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Three Lessons Africa Could Learn from Japan

The experience of Japan in economic modernization reveals that it successfully pursued three strategies: diversification, domestication, and indigenization. What are the lessons from this for Africa?

One of the first official acts of the Meiji leaders was to proclaim in April 1868 that knowledge shall be sought throughout the world. By so doing, they effectively put in place the principle of learning from more than one place—the strategy of diversification. Subsequently, the Japanese absorbed Western skills and adapted Western institutions; they borrowed ideas from as many and diverse sources as possible. Meiji Japan used two avenues for doing so. One was through attracting expatriate workers and enthusiastically welcoming them to the country and utilizing their expertise for laying down the necessary infrastructure of modernization. There was also the “expedition of practical observers” which Japan sent abroad to bring home relevant skills. The two avenues made a net brain-gain possible for Japan.

Africa’s experience was quite different. The brain-drain was the name of the game as a result of slavery, colonialism and even post-colonialism.

But there is another dimension of Africa’s predicament that must be explained. Why do Africans appear to be less efficient learners than the Japanese? We can refer to a scene from Ali Mazrui’s famous TV documentary, “The Africans,” to illustrate this point. Holding in his hand a crude home-made gun which the liberation fighters in East Africa had used in the 1950s, Mazrui said: “At one level [the crude home-made gun] is a tribute even in its crudity, a tribute to the self-reliance of African fighters under pressure. But at another level, the weapon is an indictment of the shallowness of the Western technological impact upon Africa. Africans have been buying guns from the West going all the way back to the days of the slave trade. And yet, in 200 years, this is all we can do in terms of making weapons.”

In this respect, Japan’s experience was quite different. As Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Japan’s modern education, chronicled in his Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa in 1899: “It was not until 1853 that a steamship was seen for the first time [in Japan]; it was only in 1855 that we began to study navigation; by 1860, the science was sufficiently understood to enable us to sail a ship across to the Pacific. This means that about seven years after the first sight of a steamship, after only about five years of practice, the Japanese people made a trans-Pacific crossing without help from foreign experts.”

Does the fact that Japan has been a literate society for more than a thousand years, while Africa has not, explains the apparent gap in the psychology of motivation between the two? We can only speculate.

The second successful economic modernization strategy of Japan was domestication. It simply refers to the process of making foreign products, institutions and ideas more relevant or more useful to local needs. What earned three Japanese citizens the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2014 was not the invention of a new product but the modification of an existing one. They modified a red and green light-emitting diode and created the more efficient blue light-emitting diode. In this way, the Japanese modified imported products, ideas, and institutions, and adapted them to local conditions. From their point of view, it was irrelevant whether what was modified had any resemblance to the original so long as it is viable and serves to achieve a goal.

When it comes to the strategy of domestication, too, Africa’s experience was quite different. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Europe imposed new systems of ideas and institutions on Africa, often arbitrarily. In Japan, however, they were the result of a conscious attempt to import and modify what was foreign. Put simply, Africans did not have a say in the process of selecting which ideas and institutions to import.

This brings us to the last strategy Japan pursued, indigenization. This entailed the fuller use of cultural, human and material resources that are domestically available. In order to modernize Japan’s leaders never sought to change their culture in a fundamental way. If there was change, it was only incremental, often with some kind of linkage between the old and the new. For almost every modern institution in Japan today, the Japanese seem to have a theory as to how it was presumably connected to some traditional institution. In short, the Japanese idealized what was indigenous.

Once again Africa’s experience was quite different. Indigenous knowledge was seriously marginalized. This proved to be the case whether it was knowledge about how rain was formed or plants grew, or how diseases were cured. Africa’s postcolonial modernizers often sought to transform traditional culture in a fundamental way, seeking to achieve modernity by means of a quantum leap. In the end, the old was badly dismantled but the new was not in place.

The Japanese integrated traditional values to modern ideas. They fused indigenous authenticity with universal rationalism.

Foreigners (mostly, Westerners) were therefore often puzzled by how Japan managed to be “a high-tech feudal state.” In fact, it was not only foreigners. A well-known Japanese scholar had as well once marveled that his country was filled with “a strange wonder, at once ancient and new.” But, in general, the Japanese themselves never entertained any doubt that they could be modern and traditional at the same time. They resisted the spread of Western values in their society. They nevertheless selectively borrowed (Western) technics and anchored them in their traditions. In other words, they struck the right balance.

To sum up, Africa should examine the Japanese experience to learn about what to learn, about how to learn, and about how to learn fast, with a focus on the strategies of diversification, domestication, and indigenization. These are, in my view, the three historical lessons Africa could learn from Japan.

This article is adapted from a lecture originally delivered in Japan earlier this year.