It was raining in Ho Chi Minh City. Slowing to a crawl, motorcycles sounded their horns loudly. Examined closely, many of their riders were couples. The way the women rode behind the men suggested their intimacy.
The East Asian Economic Summit, sponsored by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the organization that runs the Davos Forum, was being held in this city. I checked into a hotel, admiring female hotel employees with the brilliant sky-blue ao dai , and headed for the venue. I shook hands with close friends to celebrate our reunion and exchanged bows with other participants from Japan. The venue was on the 3rd floor at the hotel. In this relatively compact space of the Summit, a major controversial statement was made.
It was a statement Mr. Mark Du Ree, CEO of staffing agency Adecco Ltd. and Regional Head of Japan & Asia, Adecco Group, made at the session on “Asia’s Youth.” He said this: “I’m teaching a class at a Japanese university. Half of my students are Japanese. Young people in Japan have no values.” After making the remark, he continued as follows, saying, “I’d like to expand on that in a little more detail.”
“Japanese youngsters want only Louis Vuitton bags and cell phones. They ignore their teachers in classes. They play with their cell phones, talk with their friends, and don’t listen to what their teachers say.”
I was dumbstruck. The moderator for the session avoided commenting on the opinion, just saying, “That’s a strong statement,” and changed the subject of discussion. I wondered if that was a proper statement for Adecco’s country manager in Japan and head of operations in Asia and the Pacific to make in a place like the East Asian Economic Summit. The statement was made entirely out of context, as well.
Infuriated by the statement, I walked toward the podium, as soon as the panel discussion was over. I asked Mr. Du Ree at which university he teaches. “Ritsumeikan in Oita” was his reply. It was a statement made at a public conference. As such, it is on the record. I would very much like to ask the faculty and staff at Ritsumeikan for an explanation and seek comments from students at Ritsumeikan.
Another session participant, Mr. Takashima, President of Oisix Inc. was furious, as well. “I couldn’t believe it. People from Japan were the largest group of youth program participants at this meeting. We will never do business with Adecco any longer.”
It was a conference attended by the prime ministers of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, in addition to the prime minister of the Vietnam, the host nation. Initially, Mr. Edano, soon to become Director General of DPJ was scheduled to join these ministers, but his attendance was cancelled as a result of the inauguration of a new Japanese cabinet. The meeting was so important that the prime minister of Thailand decided to participate on short notice. This was the gathering where this very contentious statement described above was made.
I would like to state my view on the statement here. To be honest, I was a truant university student myself. In other words, I was one of those students who Mr. Du Ree said never study. I’ve heard students in Japan study more these days, because finding jobs after graduation has become more difficult than before. But I guess the situation has not changed that much. Still, I believe the argument that “young people in Japan have no values” is extreme. He over-generalized the situation with such statement.
A person who has “no values” is the same as a person who is “not human,” as far as I am concerned It’s difficult for me to think of any person with no values. I believe that is the most insulting statement one can make. I cannot overlook the statement that “Japanese young people are satisfied as long as they are supplied with a Vuitton bag and a cell phone.” I believe that I must protest in a determined way and seek accountability when someone makes a statement like that.
The reason why I decided to write this blog entry was that I thought a problem Japanese people must overcome lies behind this controversial statement. In the Japanese society, people have been encouraged to give a “grown-up response” to criticism and blame. As a result, we often let it pass when we are criticized and blamed. This has been considered the right thing to do in Japan. But, in the global community, it is exactly the opposite. My experience tells me that others view us as “wimps who cannot argue back” when we let criticism and blame pass.
According to his bio, Mr. Mark Du Ree has lived in Japan for many years. In spite of this background, he made such statement against Japan at that important meeting. I’m just speculating, but I think Mr. Du Ree has probably made remarks of that nature to his friends in Japan over the years. None of those people have countered his argument. They let it pass. I believe he misunderstood the response, kept stating his opinion, believing it was correct, and, as a result, made that statement at an important gathering. I believe it was a statement someone could have prevented with a counterargument.
I often have dinners with foreigners living in Japan. Arguments always starts whenever we disagree on things. They all show a mystified expression on their face, wondering why I am debating them. Each time I see that expression, I think to myself, “This person has never experienced a counterargument from a Japanese person.”
An opinion is considered to be correct unless someone makes a strong argument against it. That’s how things work in the global community. Statements keep escalating, if the parties involved keep silent in the face of both praise and criticism. That’s why we must resolutely speak out, “That is wrong,” when a controversial statement is made. We must seek to hold people accountable for making such statements. Unless we take those actions, the same erroneous statement is repeated over and over again, and it ultimately could become accepted. International opinion is shaped in that direction as a result.
To put in another way, we shouldn’t face the world with Japanese values. I don’t know if Japanese people are “grown-ups” or “wimps.” But I think we are too quiet. We must argue back when we are criticized. We must question the true intention of a statement when we find it insulting, and have the person who made the statement assume responsibility for it, if stated in an inappropriate manner. I believe that misunderstandings will disappear, if all of us act this way. .
I’m going to ask Mr. Du Ree for an apology the next time I meet him. If his response is unsatisfactory, I will share my thoughts with you through my tweets and this blog. It’s not that I despise Mr. Du Ree. Nor do I have a grudge against Adecco. All I want to do is to speak and act properly in accordance with my beliefs.
June 7, 2010
At a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City