In an increasingly globalized world, and especially in a world that needs multi-national cooperation in order to tackle the very largest problems such as climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, and the massive imbalance of wealth, insular cultures are at a massive disadvantage. Japan’s troubles are well-known: norms that continue to exclude women from the workforce except when they’re being decorative “office flowers,” a chronic lack of home-grown innovation due to younger people having to defer to their seniors, a promotion system based not on merit and ability but on time served, increasing social isolation, no work-life balance for the salaryman, and a culture of barely-hidden xenophobia. Oh, and then there’s the crushing sexual repression which inevitably leads to a fixation with young girls.
It’s not easy, given these facts, to propose that maintaining a backward-looking culture provides benefits that outweigh these evident costs. While populists everywhere are always backward-looking, we know from history that populism always results in atrociously low-quality policy choices that often lead to great harm. Brexit and Trump are both examples of such backward-looking populism, which panders to supposed national values but is really nothing more than barely-disguised bigotry and racism. Japan’s future is, like everyone’s future, ahead not behind. Therefore attempting to remain trapped in cultural amber is a self-defeating strategy. A vibrant culture isn’t afraid of change; stagnant cultures conversely attempt to freeze time. But today’s problems and tomorrow’s problems won’t be solved by pretending we can remain in the past. Japan is not serving itself well by clinging on to anachronistic ways of regarding itself and the world around it.