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Galapagos Japan!

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When I first came to Japan some years ago, I was shocked when my mobile phone would not work, and also when my credit card was not accepted.  But then I learnt that Japan is becoming a modern version of the Galapagos Islands!

You will recall the Galapagos Islands (Islands of the Tortoises).  They are located in the Pacific Ocean about 1000 kilometres west of Ecuador, and were discovered by Spanish sailors.  Geologically young, and geographically isolated, they are famous for their unique and strange species of fauna and flora.  These were studied by Charles Darwin, and contributed to the development of his theory of evolution.  They do not have an indigenous population, although they may have received visits from South American Indians.  Some 40,000 people live their today.

And let’s come back to isolated Japan.  On the one hand, global technologies often do not work in this unique country.  But what is perhaps more important is that technologies and technical standards developed for the Japanese market are not accepted in other markets, thereby limiting the capacity of Japanese companies to expand their business activities in emerging markets.  These Japanese companies are having difficulties in competing with local companies, as well as other overseas companies, apparently because they do not yet have an adequate understanding of the actual situations of local consumers.

Japan’s strange unique path may not be just bad luck.  Let’s take globalization’s lingua franca, English, which has taken over Generation V (“Generation Virtual”) with its increasing preference for the use of digital media channels to discover information, build knowledge and share insights.  And yet according to a communicative language teaching module from Tokyo’s Sophia University, Japan’s English language capacities may be the worst in East Asia, even worse than North Korea, based on the TOEFL results.  Singapore, India and Malaysia come in tops on this indicator, while even China comes in 10 points ahead of Japan. 

I asked a friend why Japan's English language skills are so bad.  After all people from even the poorest countries can speak English.  He claims that it is part of the conspiracy of Japan's government elite which wants to maintain a monopoly on the government's relations with the rest of the world by not reforming the nation's education system.  Hard to believe?  But may be there is something in it.  The Japanese government has a history of keeping its public in the dark. 

The globalization of higher education has also been an important trend.  But according to data from the Institute of International Education, Japanese youth are losing interest in studying in the US, in sharp contrast to their Chinese and South Korean counterparts.  For academic year 2007/2008, there were only 34,000 Japanese students studying in the US compared with 47,000 in 1999/00.  By comparison, Chinese students grew to 81,000 from 54,000, and Korean students to 69,000 from 41,000 over the same period.

To make matters worse, in a 2002 report, Japan’s own National Institute of Population and Social Security Research even calculated that by the year 2900, the Japanese population would be extinct, based on the assumption of both fertility and mortality constant at the level of 2006!

All things considered, the Galapagos analogy might be the right one!



Growing beyond Galapagosization -- A Strategy for Approaching Emerging Markets Utilising Japanese Business Expertise, Fumikazu Kitagawa.  Nomura Research Institute

Communicative Language Teaching


Open Doors: Report on International Educational Exchange


National Institute of Population and Social Security Research