Before I get to the answer(s), I'd like to make it clear that I'm only offering a perspective and an opinion and I'm not presenting myself as any sort of definitive expert on this topic. To be honest, I think no one, even a researcher on culture, is really qualified to answer it because it's too vast a question covering much of the world. Even if you could be well-versed in the movement of a culture, you couldn't be well-versed on the impact that culture has had world-wide without the perspective of a lot more history. Life is simply too short. So, before undies become tightly-wadded and keyboards grow hot with venomous rebuttals, keep in mind that these are just a few ideas from someone who has lived here awhile doing her best to answer a question a nice fellow asked her. Feel free to offer your ideas as well in the comments, but remember that none of us are any more qualified than the rest of us in this regard, no matter how confident we may be in our status as armchair experts on Japan and that any jerks will be bounced in comment moderation. Without further adieu, I will finally get to the point.
I arrived in Japan during the last few years of its economic bubble. For those who are not well-versed in what this is, I will tell you that Japan enjoyed a brief time when their economy expanded rapidly and it seemed they had a Midas touch when it came to making successful products. Those who are outside of Japan may remember it as the time when Japan went around buying up real estate and pricey artwork around the world and people in the U.S. started smashing Japanese-made goods in protest of how bad their success was making us look. Money was so plentiful in Japan at that time that local governments were thinking of ways to waste the money they were raking in, possibly on gold-plated statues and what-not. The perception was that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with that could eventually unseat the U.S. as the biggest economic power in the world.
Being here when the bubble started was a good time for expatriates. Wages for teachers were high and conditions relatively cushy, both because the Japanese had money to burn. It was before everyone and his brother came here to work for a year or so and the market wasn't as saturated. The Japanese you taught were generally pretty arrogant about Japan's superior work ethic, education system, and product quality. This attitude was famously parodied in various comedy programs as Western actors pretended to be Japanese and denounced Americans as lazy, stupid, and incapable of making high quality products. While this attitude wasn't necessarily shoved in our faces all the time, it wasn't hidden or subdued when the topic happened to come up. If you have lived in Japan for any length of time, you know that humbleness and subtlety are the order of the day and, for anyone to express superiority in an overt fashion is not the norm.
The bubble eventually burst as the personal computer and Internet boom were peaking over the horizon. Japan still lead the world in cars, televisions, personal stereo equipment and VCRs, but it didn't have a toehold in the burgeoning computer business. As Japanese electronics companies struggled to make their mark in the computer industry, and only Sony really got a decent footing internationally and NEC domestically, the smug started to wear off of the Japanese sense of superiority. Instead of leading the world, they were starting to follow, and feeling a bit like they couldn't keep up.
It's not like Japan wasn't still owning or doing well in certain markets like console gaming systems and cell phones, but rather that the money was no longer being dumped at their feet in huge piles and they were being edged out of new markets and seeing demand for their old market goods wither. As time went by, the superior attitudes I experienced when I first arrived vanished and were replaced by expressions of concern about a certain level of inferiority when it came to adjusting to the demands of the marketplace and their ability to innovate. In particular, a lot of the old Japanese businesses who made a strong mark domestically started to have stronger concerns about brand awareness and being able to meaningfully break into world markets.
I wasn't here before the bubble, but based on what I know about what Japanese culture values in terms of personality, I wonder if this was a full circle for Japan. That is, from post-war defeat and feelings of inferiority to smug and superior and back to feelings of inferiority. The puff up didn't last all that long from a historical view. However, in terms of lasting impressions, I believe Japan has left its mark. For one thing, people used to associate Japan with the sort of cheap, low quality goods which are currently associated with China. I would be surprised if the image of Japan as a producer of efficient, high technology, small, and well-designed goods changed any time in the near future.
In terms of the question I was asked about the direction Japan is headed, I think that there are a lot of possibilities, but my best guesses are:
- Japan will continue to be associated with high technology and particularly with robotics. I think it will make this move because of the diminishing population and a desire to compensate for a lack of labor with mechanical assistance. I don't think it will make it's mark in homes worldwide with its technology as I don't believe that the Japanese developers can accurately market domestic products abroad as the needs of those living in Japan are different from those in other countries and most developers lack cross-cultural experience. I do believe they will license their core technologies and have a heavy influence on industry worldwide.
- Japan will gradually (and reluctantly) start to attempt to integrate more foreigners into the population. This change will occur at a glacial pace in terms of actual rights and acceptance of foreigners, but a faster pace in allowing more (legal) manual labor from Asian countries. I think it will continue to be seen around the world as insular. The population will continue to consider being Japanese as a matter of blood rather than of breeding.
- Japan will continue to be seen as America's lackey though it will very, very slowly inch away from that position as the U.S.'s status world-wide diminishes. However, until the North Korean political situation looks a bit less intimidating, Japan will continue to allow the U.S.'s foreign policy to heavily influence it and it will not be seen as any sort of world leader politically.
(to be continued)