Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Thoughts on Japan’s “uchimuki” generation

I feel like I’ve been hearing a similar story for close to a decade now about Japanese youth. It goes something like this: they’re much more risk-averse than their parents’ generation, and they have a diminished interest in the world outside of Japan. The word uchimuki (inward-looking) comes up again and again. And their timid attitudes are being blamed for all kinds of problems in Japanese society.

Reading Chris Burgess’ recent Japan Times article on this subject and Hiroko Tabuchi’s longer piece from last year in the NYT, though, I realized that some of my suspicions might be correct: it isn’t necessarily that Japanese youth are inward-looking or risk-averse. It’s that potential Japanese employers are wary of hiring new employees who’ve spent time abroad.

During my first years as a teacher in Japan, in the early 2000s, I can remember hearing from numerous students on a regular basis that experience overseas was key to career advancement. And regardless of their careers, plenty of them just wanted to do it. But as the graphs seem to indicate, there’s been a noticeable decline in the number of Japanese students studying abroad, from a peak of over 80,000 in 2004 to under 60,000 in 2010. And that seems to be at least partially due to Japanese companies’ less-than-welcoming attitude toward new employees who’ve studied abroad.

It’s incredibly frustrating to read Burgess’ and Tabuchi’s articles and realize that so many Japanese businesses appear to be stuck in an endlessly inward-looking rut. The qualities that these companies seem wary of–creative thinking, taking initiative, asking questions, worldly thinking–are qualities that any other company would seek out. And they HAVE been seeking them out–where Japanese companies have been openly discouraging applicants with overseas experience, foreign companies are a lot more interested in hiring.

I can see this inward-looking company mindset in Japan’s English language education industry, in a practice that I like to call “English-ing” (currently writing a really lengthy piece on that one that I hope I’ll finish someday). In a nutshell, “English-ing” can be defined as the common practice of appearing to teach English–in conversation schools, in elementary schools, in universities–but in fact giving students a series of highly structured interactions with “natives” that do little to move them toward fluency. Instead of communicating, students in these institutions “practice English conversation” in the same way one might study algebra.

English-ing has essentially turned language study in Japan into an abstraction. From a very young age, everything about English is othered–the people who speak it, its unfamiliar grammar, the places it’s used, the cultures that are connected to it. It is utterly foreign. It causes the majority of people who try to speak it in Japan to break out in a sweat, desperately uttering some version of “I can’t speak English,” a phrase that has long since become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is presented not as an avenue of communication but as a contrived series of exercises, lists, and exchanges that have no practical use beyond the novelty of interacting with people who are frequently presented–on TV shows, in the news, even in language textbooks–as a different species.

English-ing as both a teaching and learning style is a multi-billion yen industry in Japan.  The question of why it continues to dominate when it has so obviously failed to produce fluent English speakers is difficult to answer.  But its influence is everywhere, especially in these companies who apparently want their new employees to have English skills but not be internationally minded. I’m reminded of students I encountered who studied voraciously but told me they would never go to the U.S. because it was “too dangerous.” Or the man who was one of my best students but told me, with a smile on his face, that he could never accept the idea of his daughter marrying a non-Japanese man. Or the students who bought endless books full of lists of idioms and phrasal verbs and could rattle off their meanings to me in alphabetical order, but who could barely have a conversation. Or the students who saw me and other native English speakers as exotic novelties, and who could never comprehend the idea of having a non-Japanese friend.

This is the kind of English skill that certain uchimuki Japanese companies want. They want employees who can rattle off a few English words here and there but who’ve never ventured beyond Guam or Hawaii. They believe that it’s possible to become fluent in a language while remaining utterly divorced from its culture. They want rudimentary verbiage, but without any of the critical or creative thinking that often accompanies foreign language study and time spent abroad.

I sincerely hope Japan is reaching a tipping point when it comes to this inward-looking philosophy. I really want to tell my students to go out into the world, to not just learn English but to take risks, screw up, and acquire all kinds of crazy ideas that they might not be exposed to at home. But as long as the companies at home that many of them still want to work for continue to view their overseas experiences as baggage rather than assets, I don’t blame them for being a little uchimuki. Better to look inward when your head gets smacked down every time you try to look too far afield.


3 comments on “Thoughts on Japan’s “uchimuki” generation

  1. Mike
    June 24, 2013

    I’m of multiple minds on this one. Is having an expanded perspective on the world beneficial to society as a whole? Absolutely. But if a company has a fixed way of doing things that has proven successful, and employees of a certain mindset muddle that system, what is their incentive for hiring such individuals? We can argue that in the long run such fixed companies are doomed to be left behind by faster adapters, but that’s purely speculative prediction, and assumes that dinosaurs will never adapt in the slightest, which is never true. You can’t make Sony or Hitachi hire people to work in an environment that will not suit them. Rather, what we need to promote is more entrepreneurial start-ups, where open thinking is a requirement. While one of these might, on the off chance, become the next Sony, more likely they will be bought up by a Sony-level company once they prove viable, and thus the larger company essentially absorbs its adaptation. The tipping point you seek will only come when the entire Japanese system of big business is proven untenable, which will be twenty years from now at least, or when start-up absorption proves itself the deciding factor among major corporations, which, with the increasing pace of DIY-able technology, could come sooner. But the trick will not be to get hired by Sony or Hitachi, which will still want monoculture in their core corporate boxes, but to work with your friends out of uni to start that company that Sony or Hitachi will eat. The problem, of course, is that most Japanese universities don’t prepare students to do anything in particular–so they just wait to get hired rather than going out to create business for themselves. And those going overseas may come back with great ideas–but by and large, they come back alone. As the isolated ill-fitting cogs, they are not going to get anywhere. Rather, creatives need to to network and prove themselves an economically viable force if they want anything to change.

  2. gradland
    June 25, 2013

    Really great points, Mike. Definitely agree that so much more than Japanese corporate culture has to change before we’ll see a change in attitudes toward potential hires who’ve spent time abroad. I *do* feel like we’re reaching a tipping point of sorts if only because some companies seem to finally be realizing that a system that served them well for a while is quickly becoming obsolete, and that new blood and new ideas have the potential to turn floundering companies around. Yeah, it’s going to take a long time, but I really hope that one element of all this (university education, attitudes toward English and foreign culture, corporate culture) will gradually start to change in a way that will push some of the other elements toward change as well.

  3. Tiffany
    March 9, 2015

    I could think of a few economic backgrounds behind it. First, recruitment and applications start more than a year before graduation. Missing the timing due to studying abroad could cost students a lot of job opportunities. Second, companies offer new graduates the best conditions in terms of job security as well as social security after retirement. Missing the timing can be very costly in the long run as well. Third, companies provide on-the-job training to develop knowledge and skills for employees to learn. Forth, under the current economy, probably less individuals can afford studying abroad. Fifth, the current globalization programs in the universities are certainly bright sides, but am a bit concerned about the budges security because they rely on the national budges that are in increasing dept.

    Another bright side is that companies are sending out their employees for developing businesses in other countries. Out of necessity and employees would deal with day-to-day experiences of collaborating with other cultures. I also hear that foreign students are applying to and interviewing eagerly with Japanese companies.

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2013 by in Japan and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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