Italy and Japan: Troubled Twins of Globalization

By Joji Sakurai

It might seem odd but two inward-looking countries from old Europe and the Pacific, troubled twins with such strong cultures, offer insights into the future of globalization: Italy has campanilismo, or loyalty to the village bell-tower. The Japanese talk about takotsubo-ka, being caught in the clay pot that traps octopus. Japan is the world's third largest economy and Italy is ninth - though both have slipped in recent years. Both attract millions of visitors each year and sell their products around the world, yet remain stuck in a mindset that is fundamentally provincial.

Provincialism. Insularity. They may seem like bad words, but any visitor to these countries senses that fierce attachment to culture is part of what make Italy and Japan attractive. Visitors strolling into any village in either country, who ask for the local speciality, are treated to unforgettable delights. Both countries have an astonishing array of living dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to people from other parts of the country.

Provincialism can just be a snooty way of saying cultural vibrancy, but it can also be an economic shackle.

Japan and Italy are major developed economies that are struggling mightily with the trade-offs between preserving a way of life and adopting reforms - such as inviting foreign workers, promoting free competition and liberalizing labor - that could allow them to succeed in a globalized world.

An insular approach to life offers insights into shared problems. A strong sense of community in both countries, so often admirable, encourages a climate of vested interests that can paralyze politics. Social factors - including respect for elders, expectations of mothers, narrow-minded workplace attitudes - explain the inability of both nations to produce enough babies. A low fertility rate - 1.4 births per woman - is the single biggest threat to both economies today.

Central to both cultures is a quest for perfection, rooted in insular guilds or trade associations, that illuminates strengths as well as frailties in the countries' economies. Suspicion of outsiders combined with fixation on how others perceive them - Italy's bella figura and Japan's mentsu, keeping face - are two sides of the same coin and inform the challenges both nations grapple with in an age of globalization.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Italian Premier Matteo Renzi have struck bold paths of reform and need every encouragement to succeed. In Japan, Abe has just unleashed his "third arrow" of structural reform after startling the world by battling deflation with his first two arrows. Renzi is tackling Italy's legislative paralysis with plans to overhaul parliament. But both Japan and Italy have seen false dawns in recent decades, with previous reformers brought down by cultures of vested interest at the center of provincial life.

History and geography play a role in both countries' insular inclinations.

If France is a solid hexagon in which power radiates naturally from Paris, Japan and Italy are long and narrow, jutting southward, one tilted west and the other east, near mirror-images with mountain ranges cutting down the center, fostering communities that develop in isolation. Both are protected from outsiders, and made vulnerable to them, by water - informing paradoxical attitudes to the wider world. Both largely define themselves by centuries of warring among tiny states, historical periods filled with intrigue, heroism and ghastly score-settling before traumatic unification.

Modern history, too, sheds light on the countries' current predicaments.

It's no coincidence that Italy and Japan have such high national debt - in Japan, government debt owed per person is about $90,000; for Italy, it's $46,000 - for addiction to deficit spending is embedded in their post-war experiences: Both have been command economies that enjoyed growth miracles overseen by political juggernauts - Italy's Christian Democrats, Japan's Liberal Democratic Party - fostered by a United States eager for stability in former enemies seen as susceptible to communism. In such a climate, both nations prospered in environments of provincial patronage and corruption, in which the mob - Japan's Yakuza, Italy's Cosa Nostra - often was a hidden government partner.

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Joji Sakurai is a veteran journalist who has reported from Japan, Italy, North Korea, Mongolia, China, France, Britain and Brazil. He covered Japan's 2011 tsunami crisis and last year's historic papal transition in Rome. He graduated from Oxford University with a First in Modern Languages, specializing in French and Italian. © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

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