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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (April 13, 2004)

Japanese peculiarity depicted in 'Lost in Translation'

Yoshifumi FUKUZAWA (General Manager & Senior Fellow, Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute)

Once some Japanologists called revisionists such as Clyde Prestowitz, and James Fallows praised Japan for its uniqueness and its difference from the western world.

Recently I saw 'Lost in Translation' and the movie reminded me of the once praised uniqueness of Japan and I became concerned about the nation's isolation from the rest of the world. The movie was directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola who directed 'God Father' and she won the Oscar for the original screenplay. The story was about a middle-aged American actor and a neglected young American wife crossed paths in Japan and shared their loneliness. Along with the two Americans' struggle in Japan, the modern Japan and the Japanese people were portrayed through the filter of the American director. The actions and behaviors of the Japanese who appeared in the movie looked funny and comic in the whole framework of this movie, but not special when observing individual Japanese closely. People who behave like the Japanese characters portrayed in the movie are everywhere in Japan.

This movie caused me to feel anxious about whether Japan is well understood by the rest of world. To the westerners' eyes, there may be a lot of things such as the Japanese behaviors and views which looked strange and weird. In this respect, I have serious concerns. Back in 1983 the Japanese government started the open door policy for foreign students by 'the 100,000 Foreign Students Policy' which tempted more foreign students from overseas. In 2003 the number of foreign students reached the original target and amounted to 109,508 at the year end. During the recent 5-year period, the number of foreign students has doubled and 80 per cent of the students are from China. Unfortunately it is said that a big difference emerges between those who earned degrees from the US universities and those from the Japanese universities when they look for work. For example, those who earned an MBA from the US Business schools tend to find higher paid jobs in China than those from the Japanese Business schools, when they return to China. Despite the Japanese government's expansion of the capacity to accept more foreign students, other substantial aspects were neglected. As is seen sometimes in Japan, the appearance of policy was solid with disregard to its contents.

Japanese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) has been criticized at times for its quantitative expansion without providing any special benefit to the recipients. As to the foreign students the matter is more cumbersome. Those who earned degrees from US and European schools tend to take more important posts in governments and economic circles. For those who intend to study abroad, especially the elite, the US is the first priority as a destination. When those who received education in the US see Japan, their views would be passed through a special filter, the US filter. On the other hand, the Chinese students who study in Japan see Japan at the same angle as the Japanese. The fact that those Chinese students who succeeded to the viewpoints on Japanese stereotypes through the US filter and step up to more important positions in the government means that Chinese viewpoints tend to be more American and that Japanese style could be unreasonable to them. This would affect Japan in political, economical and social respects.

These days when their continuance is at risk in the face of the society of fewer children and rapid ageing, some universities in Japan are said to make up for the shortage of students by accepting more foreign students without fixing infrastructures such as curriculum and accommodations. The recruitment of foreign students from a simplistic viewpoint results in the lost of zest for study and the increase of illegal labor. A solid foreign students program from the national viewpoint that looks even beyond their graduation as well as the increase in the number of students are strongly desired.

It is regarded that the acceptance of foreign students qualitatively as well as quantitatively were the original purposes of 'the 100,000 foreign students program.'

The improvement of education is pleased for the Japanese as well as foreign students.

It is reasonable that a real education by good educators is desired especially these days when genuine education is sought. Last year I taught at Boston University by their invitation. I found US universities were more attractive both for instructors and students than Japanese universities. I had some students from South East Asia and found that they had not intended to study in Japan at all and that they had chosen Boston University by the quality of curriculum and the value of the degree in their home countries. In Japan, the educational council under the government consists of what is called intelligentsia. They have discussed the improvement of education.

The reason why the US universities surpass the Japanese should be discussed there.

The education that foreign students tend to stay away from now will eventually be resisted by Japanese students as well. We would like to avoid by all means falls in the Japanese education level, outflows of Japanese students and the bypassing Japan by foreign students. In the era of globalization, Japan should not be regarded as special.

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