10 February 2008

Demographic Disaster for Higher Ed in Japan? Part I

Demographic Disaster for Higher Education in Japan?
Part I

by Charles Jannuzi


This will be a three-part series for the Japan HEO Blog. This first installment will be a short introduction of the series and then follow with an analysis of Anglophone news coverage of Japan. This is, after all, an English-language blog on Japan.

Part two will consist of analysis of recent articles which appeared in the FT, New York Times, Guardian and Kyodo News Service which have covered the 'demographic disaster' that is supposed to be looming over higher education in Japan. Going straight to the strong points of the argument for a disaster scenario for HE in Japan, I will try to point out some of the flaws and gaps in the analysis.

The third and final part, which will most likely appear late in March 2008 (when the single correspondent of the Japan HEO Blog doesn't have to teach classes), I will put forth a different analysis in an attempt to answer the puzzling question, "Why, if high school graduate and university-eligible populations are in steady and unrecoverable decline, is Japan building still yet more universities?" Does someone in the HE sector here know something that everyone else doesn't? Or are they delusional?

Representational stereotypes and monomaniacal theses

When Japan gets covered in the English-language media there have been and there continues to be the following tendencies:

1. Japan as perfected capitalism.

In the run up to the era of 'big bang' deregulation and globalization, American business figures and journalists would often present Japan to American audiences as some sort of contrasting ideal in management practices, government-business-labor relations, and quality control of industrial production. America was supposed to learn from the Japanese how to make better products.

This pattern of representation has largely passed. For one thing, I think the historical consensus is that American companies will never be able to make automobiles to match Japanese or European ones. To be fair to America, one could point out that America pioneered modern aircraft production to go along with air travel on the scale that makes world tourism possible (even though much of this has been subsidized by the US's commitment to keeping an overly large military projecting naval power and air power, quartered all over the world) .

2. Japan as failed capitalism, just waiting to sink into the Pacific Ocean.

One variation of this thesis says that Japan was never really free-market capitalist in the first place. It only succeeded because the US sponsored it as its 'island battleship' against communism on the Asian mainland. Alternatively, Japan became an industrialized, developed, affluent country by practicing predatory mercantilism.

These variations lead to all sorts of convoluted but poorly thought out arguments because it is either pro-capitalist, free market liberals who end up making such arguments about Japan or trade-protectionist, nationalist populists. This leads to the conclusion that mercantilism is wrong (or right), bad (or good), predatory (or self-preservationist) and does (or doesn't work)-- depending on whether you are an economic liberal or an economic nationalist. The economic nationalists tend toward populism, strong state interventionism, even militarism and, at least in theory, fascism in proposing solutions to their perceived national malaise.

At any rate, such monomaniacal theses about Japan are almost an industry among a set of under-worked, over-educated American academics and intellectual-type journalists dead set on committing metaphysical suicide.

Still, the least complicated version of this line of reasoning goes like this:

Since 1989 the Japanese just can't seem to do anything right. They couldn't match the productivity gains or the profitability of dynamic go-go US capitalism (especially in high tech and in the service sector). It's only a matter of time before Japan COLLAPSES.

This representation of Japan in the English-language press has had over a decade of popularity. But as it has turned out (drearily, predictably), US gains in productivity were largely a phantom effect of an economy taken over by speculative bubbles in just about any asset class that exists or could be created.

The fallacy of this sort of analysis is really just the mirror image of the number 1 above. For you see, one reason why Japan looked like such a successful case of capitalism in the 1980s was its speculative bubble economy, which came to a crashing end in that period 1989-1992.

The US is finding out that cheap money, speculative investing--combined with a large whack of military Keynesianism--can indeed produce short-term profitability but not for the historic long term. One can only hope that the management gurus and business writers don't try to revive Japan as a model for reforming post-bubble, post-Bush America.

3. Japan as an ancient, ineffable, exotic Asian culture.

Given the popularity and prevalence of such an approach to writing about Japan, this might seem to be a sure-fire way to sell freelance pieces. But having lived here for over 18 years, I find myself totally incapable of producing this sort of representation of the country. In fact, since my first week in Japan (spent in Shinjuku, Tokyo, in late July 1989, in order to be inducted onto the JET Programme), I have found myself completely unable to write this sort of stuff about Japan. I have never claimed to be any good at fantasy fiction, as much as I enjoy reading it sometimes.

What undercuts any depiction of Japan the exotic is Japan as most have to live it. The country is a resource-poor, over-populated, over-developed, industrialized, now post-industrial nation. For those who live here, except for some remote parts and some artificially created urban pockets, the country is the last thing from ancient or exotic. Much of what people both in this culture and from outside it perceive as ancient are the creations of Meiji Era nationalists.

Perhaps the ideologically exotic aspect that I CAN isolate is this: Japan is a developed, affluent, bourgeois nation but isn't in its core tradition, CHRISTIAN. So much for the Weberian thesis about the Protestant work ethic perhaps? No, Japan is Confucian, Buddhist, and both state and native Shinto (with ethics being a complete, seamless, practical fusion of all these, with a dose of Taoism thrown into the mix). This can really flummox the bourgeoisie of North America, UK or Australia when they encounter Japan as it is.

4. Japan as a strange, even goofy fantasy land of ridiculous people.

This is sort of a corollary of numbers 2 and 3 above. It is essentially chauvinist (if not all out racist) and sees Japan in inferior terms, the butt of jokes among the OECD members club. But such racism neuters Japan and plays down its potential harmfulness as an 'out nation' and 'rogue state' in the Christian bourgeois, free market universe. It also doesn't relentlessly lead to some conclusion that Japan will fail and end up in the dust bin of western bourgeois-written histories.

Japan and Japanese are simply here for our amusement. Laugh at them in all their ridiculousness.

At least in the case of the US (and perhaps Canada), the thing that most undercuts this sort of view is BASEBALL (not sumo). If Japan is such a goofy, funny country, how did they produce Ichiro and Daisuke? Was it steroids, human growth hormone and off-season weight training with Clemens? Still, if you want to sell a freelance piece about Japan, NEVER, EVER underestimate the willingness of editors to buy and readers to consume this sort of nonsense.

Conclusion and a look ahead to Part Two

I have argued that western and foreign views about Japan tend to fall into discernible patterns, which I have attempted to outline above. I would also argue that part of the reason so much outside analysis of Japan gets stuck on such monomaniacal, pseudo-social scientific nonsense is that the Japanese themselves are responsible. (Contributing to this though is the American penchant for believing in so much pseudo-social scientific nonsense, much of it they 'learned' at university.)

My sense is that most Japanese have little understanding of the nations and cultures they trade with, including their preferred 'Anglophone' partners (US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand), Europe or the rest of Asia. This makes the Japanese true citizens of this troubled world. Also, many Japanese really do think that their country is 'uniquely unique', even as they marvel at how weird, strange and dangerous other countries and cultures are when contrasted to the 'civilized normality' of their own.

It could also be said that much of what outsiders do in shaping stereotypes of Japan is simply what outsiders do to all the countries and cultures they experience but barely understand (because of the language and cross-cultural bottlenecks to the exchange of real information and knowledge).

In the case of the 'demographic decline' trend for HE in Japan, the problem is we get locked into obsessively uninformed analysis of Japan. Any thesis that says that the higher ed sector in Japan is going to collapse--along with the rest of the country--because all Japanese women only bear 1.3 children in their lifetimes isn't going to make for very interesting or informative analysis. After all, Japan's higher education is actually STILL EXPANDING. And most institutions are planning on surviving and taking steps accordingly. In the next installment--Part II--we will look at the FT, NYT, Guardian, and Kyodo articles and see how their analysis is blinded by stereotypes and flawed by a lack of real information about Japan and its higher education.

No comments:

Back to top

Back to top
Click on logo to go back to top page.