Ahmed Zuwail, Nobel laureate for chemistry for 1999, said to me that “It is the matter of the human being and the place.” Our discussion was about the dichotomy of humans and development. Then Dr Zuwail narrated this short story: He was on a visit to Malaysia and he met Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad. The latter explained to him his vision of human beings and the economy based upon his experience.
He said, 'It has become impossible to redesign our country without replanning the society. It was imperative that we put a limit to social disparity and religious and ethnic differences. It was also imperative that the Malaysian ethnicities feel equality in a civilised country that works for the good of all its citizens. It was so essential that everybody is filled with the power of hope. The objective behind the decision to construct the Petronas Towers, the highest skyscraper in the world at the time, was that every Malaysian could be certain that we are dead serious in starting out. Our ultimate goal was that Malaysians don’t look downwards to the conflict between ethnicities and religions, but look upwards to this towering height where hope lies. The objective wasn’t that the Malaysian building reach the sky, but that Malaysians thought to arrive there.'
I remembered this discussion with the Nobel laureate more than once on my visit to Japan. This is precisely what Japan had done before. For after its horrendous World War II defeat, and after Tokyo was ruined, Hiroshima and Nagasaki wiped out, Kyoto and Osaka perturbed and the whole of Japan was shaken by the quake of defeat, it wasn’t possible to restore Japan without restoring the Japanese.
Japan succeeded in psychology and sociology before moving to physics and mathematics. The Japanese education system, “Tukatsu,” contributed greatly in creating the “good human being” among the new Japanese. The political and economic elite had to overcome defeat and move towards building the values of work and peace.
Japan has almost no natural resources. It even faces what we can call “antagonistic geophysics.” That’s where a raging nature is continuously active, in storms, quakes and volcanoes. The Japanese are Japan. The Japanese Empire isn't made of towers or the Bullet Train. It is not Sony or Toyota corporations. It isn’t Kodak cameras, or artificial intelligence. It is – according to the Japanese elite – the building of skills and values.
When I visited Kyoto, the old capital and touristic destination, I was accompanied by a factory owner to where skilled labourers work. They were making fantastic masterpieces with their own hands. The worker may toil for several years to produce just one artistic piece. While I was watching the workers focusing on their work, I saw an elderly man working as if he didn’t see us. I inquired about him. The factory owner said that he had worked there for years and was very distinguished. He was over 75 years old. However, he works like a 25-year-old youth.
Life doesn’t end at 60 and most the taxi drivers I saw in Hiroshima are elderly people. The numbers of the elderly who are more than 100 years old are half a million. The Japanese don’t succumb to old age. Even at 80 or 90 many of them walk around during their daily lives unsupported. The elderly accompany their friends and cross the streets as if they were high school classmates. The will to live among the Japanese should be inspiring to others around the world.
Japan doesn’t work on a daily basis. Peripheral issues don’t dominate the elite’s vision, but the visions themselves and their totalities. They are based on the “existent” and the available. Politics is the art of the possible and Japan is the country of the “possible.” It makes from small things big dreams.
When many schools were destroyed as a result of the war, the phenomenon of the “blue sky classes” emerged where pupils were taught on streets using a simple easel. I was surprised when I visited the digital museum in Odaiba Island, Tokyo, that it is an artificial island built out of massive landfills and unwanted objects.
I met officials responsible for organising the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics who informed me that many tracks will be dismantled after the Olympics ends. There is a Japanese term that’s so expressive: “Mottainai,” which conveys a sense of regret concerning waste. It is regret to leave, regret to waste; you should benefit as much as possible.
In the old capital, Kyoto, I visited the OKA Bokkodo Co Ltd for conservation and restoration of national treasures. I watched the owner, Mr Iwataro Yasuhiro Oka, he way, his tools and his team. The gum used in conservation is fermented for more than a decade. Those engaged work with every “nanometer” of the painting with the utmost diligence. Persistence, fortitude, accuracy and surefootedness are all part of restoring the human values the Japanese embraced following World War II.
Japan is a capitalist country, but it isn’t capitalist socially. Fame doesn’t mean much. Being rich doesn’t place someone in a high stature. Someone’s prestigious status is attained through work, which he performs in serving the institution and society. The respectable people are those who are useful, not the rich or the famous. Fortunately, Japanese media works for entrenching and protecting these values.
Japan is not free of challenges in the face of the third and fourth industrial revolutions. However, Japan perceives its new challenges, as it did its previous ones. Yes, Japan kneeled in surrender before America's General MacArthur. It was a destroyed country without hope. But years later, the human being and the economy revived, the state returned stronger than before.
Now, after three quarters of a century, when Japan has become the third largest economy in the world, Tokyo has started to build its first aircraft carrier since World War II. Thus, once again, comes a power the title of the famous book written by Sony founder Akio Morita described: The Japan That Can Say No.