries around the world soon to experience the same are looking to Japan for solutions. “People are finally noticing what Japanese have already known — we are all islanders,” says Morinosuke Kawaguchi, a futurologist and author of the book “Megatrends 2019-2028.”

Kawaguchi believes Japanese values are based on an innate understanding their island nation is resource-bound. For example, in Japanese culture it is almost sinful to waste even a grain of rice (mottainai). Housing is tiny. Everywhere, people realize they must conserve and recycle. But the Earth’s sustainability goes far beyond environmental ecology. The global ecosystem must also be socially and economically sustainable. He explains, “So long as the frontier expands, a loser can make up for his losses in a different space. However, within a closed system, if one party is winning and another is always losing, the loser will never survive.”

Japanese have always known this. “In Japan, we see the ocean. So we cannot escape,” he says.

This is why the purpose of Japanese companies is not to win. It is to survive. For example, a father’s purpose is to bequeath his company to his son or daughter, not necessarily to grow it. He aims to keep customers satisfied by making products incrementally better (kaizen). “In Darwinian terms, the purpose is to mark one’s territory as ‘mine’ — this is my territory, don’t come here anymore and other’s territory as ‘theirs’ — so neither invades the other,” says Kawaguchi.

Japan’s outward efforts to gain control over foreign resources through force failed in comparison to other nations, especially 18th- and 19th-century Europeans. Continentals spun off Western cultures based on harvesting new markets and territories. Westerners now define themselves through independent outward achievement. “The purpose of life is to achieve — that defines success,” he notes.

For example, Western business schools teach students to explore, to challenge, to do more and to expand business. Japanese, on the other hand, define success more in terms of collective survival. Social harmony surpasses growth as the primary objective. By that measure, Japan may be the most successful country on the planet.

Ian Buruma, a historian, recently wrote, “Contemporary Japan may have its flaws, but it is now much more egalitarian than the United States, India or many countries in Europe.” Japan, he said, remains “a country of, by, and for the middle class” where “self-worth is defined less by individual fame or wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise, and doing the job one is assigned as well as one can.”

The world can learn from Japan. Islandology is spreading globally as other nations recognize the world is a single closed ecosystem. “The frontier time is over!” says Kawaguchi.

Ironically, the world’s largest superpower and consuming nation isn’t listening. The United States pursues win-lose global trade policies. It ignores global climate change. Through “America First” policy, it places U.S. interests before that of alliance partners which threatens to destabilize the liberal world order and world peace. Doesn’t “might make right” always?

Kawaguchi describes zero-sum trade and foreign policy as the baby boomers’ “final resistance” before they die. Baby boomers grew up during the Cold War enjoying a consumerist lifestyle. “They want to turn the clock back to the time consumerism peaked in Europe, America and Japan during the 1970s,” he says.

Succeeding them is a generation of digital and environmental natives concerned about climate change. Brought up on smartphones, the young generation is at ease sharing ideas through Facebook, cars through Uber and homes through Airbnb. They believe sharing is win-win and consumerism is uncool.

Collaboration is probably the future of the Earth. “Once the trend starts, it’s impossible to stop,” predicts Kawaguchi.

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