This is the title of one of Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings. He created this in Tahiti and inscribed the title in the upper left corner – “D'où venons-nous? / Que sommes-nous? / Où allons-nous?”.
If Gaugin were alive today, he might be tempted to create such a painting in Japan.
Where do us Japanese come from?
As for everyone, Japan's deepest origins are "out of Africa". Today's Japanese people are principally derived from two major migrations from the Asian mainland, one about 30,000 years ago, and the other a little over 2,000 years ago. But like all peoples, the Japanese did not really start as one, and have had periods of intense civil war. Japan was only unified in the 16th century. From the 17th century, the Tokugawa shoguns pacified the country by installing a virtual police state.
Japan’s sense of uniqueness is probably due to its isolation (it is much further from the Asian continent than Britain is from Europe). Fearing Western invasion, the shoguns wisely closed the country to the outside world in the 17th century.
Under pressure from Western barbarians, Japan opened in the 19th century. From the outset, they sought to emulate and copy the best of the West. The Iwakura Mission to America and Europe studied best practices and adapted them for Japan. There followed a period of rapid development. But Japan needed resources, so it invaded other Asian countries. It was again emulating the West in becoming a colonial power. But it claimed to be liberating Asian countries from Western colonialism by creating an Asian Co-prosperity Zone. It all led to Japan’s attack on the US in Pearl Harbour.
Where are we?
At the end of World War 2, Japan renounced militarism and samurai culture. It launched a process of rapid economic development, once again seeking to emulate the West. But as it had almost caught up with the West 20 years ago, it suffered an economic crisis. It has been in the doldrums ever since, and public debt has reached record levels. This ultimately led to the Liberal Democratic Party being replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan at the last elections.
Meanwhile, China has overtaken Japan as the Asian power that everyone is interested in. A lot of Japan’s manufacturing has now been outsourced to other Asian countries. But Japan has struggled to transform itself into a service-based economy. To some extent, Japan has always been a copycat nation, copying China, Korea and then the West. Becoming an innovation nation is more difficult.
By many indicators, Japan’s society is more and more inward-looking. But the society seems solid, as it strong common values.
Where are we going?
Japan does not seem to have a common project or direction as a country. It remains a country with a deep sense of paranoia vis-à-vis the rest of the world which is seen to be unsympathetic and even hostile to Japan (witness debates on whaling, blue-fin tuna and dolphins).
It is also a country which is schizophrenic. It left Asia to join the West. And it is still a long way from achieving reconciliation with its Asian neighbours. And while the current government is promoting the idea of an East Asian Community (a worthwhile objective), it is presenting this as a choice of Asia over America, with which it wants a more balanced relationship. The government seems to have difficulty conceiving the idea of having close relationships with both America and Asia.
Further, there seems to be no great urgency in the East Asian Community project. The region’s economic development is dazzling. The cycle of poverty and conflict was broken. But it has created with it a host of problems – like the environment, resource and energy demand, and the need for societal and political change. And these are problems with a global dimension. It is necessary to translate the region’s economic power into political power in order to work together to solve these problems. Economic Asia is strong, but political and institutional Asia is weak. Japan, as the most developed Asian country, should take a lead. China, Korea and Japan must work together.
How can we articulate a vision and plan of action for the future? The election of the DPJ is promising. But after more than 60 years of rule by the LDP (with its almost hereditary rule), it is very difficult make big and rapid changes. Many of the Japan’s problems with the Americans over the Okinawa bases derive from lack of coordination in a still highly compartmentalized government.
In today’s global system, articulating a vision and plan of action requires democratic citizens with a global outlook. And yet in relative terms, Japan is arguably becoming more and more isolated. Its English linguistic capabilities are about the worst in Asia. And very few foreigners speak Japanese, even after decades living in this country. Many more young Chinese and Koreans study abroad. Japanese are virtually non-existent in global academia or international organizations or multinational enterprises or NGOs. In short, there are very few Japanese in the global elite which circulate around the planet, creating the new ideas and animating global disussions.
The Japanese are today most well known for their sushi and manga. But while these may create positive impressions, they will never be the basis of global leadership.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Japan is sleepwalking towards its future. Its present comfortable lifestyle seems to reduce any incentive to face reality.
If Japan is happy to settle back into gradual decline and irrelevance, one option is to become a de facto open-air theme park (like Austria, Italy or Greece), famous only for its arts, its architecture and past. But even, a strategy is needed. Japan is simply not attractive to many tourists. Air fares and hotels are too expensive. Local English-speaking guides are rare. And there are very few places where one could combine holiday and cultural tourism.
D'où venons-nous? / Que sommes-nous? / Où allons-nous?, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
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