Kimindo Kusaka

Back to Contents of Issue: June 2000

Futurist, author, professor, founder of the Softnomics Center, and chairman of the Tokyo Foundation

Kimindo Kusaka is a futurist in the Herman Kahn sense of the word. Like Kahn, Kusaka believes that the Japanese still have an unsurpassed capacity for purposive, dedicated, and communal action. Also like Kahn, he has an uncanny ability to sniff out significant economic and cultural trends well ahead of everyone else. Kusaka can do this in part because he stays in constant contact with Japan's top business leaders. Equally important is the Softnomics Center, which he founded. For over a decade, the center has experimented with new service industry ideas that have consistently proven useful to Japanese industry.

Kusaka polished his skills along the elite track: Tokyo University, a stint at the Economic Planning Agency, and a directorship at the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan. Since 1989, he has also been a professor at the Tama Institute of Management and Information Sciences. His writings could fill a bookcase, but because of the language barrier, he remains relatively unknown outside of Japanese intellectual and business circles. His latest book, In the 21st Century, The World Will Become Like Japan (PHP Books, March 2000), focuses on what he sees as Japan's cultural mega-strengths in the New Economy. Professor Ronald A. Morse of Reitaku University in Tokyo visited Kusaka at the Tokyo Foundation.

In your book you maintain that the platform, the energy source, for Japan's next economic surge can be found in its cultural orientation.
Correct. Every economy has to build from its comparative advantage, and our culture provides some distinctive economic opportunities. Japan, as an island culture more or less cut off from the rest of the world, has a particular set of cultural traits that fortunately mesh nicely with the demands of the New Economy. Over the last century, we have consistently modified our social organizations and political systems, our national "hardware." This is what people focused on as Japan's strength in the 1980s, but its rigidities are now a problem. Now the debate about Japan's strength has shifted to a focus on cultural values, our "software." Here we are quite flexible. Our cultural orientation has remained fairly consistent over the decades. We are different from the "continental" powers like Europe and America, where internally you have multicultural traditions in tension with each other. We are essentially a one-culture nation. For us, culture is power and it is the key force shaping our orientation to the communications revolution.

By Japanese cultural orientation I mean our commitment to peace, including the constitutional constraints against waging war. Japanese are also exceedingly pragmatic. We really have no ideological commitments and we have nearly jettisoned religion from our daily lives. Our political system is democratic and we support family values, equality, freedom, and liberty. We have perhaps the best overall educated society in the world and have applied technology to the areas of energy savings and environmental issues much more rigorously than other advanced countries. We also have a self-generating commitment to hard work. All of these traits were powerful forces in our economic success up to the 1990s, and now we are re-tooling them.

How does all of this link to the demands of the new economy?
I like to think that this cultural equilibrium can be a prototype for global urban, mass-society. Statistically, 90 percent of the Japanese are middle class. Anyone walking the streets of Tokyo has to admit that this is a society of do-whatever-you-want opportunity, self-indulgence, and relative enjoyment -- a sort of mass "pleasure palace" without class, racial, or other divisions. We are not driven to move in any one direction in what we do. So, we tend to adapt easily to any situation and shift our thought and opinions to fit the circumstances. We are situation oriented and flexible. Always open to new ideas, we have a deep curiosity about the outside world and will learn indiscriminately from everywhere and everyone. Our culture meshes nicely with the demands of the marketplace.

Cooperation and compromise are also no threat to our values. I sense that, with the end of the cold war, the world is now moving toward global capitalism where the only standard is economic performance. With the shift to fluid, multicentric markets, Japan can freely exploit its cultural creativity, what Americans would refer to as "soft power."

For example, we have what I call an "excessive quality" commitment. We are driven to product perfection -- the perfect auto paint job or the super-quiet car. We do this as a people for two reasons: one is that we just get tremendous pleasure out of doing it. It is our national hobby to tinker with everything. Look at how we use cellular telephones, how we decorate them and manipulate them. And we keep making them smaller and more sophisticated. This culturally based "individual" commitment to quality is still strong and will continue.

But the government doesn't support this?
This is a problem. Rules and regulations still stand in the way of this flexible, adaptive process that I think Japanese are good at. Japanese creativity performs best in a freely competitive environment. The social welfare, life-time employment mentality that has grown up under this system in Japan in the post-war period makes people dependent on the state. This restrains the traditional Japanese willingness to experiment and adjust to new circumstances. Even the new mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, has turned to taxing banks to solve Tokyo's financial problems rather than doing the firing and cost-cutting that is essential to real recovery.

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