Kansai: Refusing to Wake

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2004


Our Kansai columnist is the token foreigner on an "international" Kansai committee. Uh-oh.

by Dominic Al-Badri

Last year, I was strong-armed into sitting on a prefectural governmental committee on intanashonarizeishon, one of the most frequently misused gairaigo (foreign language terms) in the Japanese language. In English, it refers almost overwhelmingly to globalization: the process by which diverse cultures interact across geographical, cultural and linguistic borders.

But in Japanese it doesn't seem to mean much at all. Instead, it exists as a wishy-washy term applied to anything at will to bolster credibility. Favored by those sections of the bureaucracy wishing to appear progressive, it confers a superficial cachet of sophistication.

The intentions of Hyogo Prefecture's New International Strategy Friendly Get-Together Committee (as the group was laboriously called), though undoubtedly honorable, were doomed from the start. Hyogo Prefecture is home to a large number of non-Japanese -- over 100,000 according to the Japan Immigration Association's 2002 figures. Of this, a full 90 percent are defined as being Asian.

Expecting to find a dynamic mix of committee members, I was somewhat surprised to find that I, a Westernized Anglo-Iraqi, was the only non-Japanese on the committee. Not a single participant had been invited from either of the substantial Chinese or Korean communities.

I was the token foreigner, chosen to represent all other nationalities, a task I was ludicrously ill-equipped to perform. Before I could vent my frustrations, the panelist from the Nikkei Shimbun's Kobe bureau vented them for me: If the committee was seriously meant to address international issues, he asked, why weren't Japan's Asian neighbors involved?

Far from being a friendly get-together, the atmosphere was stiff and formal, with a battery of note-takers and other bureaucrats arrayed at desks at the back of the meeting hall. To my further surprise, the majority of the panelists, which included academics, journalists and representatives of the business sector, used the opportunity to criticize, if somewhat politely, the prefectural bureaucrats for making the whole thing so horrendously complex.

We were swamped with all manner of documentation outlining ideas that had already been proposed by the prefecture. It took more than half an hour just to read out this list, by which time some panelists were noticeably irritated. One panelist then held forth about economics in such excruciating detail that another was forced to rebuke him. Thereafter, the rest of us had just five minutes each to offer our opinions.

The general consensus was that the whole concept was ill-conceived from the start, with far too many resources being poured into trying to discuss a topic so broad that four two-hour sessions (over the course of a year, as originally envisaged) were never going to be enough to address the large number of unresolved conflicts involved.

The second meeting was held two months later. Less than half the original panelists bothered to attend. (Hyogo Prefectural Governor Toshizo Ido, to his credit, this time rolled up his sleeves and joined the fray, cutting through much of the bureaucratic protocol that had stifled the inaugural meeting.) Nonetheless, the overwhelming thrust of the meeting was concerned with what Hyogo should do about foreigners and Asia as seen from a purely Japanese standpoint: Instead of trying to find out what was wanted from Hyogo, Hyogo was trying to decide what would be best to give.

At around the same time, towards the end of last year, a not dissimilar committee was formed in Osaka, aimed at trying to find out what should be done to make Osaka a more attractive place for foreign tourists. But rather than conducting a survey of foreign tourists to find out what they thought, a professor specializing in Japanese labor relations was asked to draw up a report. Tourism was the one theme with which I made any progress during the committee meetings I attended, and something I felt more comfortable discussing, due to all the guidebooks I have worked on. The points raised, however, were almost farcical.

"Asians see Japan through different eyes than Westerners," a committee member had said.

"Yes, Himeji Castle is perhaps of less appeal to Asians than to Westerners interested in 'historic Japan,' " I lamely replied.

Surprisingly, this was taken seriously, and made it into the final report. An embarrassingly banal comment was regarded by the committee as the height of wisdom. Any one of hundreds of travel industry specialists could have expanded on this point, and with tourism one sector vastly underrealized in Japan (see J@pan Inc, September 2003), it struck me as strange that no officials from that sector had been invited to join the panel.

Japan has enormous potential, yet it remains stuck at 35 in the global rankings of inbound tourism. In the Kansai region, Hyogo in particular has a wide range of selling points, but the prefectural powers to be are blind to their own attractions -- and to some of the things which still restrict tourism in general, like being able to withdraw money with foreign-issued cash cards, and the paranoid attitude towards all types of credit cards still held by a surprisingly large number of merchants in Japan.

"I'm amazed at hearing that you still can't use credit cards in many places," said Governor Ido.

"And even when you can, there are still places where they must be Japanese-issued cards," I said. "My mother couldn't enter the gold card lounge at Kansai Airport because her card was issued in the UK."

"That must be a Japanese problem -- it's inconceivable in China or Europe," the governor replied, somewhat gamely, though I tend to think it's more of a Kansai problem than a Japan-wide one, and one centered in particular on Osaka and its dated and provincial business practices, as the Asahi Shimbun has boldly stated.

Quite why things should still be so bad in Osaka leaves many scratching their heads, considering the prefecture's historic reputation as a thriving business center -- once upon an age dubbed the "Manchester of the East." But whereas that English city managed to throw off its image of incessant rain and gangsters after the collapse of the north's traditional manufacturing industries, Osaka remains sandbagged with the second worst unemployment rate in Japan, lagging behind only the perennial unfortunates in Okinawa, the once-thriving center of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Osaka Prefecture can boast of being Japan's top dog in at least one field: purse snatching. Yet another sign that Kansai skies are gathering storm clouds on the horizon.

Controversial Osaka governor Fusae Ohta surprised numerous pundits by winning reelection at the beginning of February, but with a record low turnout, her win can hardly be passed off as a ringing endorsement. Faced with increasing crime rates, huge budget deficits, rising unemployment and the largest homeless population in the country, it's hard to see why Ohta wanted to be reelected. Certainly, her campaign promises of job creation and financial support for business are going to take some miracle-making of a very high order.

With most of the Kansai economy still in the mire, the disparity between Kansai and Kanto continues to widen. The will to face up to the changing realities Japan faces undeniably exists among certain sectors. However, the lack of initiative and clear thinking, exemplified by these recent committees, and the muddled politics which continue to dog Kansai's powerhouse city, suggest there is still a long way to go before the region's bureaucracies wake up to what it means to live in the 21st century. @

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