Ahead of the Games – why the world loves Japan

Is it true that the majority of the world’s population – including people in China – believe that Japan is the best nation in Asia?

A survey published recently suggests that Japan is greatly liked and respected by foreigners. The Anholt-Ipsos National Brands Index for 2018 puts Japan in second place in terms of countries admired by outsiders. Germany won the top “Nation Brand” ranking.

Asia’s favourite

As a journalist, I’m suspicious of surveys because the results can often be manipulated. But Ipsos is one of the more reliable polling companies and its press release says it conducted 20,224 interviews online with adults in 20 countries. It invited comments on 50 nations – including China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. None of the other Asian countries made the top ten.

So what makes Japan special?

Business is a key factor, apparently. But Vadim Volos from Ipsos says that Japan also scores well on people’s perceptions of its people and its culture.

This is helped by tourism. There are a record number of tourists in Japan at the moment, including many visitors from China. More will come next year for the Olympics. And there are millions of people around the world who love Japan’s funky manga culture and fashion – including people who have never been there.

Welcome praise

The Japanese love to hear foreigners’ opinions of their country and delight in praise. They usually respond humbly but nevertheless take great satisfaction from any complement.

The Economist this week ran a piece which claimed that “All countries ponder their identity but Japan does so more than many. An entire genre of literature, Nihonjinron – “theories about the Japanese” – is dedicated to the question of what defines the country and what it means to be Japanese.”

Any foreign contribution to the great library of Nihonjinron analysis is especially valued. That includes this blog, which is normally quite positive about Japan, although I also often highlight the problems people face.

Cool Britannia

There is another surprise in the Anholt-Ipsos National Brands Index – my country, Britain, scores in the top three, just below Germany and Japan. Anholt’s respondents see the UK “as an epicentre of cultural and export strength with thriving urban life.” Britons are considered “hard working and skilful.”

The UK’s ratings on this index have not been affected much by Brexit. Simon Kuper, wrote in the Financial Times: “Going around with a British accent has mostly been an advantage up to now. That may change as the UK enters an angrier, ruder, two-fingers phase of Brexit.”

I hope that doesn’t happen and that the British retain a reputation for being stylish, innovative, funny and cool. It would also be nice to be regarded as polite and kind, like the Japanese. They plan to show their best side to the world through next year’s Olympic Games.

After that event, Japan may even creep up the index and beat Germany to become perceived as the world’s top national brand.

Enemy of NHK is elected to parliament

Almost a million people have given their support to a maverick politician who says he wants to “crush” the Japanese public broadcaster NHK.

Takashi Tachibana won a seat in this week’s upper house elections after running an angry campaign which generated a lot of debate about the role of the media.

Mr Tachibana is the leader of the Protect the People from NHK Party, which fielded more than forty candidates. Fringe parties can win places in the Upper House of the Japanese parliament because the system is based on a proportional representation.

Allegations of affairs

According to a reporter called Gavin Blair writing in the Hollywood Reporter, Mr Tachibana alleges an affair between one of NHK’s presenters and another staff member and also says he was fired from NHK after blowing the whistle on improper accounting.

In an election broadcast that was carried on NHK he said:

“‘Crush NHK’ means to stop NHK’s broadcasting signal or, to put it in technical terms; implement a scrambling of the NHK signal.

Why should we crush NHK? It’s because NHK is hiding the fact that its male and female announcers have had car-sex adultery on the street.

Everyone – it’s car-sex adultery on the street!”

There is a gossipy element to this of course, but allegations of financial impropriety and sexual misconduct are serious matters.

And it’s not the first time that NHK has been the focus of criticism. A few years ago, many people said they would refuse to pay the licence fee, claiming it doesn’t offer value for money.

TV tax

In the UK, the BBC, for which I used to work, is also funded by an annual licence fee – in effect a tax on everyone who owns a TV set, computer or smartphone. The BBC’s licence fee costs £154 ($191, 20,600 yen) whereas NHK’s costs $130 (13,990 yen).

In Britain, some people get discounts on the fee but free licences to everyone over 75 will be scrapped next year.

Many right wing newspapers have expressed outrage at this.

The Express, for example, has called for the whole licence system to be abolished and claims that “angry campaigners have lambasted the BBC for continuing to pay huge paychecks for its stars.”

It claims that young people are giving up on the broadcaster. “In terms of 16-34-year-old audience, those watching the BBC weekly fell from 60 percent to 56 percent” last year, according to the Express.

Call for change

This leaves Japan and the UK with a similar debate: does a state broadcaster, funded by licence fee money, make sense in the modern media environment?

Japanese campaigners have sent Mr Tachibana to the parliament building in Tokyo to fight their cause. It won’t be easy for him to overturn a long-established system or “crush” NHK.

But he will no doubt try to keep the issue in the news and the representatives of other media outlets will offer him much airtime to vent his anger at their leading rival.

How Asians and Westerners Think Differently

I have sometimes postulated that if I ever get to heaven, I risk being bored to death by the lack of bad news.

Can you imagine picking up the papers every day and finding nothing but positive articles? No crime, no political disputes, not even a hint of salacious gossip. Your favourite team wins every game and there are no celebrity deaths to mourn.

In the modern era, newspapers are struggling to retain readers but at least they have no shortage of issues to write about. Bad news thrives online: Twitter is bursting with accounts of human conflict.

A good argument

But is my fascination with bad news and a passion for a good argument partly down to my own culture? Would it be different if I was Asian?

A Japanese friend told me recently that the concept of a lively discussion does not exist in Japan because of the emphasis on group harmony.

I have also heard it said that combative, rhetorical forms of argument are extremely rare in China.

“Most of the time Chinese people are quiet and they don’t talk about politics. They might talk about it the dinner table but they don’t talk about it in public,” observed the artist Badiucao, in an interview with the Financial Times this week.

My research on this topic turned up an intriguing book called The Geography of Thought written by Richard E. Nisbett, an American who has tried to work out why Asians and Westerners think differently.

“East Asians live in an interdependent world, in which the self is part of a larger whole. Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent,” suggested Nisbett.

Turning to the topic of argument and debate, he observed: “Westerners have faith in the rhetoric of argumentation, whereas Asians avoid controversy and debate. Easterners are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony.”

School problems

These generalisations may help to explain why some East Asian students find it difficult to adapt to Western education systems. It’s not their lack of confidence in English which necessarily holds them back – although that can be a factor – but they are unaccustomed to the way argument and counterargument are seen as central to the learning process.

Nisbett claims it is not unusual for American professors to give bad grades to Asian students, not because they are lazy or slow but because they have not grasped the rhetorical style.

I recently led a course for a group of students from China. The British and Western professors who taught them were sometimes frustrated by the lack of lively question and answer sessions at the end of their talks. I have heard similar remarks by teachers in Japan.

Heavenly lessons

I don’t know if heaven contains classrooms in which we can extend our learning. I hope that it does and that our teachers will come from every age and nation.

We could study art from Leonardo di Vinci and go on to learn science from the geniuses of future generations. I expect the teachers will have the patience of saints and essay deadlines will be extended indefinitely.

But I also hope that among those learners there will be those who challenge what they are told, or even deliberately start an argument.

When the rebels do cause conflict, it will give the angelic scribes a topic to put in the heavenly journal. I shall read it with interest.

North Korean fighters march on the Budokan

A group of North Korean fighters are planning to throw their opponents to the ground in Japan’s most iconic sports venue, the Nippon Budokan.

The athletes have applied to take part in the World Judo Championship later this year.

The Budokan, which is hosting the event, was built specifically for martial arts tournaments, although it has also been used as a venue by many pop and rock stars including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Deep Purple.

Entry opportunity

The Japan Times explains that North Koreans are usually forbidden from entering the country but they have used a loophole that allows them in to take part in sports tournaments.

The North Koreans use international sporting outings for propaganda purposes and they were delighted to be the centre of media attention at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

For some traditionalists, the Budokan and the sport of judo are almost sacred symbols of Japan’s heritage, so it will be bewildering to watch the North Koreans unfurl their flag at the world judo event.

Japan does not recognize North Korea as a sovereign state and there are no diplomatic relations between the nations.

Tough line

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been consistently tough on the North Koreans, in contrast to the more friendly approach of Donald Trump and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, who have both met several times with their leader Kim Jong-Un.

Mr Abe’s critics complain that he is a hardliner who cannot see the value of compromise.

However, other people think Mr Abe has avoided a political trap.

No concessions

The Oxford University Professor Rana Mitter wrote in the Sunday Times that “Kim Jong Un has seduced the presidents of America, China and South Korea into following his overall agenda without giving any real concession so far.”

Professor Mitter said that the North Korean leader is not insane but he is “one of the most rational if ruthless leaders of any dictatorship today.”

There will be another striking sports event in Tokyo next year when a team made up of judo athletes from both North and South Korea will compete jointly in the 2020 Olympics.

This will leave spectators in the strange position of watching an ally of Japan and its principle enemy join forces in a martial arts battle.

Strained relations

Although South Korea is an ally of Japan, their relationship is strained at the moment. Shinzo Abe declined to meet President Moon face-to-face at the recent G20 summit in Osaka.

He is irked at suggestions that Japanese firms should compensate the victims of forced labour from the period of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula during the last century.

But despite these disagreements, Japan and South Korea remain crucially important to each other. They are prosperous democracies and are anxious about the trade war between China and the United States.

When it comes to North Korea, both would like to see complete denuclearisation, although they have different views on how to achieve this.

However, North Korea is led by a man who – as Professor Mitter put it in is piece for the Sunday Times – “has the power to turn East Asia into a wasteland with his conventional and nuclear arsenal.”

Better then to confront the country in the judo hall than on the battlefield.

The gulf between Japan and Russia is widening

Japan and Russia lie so close together geographically that there’s even been discussions about building a bridge between them.

A rail bridge to join Cape Crillon on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Cape Soya at the northern tip of the Japanese island of Hokkaido would stretch about 30 miles. There are many longer bridges elsewhere in Japan.

However, there is an enormous political gulf between Russia and Japan and it is getting wider. President Vladimir Putin made this plain in an interview before he travelled to Osaka for the G20 summit last week, when he declared that “liberalism is obsolete.”

“Liberalism is obsolete” – Vladimir Putin

He told the Financial Times that liberal ideology has “outlived its purpose” and praised the rise of populism in Europe and America, saying that ideas like multiculturalism are “no longer tenable.”

Liberalism and democracy

Many articles in the press contrasted the Russian approach with “western liberal values.” For example, the BBC said that liberalism “has underpinned Western democracies for decades.”

The British Prime Minister Theresa May lashed out at what she called Russia’s “irresponsible and despicable behaviour” and her likely successor Boris Johnson said that the Russian president was “totally wrong; our values – freedom and democracy, the rule of law and free speech – those things are imperishable and they will succeed.”

As host of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was carefully not to clash with Mr Putin publicly. Instead he spoke of his desire for a “peace deal” with Russia.

One of his dreams is that Russia will one day return to Japan some of the islands which were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.

Danger Zone

They form part of a chain of islands which are known as the Northern Territories and a few years ago this was the preferred location for the friendship bridge. However, it has now become one of the most dangerous regions in East Asia.

The Russians have been carrying out missile tests, which Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kano has called “unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, many Japanese businesses still work with the Russians. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that companies cooperate in the energy and medical sectors and engage in joint activities such as tourism, waste disposal and vegetable farming.

None of that matters much to the Japanese economy. What is far more significant is the liberal economic values which underpin Japan’s society.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which Mr Abe leads, states clearly on its website that it is a liberal political party which advocates democracy and basic human rights and “strives to make positive contributions to world peace and prosperity of mankind.”

Party politics

Rival parties – such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People – have different policies but share similar ideas about the importance of parliamentary democracy.

According to an opinion piece in the Financial Times which responded to the Putin interview, countries with liberal market-based democracies generally enjoy high standards of living, driven by a “dynamism” which generates prosperity.

The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese business newspaper Nikkei, so it seems to be stating a view which is widely held in Japanese business and political circles.

There are some notable dissenters, such as the Japanese Communist Party. But even if it uses a political process based on elections to get its voice heard.

And even though many people say they are tired of Mr Abe and the LDP, it is a party which nearly always wins elections – a sign that liberalism is far from obsolete in Japan, even though Russia and China advocate rival systems of government.