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Dancing Into Exile


Unswerving cyclist
Mar 14, 2002
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Featured on Newsweek, July 2nd, 2001:

Dancing Into Exile

If you窶决e a world-class talent in Japan and want support, move abroad. How the brain drain hurts a nation in need of reform

By Gregory Beals and Kay Itoi

July 2 issue 窶 Ryuichi Sakamoto gazes out the window at the homeland he abandoned more than a decade ago. With his jeans and long hair, he plainly does not belong here, in this staid and proper teahouse on the 41st floor in Tokyo窶冱 Shinjuku district. The other male patrons are dressed in impeccable business suits; the women are in pearls. They all do their best to ignore the intruder, except an elderly woman and a man in a dark blue suit who glare at him in ostentatious distaste.

THEY DON窶儺 RECOGNIZE HIM窶巴ut they ought to. Millions of Japanese music lovers idolize Ryuichi Sakamoto, 49, one of the country窶冱 best-known contemporary composers. Two decades ago he rose to stardom with his technopop trio, Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 1987 he earned an Academy Award with the score he and David Byrne wrote for Bernardo Bertolucci窶冱 窶弋he Last Emperor.窶 Sakamoto remains practically a demigod in the country of his birth窶巴ut New York is where he has lived since 1990. He sips his cappuccino and turns his eyes back to the fogbound city far below. 窶廬 could never stay here,窶 he says softly, almost to himself. 窶弋his society is too conservative for people like me.窶

Sakamoto has plenty of company. Japan窶冱 most celebrated modern-dance troupe, Sankai Juku, is based in Paris. The country窶冱 finest baseball player, Ichiro Suzuki, has moved to Seattle. Thousands of Japan窶冱 most talented and creative individuals are joining the flight into exile窶馬ot only artists and athletes, but scientists and engineers as well. In the past 10 years the number of Japanese who are permanent residents abroad has risen 23 percent to a record level of nearly 900,000. 窶弸oung, talented Japanese are going abroad and discovering the world of individuality,窶 says Ryu Marakami, one of the country窶冱 leading novelists. 窶弋he only things we have to attract them back are sushi and soba.窶

There are important exceptions to the trend: many members of the cultural elite, such as self-portraitist Yasumasa Morimura and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, have remained in their homeland. Nevertheless, Japan窶冱 runaways include some of the country窶冱 best and brightest. They are out of patience with Japan窶冱 leaden conformity, its stultifying bureaucracy and its moribund economy窶蚤nd they have the skills, resources and adaptability they need to leave. The worst of it is that Japan desperately needs all the originality and imagination it can muster to climb out of its decadelong losing streak.

The exodus is part of the vast cultural crisis that is slowly crushing the country. Japan used to be a land of renegades and visionaries, of wild poets, fabulous painters and bold innovators. The industrial titans who built modern Japan in the 1940s and 窶?0s were rebels themselves, men like Soichiro Honda and Konesuke Matsushita. They transformed Japan, turning it into a manufacturing juggernaut and the world窶冱 second largest economy. But the society that arose in their wake became obsessed with manufacturing success, and valued only salarymen. The mind-set persists to this day, but it has become a crippling handicap in the Information aAge. Somehow Japan has to return to its creative roots if it hopes to restart its society and its economy.

The government seems almost oblivious to the problem. The Paris-based dance company Sankai Juku receives generous funding from the French government. The troupe窶冱 founder, Ushio Amagatsu, tries to make sure the company tours its home country once a year, but he sees no way they could ever go home to stay. Sankai Juku gets no funding from the Japanese government and precious little in the form of donations from Japanese companies. The tax structure discourages such grants. 窶弩hen a corporation wants to donate money to art, they have to pay taxes on that money, sometimes as much as 40 percent,窶 says Amagatsu. He mentions a cosmetics company that proudly identifies itself as a supporter of the troupe in advertisements and on the Internet. 窶弋hey provide us materials for makeup,窶 he grumbles. 窶弋hat窶冱 all.窶

Sankai Juku is the rule, not the exception. France allocates a full 1 percent of its national budget to the arts. That窶冱 10 times the share of the budget the arts receive in Japan. Tetsuo Saito, a New Komeito Party representative in Japan窶冱 Diet, says his country can窶冲 afford to keep on being so stingy. 窶弩e cannot stop talented people in arts or sciences from leaving Japan if we don窶冲 provide them with sufficient help.窶 But the economy窶冱 long slump makes the money hard to find.

Meeting basic expenses can be just as challenging for individual artists. Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, 53, has lived in New York since 1970. He goes home four or five times a year, but that窶冱 not where the money is窶俳r the excitement. Most museums there are functioning on drastically reduced budgets. 窶弋hey have almost no money for new acquisitions,窶 says Sugimoto. 窶弋hey have beautiful buildings, but their activities are limited.窶 Besides, he adds, 窶徼hey are very bureaucratic. And I hate that.窶 He credits the generosity of U.S. foundations for giving him his start窶蚤ssistance practically unavailable to young artists in Japan. 窶弩hen you窶决e rich and famous and don窶冲 need cash, then they will give you a grant in Japan.窶 He doesn窶冲 blame young people for getting out, as he did.

The problem is only exacerbated by the natural restlessness of young people. Since Japan makes little effort to attract talent from abroad, the traffic is almost entirely one way. Bright young Japanese can窶冲 help feeling isolated at home. Naoto Otomo, conductor of the Tokyo Symphony, complains that unlike Western Europe and the United States, Japan has few fellowships for which visiting musicians can apply. Most of the foreigners who belong to Japanese orchestras are there only because they happen to have Japanese spouses. As a result, Otomo says, the rest of the world tends to ignore Japanese symphonies despite their high musical quality. And young musicians head for Europe or America, where the action is. 窶弋he Japanese musical scene has an inferiority complex,窶 says Otomo. 窶廾ur society has no pride in us.窶

Pride can be as essential as money. Naoko Shimizu, 32, made her debut as a principal violist for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra early this year. She窶冱 still glowing. 窶廬 was just so happy,窶 she says. 窶廬 played and played.窶 She will have to pass a two-year tryout stint before she can be eligible for a permanent place in the orchestra. She says Berlin offers a kind of satisfaction musicians can窶冲 get in Tokyo or Osaka, her hometown. 窶廣 musician窶冱 status is higher here than it would be in Tokyo,窶 she says. 窶廝eing a musician here is the same as being a doctor or a lawyer. It窶冱 a really respected job.窶 Whatever happens, she窶冱 not looking back. 窶廬 could stay here for my lifetime,窶 she says happily.

The goodbyes can be far more painful for other emigres. Shuji Nakamura says he was practically forced into leaving by the country窶冱 inflexible business culture. As a boy in southern Japan he dreamed of becoming a robotics engineer, inspired by the popular cartoon series 窶廣stro Boy.窶 When he grew up, he went to work as an inventor for the Nichia Corporation in 1979. Two decades later he helped develop the 窶彙lue light窶 laser, a valuable component in DVDs and other electronic gear. Nichia leased the new technology to Pioneer. As a reward for his years of service, Nakamura got $100 for each of the 500 patents he earned in the 1990s. 窶廬 got no promotion,窶 he told NEWSWEEK. 窶弋he company ignored me. Japanese companies are very similar to communist society.窶 Last year he quit and took a job as a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 窶廬n America, I can be recognized for my work.窶

He wasn窶冲 supposed to emigrate. Four years earlier the Diet passed the Basic Law for Science and Technology, allocating more than $150 billion to develop new research facilities and raise university science budgets across Japan. The idea was to stop the brain drain, among other things. It hasn窶冲 worked yet. 窶廬t窶冱 not just money, it窶冱 atmosphere,窶 says Prof. Heisuke Hironaka, 70, president of Yamaguchi University. He spent more than 30 years working and teaching at Harvard. 窶廬 would encourage my best students to go abroad,窶 he says. 窶廬n our universities, people want to be all equal. That means you cannot excel. Maybe that窶冱 good for stability. But its not good for creativity.窶

Japanese artist Mariko Mori agrees enthusiastically. She fell in love with New York as soon as she arrived in 1992. 窶廬 could exist as an individual,窶 she says. 窶廬n Japan, if you do something different, you will damage the social harmony. You are not allowed to be yourself.窶

No expatriate窶冱 departure has caused such a stir as that of Orix Blue Waves outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, probably the best baseball player in Japan. Early this year he defected to the Seattle Mariners. He remains so popular in Japan that the Japanese broadcaster NHK paid to equip Seattle窶冱 Safeco Field for HDTV (high-definition television) transmission, so fans back home could still watch him play. He embodies their own fantasies of fleeing to freedom.

At the same time his move to Seattle was traumatic. Some people imagined it might be only a fluke when Hideo Nomo first left Japan to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. They didn窶冲 guess it was the start of a stampede. That was before Hideki Irabu joined the Yankees (and later the Montreal Expos) and Tsuyoshi Shinjo signed on with the New York Mets.
Losing Japan窶冱 finest player was the last straw. 窶廱apanese professional baseball has already become the minor league of American baseball,窶 says Japan sports journalist Masaru Ogawa. 窶廴ajor League Baseball offers Japanese players an opportunity to test their abilities in a truly great environment窶杷rom bigger, cooler locker rooms and better ballparks to wonderful training staffs and money.窶 Suzuki窶冱 three-year contract is worth $15 million. But Shinjo actually took a pay cut to be in New York. It窶冱 not just the money, it窶冱 the chance to play with the best competitors in the world.

In effect, Japan will need another social revolution to recapture its creative edge. It won窶冲 be easy. Millions of Japanese have grown very comfortable in their orderly, predictable little world. But it窶冱 no place for the kind of people who made the country great: the risk takers and rule breakers. Until their exodus ends, Japan窶冱 culture will slide downward along with its economy.

With Richard Ernsberger Jr.

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