Japan is a dangerous place. The country is prone to volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and typhoons. The earthquake and tsunami that three years ago took more than 18,000 lives brought that fact to the attention of the world. But, smaller quakes are a daily occurrence. In the week before my writing this, there were 32 earthquakes in Japan.
Though dangerous in one sense, socially Japan is an extraordinarily safe country. Serious crime is rare, and generally enforced and obeyed safety regulations protect most residents from natural disasters and accidents.
In the wake of the 2011 quake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown, observers outside the country remarked on the fact that the disaster was not followed by the looting and social disturbances that would be expected in most other countries. Japanese social cohesion is the pride of the nation.
That cohesion, however, may ultimately prove more destructive than all the volcanoes, earthquakes and other natural risks.
Ironically, though Japanese society is safe, research has shown that the Japanese as a whole are noteworthy for the degree to which they are untrusting and wary of others. That may be linked to a basic Japanese cultural trait: the division of society into “inside” (uchi) and “outside” (soto), or “us” and “them”.
When combined with a tendency toward group cohesiveness, the result can be a strong sense of group identity vis-a-vis members of other groups. In fact, when Japanese introduce themselves outside their own group, they often do so by declaring their group identity: “I am Tanaka of such-and-such company (or other corporate entity).” This can give an adversarial cast to social relations.
One who declares his or her “inside,” also declares others to be “outside.” So, when Tanaka-san declares that she is part of Company A, she is also declaring that she has no connection with Companies B-through-Z.
That lack of connection is not absolute; it is contextual. If Tanaka of Company A and Satoh of Company B were to find themselves in the presence of someone from outside the realm of their rivalry, they would form a temporary new “inside”. So, if they were to encounter a widget maker from India, they would become “Japanese widget makers Tanaka and Satoh”.
So, in a sense, it is the presence of an “outside” that defines oneself in a relationship in Japan.
The most obvious “outsider,” reinforced by the very word used to describe them, is the foreigner. The Japanese word gaijin (foreigner) is written with the characters for “outside person”. To say, “I am Japanese,” means, “I am not a foreigner”.
The 'foreigners' most encountered by Japanese are some 500,000 ethnic Koreans, the descendants of people who came or were brought to Japan as workers when Korea was part of the Japanese empire (1910-1945). They are still “outsiders” though they were born, raised and educated in Japan.
Right-wing hyper-nationalists who are often supported by members of the ruling political party are especially outspoken against the “special treatment” Korean outsiders receive. There is no overcoming the “us” and “them” mind set.
There are, of course, exceptions, but the general lack of involvement by Japanese in international organizations is one indicator of the boundaries that the uchi-soto mind set make almost un-crossable.
Barring the arrival of aliens from another planet who would then be the cosmic equivalent of that Indian widget maker, it is unlikely that the average Japanese would be able to transcend nationalism to say, “We humans, we earthlings".
So, the “us” and “them” adversarial distinction toward foreigners is going to continue. And that will probably make inevitable the decline of Japan.
The Japanese inability to treat as insiders ethnic Koreans who have been in Japan for four or more generations indicates that the country is not going to be able to open its borders to immigration, though such immigration is desperately needed.
Japan’s population is already declining, and the latest projections predict that depopulation will lead to a decline in Japanese economic indicators in 25 years or so. Japan, which once reached the number two spot in the world economy and was touted as a possible number one will, in fact, become a small, politically and economically insignificant group of islands off the coast of the Asian mainland.
An attempt to stave that off was made a couple of decades ago when special visas were granted to the descendants of Japanese who had emigrated to Brazil, Peru and Bolivia a century ago. It was thought that they would fit in as insiders and work in Japan’s factories, since they were somehow or other Japanese.
However, they were not Japanese. They were Brazilians, Peruvians and Bolivians who had Japanese ancestors. Culturally, they could not be insiders, and so the government has not only cut back on the program, but is actively sending the “outsiders” back to whence they came.
Japan continues to refuse to accept immigrants, and is unlikely to do so in the future because the exclusionary psychology of uchi and soto will not allow it. The social cohesiveness defined by uchi and soto will eventually lead to the end of Japan as a major nation.