Sunday, December 23, 2012

Question Time: Why Must Japanese Students “Represent” Overseas?

RD asks: “I've often noticed when I attend events or read stuff on creating [globalized manpower] or sending Japanese to study abroad, the speakers or authors emphasize that prior to going overseas young Japanese should increase their knowledge of Japan and strengthen their Japanese identity… Where do you think this comes from? I've never seen this mentioned in discussions about foreign study in other countries.”

Never knew that. The “other countries” part, that is.

The most obvious answer—the one that the speakers and authors surely have in mind—is that the Japanese students are embarrassed by not have much to say when people put those questions to them, in contrast to Chinese and Korean students, who are supposed to have loads of national myths to tell in which we Japanese reportedly play a major if unwelcome role. By contrast, we do not have those emotive national myths; they were leached out of the curricula when we lost the WW II, and which BTW most of us are cool with that. The speakers are not, though, which leads to the last-minute exhortation. But then, a sendoff speech is not the best occasion to make the point, is it?

Now, that’s the easy answer, and I’m pretty much convinced that there’s plenty of truth to it. However, this being one of those subjects that are hard if not impossible to falsify, I am indulging myself (instead of avoiding it altogether) and offering what I hope is a more amusing if not necessarily more plausible answer.

My guess is that it all goes back to the Meiji Japanese who went to Europe and the United States to study. (Or, if you want to reach all the way back, to the 7th century envoys to the Sui dynasty.) Unlike the poor, mostly poorly educated, masses that made their way to Hawaii, California and other destinations for indentured servitude/a better life, they must have been told by the Japanese government that they were representing their country so they had to act accordingly. Now, customs that have little practical value but do little harm as well not only tend to endure but also accrete over time to produce elaborate sets of protocols that are baffling to outsiders. (For example, no US politician can make a speech without reminding everyone of the greatness of America and the blessing that God has bestowed on them all. Then there's Tebowing...) I think that those exhortations are just that, an incantation, a piece of Latin mass if you will, that has been passed down over the years (and passes over the heads of most of the students) but is repeated on such occasions to lend legitimacy to the taking of public or corporate money to spend a couple of years abroad.

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