Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Islands of Isolation

PARIS – The Japanese and the British may seem very different, but a closer look reveals something akin to a parallel destiny for these two island peoples. With their old imperial ambitions and widespread distaste for the great continents from which the narrowest of seas divide them, both the British and the Japanese are vulnerable to the siren song of isolationism. Unfortunately, both now appear to be succumbing to that dangerous temptation.

Perhaps geography is destiny. As islanders, Britons and Japanese have had wary relations with – and often a superiority complex toward – their great continental neighbors, Europe and China, respectively. Both historically compensated for their isolation with strong central governments, powerful navies, dynamic entrepreneurship, vibrant culture, and imperial ambition.

Today, Japan and the United Kingdom pretend to be open societies, and to be stakeholders in the globalization process. In reality, both remain mostly inward looking and preoccupied with the disintegration of their original culture. Both try desperately to keep immigrants at bay, whether through cultural segregation in the UK or, in Japan’s case, by mere rejection. The more civilizations become intertwined in the new world order, the more the Japanese and British are tempted to remain aloof and apart.

In Japan, the isolationist temptation is expressed in the current nostalgia for the Edo period, from 1600 to 1868, before Emperor Meiji opened Japan to the world. “Back to Edo” has become a dominant mood and theme in public debates, promoted by writers, pundits, and historians like Inose Naoki (who is also Vice Governor of Tokyo), who argue that the Japanese were much happier within their closed world, blissfully insulated from the quest for material success and international status.

This “Back to Edo” discourse translates into the refusal of young Japanese to learn a foreign language or travel abroad. Indeed, in Europe, North America, and elsewhere, the omnipresent Japanese tourists of the 1970’s have been replaced by Chinese and Koreans. The number of Japanese studying abroad is at a new low at the very moment when South Koreans and Chinese are swarming into European and North American universities. Even the world’s great universities, from Harvard to Oxford, are seeing fewer Japanese students.

Here the British are very much mimicking the Japanese: fewer and fewer are learning foreign languages, studying abroad, and following the old path of working in Hong Kong, Singapore, or Australia. So prevalent is this “little England” mood that Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is now tempted to hold a referendum to ask the British whether they want to remain within the European Union, a vote that even that arch euro-skeptic, Margaret Thatcher, never risked.

The prospect of a referendum reflects the overwhelming mood among the Tories, who sometimes mention Norway – a non-EU member whose main role in global affairs is to award the Nobel Peace Prize – as a model for Britain’s role in the world. Of course, Norway has the world’s highest per capita income. But that is not the relevant standard against which the UK or other Western countries should measure themselves, because Norway has a tiny, homogeneous, population and sits on vast – and well-managed – natural resources.

If asked in a referendum, the British might well leave the EU, which they never liked. This would have the unintended consequence of strengthening the federalists on the continent, thereby accelerating the integration dynamic that the British now want to stop.

Indeed, the British would leave just when Iceland, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine, despite Europe’s current crisis, are trying to get in. And, while the eurozone may be in crisis, Poland, among others, still want to join in the near future. The British may turn their nose up at the euro – to which even the supposedly independent Swiss franc is pegged – but it will almost certainly remain the currency of nearly 300 million Europeans.

Isolationism, whether in Japan or the UK, is not only a short-sighted choice; especially for Japan, it may also be a perilous one, given the rise of China next door. Both Japan and the UK, much as they may not wish to admit it, depend on the global market. Isolationism would leave their citizens ill prepared to confront competition and their governments excluded from decisions that impact the global economy and trade. Nor can isolationism guarantee national security at a time of rising threats from terrorist groups and rising ambitions on the part of China and Russia.

The Edo nostalgia in Japan and the Norway model’s appeal in the UK are not rational choices. They merely channel national wariness at a time of global competition between cultures, economies, and emerging strategic ambitions.

Sometimes nations, like individuals, grow tired and long for their idealized youth – a recurrent phenomenon that historians call “declinism.” Whether one calls it that or a desire for a holiday from history, Japan and the UK today seem to be choosing a path that will only accelerate decline.

Read more from our "London Not Calling" Focal Point.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (3)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedm r

      The article is devoid of scholarly rigour linking irrelevant aspects to fit authors outlandish thesis. Thanks to the two other commenters defining and defending Japanese/ British ends respectively. There is no more "strange" relation between Islands and neighbouring continent than were they linked together. Unlike Japan, Philippines did not have the Wolfowich doctrine (encroaching/ attacking just because one can) available to join Japan at the time of Chinese carve- up. No more that Cuba with USA or Sri Lanka with India; Madagascar on Africa or Corsica/ Sardinia vis a vis France/ Italy any profoundly suspect link can be found or construed.
      It appears clear that the author is really suffering from what French past leader De Gaulle always complained that French were just second to British- and quite rightly so.
      Pre- or post Bastille/ Bonaparte French political system has not grasped democracy, but just exported it all over.
      British essence rests on the thesis that it is not all that critical how one attains political power BUT how do we get rid of one "gracefully", without resorting to what in the past was political assassinations.
      Mubaraks/ Mugabwes of this world were as starters quite genuine people but joined Dr. Bandas/ Adenauers of this world, who eventually ended up thinking that without them at the helm the world they built will fall apart.
      British political system is without doubt superior and they do not need to suffer from superiority complex, but French political system is welcome to feel inferiority complexes because it just is so. It be better though, just learn and close the gap. This world will be a better place thereby. All the currents uprisings ( and there are enough of them including USA)- all emanate from French system, where once there, the boss is untouchable.
      Iron Lady was removed in about two weeks and it took the whole of France to rise in uproar to remove the most genuine father of modern nation, Gen. deGaulle.

    2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      The closest look would reveal something akin to a different destiny.

      The Japanese have not had perhaps wary relations with their continental neighbor, at least until the arrival in East Asia of modern Western countries, except when Mongols attempted two invasions and Portuguese and Spaniards tried to convert Japan to their Chiristianized colonies.

      The Chinese think that everything good is in China and everything good that there is in China is the best in the world, a deplorable habit that the Chinese cannot shake off, and the Japanese have historically thought that bonnie things lie over the ocean, in China first and then in the West since 1868.

      The Chinese have enjoyed a superiority complex and the Japanese have suffered from a inferiority complex.
      The first surge of Japanese nationalism was in the 7th and 8th centuries. It was the reaction formation of a very strong inferior sense that the Japanese felt facing gigantic Sui and Tang China. The second was in reaction to modern Western imperialism.
      Each time that the Japanese were confronted with great civilizarion, they became ardent and enthusiastic admirers and learners. For instance, in Japan's efforts to modernize itself, France, too, had much influene in the area of political thought. Montesquieu's and Rousseau's works were translated. The Japanese modern system of civil codes is French. Compare this attitude with that of China. Compare it with Great Britain. Did the British ever show a comparable zeal in foreign countries' industrial technology, educational systems, political thoughts, constitutional ideas, modern system of government, etc.?

      In the 17th century, when the English began to shoot our overseas, the Japanese are generally thought to have closed their door in the Edo Period. We can say that certainly but this is half-true, for Japan had prepared itself for successful adaptation for modern industry and nation-state in this period which lasted for two and a half centuries without war.
      There was no time in Japanese history when the Japanese showed so strong and sustained interest in Confucianism. It was in this period that knowledge about the Western world was sought through the Dutch. Far from inward looking, Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch and Westerners who visited Japan on the eve of its open-door policy noted an unusual curiosity that the Japanese manifested.

      Vice-Governor Inose is a very intellectual person. His personality is very far from blind, jingoistic nationalism. I do not know what he said that made Mr. Sormancomment on him as "back to Edo" disposed.
      We sometimes say things that sound like back to Edo, because in this period the Japanese enjoyed economic and commercial development, a considerably high standard of living and on top of all these peace that seemed to endure forever; people could live without worrying about internatinal rivalry and security; they felt living in a society which was intellectually easy to understand and emotionally very familiar. It is not surprising if many Japanese jokingly speak of it, as I do, as a paradise though knowing that it had shortcomigns and that it is impossible to go back to it.

      There is much truth in Japanese trying to keep immigrants at bay by rejection. But Mr. Sorman should know, for instance, that about six hundred thousand Koreans opted to stay in post-war Japan instead of going back to the Korean Peninsula. Close to five hundred thousand of their descendants are living, not a small number of them pledging allegiance to the North. Chinese are buying fountains where they can have clean and fresh water in many places.
      As it seems that more emphasis is coming to be laid on cultural assimilation from immigrants in France, so in Japan too there is a change of mood taking place.

      Young Japanese were and are very eager to learn a foreign language, English most often. This eagerness has not declined and the Japanese Government has invited for the past two deades hundreds of young people annually whose first language is English. But there has been no sign of improvement in the English-speaking abiltiy. Mr. Gregory Clark, a son of economist Colin Clark, asked why the Japanese seem to struggle so ineffectually to learn English. His answer was the counterproductive way in which English was taught in schools. My suggestion is that it is high time the Japanese gave up English and tried French instead so that Mr. Sorman, whose knowledge of Japan leaves much to be desired, would not have to learn Japanese.

      I agree, though, that the number of young Japanese going abroad to study has fallen. I do not know why. The government should give able, young Japanese very good stipends. It should also encourage Japanese companies, as a way of remedy, to give their able and promising emloyees a long sabbatical since Japanese, once employed and caught in workaholism, seldom have chances for further, intensive self-improvement. This benefit should not be egalitarian as is often the case in Japanese groups. It should be completely meritocratic.

    3. CommentedCelt Darnell

      Well, it was Napoleon Bonaparte (remember him?) who said every nation follows its geography.

      But, could we have some balance here? The idea that the UK is "isolated" if it fails to integrate with Europe overlooks the vast English-speaking world or Anglosphere which includes among others, Canada (Quebec notwithstanding), Australia, New Zealand and oh, yes, the US of A. Unlike Japan, the culture of which is found nowhere else, the UK has other linguistic brethren. While language does not equal culture, but it is a large part of it. The existence of the Anglosphere means a different set of rules for Britain in comparison to Japan.

      Do the Japanese and British really find their continental neighbours distateful? For most of its history (the 20th century was the exception) Japan had to fend off Chinese encroachment. For Britain, within living memory, the continent gave us such luminaries as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Before that it was Napoleon and Robespierre, before that Phillip of Spain. That Britain's liberal state has been created and maintained all too often in defiance of various continental powers has certainly led to a certain wariness among the British. That's not the same as distaste.

      Anyone who claims that the UK is a less open society or is any more hostile to immigrants than any European nation is either ignorant or medacious. Britain hasn't always successfully integrated its new arrivals, but it does as well as anyone else and has far more of them than any of its neighbours.

      Finally decline. The fact is, the entire west, especially Europe, is in decline. The process of western world dominance that began in 1492 is well and truly being reversed -- and it is increasingly obvious that there is nothing the US or the EU can do to stop it.

      Frankly, on that matter, it really doesn't matter what the UK does.

      On the subject of languages, I'd recommend you start learning Mandarin.