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Global Japan
NOV 28, 2016

Technology, Community, and Culture: The Fight for a Better Future

By Karl O’Callaghan

Being a 40-something non-Japanese man leaving a job in Tokyo to move to the countryside seems to make me something of an anomaly. Perhaps for this reason, I receive a number of invitations to interesting activities and events. Recently, I was invited to a talk at the opening of a facility for the study of Japanese traditional culture in Himeji.

Together with Hyogo Prefectural Governor Toshizo Ido, professor of music and shakuhachi expert Satoshi Shimura, arts and culture producer Masako Hamada, I discussed questions surrounding the importance of the provinces in disseminating culture, and how to share Japanese traditional culture overseas.

I was asked to provide the gaikoku view. Gaikoku literally translates as “outside country.” The word betrays a view of Japan being the inside (uchi) and everything else being outside (soto).

The uchi-soto dichotomy is both Japan’s strength and weakness. It’s a strength because it has allowed Japan to develop a strong cultural identity (and keep it), even in the face of globalization. On the other hand, it is a weakness because without true external influence, Japan is very set in its ways – often, there is only one “right” way to do something.

The reluctance to see things differently can and does hamper creativity and innovation. Case in point: my elder daughter goes to a class to practice kanji (Chinese characters). Her teacher often tells her she is writing the kanji in the wrong stroke order. For a Westerner, it is hard to understand why, if the final product looks the same, the process to getting there should matter.

The Japanese are taught to accept, not to ask why. My daughter is Japanese, but she’s also British. And she’s also only seven. There’s plenty of time, sadly, for the question of why to be educated out of her.

On the other hand, with the pace of change, will she even be writing kanji by hand on paper when she leaves school in fifteen years?

The world, including Japan, is changing quickly. In the cases of Brexit and Trump, large communities of people voted the way they did because they felt they have no job security. The scapegoat in both of these cases was globalization. This made it easy for politicians to pin blame on communities of immigrants or foreigners, and millions of voters bought into it.

What’s missing from the narrative is the forward march of technology. 

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution well under way, even young people can find the acceleration a little too fast. We all need something to cling to, and that thing is culture.

Recently, my daughter and I got up early on a weekend to take part in a local matsuri (festival). She asked, “Why do we have to get up to carry a portable shrine down the road?”

I answered, “Community is why.”

We need to do things with the people around us, to be part of the world. While Japan has done better than most countries at keeping hold of its cultural identity, younger people are choosing baseball instead of bunraku, soccer instead of sado, movies instead of matsuri, and Pokémon GO instead of rakugo. But old or new, community is community and culture is culture.

Technology means more time.

Automation and AI have been advancing over the last few decades, and are now moving forward at an inexorable pace, replacing human jobs. As Martin Ford points out in his 2009 book, The Lights in the Tunnel, while globalization has accounted for many jobs in developed countries going overseas, automation has also meant the average factory is producing more with fewer people than ever. Big data and robotics are promising more of the same. Many people are either losing jobs or accepting lower level ones. Jobs for life are the exception now, not the rule. 

There’s also the recent case in Japan of Matsuri Takahashi, who reportedly committed suicide due to overwork at Dentsu. Downsizing was said to have caused the need for employees to work longer and harder. This, on top of the traditional working hours of 9-to-last-train-home for junior employees, ultimately spelled tragedy.

Automation is here to make us more efficient. That should put an end to overwork, or at least reduce it so that the 60-hour workweek becomes a thing of the past.

If more people have more time, they can spend that time on family and leisure rather than work, whether that means playing baseball, performing bunraku, or attending the local matsuri.