Public Lives

Revisiting Japan

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OSAKA – At the baggage carousel of the relatively new and solidly built Kansai International Airport, everyone around me was busy on their mobile phones even as they kept an eye on the fast-moving bags. I was surprised to see a preponderance of iPhones: I’d say, four out of five. It is easy to understand why the austere lines of Apple’s best-selling product would appeal to the Japanese. The iPhone is perhaps to technology what the haiku is to poetry. And so, it puzzles me why the Japanese did not invent anything close to it.

Japan was, until the 1990s, the world’s leader in the manufacture of electric appliances and electronic gadgets. Now it cannot even compete with Samsung. Thirty years ago, Japan’s problem was how to spend its astounding wealth. So huge was its trade surplus that, in the late 1980s, the Japanese government started a campaign urging its citizens to “make friends with imports.” Today, its problem is what to do to stimulate a lethargic economy that had sorely lagged behind in technological innovation.

But, if Japan is in some kind of crisis, one would hardly see it. Here, the buses and the trains continue to run on time. The infrastructure bears no sign of neglect. The Japanese are formidable builders; the Kansai International Airport, completely built on a manmade island, withstood the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe just 20 miles away with not a single glass window broken. But the dynamism that a visitor quickly senses in the metropolitan centers of China, Singapore, South Korea and, increasingly, of Southeast Asia, appears to have left this place.

These impressions are no doubt superficial but they seem validated by the available data.  Growth rate has been minimal over the past decade, and the tax collection cannot even pay for half of what government spends every year.  Consequently, government has had to cover its ballooning annual deficits with borrowings.  The government debt stands at $14.6 trillion, the equivalent of 230 percent of the country’s annual GDP. More than 25 percent of the national budget goes into the servicing of this debt. Japan’s crisis is not as visible as that of the Eurozone economies mainly because the government has been able to tap the savings of its own people. And, the interest on government bonds has been kept very low. Observers say this precarious arrangement cannot be sustained indefinitely.

My last visit to this beautiful country was more than 10 years ago. Somehow, the real estate and stock market crash that rocked Japan in the 1990s also greatly dampened the country’s eagerness and capacity to host international conferences. Gone are the days when any of the rich prefectures would host a global symposium on nearly any topic.

I flew in last Thursday on a special invitation by Osaka University. One of its popular professors, Mamoru Tsuda, who pioneered a unique program that trains interpreters for court and police proceedings involving foreigners, is formally retiring. Having supervised his graduate thesis when he was a young student at the University of the Philippines in the early 1970s, I have been asked to speak on my perceptions of Japan and the Japanese before Professor Tsuda delivers his own retirement lecture at a symposium in his honor.

But, “Rico,” as we prefer to call him in the Philippines, is hardly the kind of person who would retire from teaching. So crucial is his expertise in intercultural communication to the complexities of the global age that he will likely expand his academic reach rather than quit teaching. As the world becomes one global system, the languages that humanity speaks need to be bridged even more. And there are very few Japanese scholars like Rico Tsuda who not only understand translation theory but also continue to refine it in the field of actual practice.

This is as much a problem for Japan as it is for the Philippines where it is wrongly assumed that everybody can understand English. The few times I have attended a court hearing, I remember cringing whenever a lawyer tried to render in English what a witness said in the native language. The injustice done to both languages tends to produce a greater injustice to persons. The fatal misunderstandings that can arise do not stem solely from differences in language.

Japan knows this only too well. Despite its technological modernity, it has remained in many ways a closed society where foreigners are likely to stick out and attract attention no matter how hard they may try to blend in. But the Japanese language, as many aspiring Filipino nurses who wish to work in this country will attest, remains a most formidable barrier.  At breakfast on my first day at the hotel, I stood totally lost before the forbidding coffee machine that offered four types of coffee and two types of hot cocoa drinks. That’s what it said in English. But I could not tell which of the buttons to be pressed, all labeled in Japanese, would give me the coffee I wanted.

Back in my room, I tried to connect to the Internet. The instructions said: “Broadband access available in all rooms. It is not possible to connect, your personal computer. (By the setting.) Please call the reception desk, when there is an obscure point.” Oh dear, I muttered. The second sentence flatly negates the promise of the first. Thankfully, the moment I switched on my Japanese-made Sony Vaio, it automatically searched for available Wi-Fi signals and found four. All I needed was the password, which the smiling front desk man wordlessly supplied to me on a tiny strip of paper.

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