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My Japanese Dream

What are the dreams of a Japanese journalist for his country’s revival?

February 4, 2002

What are the dreams of a Japanese journalist for his country's revival?

Many books and articles have been written about the “American Dream.” But what about the “Japanese Dream?” Is there such a thing? If so, what does it look like?

Exploring that dream seems implausible to many people, since Japan is still in the doldrums these days.

After years of touting proposal after proposal on how to resuscitate the Japanese economy, many observers have given up hope. They believe that little — if anything — can be done.

That is certainly a discomforting prospect for the Japanese. Clearly, what Japan needs is a vision for its own future. Call it the “Japanese Dream.”

I am not scholar, nor an economist. But as a journalist, I can offer a personal perspective.

After World War II, a typical success story in Japan was easy to define: First, graduate from Tokyo University — Japan’s most prominent national university. Then, work at the Ministry of Finance or at one of Japan’s big commercial banks.

Once you had been hired by a government ministry or a major bank, a rewarding career — and a happy retirement — were guaranteed.

Unfortunately, such success stories have been ended by Japan’s persistent banking and economic problems.

The Ministry of Finance has lost a lot of power — and some of Japan’s biggest banks have filed for bankruptcy. This “Japanese dream” — which was enabled in part by a life-long employment system — is all but gone. Japan’s economic system, after experiencing high growth until the late 1980s, is under great pressure.

So what will save Japan? Some say the Japanese manufacturing sector, which is still alive and competitive. Japanese companies — such as Sony, Toyota and Honda — are doing well, despite the sluggish economy.

Japan’s high tech manufacturing sector will also survive. Recently, the Japanese manufacturing industry looked to a new technology — “Nanotechnology.”

Some say this super micro-technology will revolutionize the production of semiconductors, medicines and new industrial materials.

However, the manufacturing industry’s share of Japan’s entire GDP is just 20%. This sector has lost almost two million workers over the last ten years — I don’t expect it to be the single engine that powers Japan’s growth.

So, what then are the other sources that could rekindle the Japanese dream? Let’s look to Japanese culture.

Japanese food is an excellent example. There is a Japanese television show called “Iron Chef” that airs on The Food Network in the United States — and it has achieved great popularity. Its viewers continue to learn that Japanese cuisine is more than just sushi, tempura and sukiyaki.

I am convinced that our food market is among the most sophisticated in the world. However, Japanese entrepreneurs have not tried to develop food products for international markets.

The Italians and the French excel at selling their cultures to the world. France’s famous culinary academies — “cordon bleu” — attract many foreign students who want to study the preparation of gourmet French cuisine.

In fact, there is a Cordon Bleu School in Tokyo. My wife took classes there — and we spent thousands of dollars to enhance her knowledge of French cuisine.

Japan should take a serious look at marketing its agricultural products to other nations as well.

Japan’s long suffering agriculture industry — and the Japanese economy as a whole — may get a much-needed boost if it does.

Already, there are signs this trend is emerging. Japanese restaurant chains are rushing to open bars and restaurants in Hong Kong — and they plan to expand to mainland China as well.

Japan’s restaurant industry hopes that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2002 will make it easier for it to make such investments.

Japan also has a vibrant animation industry and many talented animators. The industry really took off following the 1989 release of Katsuhiro Otomo’s cyber-Frankenstein tale “Akira” — which gave Japanese film culture a new energy and relevance.

To show the industry’s potential, the famous anime creator Hayao Miyazaki was dubbed by one American film critic “the Walt Disney of Japan.”

This recent expansion of Japan’s entertainment industry — with the promotion of Japanese entertainment products overseas — is a sign that Japan is building new personal and professional dreams.

Tokyo should really strive to become a cultural capital for Asia. Culture can help tourism — as well as create exports.

However, Japan still needs a strong financial system, as well as a better educational system. It also needs to open and deregulate markets in order for foreigners to access our culture more easily.

Foreign nations and companies can and should play a constructive role in building a new Japan — through investment, trade and cultural exchanges. We welcome such support — rather than sit through a lecture on how Japan should solve its problems.

This Globalist Document is adapted from a speech that Mr.Fujii gave to the New America Foundation in February 2002. For the full text of Mr. Fujii’s speech, click here.