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Japan Still Scared Of It’s Own Shadow

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The world’s third largest economy and one of the most sophisticated and advanced countries is a notorious underperformer on the international stage.  I was reminded of this by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.  She was a guest speaker at a foreign Chamber event drawing a capacity crowd.  She is whip smart, charismatic and knows how to charm the crowd.  She speaks Arabic fluently and her English is simply excellent.  Yet, she chose to address the assembled Chamber members in Japanese not in English.  What an opportunity missed to show Tokyo and Japan’s internationalism.
 
Having been a diplomat, I know how these events are totally scripted beforehand, so nothing can possibly go wrong.  The event featured a series of questions from the Director of the Chamber to Koike.  These questions were all vetted prior to the event, so Koike had complete knowledge of what she was going to be asked.  They were all softball questions anyway, which made them easy to handle.  The foreign Chamber is never going to get aggressive with the Governor of Tokyo, so Koike was amongst firm friends.
 
Yet she switched to Japanese after making some flawless off the cuff comments in English at the beginning.  This included cracking a joke about channel three of the headsets were receiving the translation in Arabic.  That was witty and said to everyone she was a very confident person in dealing with foreign languages.  At the end she switched back to perfect English again, more witticisms followed and then she elegantly glided out the door.  Why didn’t she do the whole piece in English?  She obviously had the ability.
 
Yes, it was on the record and there were members of the Japanese media there recording her comments, so by speaking in Japanese, she could play to the broader populace of Tokyo.  "Here is our Governor effortlessly dealing with foreigners", type of thing.  You may have noticed that the the Governor of Tokyo does not want for media attention.  
 
Here was an opportunity to work on the non-Japanese media.  To work on the Japan fans and boosters in the room.  Projecting Tokyo as a truly international city was always a stretch under her long reigning predecessor Shintaro Ishihara, because he was so parochial in his views.  Koike is a breath of fresh air in that regard and could have played an effective role of evangelist for Tokyo, speaking directly to the foreign community.  She distributed some very high quality books on Tokyo to the audience, which were first rate exemplars of the sophistication of the capital.
 
She could have worked the room and converted everyone to fandom, but she chose to retreat into Japanese.  She could have chosen to make her main remarks in English and then answer the questions at the end in Japanese or rely on the simultaneous translators.  I know from my own public speaking experience in Japanese, that the questions at the end can be difficult to follow at times.  However, she had simple options to get around that issue, which she chose not to exercise.  Why?
 
We see again and again Japan scared to step out.  Soft power should be a tremendous advantage for Japan, but it consistently decides not to take it up.  Koike’s luncheon event is another example.  The conservative bureaucrats in the Governor’s office were no doubt laser focused on eliminating all risk.  Speaking in English is risky, so let’s not do that.  What about the upside?  I guess that this was a non-contest between balancing some degree of risk and achieving a very much more positive result.   As we know in Japan, mistakes are not allowed and the best way to avoid a mistake is to do nothing different or new.
 
Isn’t it time we started to work on this construct?  In our companies we need to embrace change, to allow failure as a learning process, to have our BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) which take us out of our Comfort Zone.  Leaders like Koike would be fantastic role models for the country, if they chose to play that role.  They choose not too and so Japanese continues to fly under the radar.  When will Japan be ready to become a player on the world stage in international business or global relations?  Don’t hold your breath in anticipation of anything changing soon, when the best and the brightest decline the challenge.
 
 
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