Friday 2 December 2011

The Importance of Context

I know I’ve harped on about this before, but it really is so essential. The prior experiences you bring to any situation inevitably colour your understanding. And as I’ve also said before, that’s good and necessary. That’s sometimes called learning, and it would be nice if more people did it. It would also be nice if more people realized the limitations of their understanding; that their prior experiences aren’t necessarily shared by other people. Take, for example, this oft-quoted trope I regularly hear from otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people –

“Japan is a small country.”

No. No it fucking isn’t.

Lichtenstein, that’s a small country. Tonga, Tuvalu, Trinidad and Tobago. These are all small countries. Japan is pretty sodding unsmall, just about any way you care to slice it:

10th most populous – The same population as France and the UK combined.
62nd largest land area – In the top 35%, so larger than most. Larger than every European country except France, Spain and Sweden.
12th most developed – Comfortably higher than most of Europe, including good old Blighty.
5th highest military expenditure – Higher than the lefty peaceniks in Pakistan, Egypt and Israel.
3rd biggest economy – Smaller than only the US, and recently China.

This last one is the key. Not so much for the relative figure, but who it’s relative to. If we ignore the Koreas (and most people do), then Japan’s nearest neighbours are China and Russia, which top two of those categories. And Japan’s most important diplomatic relationship is with the USA, which tops most of the others.

Japan’s most readily available points of international comparison are the biggest, strongest countries around. Frankly any country is going to feel underpowered and insecure when measured against them. So Japan builds itself an identity as the plucky little underdog, the little train that could, constantly punching above its meagre weight when in reality it’s anything but. Whatever the obverse of a big fish in a small pond is, that’s Japan.

Not this. Also pictured: dinner

Every country builds national myths about itself, and without exception these myths contain a significant amount of bullshit. England has these notions of the Stiff Upper Lip and Fair Play, when we owe most of whatever clout we have left on the world stage to a couple of centuries of royally fucking over anywhere inhabited by people with darker skin than us, simply because we could.

And so it is with Japan’s ‘Small Country’ myth. In a way it’s a brilliant piece of expectation management, as any achievement can be touted as a magnificent overcoming of the odds, when frankly it's exactly what any sensible analysis would lead you to expect should happen. If anything, you’d expect better, but so many people have bought into this inferiority myth that there’s little pressure, little incentive for Japan’s leaders to step up their game.

Understanding your limitations is good, it means you can play to your strengths. But imposing unnecessary constraints on yourself definitely isn’t. Learning the wrong things does nobody any good at all.

(Beating off virtually no competition whatsoever, this was my most commented on post of 2011, so got itself entered in the 2011 Special j-festa over at japingu)

Credit where it's due.


  1. "when we owe most of whatever clout we have left on the world stage to a couple of centuries of royally fucking over anywhere inhabited by people with darker skin than us, simply because we could."

    One of the most honest assessments of England I have ever read.

    I resubmit "Brilliant"!!

  2. Thank you both.

    Without wishing to seem ungrateful though, I do wish Ant could have waited one minute more before posting his comment. Symmetry and all.

    There's been a lot of good and valuable things to have come out of England. Any country which can produce Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin must have something going for it. But at the same time it's pointless to pretend we amassed an empire covering a quarter of the globe simply by asking nicely.

    "I say Old Bean, would you mind awfully if we subjugated you for a few generations? No? Splendid! Tiffin for all!"

  3. "Symmetry and all." Hey, I can barely organize coffee some mornings.

    There's something about the English language for certain. My theory is that because it's so easy to sound like an ass in it, you cannot hide poor ideas behind rhetoric (although plenty of modern hucksters do). When I've read German philosophy, French dramas or Italian poetry in translation I often come to the same conclusion: what's the big deal? Philistinism alert: Kant, Molière and Dante took in a lot of their countrymen with rhetoric, not content.

    If you write a good poem in a Romance language: yawn. If you're Milton or Auden doing it in English: I am not worthy.

  4. No no no....stand where you were. Don't clarify or otherwise dampen a well put comment on the spoils of war or what gets them...the spoils I mean.

    Oh fukit!! Gimmie your "English persons membership card" you lost it forever!!!! You have been reported to her majesties.. people.. who um... take care of the folks like you.

  5. "English persons membership card"

    My passport, you mean?

    You didn't like the biting satire of 'asking nicely' then? Let's try this then. As Ant alluded to, those 'spoils of war' include, ultimately, the rise of English as the dominant global language. So yes, countless millions needlessly suffered under the jackboot of imperial oppression, but at least we got our jobs out if it, eh?

  6. An American and a Canadian post on a Brit's blog (got that right?)...

    Someone needs to do something with that.

  7. Three men walk into a bar...

  8. Don't forget scones. They are good and come from England. If I had to pick between scones or Shakespeare, I'd totally pick scones.

    And Japan should stop being sooky little bitches about being a small country. At least they don't have a whooping great useless desert in the middle of it!

  9. Scone's from England? Even that's not without controversy -

    1. how about warm beer? that should be without controversy says the convict from the penal colony. ^^

      on a more serious note, this post has some interesting facts to give some needed perspective. i never really thought about it sliced and diced like that.

    2. Now you see, this is another one of those misconceptions stemming from a distorted frame of reference.

      It's not warm, it's room temperature. I can see how an Aussie such as yourself would get confused, what with living in a country located 3/4 of a mile from the surface of the sun, but believe me when I say that in England 'room temperature' and 'warm' really aren't synonymous...

  10. Anonymous, Japanese talk trash about Nagoya.

    True about country size. My native Canada is HUGE... except almost nothing's in most of it but trees or tundra. Populated Canada is linear: 100km either side of a crooked line from Victoria to Halifax includes 90% of us (and we still can't get one decent rail line).

  11. I am trying hard to think up good things England has given us, but with even scones being controversial, I am kind of lost.

  12. Hmmm, much as I usually enjoy and endorse tangents, I suspect this thread has got derailed somewhat. Japan has an unrealistic complex about its size, people! It all started so well...

    Welcome to the new guys though. Your comments are genuinely appreciated, regardless of tangents. I might give us all a more appropriate playground for bashing the Mother Country in the near future.

    Just to round out the total diversion of these comments, Ant, chrome's giving me a malware warning about your site, just so you know. spacingtoronto(dot)ca's a wrong 'un, apparently.