Japan Go Global

For the last several weeks, I have travelled to several countries in Africa and the Middle East to talk with various governments about their S&T, innovation and entrepreneurial policy.  Everywhere I go, everyone has the same comments about how Japan is mature, stable and a nation that has everything.  People look to Japan as an innovative country with money, technology, global corporations and name brands.  Many countries also recognize Japan as a leader in clean technology even before the word “green” became popular and fashionable. 

Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, Japan has been in a economic and political malaise.  GDP has not grown at all (in comparison, China has grown 9x in the same period) and it has responded by retreating ever deeper inward.  With this, the number of companies, bureaucrats and especially students who go overseas have declined sharply.  The only benefit that has come from this is that the governments who lauded and admired Japan during my trip only had the view of Japan from 20 years ago – during the heydays of the bubble era.  However, the bad news is that Japan has become increasingly globally irrelevant – in the 1980’s, it was “Japan bashing”, in the 2000’s it was “Japan passing” and now its “Japan missing“. 

The reality is that no one has been willing to make hard choices.  People continued to work without sense or purpose while the government creates various moral hazard by propping them up with taxpayer money and creating a debt load that approaches 200% of GDP.  Similarly, private corporations have missed out on globalization and are becoming globally less relavent.  In fact, at several trading companies (who’s job it is to facilitate global trade with anyone and everyone), many new employees specifically request domestic assignments only.

Japan going and thinking global is important and it starts with students.  By the time someone in Japan, graduates and starts a career, it becomes extremely difficult to leave the career track and start anew (okay, this is true in a lot of countries but especially true here).  In fact, I have personally seen men get pressured by numerous external factors.  However, the most dominant and compelling pressures come from their mother/girlfriends in their 20’s, the wives in their 30’s and their mother-in-law in their 40’s.  Therefore, to start thinking globally beginning with college (even high school) students is very important.  That is why I fully enjoyed and support programs like D-Lab.  Unfortunately, the major current trend is somewhat disturbing.  I have included some figures that show the percentage of temporary residents receiving S/E doctorates in 2002 in the U.S. and those who stay after five years. (Source: Oak Ridge Institute for Science & Engineering)

PhD Recipients % in US after 5 years
China 2,139 92%
South Korea 814 41%
India 615 81%
Taiwan 451 43%
Turkey 315 42%
Thailand 312 7%
Canada 258 55%
Mexico 173 32%
Germany 164 52%
Russia 161 77%
Japan 144 33%
Romania 121 86%
Brazil 119 31%

This trend was recently confirmed where the number of Japanese (undergraduate) students who attend Harvard University has steadily decreased and is now at five whereas the opposite trend is true for other countries.  I believe one of the key elements for learning to “think globally” is to get educated abroad and/or understand what the real global (BOP) needs are.  Not a good sign but hopefully the problem will become self correcting when the students begin to realize they need to take this extra step to get ahead in the new Japan, Inc. Global, Inc.

Why I think “thinking globally” is important, I’ll cover in a future blog.  In the mean time, here is a much better analysis, by Dr. Hisashi Kobayashi, of the situation.  Your comments are always welcome.

Posted by whsaito

  1. Dr. Saito,
    I cannot agree with you more on this issue. Japan is becoming isolated from the outside world in the midst of globalization. The number of Japanese students at US top schools has been deacreasing rapidly, both for undergraduate and graduate level. Based on my quick survey on the trends at Harvard and MIT, the number of Japanese students at Harvard decreased from 181 in 1995-96 to 107 in 2008-09. There is a similar trend at MIT as well. (117 in 1999-2000, 71 in 2009/2010) Moreover, Japanese undergraduates are extremely rare now; MIT has “zero” Japanese undergraduate student this year, and Harvard only has 5. It is important to note that there is a surge in the number of international students (e.g. at Harvard, increased from 2,818 in 1998-99 to 4,007 in 2008-09.) I recently confirmed Japan is the ONLY COUNTRY with a significant decrease in the number of students coming to the US.(more than 10% decrease in 2008/09). There was 13% decrease in Japanese students coming to the US, while the total number of foreign students in the US increased 8% in 2008/09. This isolation is quite dangerous for both Japan and neighbor countries.


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William H. Saito