‘Galapagos-thinking’ – The Island Mentality of Japan

There are expressions that buzz like busy little bees and ones that don’t buzz anymore. One of the dead-bee buzzwords in Japan is shimaguni konjo, meaning "island mentality." As for a buzzword for 2011, you’d be hard put to find one more busily doing the rounds than garapagosu, which references the Galapagos Islands that lie nearly 1,000 km out in the Pacific off the coast of Ecuador.

In their Japanese context, shimaguni konjo and garapagosu have more in common than merely their connection with islands.

I heard "shimaguni konjo" bandied about a lot after arriving in Japan in 1967. Why are the Japanese often so standoffish when it comes to strangers? "The island mentality." Why aren’t Japanese good at foreign languages? "Island mentality." I wondered then if this was being trotted out as an explanation for the way Japanese people were — or as an excuse for the way they weren’t.

The same question has occurred to me recently upon hearing, with greater and greater frequency, the "explanation" of Japanese culture being garapagosuka ("galapagosized"). Is this new phrase just another excuse for Japanese people to close their eyes to their own shortcomings by maintaining instead a very old nostalgia about being isolated and "special"?

The Galapagos Islands comprise a biosphere reserve for a unique array of animal life. Visited by Charles Darwin in 1835, they played a major role in the formulation of his theory of evolution. Similarly, as used in Japanese today, this buzzword indicates that many Japanese products come out of a culture of isolation.

Yoshikazu Shimizu, chairman of the Japan Galapagos Society, calls the Galapagos Islands "a laboratory of evolution" where evolution took place in "a closed system." Does Japan really represent such a closed system in our day and age?

Let’s refine this notion of galloping isolation before making a judgment on it.

Read the rest of the story: Is ‘Galapagos-thinking’ Japan back at its evolutionary dead end? | The Japan Times Online.

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