As a country which deliberately shut itself off from all contact with the outside world for over 200 years from 1640 to 1854, during a period known as ‘Sakoku’ (literally, ‘the closing of the country’), Japan may finally be poised to really open its doors to the world.
In what could be the last chance to find genuine growth in its domestic economy, this new era will have profound implications for Japan’s people, economy and, most importantly, its culture.
At the forefront of this new era for Japan is tourism, with the Olympics and Rugby World Cup as major foci, but a trend evident beyond these key events.
Japanese publishing house Jiyukokuminsha runs an annual competition to determine the most popular new words and phrases of the year. In 2015 ‘Bakugai’ (or ‘explosive buying’) topped the list, used primarily to refer to the large-scale shopping sprees of Chinese tourists.
Those familiar with the refined shopping promenade that Tokyo’s Ginza epitomised for so many years will now find it has undergone a major transformation.
Likewise, the town of Hiezu in Western Japan (population 3,455) is unlikely to forget its first encounter last summer with a Chinese cruise ship, diverted at the last minute from Korea due to MERS.
Four-thousand tourists descended to buy virtually everything the town had to offer, leaving them very few supplies of their own.
The residents of Hiezu enthusiastically put out the welcome mat to the Chinese guests, organising translators and logistics, but when it was all done and dusted, the town was overwhelmed by the sheer scale and enormity of it all.
Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan has transformed itself into a global economic power, struggled with the legacy of war, withstood the ravages of natural disasters and, as the world’s leading creator of crazy contraptions, demonstrated its ability to invent virtually anything.
At the heart of this outstanding achievement has been Japan’s ability to harness its most important assets, its people and culture – and of course these are wonderful assets for tourism.
In recent history however, the essence of Japan’s culture has been preserved by a Japanese business model involving selling things to the rest of the world and making investments in a global network from which handsome profits were repatriated.
CORNER OF THE WORLD
Driven by an acute understanding they have few natural resources of their own, the Japanese have worked hard to preserve their own corner of the world as a kind of utopia for Japanese people above all else, a place where they can feel at home, enjoy their own culture, communicate in their own language, consume their own foods and participate in society in a way that is comfortable to them.
But faced with the challenges of an ageing and shrinking population, Japanese society has come to look less and less like the one which felt and fit so comfortably in the past.
Nowadays the person serving you at the convenience store on the corner will probably be Chinese, Korean or perhaps from Thailand. The person who delivers your takeaway could just as easily be Nepalese.
My favourite eatery around the corner in the Tokyo suburb of Omotesando has chefs and waiters from Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Taiwan working alongside Japanese colleagues. Beyond tourism, migration is also subtly encroaching on Japanese society.
Rather uncharacteristically for a fluent Japanese speaker, I now often find myself faced with the dilemma of discovering I cannot communicate. I recently went to pharmacy and could not find the item I was looking for, as the Chinese girl serving me did not fully understand my Japanese explanation of what the product does. (The same explanation delivered to a Japanese staff member produced immediate results.)
Having already adjusted myself to the ‘one-size-fits-all’ culture long ago in order to survive in Japan, I finally know what it feels like to be Japanese....
‘Foreigners’ have started to put down roots in Japanese society to an unprecedented level, as workers at aged-care facilities, in factories, restaurants and any kind of establishment serving tourists. They are also starting businesses, making their presence felt at multinational corporations, on boards, at universities and as foreign investors in listed companies.
The Japanese government estimated at the end of 2014 there were 2.12 million foreigners living in Japan, and that’s only official statistics. This might seem small by international standards but it is a significant enough number now to have an impact in a society where everyone is raised to observe unspoken cultural norms at the core of why Japan works so smoothly.
Certainly, the number of services available now to support foreigners living in Japan is a vast improvement on what I discovered when I first came here in the 1980s, when the signs at the airport immigration counters said “Aliens” in green (a long-standing joke but sadly true).
Now everything looks much more ‘foreigner-friendly’ on the surface. But is it?
The objective remains to explain the way things are, and must inevitably be, to those who choose to make Japan their home, in the politest possible way, of course. But the crunch will come when the beautifully harmonised world of Japan today is tested by the arrival of the world, once kept carefully at arms-length, on its very own doorstep.
RACE IS ON
The race is now on to gear up for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 and Rugby World Cup in 2019. There is a lot of discussion about how to provide visitors with a suitably global welcome.
A flurry of activity heralds announcements of all of the small changes being introduced, like standardising road and maps signs with international norms or numbering stops on the subway rather than expecting foreigners to be able to recognise and remember Japanese station names.
Japan has just raised its target for the annual number of tourist visitors to 40 million by 2020. What was initially considered an ambitious target of 20 million a year by 2020 is now well within reach. In 2015 there were a record 19.73 million overseas visitors, a 47.3 per cent increase from 2014.
Even more significantly, 2015 represented the first year more people came to visit Japan than Japanese themselves travelled abroad.
An inflow of tourists on this scale offers great possibilities to re-boot a flagging domestic economy, particularly in the regional areas where thinning and aging populations are beginning to threaten the very existence of some villages.
The challenge will be how to sustain engagement with the rest of the world in an enduring way, so all parties feel comfortable. And to ensure Japanese culture, the essence of what makes Japan so ‘mystical’ in the first place, remains intact. For all its quirks and eccentricities, Japan is
Not to be daunted, the Japanese government is moving on with its plans. The Yomiuri newspaper has reported a new system where visitors can register their fingerprints and credit-card information in advance at airports and other publicly administered facilities.
This will allow them to make purchases later using only their fingerprints to receive tax-free privileges at biometric terminals to be installed at a number of trial locations.
Apart from speeding transaction time, the system will get around the communication barriers so many Japanese workers dread when providing service to foreigners and will give the government access to valuable big data on spending patterns.
There are undoubtedly many more ways Japan can use its technological expertise to engineer ‘fixes’ to the problem of cross-cultural communication in a mono-cultural environment. Androids certainly come to mind.
Lasting solutions, on the other hand, are more likely to involve people: connecting, communicating, and sharing the truly wonderful things that Japan has to offer the world.
Diversity is just around the corner. Cultural flexibility in managing that diversity, on the other hand, will take time and experience to develop.
At the end of the day, the Japanese people themselves will be the true test of whether the world arriving literally on their doorstep is a blessing they’ve been waiting to embrace - or a cross to bear in the name of survival.
Elizabeth Masamune is a former Senior Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North Asia. She is currently Managing Director of @Asia Associates Japan Inc, specialising in building capability in cultural intelligence and supporting women in Asian business.