Hoping for Healthy Change: Bill Emmott on Japan’s Global Options Today

People Society Gender and Sex

Writer and Japan observer Bill Emmott visited Nippon.com to talk about the future he sees for Japan: its international standing, the position of its women and its workers, and his hopes for a more active stance among entrepreneurs and young people.

Bill Emmott

Writer, consultant, and chairman of the Japan Society of the United Kingdom. Former editor-in-chief of the Economist. Author of numerous books on Japan, Italy, and other global topics, including the 2017 The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea. In 2019 he published Japan’s Far More Female Future in Japanese; an expanded edition in English came out in 2020. Also serves as chairman of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and codirector of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy, among other positions. His website is http://billemmott.com.

An Active Japan on the Global Stage

INTERVIEWER  Thank you very much for being with us today. At the lecture you gave on July 25 at the University of Tokyo, you mentioned the need to balance deterrence and diplomacy in the Far East. Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has said that today’s Ukraine may be tomorrow’s Far East. Do you see a possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and war in this region?

BILL EMMOTT  Unfortunately, I think it’s a real possibility. I don’t know whether it would be in the near, middle, or far future, but the path is toward conflict, and we need to work hard to prevent that. It isn’t inevitable—conflict can be prevented—but we have to make serious efforts for this.

Part of these efforts are what Japan has already begun by building up its military force to act as a deterrent. Another part has to be diplomacy, which should act as a form of deterrence and persuasion. The complexity, as I said in my lecture, is that there are three participants in this potential conflict: China and its military, of course, but also Taiwan, whose politics need to be influenced, and the politics of the United States. It’s a three-way deterrence and diplomatic task, and I am glad that Japan is playing an increasing role in that task.

INTERVIEWER  We now see increasing ties between Japan and the United States in the security area, and Japan is confident that America will support us in a crisis. But US foreign policy seems unpredictable, particularly in the light of the potential comeback of Donald Trump. How do you view this possibility?

EMMOTT  In a contest with two candidates, Trump and Joe Biden, I think we have to acknowledge that Trump’s chances are unfortunately higher than zero percent. If I have to predict today whether he will succeed, I would say that no, Biden will be reelected. But predictions made fifteen or sixteen months ahead of an American election are liable to make you look foolish later.

I think you’re right that the direction of American foreign policy has changed in recent years. It is more unpredictable. This is why Japan’s increasing role is so welcome, both to compensate for the things that Washington may not do very well and to enhance Japan’s influence over the United States.

INTERVIEWER  In that sense, is it a good idea to strengthen Japan’s ties with countries like India, Australia, and South Korea? India in particular is regarded as the leader of the so-called Global South.

EMMOTT  India’s importance is indeed growing, but so is the importance, economic and political, of countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. Japan needs to improve its diplomatic relations with and influence over those countries—not naively, expecting that they will become loyal allies, but in the sense that Japan has a better understanding of these countries than the United States or European countries. Japan’s increasing influence and importance is to be welcomed.

How to Be Exciting

INTERVIEWER  In your 2007 Japanese-language book Japan’s Choices, you argued that Japan should become an “exciting country,” rather than the “beautiful country” being put forward by Abe Shinzō at the time. Over the years since then, do you think Japan has confronted risks and seized opportunities to become more exciting?

EMMOTT  Japan has been exciting in many ways during this period, but not exciting enough. Of course there have been setbacks—the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, for instance. But the conservatism of policymakers and some business organizations have also slowed this process. However, the startup entrepreneurial scene, digitalization, and the move toward a green focus have been accelerating. This shows an awareness of the opportunities to be exciting, but not yet a real urgency to do so.

(© Nippon.com)
(© Nippon.com)

INTERVIEWER  The Osaka World Expo coming up in 2025 may be a good opportunity to show what we can offer to the world.

EMMOTT  One suggestion I’d make is to aim for a “repeat performance” of the Tokyo Olympics. One thing I found striking was the Olympic torch being carried by Ōsaka Naomi. That the head of the organizing committee was Hashimoto Seiko, a female former athlete and lawmaker. A more diverse, changing Japan was showcased in this sporting arena. If the Osaka Expo could also show a more female, diverse face of Japan to the world—the energy of the young, a more female-led, new type of creativity—in business and technology, following up on sports, that would be illuminating for overseas observers.

INTERVIEWER  Your 2019 Japan’s Far More Female Future, also in Japanese, encouraged many Japanese businesswomen, bureaucrats, and other potential female leaders. Will Japan be able to use the power of these women more dynamically?

EMMOTT  I think so. In that book I wrote about women’s increasing participation in university education during the 1990s, bringing them up to around half of the university population. But it takes time for those graduates to rise to positions of influence in their forties, fifties, and sixties. Looking forward to the 2030s and beyond, the number of talented women competing for leadership positions will increase. We’ll see more women in key positions at the Bank of Japan, in major corporations, in universities, emerging as an alternative face and style in those institutions.

INTERVIEWER  We do see rising numbers of women in business. But in politics the progress is slower, and the numbers remain extraordinarily low. Politics also shows slow progress on issues like recognition of dual family names, LGBTQ issues, and so forth. How can this be changed? Could quotas help?

EMMOTT  In studying this dimension of Japan, two sectors that have been surprising to me in terms of women’s presence are politics and the media—the latter in particular. In Britain, the media has been a sector where women have risen to the top much more quickly, perhaps because it’s so entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. Japanese media is rather conservative.

It’s the same in polities, which in Japan is a family business. It’s hard for newcomers to break through. Quotas for candidates would help to break that family grip, along with forcing parties to think hard about how to nurture female candidates. There have been some aspirational targets, but it may be a good idea to make them compulsory to accelerate this process.

INTERVIEWER  The number of children is also dwindling in Japan, along with Korea, China, and many other countries. But responses to this situation have been very slow.

EMMOTT  We have to recognize that it’s very difficult to change this situation. Family decisions on whether to have children are complicated, and policies on subsidies or childcare facilities aren’t going to be sufficient. We have to be realistic.

The best area to pay attention to is insecurity in the labor market. Decisions on whether to get married or form a family hinge on factors like nonregular work—whether the partners have secure jobs or an insecure series of short-term contracts. If I were to make one recommendation, it would be to reform this system of insecure contracts, and the associated financial arrangements like pensions, with the goal of producing a new equilibrium for men and women in their lives and their decisions to get married or not.

The experience of other countries shows the same thing: that insecure labor markets discourage marriage. In a society like Japan, where very few children are born outside marriage, this has an impact on the birthrate.

Promising Signs in the Workplace

INTERVIEWER  In the labor market, this year we’ve seen an increase in wages, particularly at bigger firms. Does this indicate some changes?

EMMOTT  Yes. It’s clear that, first, there’s a new expectation of inflation, which is leading workers to push for higher wages, and companies are having to agree to that. Secondly, the share in the market of full-time, regular contracted workers has begun to increase quite substantially, so the balance is moving away from part-time, irregular work. I think this is a very healthy sign. If the government can do something to accelerate this it would be beneficial, but the market is definitely moving in that direction.

Of course, there’s a labor shortage, and the era when female and retired people took on increasing part-time work has come to an end, since their numbers can’t increase much more. This may be causing the creation of more full-time positions for people of all ages, which is a healthy phenomenon.

INTERVIEWER  The number of foreign workers, particularly from Vietnam, Nepal, and other Asian countries, is rising, and we now have about 3 million foreign residents in Japan. Will this trend continue?

EMMOTT  The shortage of workers and the attractiveness of Japan as a safe, high-tech country with a good environment is a combination of demand pressure and supply pressure that’s likely to make the number of foreign workers continue to increase. I’d like to see more foreign entrepreneurs coming to Japan to start companies—perhaps because they’ve found a group of like-minded people at the University of Tokyo, or in Tsukuba, say. That would be ideal: high-tech, entrepreneurial immigration can be a source of fresh creativity without causing social problems.

INTERVIEWER  In your 2017 book The Fate of the West you have a chapter on Japan saying that conservatism and rigidity in Japanese society produce obstacles to Japan becoming more open. I know you’re optimistic about the future of Japan, though. Can we overcome these rigidities?

EMMOTT  Japan will always be more rigid than outsiders like me would like it to be. Yet if we’re honest, we do like some of the rigidity. We admire the continuity and tradition in ways of doing things, along with the stable hierarchies and thinking. We have mixed feelings.

I do think that the pressures of green transformation and environmental targets will force some adaptation, some new forms of entrepreneurship. The same is true of digital transformations. There are always counterforces that do encourage change even if it occurs in a constrained, Japanese-style way. I’m confident that change will increase. Foreign critics like me will always express disappointment that it wasn’t even faster, though. [Laughs]

Bill Emmott, right, with Akasaka Kiyotaka, head of the Nippon Communications Foundation. (© Nippon.com)
Bill Emmott, right, with Akasaka Kiyotaka, head of the Nippon Communications Foundation. (© Nippon.com)

INTERVIEWER  Finally, what message would you share with Japan’s young people, who seem more introverted than before?

EMMOTT  My main encouragement for young people is always that they should come out and see the world, whether it’s briefly, for a few weeks or a month, or in a more extended stay, to study at a high school or university. This is the way to learn the best things and bring them back to Japan. The spirit of going out, discovering, and bringing back ideas is something that needs to be rekindled for every generation. Young people need to be encouraged to see that this spirit will be rewarding in their lives. It’s just like the Iwakura Mission 150 years ago. Going out and coming back with something new is something that the young can do much better than the old, and is enriching for their lives.

(Originally written in English based on a July 27, 2023, interview at the Nippon.com office in Tokyo. Interviewer Akasaka Kiyotaka is representative director of the Nippon Communications Foundation. All photos © Nippon.com.)

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