Monday, July 28, 2008

The allure of Japan

If you don't already know, Japan absolutely fascinates me, on many, many levels. I write here from the point of view of a Malaysian. Well, having spent 8 years of my life physically somewhere else, and nigh every other moment of my life wandering the realms of the mind, the written word and the Net, I haven't actually spent all that much time here, come to think of it.

I stumbled on some lecture notes for a university course involving Japanese Culture and noted some interesting little facts. In 1952, the Allies ended their occupation of Japan. From that time until 1990, various Japanese luminaries had, between them, won the Nobel prize at least once in every category. From a country that was on the unhappy end of both of the two only nuclear attacks in human history*, Japan has risen to truly dizzying heights by the standards of any country.

Back when I was in white collar land, I did a little research on the steel industry. Ever since China started getting into the steel game, the industry landscape has never been the same, with China consuming about a third of the world's iron and producing about a third of the world's steel. This basically meant that the market was flooded with ridiculous volumes of cheap steel, and I can tell you for a fact, if not for the 50% import duty on foreign steel in Malaysia, Malaysia wouldn't even have a steel industry to speak of. By comparison, I tracked the profits of Nippon Steel and found it simply going from strength to strength, apparently unfazed by the glut of Chinese steel, where all over the US, steel mills were either closing, getting bought over or suffering strikes. Apparently, Japanese and South Korean mills churned out steel of a vastly higher quality than is common, and as such, were under no real threat from the tide of Chinese steel. It's also interesting to note that a critical component (I can't recall which) of nuclear reactors (outside of Russia, anyway) is only made by a specific steel mill in Japan.

The very name of Japan evokes images of technology far beyond the reach of South East Asian nations today - ridiculously advanced handphones, flashy robotics and arcane research pushing the limits of human knowledge. It was about 12 years ago that I read in New Scientist of the blue laser being discovered in a small lab in Japan, bringing with it the promise that would later become Blu-Ray. I wait with bated breath for the next small miracle to pop out of a Japanese lab.

Japanese culture has permeated every modern society today, through manga, anime, electronics, automobiles, sushi bars, music, literature, martial arts or even those wretched Pokemon and Tamagochi. Their world is beautiful to our eyes and ears, whether it comes through the timeless grace of geisha, shamisen and haiku or the passion of wadaiko, gambaru or massed ranks of workers doing jumping jacks on the factory floor in the morning. We can only look on in awe at the mile-a-minute life of the hard-working, hard-drinking salaryman, working 80 hour weeks, month after month, and still have enough energy for karaoke and copious amounts of alcohol after work.

And then I look at Malaysia. What does this country have? A law against sodomy. Really, as long as it's consentual, why should the state give a toss how people get their orgasms behind closed doors? The Petronas Towers. Paired phallic symbols, hailed as the tallest buildings in the world at the time of completion. Sorry, I'm just going to have to call bullshit on that one. As white elephants go, the towers are beautiful and impressive in their own right, but claiming to be the tallest buildings in the world, thanks to their antennae, of all things, strikes me as just a bit pathetic. A car that got an impressive reaction out of Jeremy Clarkson. Admittedly, that reaction was to attack it with a sledge hammer and blow it up with dynamite, but the intensity has got to count for something, right?

I am very much aware that comparing Malaysia to Japan is completely and utterly unfair, like comparing a lop-sided, rusty go-kart to the latest hybrid out of Honda's labs. But I think it's a worthwhile comparison and that it's worth asking the questions to understand how is it that a politically stable country (kinda) sitting on loads of mineral wealth and natural resources manages to be so meh.

Where are the differences? Is it in culture? Is it embedded forever in history? Is it in the system of government? Educational standards, perhaps? Linguistic homogeneity? Something in the water? The diet?

And where does one simply draw the line and concede that Malaysia is simply culturally inferior, clinging to useless paradigms and traditions that should have been discarded long, long ago? What would it take for Malaysia to stop making excuses for what is, at best, mediocrity, and at worst, unforgivable incompetence?

I'm not saying Malaysia could be Japan. What I am saying is that in examining Japan, one can identify ways in which Malaysia could do better for itself and perhaps learn something about reaching far into both past and future at the same time and making it look good. The abolition of racism (that is, Article 153 of the Constitution) might be a good start. It might also be nice if UMNO would stop with their childish fascination of where Anwar's tralala has been. I think reexamining the place of religion in society** might also be a positive step, but that might be unduly optimistic.

In sum, I ask: Is it really so hard to take a page out of Japan's book, look beyond our borders for good habits worth emulating and use them to replace our own bad habits?

* I'm really not convinced the 2nd one was entirely necessary.

** Which is to say, far, far away from civilization.

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