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Japan's Incredible Shrinking Empire

Before Japan can reignite its economy, Shinzo Abe must counteract his nation’s deep cultural aversion to foreign labor
Japan's Incredible Shrinking Empire
Illustration by Tracy Ma; Flag photograph by Superstock

In 1985, as a supercharged Japanese economy awed and unnerved Western business executives, Tadanobu Tsunoda published a book called The Japanese Brain. An audiologist at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, Tsunoda developed tests with an auditory feedback device in which subjects responded to cues heard through headsets by tapping a key. He used experiments with alternating and delayed sounds to analyze brain activity and concluded that the Japanese rely more on their left cerebral hemisphere to interpret language compared with foreigners. He also believed this finding explained the unique characteristics of the Japanese language—and even the emotions and thinking patterns of the Japanese people.

Tsunoda’s work elicited skepticism abroad and fascination at home—as did an array of anthropological, sociological, linguistic, and pop psychology works stretching back decades, a genre known as nihonjinron, or the theory of Japaneseness. In the early 1970s, University of Tokyo anthropologist Chie Nakane and psychoanalyst Takeo Doi, in separate works, noted that their fellow citizens naturally sought out authority figures for guidance and approval in contrast with more individualistic Westerners. Other writers touted Japan’s homogeneity in race, language, and culture as unique strengths. In 1989 the novelist and archconservative Shintaro Ishihara (who would become governor of Tokyo) and Sony co-founder Akio Morita, in The Japan That Can Say No, wrote triumphantly about the superiority of the nation’s culture as reflected in its technology and collaborative business practices.