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Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works

ByStephanie Nakajima

Jul 12, 2011

What is the future of Japan? Can the country get back on its feet? It’s a question that the world and the people of Japan are asking themselves. McKinsey & Company have edited a book that aims to answer this question.

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty essays that aim to shed light on how Japan can rebuild itself in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The contributors come from a variety of backgrounds – from CEOs to journalists, to academics – also include a fair amount of both Japanese and foreign writers. Roughly half of the contributors come from the business sector, and 14 of the 80 come from McKinsey itself.

Though the topics explored range in subject, there are a few recurring themes that run through the collection. Outlined in the introduction, they include the need for openness (the unwillingness of young Japanese to venture outside of their country, and of companies to take their ideas global), diversity (Japan has a relatively homogenous population), innovation (Japan’s need to move away from labor-intensive industries) and leadership (strong company and government officials who can act boldly and expediently). Though sometimes the reemergence of these themes can be tiring, and even seems like a bit of a broken record, often the authors provide enough of their own unique insight to keep it interesting.

There are also a few authors who break hard with the general consensus. Just when you think you have certainly heard enough about the  “change-resistant” personality of the population, John Dower shakes it up with several historical examples that belie this characterization of the Japanese. Forced to reconcile these conflicting assessments, it’s a rewarding experience to recognize the truth in both and thus gain a deeper understanding of the problems facing Japan.

I noted this kind of mental progress several times through the reading of these articles; how is it that Japan ranks 4th in Innovation in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, yet one of the most consistent charges against the Japanese is that they fail to innovate? It’s actually hard to put the book down once you get into the discussion.

Chapter 3, Restructuring Japan Inc., was particularly interesting and well-edited, with each consecutive chapter offering a challenge to the one before. Macroeconomic policies, such as decisive quantitative easing vs. restructuring, were debated as each policy expert laid out his case. The article “Reforming Japan, Nordic Style”, I found particularly interesting; author Richard Katz points out the egalitarian ethic and homogenous, well-educated society that Japan has in common with the Nordic countries, and proposes that Japan should consider how these countries have been able to foster growth and improve efficiency through their policy of government provided employment security rather than individual job security.

Interestingly, the Japanese writers were the most critical of their own society, the quickest to bemoan the complacency and resistance to change. Yasuchika Hasegawa, president and CEO of Takeda pharmaceuticals said, “…until this country hits bottom, our people will never get serious about change”. Tadashi Yanai, chairman and CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns UNIQLO, had even harsher words: “Japans biggest problems are conservatism and cowardice”. Foreign contributers, on the other hand, it seemed couldn’t help but temper their criticisms of Japanese politics or economical policy with praise of all the things we foreigners have love affairs with the Japanese over.

After a few days of reading these essays back to back, dissecting Japan’s dysfunctions and prescribing elaborate solutions, I felt overwhelmed by the work ahead of my adopted country. Japan has been lagging not only economically, but also losing global influence, its once formidable share of the tech market, and having recently lost its status as the “linchpin” of American strategy in Asia to South Korea, even its political prominence.  Several authors, noting the shifting power structure in Asia that has accompanied the rise of China, and more than half of the authors inn “Redefining Japan’s Foreign Relations” chapter argues the need for a pan-Asian alliance–one which Japan must lead.

However, the aforementioned broken record comes in handy here: it does the powerful task of affirming the consensus among experts on Japanese culture. Our problems aren’t so varied, and at the end of the day we really aren’t in disagreement about them. In many cases, we aren’t even in disagreement about the corresponding solutions. And indeed, many solutions were offered, particularly by the writers who dealt with political and economic problems.

However, while many also mentioned social issues, (a great number encouraging the use of women in the work force), few offered any solutions to those problems. Here, the heavy reliance on business-sector contributors is seen. Sure, nearly half the population is underutilized, and that could be a great source of labor for a country that faces an aging population, but how does this happen when an increasing number of Japanese women say they would like to get married and stay at home?

And how do we deal with an aging population if women say they only want one child because doing all the work by themselves is too 大変 (taihen/difficult)? As Kaori Sasaki says in her contribution “Putting Families First”, “changing the law can only do so much; our value system needs to change, too”. I had lengthy discussions with my roommate, Shigeaki Baba, about the theories and policies here, and he said, they are missing the biggest problem- there are a lot of ways in which Japanese society sucks. For a country that prides itself on efficiency, the current family set-up seems disastrously inefficient; one member puts in enough work hours for two, and sacrifices time that could be spent with his children; and the other is deprived the individual necessity comes with a fulfilling career. Of course, this model works for some families, but I think that for many Japanese people, both men and women, this set-up greatly contributes to their unhappiness. Maybe people don’t want to get married, pursue careers, or have kids, because in Japanese society these are difficult things to manage even one at a time. I would have liked to have seen more authors elaborating on that.

Overall, this is a highly thought-provoking and inspiring collection of works and recommended reading for anyone interested in Japan. This certainly sparked great discussion among my friends and roommate. I think if you care about Japan, this is an important collection to read, and hopefully add too as well.

Jake’s comment:

The book would have benefitted by having an essay by Kathy Matsui, who at this year’s TokyoTedX, gave a scathing review of Japan’s sexist polices and demonstrates how incorporating women into the workplace could save Japan’s economy and help solve the declining birth-rate. Personally, I also felt that there should have been some focus on the endemic problems of organized crime in Japan’s politics and business. The culture of corruption, collusion, and corporate malfeasance is a huge stumbling block in re-imagining Japan. I hope that the book is read by more than just the foreign population and that some wise souls in the government of Japan pay attention. Unlikely, but one can hope.

The book is also available in Japan from Amazon as well. 

Stephanie Nakajima

Contrarian philosopher, half-woman, half-Japanese, all dolphin.

13 thoughts on “Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future that Works”
  1. Havent read it, but it indeed sounds like yet another broken record on Japan’s problems. Problems which even I addressed in my 2009 book, ‘Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: A Memoir of Exile and Excess in Japan. Japan is my home to, but I think the situation is hopeless for the Japanese collectively. Which is why I insisted on my wife obtaining advance degree in the US, then continuing her life in Japan. So far its working quite well.

  2. Myname is Brian. I am trying to find books about the Japanese Culture, current events, history, and their way of life. I just got done reading Tokyo Vice and I am currently reading Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan by Robert Whiting .

    Does anyone have any recommendations for books about Japan???? Any websites that will help me learn more about Japan. Anygood youtube videos??? I love watching Tokyo Cooney’s videos. ….. Thanks

  3. “Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs”! Read it, loved it. Sure it could’ve undergone a couple more red-pen treatments from an editor, but it was really quite readable and entertaining. Highly recommended! And I say this as someone who also has Jake’s book (a must-read) and, as of a couple days ago, “Reimagining Japan.” The McKinsey Co. consults for virtually every big American company, and not a few foreign ones as well. It has a certain sinister quality (Enron’s corporate practices were right out of McKinsey’s handbook, and it’s a testament to McKinsey’s oiliness that its reputation seems to have been unblemished by the fiasco). Have only read a couple of the essays so far, but yes, I too was surprised that those written by Japanese were far more critical – well, except for Alex Kerr’s. Wonder what McKinsey thought when he turned it in.

    -I actually went up to a customer service woman at the Shinjuku Kinokuniya and asked, “Uh, excuse me, I’m looking for a book titled “Black Passenger, Yellow Cabs.” The stricken expression on her face was priceless. ”
    -Reimagining Japan” was easier to find.

  4. Thanks everyone for the feedback and for reading the book. We wanted to remind people that McKinsey convened the contributors and funded the effort but made no effort whatsoever to influence the content or opinions in the book. The topics discussed and opinions expressed are entirely those of the contributors.

    And yes this editor quite liked Alex Kerr’s contribution.

  5. Japan has been discovering radiation all over the Island and the other day TEPCO announced that the worse is yet to come – just as Arnie Gundersen has said before. Most likely, in just a year from now, we will start seeing a cancer epidemic open up in Northeast Japan. Later on the epidemic will start appearing in several other places as well.
    Below is an email I received from an America friend of mine currently working and living in Tokyo. He said that some of this email may just be rumors, but some of it may actually be true as well. I don’t believe all of it but remember this came from a high-level, completely bilingual economic analyst working in a US financial firm that analyzes and reports all that is happening within the Japanese finance industry and several other industries on a daily basis:

    “International firms are closing left and right as CEOs and leaders leave the country. Kan and other high-level government officials are rumored to have already left and they only make visits back to Japan when they have to. The electric power grid is quite stressed and workers who are willing to stay and live in this disastrous environment are becoming hard to find.”

    “Japan makes 90% of America’s quality and proprietary IC chips, resistors, ceramic capacitors, electrolytic capacitors, transformers, transistors, and diodes. Every TV, PC, cell phone, radio, car made in America is loaded with these items. They hold the patents, and no nation wants them coming in to build new factories in this economy. The long of it, they wont be producing much more for much longer.”

    “The major USA companies cannot survive without these components. Ford, GM, Chrysler, Dell, Microsoft, Logitec, Apple, Motorola, Philips, GA, 3M,… ALL of them depend on Japanese products. For the US firms to tool up, infringe on Japanese patents, build factories, train people, just to pay them with minimum wages and food will never happen. The corrupt may be able to manipulate the markets, but they cannot when America’s largest producing companies WILL NOT HAVE A PRODUCT LINE FOR 2012.”

    “Once the masses learn of these there will be three major runs”:

    “…and the elite know this. They need to pull their investments and make it spendable as quickly as they can without anyone knowing about it. But that will never happen. They will try to drop gold and silver prices as they try to buy up as much as they can with what dollars they have left, but it will be short lived. $1000 silver and $10k gold are expected by many economic experts including myself.”

    “Below a list of companies about to close down and leave Japan once and for all. Many were already planing to abandon Japan even before the disasters hit. Just think about all the American companies who are completely reliant on their products for production AND retail sales”:






















    “And hundreds and hundreds more. The Japanese government and other distinguished company execs will continue to play it all down, censor, deny reality and keep saying that everything is OK. Meanwhile working in collusion they will all short their own companies stocks, hit it big and then head for the hills. This all may sound somewhat over the top, but believe me, this truth will soon come to be.”

  6. What I think is most remarkable about the book is that it included so many people who really know nothing about Japan, David Sanger, Pico Iyer and Tyler Brule being the most obvious.

    1. I don’t know enough about those individuals to evaluate their expertise on Japan. Pico Iyer lives in Nara and I think he knows a lot about the country. That’s my personal feeling.

  7. For a country that has so many good things going for it, Japan could certainly do a lot of things better. One, it could be a lot more open to foreign investment. Its products for the most part, are competitive worldwide, and when challenged in their domestic market, tend to improve rather then fold. There is a big market for imported goods in Japan, however, it seems very difficult to make that happen.

    Second, there seems to be no emphasis on adult education. Education seems to be less a culture, then something you do to be ready to work for some company. A culture of learning is something that fosters creativity and dynamic thought. I’m in the military, and our working processes are more democratic and open then most companies I’ve seen and heard about since I’ve been to Japan.

    I also disagree with the argument that Korea is becoming more important to the US strategically then Japan. If you want to see whats important to us, look at where we keep our strategic assets: Ships, airplanes, and forward deploy-able units. Japan has all three, with the only capital ship based outside the United States (USS George Washington) located at Yokosuka. With that, the fact that these units can be subordinate to Japanese command, such as what happened during Operation Tomodachi (JMSDF came up with the name), shows a level of confidence in Japan that may be belied by the differential in force levels between Japan and Korea. In Korea you have a force level that is dictated by a imminent threat. In Japan, with the cooperation of the government, we have the capacity for a much more flexible response to any given situation.

  8. Jake,

    Iyer indeed lives there (though I thought he was in Kyoto) and was, at one time – not sure now, married to a Japanese woman. But the things he writes about the country suggests that after all these years it’s all still a mystery to him and that he never got beyond the newbie stage.

    Sanger was the Tokyo bureau chief for the NYT back in the early to mid-90s, preceding Kristof. Sanger never learned to speak any Japanese (not enough so that he could actually do his job without a translator any way) meaning he wrote the same tired “Japan is different than the West” stories when he wasn’t writing clueless articles about Japanese politics.

    Brule is editor and publisher of “Monocle” life-style magazine, majority owner of the Monocle shops and has a column in the weekend edition of the Financial Times (“Fast Lane”). He loves Japan but, like Sanger, doesn’t speak enough Japanese to really understand the country. Apparently independently wealthy, he jets around the globe in first class from world capital to world capital staying only in 5-star hotels while attending conferences or meetings for “branding” and urban design/planning. He’s in Japan frequently for business, but his perspective on the country is one of a rather well-healed tourist.

    In spite of an otherwise rather squishy CV, Brule does have the claim to fame of having been shot by a sniper in Afghanistan while covering the war for the a German magazine, something that both Iyer and Sanger might have benefited from at an earlier age.

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