Consul general praises foreign influence on Japan’s economy

by V. Paul

American influences, foreign workers and improved universities will allow Japan to compete globally, Japanese Consul General Mitoji Yabunaka said Thursday in the Nolte Library.
In an address titled “Mega-transformation of Japan,” Yabunaka spoke to a group of around 80 students about Japanese business and education, and the reforms needed in each.
His visit was sponsored by the University’s Japanese department and the Japanese consulate in Chicago.
In the hourlong lecture, Yabunaka explained that post-war economic successes led to complacency among Japanese companies and a loss of their competitive edge, Yabunaka said.
“Too much success makes you too arrogant,” Yabunaka said. “Any system is destined to be outdated. And the Japanese system is no exception.”
To get back its edge, Yabunaka said the Japanese economy must open itself to foreign influences and adopt certain Western business practices to bring itself out of its economic slump.
Japanese language students agreed with Yabunaka and engaged him in a lengthy question-and-answer session after his talk.
“If they didn’t have a representative in America presenting these points of view, there’s no way for us to really maintain this Japanese-U.S. relationship,” said Ben Brosdahl, a senior majoring in Japanese. “I think it’s a sign that they are concerned, since they are willing to send someone who knows what’s going on; someone who’s involved.”
Some of Yabunaka’s specific statements reflected already-changing conditions in Japan. Despite four decades of assuring Japanese workers lifelong employment — a hallmark of Japanese business — financially strained companies have switched to a merit-based system for retaining employees and are making use of company layoffs to restructure.
Japanese companies are also beginning to merge or partner with American and European companies to stay competitive. Others are moving away from traditional manufacturing-based businesses and venturing into software and information-technology industries, he said.
To improve, Yabunaka recommended that foreign workers bulk up the Japanese work force to “incorporate the new ideas and new expertise at this time of huge changes,” he said.
“In total, there are many opportunities that Japanese companies have to learn quickly,” Yabunaka said. “To do that, they need either to merge or form new kinds of alliances, or to employ new types of personnel.”
After his lecture, Yabunaka acknowledged that his recommendations face anti-foreign influence sentiments in Japanese culture; Japan needs to become more global, not specifically influenced by a single country, he said.
But, not everyone at the lecture felt the same way.
“I think his views are rather radical,” said Michael Lau, a senior in Japanese. “He was really extreme about it, and I think it’s a good thing.”
Lau spent a year in Japan studying its banking system. Although Japan’s economy is recovering, Lau said more drastic changes were needed.
The fact that Yabunaka presented his thoughts about the changes in Japan was surprising to some members of the audience.
“It’s actually unusual to have a consul general come and say his opinion, because he’s so high up in the foreign ministry that you figure what he’s saying actually has some weight,” said David Andow, a University professor. “It’s some indication of what is being thought by the Japanese government.”
Educational changes
Andow, a researcher in the entomology department, has made several trips to Japan doing agricultural research. With each trip, he has seen the inadequacies of research facilities at Japanese universities, compared with the high quality of government and privately sponsored laboratories.
“The universities are not that competitive from a research side,” Andow said.
Yabunaka addressed Japan’s educational needs in his lecture, focusing on the need for improved university education and English instruction for Japanese students.
Because Japanese companies provide in-house employee training, Japanese students regard the university as a four-year break from the rigors of secondary school and lifetime employment in a manufacturing company. Graduate school is held in even lower regard.
“(A graduate student) was either very smart, which is very rare, or not so smart that he couldn’t find a job for a company,” Yabunaka said of the prevailing attitudes. “These days are over.”
Students are now expected to excel at the university level, he said. However, they also need a stronger grasp of the English language, particularly if they want to work in the information-technology industry.
Yabunaka said he was impressed by the University’s two-year program that produces fluent Japanese speakers. Cultural barriers in Japan prevent effective English-language instruction; Japanese students spend an average of 10 years studying English but are still embarrassed to use their knowledge, Yabunaka said.
“My answer to that is to fire all the Japanese teachers who are teaching English and use native-English speakers as teachers,” he said jokingly. Too many Japanese teachers focus on grammar more than usage, he added.
On the sidelines
Yabunaka spent 30 years rising through the ranks of the Japanese foreign ministry. He served at the Japanese embassies in Korea and Indonesia and held several directorships in the foreign ministry.
In 1998, he became Japanese consul general at Chicago after 15 years as the chief negotiator for Japanese-American trade relations. His new duties in Chicago mirror his former positions because of their business orientation; one of the consulate’s roles is to encourage reciprocal investment activities between the United States and Japan.
The consulate’s interactions with the University have provided students with opportunities to study and teach English in Japan, said Polly Szatrowski, Japanese department chairwoman.
“They’re very interested in getting students involved and going to Japan,” she said. “There are programs here at the University, but major money has come from the consulate.”
The Japanese language has become the third most-popular language in the United States, according to a study by the Tokyo-based National Language Research Institute. At the University, more than 100 students are enrolled in first-year Japanese classes.
“That’s really exciting for us,” Szatrowski said. “We’ve had more students in Japanese this semester than before.”
The consulate is also charged with cultural exchanges between the two countries, which Yabunaka has taken to heart.
“I’m enjoying being consul general because I can witness the many changes taking place in the U.S.,” he said. “Then I relay back to Japan the needed changes. I enjoy being observer and transmitter.”

V. Paul Virtucio welcomes comments at [email protected]