I spent three days with Japanese junior high school students this week. We were bussed to a remote government-owned campsite three hours away from Tokyo presumably to teach them English. We were told to create “an English-only environment”. Yet the organisers insisted on translating everything we said into Japanese. They clearly didn’t believe that Japanese children could learn English in English. Perhaps they didn’t want the children to feel lost. Still, apart from giving them the impression that it is alright to need translations into Japanese all the time, the organisers, whether deliberately or not, gave the impression that only foreigners ought to speak good English. But this post is not about how they are depriving their children of a real opportunity to learn English. Something disturbed me more: None of the children ever asked ‘Why?’ to anything I said.
The Japan That Cannot Ask ‘Why?’
The Japanese have words for ‘Why’ that come in the form of ‘doushite’ and ‘naze’. I did hear them asking their friends those, but I didn’t hear them using those on us nor their teachers. It is telling how they did not ask ‘Why’. If it was an important enough question to them, they would have asked.
On the surface, Japanese children appear to be the epitome of discipline. They finish every grain in their rice bowls and every nugget of kara’age before asking for seconds. They wipe their tables after meals without being prompted. Yet they are like children from anywhere else – they goof around, they tease their friends, and they are as rowdy as children can get. They are naturally inquisitive. But they seldom, if ever, ask us English ‘Captains’ or their teachers – people with authority (or seniority) – the question ‘Why’. And they never say “No”.
‘Why’ is a chance to say “Yes I agree” or “No, I do not agree”. More importantly, it is an opportunity to understand: “No, I do not yet agree but let me hear what you have to say and I might agree.” People with authority hate a challenge. They want to hear “Yes”. Or maybe ‘How’. ‘How’ has always been more popular with autocrats – “How do we transplant western technologies here?”; “How do they do it?” ‘How’ is safe and does not upset the autocrat because all ‘How’ does is to allow the autocrat to get his way, but better. ‘Why’ is more dangerous, and thus more feared by autocrats because it gives birth to dissent.
The Age of Why
But dissent also gives birth to creativity. The inability to automatically ask people with authority ‘Why’ has crippled the Japanese economy. The Industrial Age is long over; the new Information Age is here (the Information Age arguably started in 1440 when Gutenburg’s presses made mass book production possible in Europe) , and has been for some decades now. ‘How’ worked for Sony – “How do we shrink a boombox?” (The Walkman). ‘How’ worked for the shinkansen – ‘How do we get there faster?’ ‘How’ is the reason for Japan’s success in the 1960s and 70s, and for its continued leadership in retail and hardware – ‘How do we entice customers with our shopfront displays?’; “How do we make the Prius go further on less?” ‘How’ remains an important question, but today ‘Why’ is even more so. By upsetting the status quo, ‘Why’ creates new possibilities. “Why has it always been done this way?” “Why do people behave they way they do?” “Why not?”
Adobe surveyed 5,000 Japanese, Americans, British, Germans, and French last year for their ‘State of Create’ study. They found that the British, Germans and French all believed that “Japan is the most creative country”. Yet the Japanese themselves said that the US was the most creative, not Japan (the Americans confidently said they themselves were most creative). The survey findings are consistent with what I hear: That the Japanese are creative in spite of their education system and their social norms, not because of them. Over and over the refrain I hear has been “No, I’m not creative. We are not creative”.
Looking at anime and manga, painted manhole covers, Japanese gardens, and Tokyo’s wacky cafes, visitors to Japan would conclude the opposite. But an overwhelming majority of Japanese (78% compared to a 28% average in the US, UK, Germany & France) said “Being creative is still reserved for the arts community”. More than half also said, “Being creative is reserved for an elite community”. ‘Why’ is for them a question reserved for superiors, or for artists producing work that does not upset the political or social status quo.
After the asset price bubbles of 1989 and 1990, Japan recognised the need for creativity, but it has failed to see how ‘Why’ precedes creativity. The lack of ‘Why’ is why Japan did not become Number One.
Can Singaporeans Ask Why?
Japan’s failure (so far) is Singapore’s warning. Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan Jin recently said:
It is the choices that we make that shape our society. No society is perfect, including ours. However, I see a lot of heart and a tremendous amount of soul in our people. I see that in many of you here, in what you do. We should not short-change ourselves. We shouldn’t run ourselves down. I know many are unhappy with things as they are, they can always be better. The key thing is, what can we do about it?
He says we can volunteer. We can distribute lunches to the poor (See Lynn Lee’s post on what else Singaporeans have already been doing). He says we can join the government, the army, the civil defence forces.
Apparently asking questions and getting involved in the political process is not a priority for the Minister. ‘Why’ is not one of the things we are supposed to ask. Yet ‘Why’ is the question that will create a better Singapore: “Why do we have to pursue economic growth at any cost”? “Why do not treat our migrant workers better?” “Why do we not have a more forgiving society?”
‘How’ has served Singapore well. “How can we can catch up?” has given Singapore its glittering skyline, its efficient ports, and 48 years of high-speed economic development. But ‘How’ eventually loses its lustre for economic development. At the apex, ‘How’ stops becoming useful. Singapore ought to heed Japan’s cautionary tale.
What we can do now is to ask “Why?”