Japan Needs More People with Foreign Experience

As I write this, the Japanese women’s soccer team “Nadeshiko” Japan won the World Cup for the first time ever. This was a tremendous accomplishment by a team composed of Japanese women who have studied or played outside of Japan for many years. It was interesting to listen to the sports commentator mention how Japan could comeback (after getting behind on goals) because several of the players had played in the United States and “know” how their opponents think and play. To understand how the world “plays,” I feel, is very important to the future of Japan.

Unfortunately, the number of Japanese students going overseas to study has been plummeting in recent years, and this is a serious matter for anyone concerned about the future of Japan. To reverse this trend, a new scholarship fund is needed to encourage students at Japanese universities to spend time overseas. The program would be funded from both private and public sources – generously enough to be noticed and taken seriously, and comprehensive enough that it would be available to a diverse array of students who want to take part, from any field of study. Soliciting funding primarily from private companies would ensure that these firms have a stake in the success of both the program and the students taking part.

The problem
Japan has been in a serious malaise for the last 20 years. In the 1980s, Japan was the envy of the world, an industrial powerhouse set to take over the world No. 1 spot from the U.S. Today things are somewhat different. From “Japan bashing” to “Japan passing” and now “Japan missing,” this country’s prominence on the world stage is sadly diminished. While the reasons for the deep sense of gloom gripping the nation are many and complex, one this is inarguable – Japan’s global competitiveness has suffered.

More specifically, most Japanese products are currently designed and marketed only in Japan and have little global presence or relevance. This is due both to Japanese companies not going overseas for various reasons – among them lack of English-speaking staff and fear of conditions outside Japan. This in turn is directly attributable to employees of these companies lacking overseas experience. In addition, companies are designing products that are not globally relevant – such as $800 cell phones with functions that only Japanese can understand or use. This is due to people not experiencing the real world and understanding what people in Africa, for example, really need, and other “bottom of pyramid” issues. This is also serious from a national security standpoint – Japan’s position on the world stage is fading fast.

These two decades of malaise have been accompanied by a growing insularity, in business, academia and other segments of society. And this insularity is spreading to Japanese young people, as evidenced by the decline in numbers studying overseas.

At the core of Japan’s problems – sagging academic performance among Japanese students, the declining competitiveness of Japanese industry, and a glaring absence of leadership in every segment of Japan’s society – lies this disturbing tendency toward insularity.

Japan can do a lot to fix itself, but if it wants to lay the foundation for a better, more vigorous Japan, it must shuck off this insularity and engage with the world. And the best way to start – the investment in the future with the greatest potential return – is to promote study abroad. Let’s learn from the women of Nadeshiko Japan! Your comments are always welcome.

William Saito
Special Advisor at Cabinet Office (Govt. of Japan)
Named by Nikkei as one of the “100 Most Influential People for Japan,” Saito began software programming in elementary school and started his own company while still in high school and was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998 (by Ernst & Young, NASDAQ and USA Today). As one of the world’s leading authorities on cybersecurity.

After selling his business to Microsoft, he moved to Tokyo in 2005 and founded InTecur, a venture capital firm. In 2011, he served as the Chief Technology Officer of the National Diet’s (Parliament) Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. Later that year, he was named as both a Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council member for World Economic Forum (WEF) and subsequently been named to its Foundation Board. In 2012, Saito was appointed to a council on national strategy and policy that reported directly to the Prime Minister of Japan.

Saito also advises several national governments around the globe. In Japan, he has served as an advisor to Japanese ministries; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST); the Information Technology Promotion Agency (IPAS); the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, among others. He is currently the Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (METI) and the Cabinet Office for the Government of Japan.

He went to medical school at UCLA and Harvard Kennedy School; serves on various boards of Global 2000 companies; frequently appears as a commentator on TV and is the author of seven books in addition to writing several weekly newspaper columns. His management book, The Team: Solving the Biggest Problem in Japan, was published by Nikkei BP and became a best-seller in 2012. In 2016, Saito received the Medal of Honor from the Government of Japan for his work in the field of education.

Posted by whsaito

  1. There’s nothing at all wrong with the premise of this post – overseas experience, foreign language facility and a world view are vital to the success of individuals and organizations hoping to compete on the global stage.

    The segue to commentator’s remark about the Nadeshiko win is well done, but the commentator was an idiot.

    Japan’s players did not win because they “know” how the American team thinks and plays. The two teams had played each other twice within the preceding twelve months, and had undoubtedly reviewed many additional hours of video of other matches. On top of which, soccer is perhaps the simplest game strategically. The two teams knew everything they needed to know about each other, and about most of the other teams they played in the tournament. Japan won because on a single day, in a single match, almost anything can happen. Nadeshiko was dominated throughout the game, but an awful blunder by an American defender allowed Japan’s first equalizer, and a less egregious but still unforgivable error by the same player permitted the second equalizer. And then in the penalty kicks, of course, anything can happen; Japan was superb and several American players were decidedly not.

    There is a good soccer analogy to be made, however. In sport, a number of top athletes have chosen to make their way in foreign leagues, in order to try to become the best they possibly can, against the best competition. Ichiro and Hidetoshi Nakata are the best examples, I think. Others prefer to remain within their comfort zones, for reasons of pride (it’s nice to be a big fish in a small pond) or money (there’s good money, especially sponsor/advertiser money, in being a big fish in a small pond). And yes, I’m talking about you, Norihiro Nakamura.

    Businesspeople are different to world class athletes. Japan’s soccer players (men and women) and other athletes do well to gain overseas experience because if you want to be the best, you must learn from the best, i.e. play with and against them every day.

    In the Japanese business world, and society more broadly, there is a view that Japan is exceptional, that Japanese people are different. [I have often encountered the same view in Europe, when people learn I’ve lived in Asia for 22 years: many people seem to think Chinese and/or Japanese are very different.] The implication is that the rules are different in Japan, and for Japanese people, and in the Japanese market. Those who travel the world, and interact with people from other cultures, come to learn that that is mostly untrue. People are mostly the same; they appreciate good value and good service at a good price; they come home tired from work and pop open a beer and watch TV. Travel the world and you can see that, and be comfortable with the idea that if you can sell a Walkman to Japanese, you can sell one to Germans, and Americans, and Chileans.

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