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.