Modern Orientalism in Business Reports on Japan

One of my good friends, Kiki, brought to my attention this article by Richard Morgan for Fortune magazine about a startup incubator in Fukuoka called Fukuoka Growth Next.

The incubator sounds interesting, has a cool website, and appears to host interesting meetups. What Richard Morgan did, however, was to decide to add a thick, unwanted layer of Orientalist gloss into what otherwise would have been a pretty interesting puff piece about Japanese startup culture.

The article starts off with the customary horror story about Japan’s Marunouchi men:

Despite behemoth native power players including Honda, Mitsubishi, Nintendo, SoftBank, Sony, and Toyota, its corporate salaryman circles are full of squares, by design. Nearly every member of the Japanese workforce is a de facto senior vice president of rules and regulations. Japan’s national sport is protocol.

Is Japan’s national sport protocol? I thought it was baseball. And is it really fair to generalize every member of the Japanese workforce, from part-time convenience store housewives, expatriate English-language teachers, NGO co-founders, gay bartenders, to cross-dressing theater troupe members “de factor senior vice presidents of rules and regulations”? As an aside, I know more Japanese friends who want to avoid corporate Japan, rather than to actively seek to be a part of it. But that’s beside the point.

Facebook is now an Evil Force in 2019, but Richard Morgan wants to tell us that Japanese startup culture is nothing like the bros in Silicon Valley. He says that people in the Far East don’t want to break things, because it’s part and parcel of the culture:

But what if the lack of Silicon Valley-style disruption is a cultural asset? Consider the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired by filling the hibi, or cracks, with gold. What if “move fast and break things” — the early Facebook motto adopted by brogrammers everywhere — isn’t lost in translation as much as it’s discarded in translation? Why break when you can beautify?

I’m not trained well enough about business to say whether “move fast and break things” is a thing in Japan. When I discussed this article with Kiki, I brought up a Financial Times feature on cashless technology in Japan, which I thought had a much lighter dose of gloom and doom about the pitfalls of Japanese business culture. (I was wrong.)

In any case, Morgan later contradicts his own self-professed prowess on Japanese pottery by also saying that in Fukuoka there are

Large populations of American, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Korean, Nepalese, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese immigrants were bolstered by relaxed labor laws in March.

It’s great that Fukuoka is welcoming immigrants from all over the world as it reinvents itself as a regional tech hub. But surely these immigrants (who are hopefully integrating and being treated well) move to Fukuoka ostensibly because of the opportunities there, and not because entrepreneurs spend their waking hours daydreaming about strained analogies between traditional craft and, well, actual entrepreneurship?

The more I continue to read Watson’s article, the more I believe that he went to Fukuoka with a set of rose-tinted weeabo lenses. He literally describes his main interviewee like this:

Yuichiro Uchida, FGN’s executive director, throws his arms into a human emoticon: ¯()/¯.

I think Uchida is trying to explain that Fukuoka has a creator-friendly environment (as all tech hubs should, presumably?). So of course it should welcome people from all backgrounds. But Watson decides to unnecessarily contextualize a quote from Uchida in a heaping pile of bushido shit, as if Uchida’s spirit is inherently linked to the souls of the samurai of generations past, whose musings about the solitude of the tea ceremony will become key to Fukuoka’s future:

His is a train of thought born of wabisabi, the Japanese notion that imperfection is often better than perfection. As Tomita puts it: “I value diversity. You can’t embrace diversity and expect perfection.”

What the flying fuck has whatever Uchida said got to do with wabi and sabi?

In 2011, Saturday Night Life satirized Americans fans of anime in a segment called “J-Pop America Fun Time Now.” Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer put on a hyperactive display of affection for Japanese culture as two Michigan State college students with their own show on the campus television network. They woo, pretend to be shy, and in one episode, accept “a very Japanese figure of Yao Ming” from the empress of the Hello Kitty Appreciation Club (played by Katy Perry). (I also wrote about this sketch while in college in 2016.) The crux of this very ambitious, very funny skit was to show how certain fans of Japanese culture exoticize what they profess to love.

So life imitates art. Perhaps Watson really wanted to show Fukuoka’s new face for the upcoming decade. I don’t question his intentions, but I do question his method. I’m sad to see that for a business report on Japanese startup culture to get clicks, Fortune magazine’s editors had to resort to approving these awful orientalist stereotypes about the Japanese mind.