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  • Writer's pictureHirokazu Kobayashi

Reasons for Japan's recent rise in popularity?

Updated: 3 days ago

Hirokazu Kobayashi

CEO, Green Insight Japan, Inc.

Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor, University of Shizuoka

Shohei Ohtani receives praise when he picks up trash at the stadium. The actions of the Japanese people have come to receive international recognition. In 2022, Japanese supporters' trash-picking at the FIFA World Cup held in Qatar drew praise from around the world. Shohei receives praise because he has exceeded expectations, and Japanese players achieved incredible feats in the World Cup by defeating powerhouses Germany and Spain. In 1995, at the moment of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in Japan, I attended an academic conference in San Diego, California, USA. I was told that Japan was in big trouble, and when I looked on TV, I saw a genuinely terrible disaster. American television stations praised the lack of stolen goods from defunct convenience stores and supermarkets. As a Japanese person, I was surprised by this point of view.

The story of being praised for picking up trash was different 40 years ago. For about two years from 1983, I lived in Boston, USA, and was engaged in research at Harvard University. Some trash was lying around the lab, so when I picked it up and threw it in the trash, some people wondered, “Why would you do something like that? Cleaning must be the cleaning staff's job!" Indeed, all professionals in the United States are professionals who take pride in their work. I realized my behavior was going to take their job away. At that time, cheap and high-quality Japanese cars were overwhelming American cars, and it was a time of Japan bashing. Japan's high level of technology is not new. One of the two matchlock guns introduced to Tanegashima, a southern island of Japan, in 1543, was disassembled. Matchlock guns were mass-produced in Sakai and Kunitomo, and the number of matchlock guns swelled to 500,000 by 1573. This was the highest number in the world at the time. Since the 1990s, Japanese culture has rapidly permeated the world, replacing industrial products. When I was living in the United States from 1983 to 1984, the only Japanese words commonly used in the United States were "futon" and "tofu.” The names are currently “kimono,” “manga,” “sushi,” “tempura,” “ramen,” “kabuki,” “bonsai,” “ninja,” “sumo,” kawaii,” “karaoke,” “kaizen,” “mottainai,” etc.

I believe that Japan's characteristics stem from Japan's geopolitical characteristics. During the glacial period, Japan was connected to the Eurasian continent via the Korean Peninsula and Sakhalin. The last time was about 20,000 years ago. As a result, it is inferred that multiple genetically distinct populations settled in Japan. After that, the sea level rose and separated it from the continent. The Jomon period lasted from around 14000 BC to 400 BC, and the high artistry of Jomon pottery and clay figurines during this period suggests an advanced civilization. Due to the blossoming of this unique culture, it is understood that rice cultivation and kanji (Chinese) characters were introduced from the continent. Still, there is also a theory that the opposite is true. Specifically, about kanji, it has been pointed out that part of the Ahiru (Abiru) grass script, one of Japan's ancient scripts, corresponds to oracle bone characters, which are said to be the origin of hieroglyphs. However, it is also believed that it was brought to Japan by Jofuku around 200 BC. The latest human genome analysis supports that the present-day Japanese can be decomposed into three ancestral components. Therefore, it seems that immigrants were mixed in after the Jomon period. Genetic diversity, known as “hybrid vigor,'' results in superiority in various traits.

As Japan is an island nation, there is a limit to the amount of land that can be competed for, and we must live within this limit. During the Kofun period (late 200s to mid 500s) in Japan, China called Japan “倭 (Wa)," but during the Empress Genmei period (707-715), it is said to be changed to “和 (Wa)" and then added the character ”大 (great)" to become “大和 (Yamato)." Afterward, this name became widespread after the Yoro Ritsuryo Code (757). “和 (Wa)" is a word that still represents Japan today, including “和訳 (Japanese translation)," “和文 (Japanese literature)," “和服 (Japanese clothes)," and “和歌 (Waka: poetry)." “和 (Wa)" means harmony, a synonym of another 輪 (Wa: circle), of people and getting along well. Therefore, Japanese people learn from a young age not to cause trouble to others, to respond with a smile, to say hello, to compromise, and to pick up trash. Additionally, the Japanese acquired high knowledge and technology due to limited resources. People worldwide began to admire the success of Japanese people and Japanese culture, which is rooted in such customs, temperament, and culture. The world's population has surpassed 8 billion people, environmental pollution has progressed, and with the addition of conflicts in Ukraine and Palestine, there has been a growing awareness that the earth is finite. People worldwide unconsciously feel a sense of peace in Japan's “和 (Wa: harmony)" and seek it out.

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