From disasters locally, Japan can evolve globally – essay by Orlando Camargo

For most of my adult life I have studied, worked, and raised a family in a vibrant and prosperous Japan. But it’s an open question whether that vibrancy and prosperity will continue in the remainder of my lifetime.

I write from my native New York City, having recently left Japan after 27 years, determined to take the advice I was giving clients – to take risks and learn from other countries, to regain that forward-thinking spirit that has diminished after living in a very comfortable environment. When I first arrived in Japan in the early 1980s, the country’s prosperity seemed to be the result of some kind of miracle. I was invited to work in Japan’s countryside to teach English, was later the recipient of a government scholarship and was eventually hired by the Japanese government as a civil servant in a national research institute. For me, Japan has always been a global power, investing in foreigners and inviting them to be part of the country, to contribute to Japan’s future. Japan was front and center in sharing its future with the world. I felt that I was part of Japan’s modern-day investment in foreign human capital and ideas. 

The Japan I left last year is a much-diminished player on the world stage. The disasters of March 11, 2011 left the country frailer economically and emotionally. Colleagues who were formerly confident about Japan’s ability to contribute to the world have turned toward defeatism, fear and myopia. Last spring when I volunteered in Tohoku, the stark contrast between devastated rural areas and prosperous Tokyo were even more apparent. By chance, I was reunited with a former student I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. Kumi was housed in a temporary shelter and resigned to living a very frugal life as an adult in her mid-30s. Her melancholy was beyond stoicism, bordering on despair. And yet, when I told her of my hopes for a prosperous globalized Japan, she wanted to help in any way possible to tell the world Japan still has a bright future. There are many Japanese who feel the same way. They want to reach out. 

Long before the earthquake and even as I was starting my career, the country was beginning to lose its way: as an economic superpower, as a brand, as an innovative powerhouse, as a travel destination. Despite periods of boom in the 90s, post-bubble Japan economic malaise and the rising economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China have dented Japan’s armor as a leading economic power. The foreign companies I worked for over the years moved investment and staff to India and China, and the mighty Japanese companies of yesteryear stopped being sources of innovative management and practices or manufacturing inspiration to Fortune 500 CEOs.

According to a McKinsey study, Japan’s biggest companies have been losing relative market share over the past ten years: their proportion of the Fortune Global 500’s total revenues decreased to 13 percent, from 35 percent, between 1995 and 2009. The same study refers to a 2010 report by the US-based National Association of Manufacturers listing Singapore and South Korea as the world’s top two countries for innovation – far ahead of Japan. During this time I worked at consulting firms and at an investment bank that advised Japanese firms on management, mergers and acquisitions, and marketing strategies. Often the managers did not innovate or thrive in the companies they acquired, or the companies were only marginally successful at best and the marketing was often dispersed around global sites that did not communicate effectively with Tokyo headquarters.

What made matters worse was that despite hardworking staff at Japanese companies, the outside perception was that Japan had lost those qualities that had made it so strong. Where was the drive for innovative excellence, that ability to “wow” the world? A perception study of country brand strength by Young & Rubicam indicates that as far back as 2001, while Japan was seen as highly differentiated as a country, it had lost standing in innovation and stability – two vital areas for investment and tourism. To my eyes, these qualities are still very much present, despite commentary to the contrary.

For much of my professional career I have worked to encourage inward investment into Japan and more recently to also promote global investment and marketing efforts by Japanese companies. I advise clients on how to “go global,” to invest in markets outside the country in order to offset shrinking domestic prospects. I work with government bureaucrats, academics and industry leaders to show the best of Japan and to help them find a new voice in a very challenging environment. The interest in Japan as an investment and tourism destination has decreased relative to the competitive advantages of Brazil, Russia, India and notably China and other Asian countries.

These trends have only been exacerbated by the earthquake, tsunami and resultant nuclear catastrophe. But the good news to come from the present crisis is that people in Japan are listening and ready to make changes. The better news is that there is now a groundswell of global and popular support that Japan must take advantage of before the pessimism from within overcomes the potential to work with the many people around the world who want to see Japan strong again.


Japan needs new global pioneers who are restless and ready to take risks. Throughout the country’s history and especially in times of great political or economic turmoil, its people have been able to adopt ideas from abroad and accommodate and apply them at home with indigenous resources. From Yoshida Shoin, to Ryoma Sakamoto, Japanese history is rich with nails that stuck out: people who did not accept the status quo. Many of these radical thinkers were convinced that domestic prosperity depended on learning from abroad or living for periods of time outside of the country. The present challenges require similar risk-taking Japanese, young and old, to study, work and take risks abroad. Greater efforts must be made to make use of native and foreign talent so Japan has the potential to regain its status as a country that the world can learn from.

Japan will continue to have major natural calamities – again and again. Japan’s geophysical fate ensures that someday there will be another catastrophic earthquake; we just don’t know exactly when or where. The events of 3/11 devastated a relatively sparsely populated rural area. A recent Tokyo University study indicates a 98 percent chance of a 6.7 to 7.2 magnitude earthquake for the Tokyo region in the next 30 years and a 70 percent chance over the next four years. Who will lead Japan then?

What the present crisis emphasizes is that Japan’s rebirth lies in the hands of an enlightened and reenergized group of young Japanese leaders and a global community of partners who are willing to be part of efforts to keep the beauty of Japan from fading. I call this effort Global Japan. It is a hope for Japan’s future driven by brave individuals willing to take risks. It is about the reality and potential of all that is good and possible from and with Japan to help change the world for better. It is a big name for a small community. It is about both the inbound and outbound, the flow of people and ideas about and related to Japan.

This requires leaders like multi-portfolio holding Cabinet member Motohisa Furukawa. He is young, bilingual and simultaneously serves in Prime Minister Noda’s Cabinet as Minister for National Policy, Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Minister of State for Science and Technology Policy, and Minister for Space Policy. He also took part in the Ministry of Finance Exchange Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Japan will need a dozen Furukawas to take on the challenges the country faces.

The leaders are not just senior government officials but young and enterprising Japanese who are stepping out of Japan’s comfort zone to live bigger dreams. One such risk taker is Fumitsugu Tosu, of Table for Two, an innovative global charity founded in Japan that aims to combat obesity and starvation. There are many entrepreneurial-minded young people like him who are showing leadership. These leaders are not just Japanese nationals but also foreign residents of Japan like Nicholas Benes at The Board Director Training Institute and Christian Dimmer, an urban planner with the University of Tokyo and Waseda University, who work tirelessly to show the best of Japan to the world but who also are not afraid to be constructively critical.

In a series of positive steps, the government is making strides online and off to target and reach out to relevant groups. While it is surprising that something similar did not exist long before, it is praise-worthy that the Prime Minsiter’s Office established an Office of Global Communications, hired more talented staff and, very importantly, set up a Chinese language web page to improve regular outreach to Japan’s most important neighbor and largest immigrant group. There are also signs of greater cross-ministry exchange of staff and third-party collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the International Development Bank and local and international chambers of commerce. Most encouraging is the outreach by the government and bureaucrats to civil society via web portals such as Tasukeai Japan and by more regular appearances at global conferences by government officials who can deliver Japan’s message to the world.


In the aftermath of 3/11, Japan needs to embrace an outward investment program in human capital and use its local resources more innovatively. One area for government action is to support more Japanese of all ages to take risks abroad. In one report on leading places of origin for foreign students, Japan has dropped 14 percent from 2009/10 to seventh place, behind Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, India and China. This is the second largest drop behind Iran. I am puzzled at lamentations of why more Japanese are not studying abroad. For many of the young Japanese I worked and studied with or taught, the prospects of corporate life at home are bleak, but more and more don’t think education in America is the only answer. I see young Japanese people in Asian cities and here in New York City, some incentivized by a strong yen and a new sense of mission – and not just by their folks’ dwindling savings. They are starting up their own hair salons, web consulting businesses and other joint ventures. They prefer to work rather than go to school, or if they do want to study, many are looking to Asia, rather than Europe or America. They are smart people; they see Japan as a global leader from Asia and want to be part of the growth. What is not always apparent is where the seed money or mentorship is coming from to help these young Japanese risk takers.

Both younger and older Japanese should now be encouraged, supported and if needs be, propelled out of the country to study, live, work, and create businesses abroad on a combined government, private sector effort to create a Global Japan. Japanese need to leave the precious cherry blossoms at home and find new foreign springs for Japan’s future. Setting up a Fulbright-like program from Japan to the world would be one way to do this. The skills and experiences learned from abroad will help Japan. Just like the JET program has benefitted Japan by bringing young foreigners to live and work in Japan, a Global Japan program would serve similar objectives by sending young and old Japanese overseas. Similar to the Iwakura mission of 1871, when Meiji Japan sent their best and brightest to learn and study abroad, Japan needs to invest in globalizing its human capital. As we move beyond earthquake recovery and relief to reconstruction, resources should be earmarked for a global risk and reward program to help spawn a new generation of Japanese entrepreneurs.

Japan cannot shape its fate if it can’t attract students to study in the country after 3/11. According to the Education Ministry, “about six percent of students who had studied in the quake-hit Tohoku region left the country after the earthquake had not returned to Japan by July.” Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Asian students in Japan and abroad who genuinely like Japan and can help link it more strongly to the world economy. At my graduate school alma mater, Tsukuba University in Ibaraki, three of my Asian classmates are now senior managers for Japanese companies in Asia. Chinese are now the majority of foreign students. Each year when I return to lecture at the MBA program I notice more students who want to work for Japanese companies. There should be more concerted efforts to get these foreign students at Japanese universities into internships and job-track related work study experiences so that they, too, can someday lead these companies’ Asian branch networks.

Japan’s demographic challenges are serious. Yet, despite this gloom and despair, there is one segment of society that should be looked at more closely for a greater share of the future: Japan’s elderly. Opportunities should be created for them to connect with their counterparts around the world. There is a treasure trove of Japanese arts, crafts and traditions that they can and should share with the world. A Global Japan Art, Craft and Culture Guild could bring basket makers, farmers, and potters from around the world closer to Japan via webcasts, study/visit programs and homestays. For example, Softbank could supply the bandwidth, multilingual web savvy youth from Tasukeai Japan, the online volunteer network, could help with the internet and translation know-how, and Japan National Tourist Organization could promote the travel packages with global travel sites like Expedia. This “creative tourism” is an appeal to mastery that many people outside Japan could discover in Japan’s arts, crafts and culture. I see no reason why Japan couldn’t become a world leader in lifelong learning.


Before arriving in Japan in the early 80’s, I learned how mono-cultural it was. Then I lived in Tokyo, in Okubo, Shinjuku, where like Elmhurst, Queens, where I grew up, ethnic and cultural diversity was the reality, at least in that small part of my Global Japan. There is a critical role for Japan’s foreign residents that can to some degree compensate for the country’s low appetite for immigration. Japanese census data indicates the number of international marriages has been rising, with births in some wards from international marriages growing faster than those of native Japanese couples. In addition to working on more progressive census-taking and immigration policies, the government should work with leaders in these communities who are part of Japan’s new future. They can be looked to for language interpreters, global trade partners and other areas where Japan needs stronger links outside the country, especially to the rest of Asia. Who knows, maybe one day we will see the Nobel Peace Prize won by a Japanese national of North Korean descent, born of an international family in Okubo and who went on to become Japanese Prime Minister. This idea does not negate the need for Japan to continue to reevaluate an immigration policy that is more adaptive to the needs of caring for and growing its dwindling domestic population. I am the product of open immigration to America and in a way immigrated to Japan as a long-term resident. Encouraging more long-term entry and stays leading to naturalization will only help Japan’s future. Spring is for new blossoms. The Government’s points-based incentive immigration system is one step, but bolder thinking is needed to make Japan more diverse, while maintaining its harmony.


There is a strong need for private enterprise to take leadership where government and bureaucracy is either too slow or is not the best vehicle for action. In entrepreneurship and education Yoshihito Hori of Globis stands out in efforts to make Japan a leader in both business education and new business growth. His organization is part MBA program, part venture fund, and part mini-World Economic Forum from Japan. He and other young leaders like him are not waiting for a government handout or for the next earthquake. Globis and other schools, venture capitalists, and similar organizations in Japan should strengthen ties with businesses and academic institutions around the world. A joint program in entrepreneurship, with for example the NYU Stern Business School or other MBA programs, can be jointly set up with Globis-style innovative institutions from Japan.

Japan in the 1980s was booming and the Japanese government made a big push to invest in bringing young Americans to teach English in the countryside. The then-Monbusho (Education Ministry) English Fellows program has brought thousands of newcomers to Japan in what is now known as the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. Many of the graduates of that program, like me, chose to live in the country while others span the globe, some as Japan scholars, company presidents, and leaders in their countries. Now it is time to reap even greater returns on this investment. Japan created a strong base of like-minded foreigners, many of whom have deep ties and interests in the country. These are the untapped ambassadors of the nation’s renaissance. They can be targeted to help promote investment and tourism; they are already linked together in an alumni network and their interest can be harnessed to help sell the country’s charms globally.

One year after 3/11, Japan needs to nurture global-minded leaders by embracing diversity, encouraging entrepreneurial risk, and enticing its people to study and work abroad. These new leaders are ready to foster a society that can endure any disaster. We must help them grow.

Orlando Camargo, a 27-year resident of Japan, was formerly head of the Japan office of a global PR firm, director of communications for a Wall Street investment bank in Tokyo, and a civil servant researcher at the then Science and Technology Agency of Japan. He blogs at Global Japan and can be spotted, like the red tailed hawk, in the early morning around Central Park.


Photo: © 2012 Orlando Camargo

(This essay originally appears in Reconstructing 3/11: Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown – how Japan’s future depends on its understanding of the 2011 triple disaster – an eBook  


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