Sophians Talk about Japan and the World

Has the “Japan Is Amazing!” Craze Gone a Little Too Far?

Goro Yamada
(Editor and Commentator)

Intentionally Take Time to Learn Things That You Do Not Think Will Directly Connect to Finding Work.

Goro Yamada Editor and Commentator

When I was in high school, I was interested in art and film and I particularly wanted to study film at university, not from the perspective of a film creator but from the perspective of a film commentator. There were surprisingly few universities that offered that area of study, though. Sophia University, however, did provide such an academic program through its Department of Journalism in the Faculty of Humanities. Many students in the department aspired to work in the mass media, but at that time I was not thinking of getting a job in that field.

The journalism program was structured to help undergraduates gain a wide range of knowledge; we were able to take courses in other faculties and departments in those days. Being rather uptight, I thought it was a waste not to take every class I could so I did just that [laughs]! As a result, in two years I had earned virtually all the credits I needed to graduate.

Several of the courses I took, like Literature and Art in the Baroque Period, made a deep impression on me, and my interests shifted to art history. I discovered that Sophia had an exchange partnership with a college run by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria, and that I would be able to apply the credits I earned overseas to my Sophia degree. This meant that I would be able to graduate with my original entering class without repeating the year I had spent studying abroad. I spoke to a professor about my interest in studying abroad in Austria, and he arranged for me to live in a student residence through the Catholic Students Association and to attend some classes at the Universität zu Salzburg in addition to those at the college. Everything was in place for me to study abroad.

The Salzburg Global Seminar was housed at the Schloss Leopoldskron, an old rococo-style palace which is commonly thought to have been used as the villa of Captain von Trapp in the filming of The Sound of Music. In fact, though, this is not the case. Another palace owned by Universität Mozarteum Salzburg was used as the von Trapp villa in the film. In any event, it was a valuable experience to be able to study in such an historic building. Another great benefit was being able to use inexpensive rail passes to travel around to art museums throughout Europe on my days off. My professors would write letters of introduction for me, and I would be shown works that were not on public display as well as many other things.

When I compare my university experience with higher education today, I sometimes feel that universities have turned into a kind of employment cram school. As a result, universities are not able to make the most of the strengths they have to offer as universities. That is my sense of the matter, and, if my assessment is correct, that really is too bad.

One of the advantages of attending university is that you can gain a well-rounded education. Even if some courses do not directly connect to your job search, you can use the studies in your work later in life. They also give you personal interests that you can enjoy throughout your lifetime.

Take the matter of learning a foreign language, for example. If language learning is so important that people bother to spend time and money after graduation to relearn one, it would be better all-round to master it at university. Sophia in particular has built a reputation for excellence in foreign language education and offers many languages. Being rather uptight, as I said, I thought I might as well take as many courses as I could if the tuition were the same regardless [laughs], so I studied four foreign languages?Latin in addition to English, French, and German! I got a D in Latin, though.

It Is My Job to Like Every Work Topic I Take On.

Goro Yamada Editor and Commentator

I returned from my studies in Austria in September of my senior year. At that point, I was thinking I would go on to graduate school and study overseas again. When I contacted former classmates who had already graduated and were studying art history at graduate school and asked them for advice, though, none of them recommended that path. In fact, they did everything they could to stop me from taking that path [laughs]!

In those days, recruitment exams for mass media companies started in the autumn of the senior year, and my classmates were coming to campus dressed up in business suits. I learned from them that if you interviewed with a mass media company you got enough transportation money to buy an LP record [laughs], so I interviewed at some TV and radio stations. Not only did I receive money to cover my travel expenses, but I was also able to meet and talk with people from other universities. It was more fun than I had imagined, and I became interested in jobs that I had thought I was not suited for.

Recruitment exams for publishing companies finally started, but times were tough and none of the art-related publishers that I had been aiming at were recruiting. In those days, Kodansha was still publishing excellent art books?the kinds that are expensive to produce. I decided to take a job there, thinking that I would like working there if they would let me create those kinds of art books.

How naive I was [laughs]! I was assigned to info magazines, a division that has nothing to do with art. As I worked there, though, I learned something important.

At the beginning, I was put in charge of fashion for Hot-Dog Press, an information magazine for young men. In fact, though, I neither particularly liked nor had interest in fashion. If things stayed that way, I would never be a match for people who liked fashion, I realized. Moreover, the magazine's readership was people who liked fashion so readers would be able to tell whether an article had been written by someone who liked fashion like they did. This made me think that if I were going to do this work I should find a way?even if it seemed impossible?to like the topics I handled. Even more than that, it was my job to come to like my subject matter.

I tried doing that, and I have found that I have been able to like most of the topics. Actually, no emotions are more changeable than likes and dislikes. Couples who supposedly married for love end up separating because they hate each other while couples who married during wartime after seeing just each other's photograph enjoy marriages that last. I think that is because they each made effort to try to somehow come to love each other. The emotion of loving or liking is not just something that arises naturally; it can also be gained through effort. I learned that from my work.

Being Fortunate Hinders Globalization.

Goro Yamada Editor and Commentator

I have been doing more TV work recently. I make it a point not to think about what I will say in advance. I hail from the paper media so I am not used to talking off the cuff. Even if I carefully construct in advance something to say, in the moment I cannot say it in the way I had intended, and I feel really lousy afterward.

I used to appear in a certain TV program in the segment that presented stories of Japanese culture being misunderstood and introduced in weird ways overseas. Today, though, I think things are strange in the opposite direction.

It is good that the culture of Japan, including its cuisine and subcultures, has come to be respected internationally, but that does not mean we need to be patting ourselves on the back, saying "Japan is amazing!" There are more TV programs nowadays that highlight how Japanese culture is received overseas, and I cannot help but think that this is proof that the Japanese people are, on the contrary, becoming less confident.

For a long time, the Japanese have overly insisted that Japanese culture is special. In reality, though, every nation's culture is special to the same degree that Japanese culture is, and Japanese culture must have a universality equivalent to that of other nations' cultures, as well. Despite this, though, the Japanese have fallen into a kind of dualistic thinking that separates Japan and other countries. Perhaps we have done this because our nation is an island. In any event, we tend to assume that we are the only ones who are special. With this come both good and bad things.

In addition, the Japanese tend to have a dualistic attitude toward other countries: we act as if we were inferior to the West and as if we were superior to other Asian countries. In any event, there is little awareness in Japan that the world is in fact diverse and Japan, like other nations, is nothing more than one part of that diversity.

This situation has also arisen, though, because Japan is fortunate. For example, look at Japan's content industry. The Japanese domestic market is large enough that the industry has been able to live off just that one market so there has been no need to sell overseas. People say that Japanese manga and anime are popular overseas, but the fact is that overseas sales do not amount to much. This is because Japan has simply rested on its laurels of being respected overseas and has not made real effort to make its manga and anime a success internationally as a business.

In contrast, countries like Korea that have a small domestic market have no choice but to aggressively pursue the export of culture as a national strategy. Ironically, Japan has lagged behind in the overseas export of its content industry precisely because it has had the considerable good fortune of its large domestic market.

In the same way, the Japanese do not speak English well simply because they have no need to. It is not because the Japanese as a people are shy or because the Japanese language is unique. As proof of my point, think about the Japanese who emigrated overseas before World War II when Japan was poor. These Japanese all quickly learned the language of their new homes and have successfully fit in in a diverse range of societies.

The main reason why globalization does not move forward in Japan is not because of the national traits of the Japanese people or the uniqueness of Japanese culture but because Japan is fortunate in terms of its social environment. If that is the case, there is no need to force globalization. If the situation becomes one where Japan cannot make it with only its domestic market, it will be forced to globalize even if it does not want to. Thinking about it in that way, I think that globalization may not necessarily be a happy time for the Japanese people.

Goro Yamada Editor and Commentator
Goro Yamada
Editor and Commentator

Goro Yamada was born in 1958 in Tokyo. During his undergraduate years at the Faculty of Humanities at Sophia University, he spent a year abroad studying Western art history at Salzburg College in Austria. After graduating, he joined Kodansha Ltd. He held such positions as editor in chief of Hot-Dog Press and manager of the General Editorial Department before going freelance. Today he writes and gives lectures on a wide range of topics, from watches, fashion, and Western art to community building.

Publications (in Japanese): Pygologia aut omnia coxae (Tokyo: Kodansha plus Alpha Books, 1998), White Paper on Youth in the 20th Century (Tokyo: Sekai Bunka, 2004), Goro Yamada's All about Manias (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2006), A Beginner's Guide to Western Paintings (Tokyo: Gentosha, 2008), Real Men's Chow (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2009), A Beginner's Guide to the History of Western Paintings (Tokyo: Gentosha, 2011), Sushi in Ginza (Tokyo: Bungeishunju, 2013), and others.

TV (in Japanese): Regular appearances on Advertise Your City as a Paradise (TV Tokyo), Pon! (Nippon Television Network), Museum Walk (BS Nippon), Oyajidoushi (Mondo TV), Tokyo hi-Imagine (Nippon Television Network), and other programs.

Radio (in Japanese): Regular appearances on Day Catch (TBS Radio), Goro Yamada and Shoko Nakagawa: Remix Z (Japan FM Network), and other programs.

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