What’s behind what ails Japan

David Leheny*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Apparently American bosses love to be contradicted in front of their clients by their own summer interns. Or at least this is what one might glean from a May 2012 New York Times article about the problems young Japanese educated abroad face on the Japanese job market. The author interviews several Japanese-including some foreignborn-with degrees from prestigious American and British universities, finding that they faced what seemed to be significant disadvantages on the Tokyo job market. In the stories provided, these include apparent age limits on new recruits, differences in interviewing styles (including a possibly gendered rejection of one woman who laughed too much during her interview), and, mostly puzzlingly, apparent Japanese corporate frustration with one Yale-educated advertising intern who, in very polite language, would correct his bosses in meetings when they made mistakes about social media and technology. As journalism, of course, it is a horrible piece of work, not because it makes Japan look bad-after all, it is hardly the job of The New York Times or any other paper to make a country look good, though the Times does seem over the years to have a special affection for stories about what ails Japan (Zipangu 1998)-but rather because of the absence of any meaningful consideration of how we know this to be a serious or distinctive problem. After all, while the article refers to the fact that there are large numbers of Korean students in the United States (who, we are led to surmise, will not face problems on the Korean job market, though there is no evidence provided to support this), there is nothing about the likelihood that an American with a degree from a foreign university (particularly one other than Oxford or Cambridge) would find difficulty finding work in a major American firm. The article certainly provides no comparable case in which a voluble intern (foreign-educated or otherwise) was rewarded for interrupting his bosses during a meeting with clients in an American boardroom. One would be hard-pressed to guess from the article that while the Japanese government has displayed increasing alarm at the declining number of Japanese students studying abroad (e.g. MEXT 2008), American universities are themselves also worried that study abroad has stalled and that new incentives are needed to entice American students to spend a term or a year overseas (McMurtrie 2012). That is, to the extent the story works-as it seems to, given the number of positive comments it received on The New York Times website as well as favorable attention from other websites-it is not because of what is inside the story but rather what is outside of it: a view that Japan is too closed, that Japan is economically struggling, that these problems are probably related, and that the nail that sticks up in Japan (particularly when in a board meeting, and sticking up involves embarrassing one’s bosses) gets hammered down (if, by hammered down, we mean not getting invited to many more meetings and not receiving a long-term job offer). Forced to explain why a halfJapanese, half-American candidate educated at, say, Yale actually would be far more likely to find a job with a top Japanese firm in Tokyo than she would if, say, she had a degree from the University of Tokyo and tried to get a job on Wall Street with a top American firm, presumably most New York Times readers would simply point out that American universities are superior to their Japanese counterparts, not that there is anything closed-minded about American employers. In other words, the critique can be persuasive only because of what people already assume to be true about Japan. This is what we are supposed to do as scholars: to think critically, and to teach our students how to do the same, but doing so has to require an excavation of the assumptions we bring into our critiques or that even motivate our critical engagement, to confront the usually unspoken alternatives and imaginaries that lie in the background of our intellectual pursuits. It is not to put the spotlight on the analyst rather than on the subject-whether Japanese employment markets or anything else-but rather to recognize that the analyst is implicated to some degree in the analysis. So in considering critical perspectives on Japan, my goal in this brief chapter is to examine three potential sources of critical views of Japan: tensions between particularity and universality, commitments to different forms of international engagement, and views of changing international norms. I do not aim to say that critical perspectives drawn from these directions are wrong or misplaced; at different times, I have engaged in all of them. My point, rather, is when these assumptions and preoccupations remain unstated, they make it harder to see how our critiques are often contingent and partial, shaped by larger intellectual and political concerns that may change over time. I also think that more analytical self-awareness would make arguments drawn from these critical perspectives more broadly persuasive.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Issues in Contemporary Japan
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781135084073
ISBN (Print)9780415857444
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Jan 1
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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