Cultural Attitudes Toward Language (and Learning Spanish)

James Fallows, on the French/Japanese vs. American/Chinese attitude toward purity of language and foreigners' trying to speak their local tongue:

in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  … Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean…" (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity — and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants.

Excellent point. Spanish is closer to English and Chinese in this respect, I think. Getting the meaning across matters most to the Latin American folk I've spent time with. Spanglish has nothing to do with purity and everything to do with utility.

I am trying, by the way, to elevate my Spanish speaking and writing skills from "intermediate" to "advanced." Here are some thoughts on how I'm going to do this:

1. Vocabulary first. If you don't know words, you can't communicate. If you can't communicate even basic ideas, you get frustrated. I'm emphasizing vocabulary. Grammar will come.

2. Spaced repetition. Per Piotr Wozniak's theories on memory — the optimal time to review a word is the moment before you're about to forget it — I'm using his free service to learn vocab.

3. Frequency of vocabulary over themes. I spent $30 on a frequency dictionary. It lists the 5,000 most frequently used Spanish words, in order, drawn from a 20 million word corpus of non-fiction and fiction writing and oral transcripts. The 5,000 most frequent words account for 95% of the written/oral material I am likely to encounter. I think it's a shame that virtually all Spanish vocabulary in U.S. schools is taught thematically (food, travel, etc) instead of by frequency.

4. Make mistakes, have no fear. Fear of embarrassment stops a lot of people from practicing a foreign language with natives, I think. I'm going to try to make as many mistakes as I can.

5. Immersion / live in a country. Chile is my target country. More on this, soon!

Here's a post on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

For those worried about the United States becoming a bilingual country, it's too late. The train has left the station. You cannot deny the demographic trends. Note that we will be bilingual in effect not in law. We are not destined to be Canada, in other words.

Given the competitive advantage they could bestow upon their child, I am surprised when I encounter wealthy American parents who are not paying their (probably El Salvadorean) cleaning lady to talk in Spanish in a structured way with their young children.

Finally, I have read research that shows very young children can pick up a language faster than an adult. But, I have seen no evidence showing an 11 year-old can learn a language faster than a 60 year-old. This seems to be one of the most dangerous myths circulating about language learning. We are damn good at coming up with excuses or rationalizations!

Book Review: Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

I think a lot about the intersection of globalization and identity. I have lived my whole life in big cities in America where the name of the game is fusion: a bit of this, a bit of that, across the entire cultural spectrum. From art to cuisine to people, big city life in the U.S. is the non-stop sampling of different cultures. A life diet of hybridity is fundamentally American.

I have also traveled to big, cosmopolitan cities around the world, where a similar fusion game takes place. The people of Zurich, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires practice similar types of cultural consumption (which includes their media/information diet) and therefore maintain mongrelized identities as well.

It’s safe to say that I feel a stronger connection to place and people when I’m in a cosmopolitan metropolis overseas than when I am in a small town in America.

Yet, my passport says “USA,” and I resist the label, increasingly claimed by fellow big-city dwellers and international travelers, of “citizen of the world.” They are usually oblivious to the many ways their country of origin has shaped their worldview.

Plus, to be a “citizen of the world” comes with its own set of obligations to “the world,” right? Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who thinks about the ethical questions that accompany a cosmopolitan identity. His book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers is a relatively academic treatment on this topic.

Here’s a sketch of the book:

Our ancestors lived in small tribes where they interacted with a small set of people who they knew. Others were of rival tribes and to be viewed with suspicion. Information about other ways of life didn’t really flow into the village. That’s changing:

The challenge is to take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.

Appiah’s chosen word to describe this task is “cosmopolitanism.” He finds it superior to “globalization” (an overused word that can mean everything from a marketing strategy to an economic thesis) or “multiculturalism” (which he says is “another shape shifter, which so often designates the disease it purports to cure”). He admits that cosmopolitanism can have elitist connotations. But it’s actually a term rooted more in the idea of cosmos — the universe: “Talk of cosmopolitanism originally signaled a rejection of the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities.”

He describes two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism:

One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. People are different, the cosmopolitan knows, and there is much to learn from our differences.

This raises some tricky philosophical questions about whether we are supposed to, then, be as loyal to the vast abstraction “humanity” as to our neighbor who looks and talks like us. Appiah claims middle ground:

We need take sides neither with the nationalist who abandons all foreigners nor with the hard-core cosmopolitan who regards her friends and fellow citizens with icy impartiality. The position worth defending might be called (in both senses) a partial cosmopolitanism.

But rather than clarify this middle ground by putting forth a prescriptive framework — i.e, what exactly is our philosophical obligation toward strangers? — Appiah instead just offers questions:

How real are values? What do we talk about when we talk about difference? Is any form of relativism right? When do morals and manners clash? Can culture be “owned”? What do we owe strangers by virtue of our shared humanity?

He does work through these questions. He rejects cultural relativism; not everything is local custom. He rejects arguments that tie globalization to cultural imperialism or increased homogeneity. (Tyler Cowen wrote a whole book on this; my notes.) He exposes the failings of the “Golden Rule” as a principle to live by. And to his colleague Peter Singer — who I say is the most overrated living philosopher — he delivers a very satisfying take-down of Singer’s shallow pond theory of saving children.

So he stakes out his middle ground of partial cosmopolitanism more by talking about what it’s not. On the positive side, we get a lot of generalities: it’s important to talk with people from other cultures, to maintain mutual respect, to learn about other ways of life, and most of all — his favorite phrase, which captures the modesty of his proposals — we need the curiosity inherent in a partial cosmopolitan outlook so that we can “get used to one another” and live peacefully together. We do not, he stresses, need to share underlying values or agree on everything.

It feels unsatisfying — a bit too flexible. But this doesn’t mean the book is not worthwhile on the whole. There are many interesting discussions of philosophy throughout, and Appiah’s personal story as a Ghanaian immigrant endows his discussion with a passion rarely found in these types of books.


Here are all my posts on globalization. Here are my posts on Americanism. G. Pascal Zachary makes a related case in The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge. Here’s my old post titled “Conflicted Identity as Commonality in America.” Here’s an excerpt from Yi-Fu Tuan on this topic.

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Rising Tide Lifts All (Nation-State) Boats

Americans, in their (our) obsession with “national competitiveness,” too often frame the discussion in a zero-sum manner: if China rises, we fall; if India wins, we lose.

The United States over the next 50 years will experience a relative decline in material living. But in absolute terms, we will not suffer at all. To the contrary, the rise of other countries improves our material well-being.

Alex Tabarrok, in his must-watch econo-optimist TED talk, makes this point well by describing the market for cancer drugs. Suppose you were diagnosed with cancer. Would you rather have a common form of the cancer or a rare one? Common, because common cancers have a larger potential customer market, which means there's greater incentive for companies to invest in research to find a cure. This is what is happening in all sorts of markets when hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians become middle-class consumers. If China and India were as rich as the U.S., Tabarrok says, the market for cancer drugs would be eight times larger!

More rich countries means more innovation, because of increased demand (larger target market for products like cancer drugs) and increased supply (rich countries have more educated people who can create the new ideas and innovation in the first place). More innovation in country X means more innovation for the world — everyone in the world benefits from new ideas and products, no matter where they originate. 

Why, then, do Americans fear the rise of other nations? Isn't it obviously in our self-interest to cheer on poor countries becoming rich?

In the case of China, critics may denounce its anti-democratic values and human rights violations and say to support the economic growth of China is to endorse these values and make their spread more likely. For example, China, in pursuit of oil, has used its economic might to support corrupt African dictatorships while America and Europe have withheld aid in pursuit of regime change. This is a fair critique.

Unfortunately, most reasons have nothing to do with enlightened values (yes – some values are more enlightened than others) and everything to do with a mis-understanding of economics, misguided notions of nationalism, and good ole’ xenophobia. Watch Bill O'Reilly or Lou Dobbs for more on how these concepts hang together in the minds of the stupid.

By the way, it's not just Americans who ought to remember "a rising tide lifts all boats."

When the financial crisis hit, Europeans seemed almost gleeful at American economic woes: Finally the U.S. pays the price for its gluttonous ways and rampant free market culture! Finally their arrogance comes back to hurt the! Yet they soon discovered that in an interconnected world, when one (big) country hurts, all countries hurt. Same thing went down in China: Finally U.S. consumers pay the price for not saving and reckless spending! Followed quickly by, Shit! U.S. consumers – can you binge anew on our exports?

Bottom Line: Other countries are growing richer. Rejoice! Other countries are growing more powerful. Big deal. Americans should support the economic growth of other countries, even if that growth means our political sway and material standard of living are lower in relative terms.

What I Learned at St. Gallen


I've been in Switzerland the past two weeks in part to participate in the 39th St. Gallen Symposium entitled "Revival of Political and Economic Boundaries." The Symposium brings together 200 people under 30 from 50 countries alongside 400 businesspeople from Europe and Asia. I attended last year (my notes) and loved the international diversity of it all — the opportunity to sit at a dinner table with seven smart people from all seven continents to talk about global issues. I was honored to be invited back this year.

The conference spirit (and the bias of the attendees) was pro-free market, pro-globalization. Even in the face of tremendous stress and market failure, most speakers and participants insisted we musn't undo the interconnected system that has lifted millions out of poverty and generated prosperity around the world.

But even as pronouncements were made to this effect, there was considerable self-doubt. Mark Medish of the Carnegie Endowment made this point explicitly: "This year's conference feels less technical, more fundamental. Less unabashedly optimistic, more concerned and skeptical." He noted that the half-life of conventional wisdom has never been shorter, as we re-visit and challenge many of the most prestigious theories about how the world works: the flat world theory of technology driven globalization, the valuation model for credit default swaps, mark to market accounting, monetary policy based on inflation targeting, the U.S. currency as world reserve currency, the decoupling thesis, and others.

As usual with conferences, I was underwhelmed by the speakers (a topic I will blog about soon) and for me most of the value came from individual chit-chat during the breaks or special sessions. Below are assorted notes.

1. Yes, It's a Mix of Government and Markets. It's pretty shallow to argue that you are neither market fundamentalist nor tax-and-spend socialist but rather a supporter of both, depending. (And offer no further specifics.) Sophisticated businessmen like the CEO of Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the CEO of ABB made this uncontroversial point. They said in essence, We need free and open markets, except when we don't. How bold! The real question is when and where governments ought to regulate markets and how they should do so specifically.

2. Non-Americans More Giddy about Obama than Americans. Every European, Asian, or Latin American I met was positively giddy about Barack Obama. Perhaps their Obama-love is in overdrive because their America-love has been repressed the last eight years. The Americans I met were more neutral and had a wait-and-see approach.

3. The Export Model. Exports are 40% of China's GDP. It will take at least a decade for China to go from an export economy to a consumption economy. Meanwhile it is dependent on American consumption. Yet, finally, Americans are starting to save a bit more, which is slowing China's economy. Until the crisis, people liked to make fun of the American consumer's inability to save and penchant for running up huge credit card debt. But now they discover that American (over?) consumption is key to the whole system working. A dilemma.

4. Pro-Trade, Pro-Globalization. A) When goods don't cross boundaries, tanks will. B) The White House web site does not list trade among the top 24 key issues. C) The millions of people who work for multinational companies ought to be singing the praises of globalization. They're not. That's business's fault. D) There's a split in the Democratic party over the virtues of globalization: Summers vs. Krugman camps.

5. Energy. Obama has said energy is higher priority than health care. Energy security and climate change are interconnected. "We'll see peak oil demand before we see peak oil supply."

6. Assorted Geopolitics Thoughts.

Geopolitics is to climatology as general international relations analysis and news is to meteorology: climatologists think about the long term, meteorologists predict the weather next week. Geopolitics involves thinking deeply about the long-term relationship between geography and politics and power.

* Geopolitics scholars have been predicting China's rise since the 1960s, since they look at stuff like long-term demographic trends and fact that China borders more countries than any other country.

* Historically there's been social unrest in China when economy slows to 6% growth. And the economy has slowed to about 6% growth.

* Axiom of geopolitics: if you have the money, you set the rules. You cannot have a strong foreign policy posture if you don't have a solid economic base / money. This is why India is not very influential: it represents only 2% of the world economy.

* Eastern enlargement of EU cannot be sole European foreign policy. Internal power paradigm doesn't translate into external foreign policy.

* There is "enlargement fatigue" within EU member countries when it comes to expansion east and south. But if Europe does not move into the Balkans, the Balkans will move into Europe. Enlargement helps member countries.

* The next three geo-political giants will be China, Europe, and the U.S.

* China pours money indiscriminately into Africa, regardless of human rights situation or corruption. China is reducing EU and US influence.

* Regime type doesn't usually affect geopolitical status so long as there is internal stability and external relations are okay. This would mean China's non-democratic status is not critical to long-term power prospects.

7. The 'There Are No Hard Choices' Cliche: "We must set aside old ways and develop new ideas…. We must reject false debates… We must be bold and visionary, yet pragmatic." Obama has been the master at uttering vapid catch phrases like this. It seems businesspeople the world over have taken to repeating it themselves.

Particularly impressive people who spoke:

David Smick, author of The World is Curved. He gave a whirlwind tour of the current economic situation. He told us to ignore the optimism, or at least don't buy it yet. The worse may not yet be over.

Misha Glenny, journalist. He gave an engaging presentation about the world of organized crime, and the president of Serbia later acknowledged him as one of the smartest observers on the Balkans.

Parag Khanna, New America Foundation. A tiny bit of arrogance is more than made up by his very strong grasp of international affairs, especially as it relates to the rise of China on the global stage.

Joseph Stanislaw, prominent energy consultant. He made a persuasive case for all things "green" and put substance behind a buzzword.

Is It Worth It To Preserve Dying Languages?

This is an under-explored question.

Preserving near extinct languages has broad support for the main reason that if a language dies, presumably some part of the associated culture dies too.

I don’t doubt that some unique culture exists in language, but what, exactly? And is it worth preserving even when considering the costs?

First, there are the opportunity costs of people encouraged or force to learn a language that’s just not that practically relevant. For all the time students in Ireland spend studying Gaelic it’s time not spent studying English, the language of the world. For all the time people in Mumbai spend having to learn that city’s new official language — Marathi — it’s not not spent studying Hindi or English. In America, the 22 children in on this Wyoming Indian reservation are being taught exclusively in Arapaho so as to preserve the language of their elders. The cultural interests of the adults come at the cost of competitiveness of their children.

Then there are the real costs of preserving a minority language in a society. The EU spends millions translating official documents and sessions all to pay due respect to cultural diversity. Canada spends an astromnomical amount translating everything into French all in the name of preserving Quebec culture.

Bottom Line: I question the assumption that preserving a near-extinct language is worth it. At the least, we need more discussion of what exactly is being saved and weigh those benefits against the costs.

Jon Chait on Naomi Klein

It’s always interesting to read a smart person’s intelligent yet devastating take-down of an argument, partly because it’s so difficult to do. The intellectual scene is littered with personal attacks, sweeping generalizations, or humorless nitpicking that leave even agreeable readers feeling sympathetic for the person on the other end.

If you want an example of a professional, thoughtful, detailed, and nonetheless devastating critique of a thesis, read Jon Chait’s review of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book The Shock Doctrine in the New Republic. It does what a lengthier book review is supposed to do which is contextualize the book before reviewing it. Read the whole thing. For those who don’t know, the Shock Doctrine’s thrust is that free marketers hunt for crisis and disaster so that, while chaos reigns, they can impose free market doctrines on an unsuspecting populace.

It used to be the “conversation” about an issue would stop here, or perhaps make its way onto the word count-constrained “Letters to the Editor” pages. In the era of blogs, however, subjects of criticisms can offer their own reply to higher profile critiques. Naomi Klein is no different. Here’s her response to Chait. Oh man.

Her response comes off to me as amateurish, partly because, in a usual sign of insecurity, she concedes almost nothing and instead styles herself (and her heroic research assistant) as underdog truth bearers saying the things we don’t want to hear but must. Amusingly, despite the fact that one of Chait’s complaints is she too quickly treats disparate ideas as a single entity, Klein decides to lump Chait’s essay in with another critique that came from Cato and address them together.

She opens her response by insisting that Milton Friedman did, in fact, support the Iraq war, by citing an interview conducted in German by the magazine Focus. Klein translates the German back to English to reach her conclusion about Friedman — a libertarian who does not support nation building and called the Iraq war an act of aggression. He’s also not fluent in German. Klein doesn’t find her charge remarkable. Had she a better understanding of the different strands of conservatism and the one to which Friedman belongs, she would know that her claim needs more evidence than a translated sentence which, even then, is rather ambiguous as to what Friedman is trying to say. The incoherence of her summary of conservative think tanks both in the book and her reply proves Chait’s point that she does not care to be bothered by nuance (such as libertarianism), preferring instead the simple explanation that the Chicago School (or that lovely evil catch-all “neo-cons”) ruins whatever it touches.

She stammers her way forward. Later, in a revealing sentence, she says only one significant error in the book has been discovered relating to Cheney’s profit potential in Halliburtun. To me, this is like conceding you misspelled a word and misses the point that it’s not only the facts she assembles but the way she assembles them that cause complaint. In one last flourish, she says, “We invite you to explore these documents, send us ones we missed, and come to your own conclusions.” Truly, is there a more cliched line among essayists straining to appear dispassionately even-keeled?

My take on Klein is that she is as surprised as anyone at her meteoric rise in influence. Without advance notice she’s been thrust into a spotlight that precludes backpedaling, retroactive clarifying, or “grey.” It’s a shame. As Chait says, there is merit and data to support some of her ideas. Unfortunately, the substance and complexity of these ideas seem to have been lost in the towering figure of the Naomi Klein logo and brand, and her new role as the unwavering flag bearer of the anti-globalization moment.

Memo to Americans: For Many in the World, Identity is Something You Die For

This op/ed in the LA Times a few days ago is an excellent follow-up to my post last week on identity.

Two sentence summation of the op/ed: America loves to talk about its melting pot ideal, but the reality is that in most places identity — particularly ethnic identity — is not something whipped out and celebrated on multicultural day at school. It’s something to die for. Key excerpts:

As a nation and as individuals, we tend to view the world through the prism of our own experiences. Over the last few weeks, Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians have reminded us that ethnic nationalism and secessionism are on the rise around the globe. I worry that the American experience leaves the United States and its citizens unprepared to confront it….

And just because one may not want to “believe” in identities — ethnic groups and ethno-religious groups — that doesn’t mean that they somehow disappear from the world.

We pride ourselves on a successful history of incorporating immigrants and assume that other nations should or can do the same. Sure, we have our militias, white Christian identity movements, campus-based race warriors, ethnic and racial street gangs, but these groups generally exist on the margins and don’t play a significant role in national politics in the way that the “Basque question” does in Spain or the Kurdish, Tamil, Igbo, Palestinian, Kosovar or South Ossetian questions do elsewhere.

Our elites are so steeped in the melting-pot idea that they don’t even recognize that they see the world through the bias of the majority….Americans who feel they’ve transcended group membership have a hard time understanding the power of blood, culture and belonging….

For too long, the march of modernity around the globe, and our own sense of great power hubris, led us to believe that the world would only become more like us over time. But the events of the last decade should convince us that this is clearly not the case. If for no other reason than to understand emerging threats, Americans will have to stop pretending that for most people around the globe, identity is something not just to celebrate — once a year, at a street fair or during fill-in-the-blank history month — but to die for.

Book Notes: The New Asian Hemisphere

It’s the last day of the St. Gallen Symposium, and I’m gathering my bags ready to head back to Zurich. A young, dark skinned woman comes up to me.

“Are you American?” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Then you need to read this book. It’s by the dean of my school. We want it in the hands of as many Americans as possible.” She thrusts the book in my hands and walks off.

The book was The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East by Kishore Mahbubani. I turned the book over and saw effusive blurbs by Larry Summers, Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Summers blurb caught my eye:

They called it the Industrial Revolution because for the first time in all of human history standards of living in a human life span — changes of perhaps 50%. At current growth rates in Asia standards of living may rise 100 fold, 10,000 percent within a human life span. The rise of Asia and all that follows will be the dominant story in history books written 300 years from now, with the Cold War and rise of Islam as secondary stories. – Larry Summers

That’s an interesting thought. I read the book and loved it. Here are my detailed notes.

There are many books on the rise of Asia, on globalization, etc. What makes this book different is its emphasis on how the West fails to understand Eastern perspectives on Western actions and attitudes. An oft-repeated stat in the book is that there are 5.6 billion people not in the West and only 900 million people in the West (broadly defined as US + Europe + a few other places), and that those 5.6 billion have their own view on politics and security and history. This shouldn’t be too controversial a claim but Mahbubani nicely illustrates a range of examples that show Western elites hardly acknowledge this possibility. With a shift in economic and political power to the countries housing the 5.6 billion people, it’s about time Americans and Europeans start understanding how the East conceives of itself and the world.

I have not seen much written about this book and I suspect this is due to the release of Fareed Zakaria’s book which came out at the same time. Zakaria’s covers similar ground but is fundamentally from an American perspective, whereas Mahbubani tries hard to contrast the usual American perspective with the point of view of the East.

The Global Tongue of the World: Panglish

I’ve been in Costa Rica the past two weeks, so language (Spanish and English) is on my mind. Wired has an interesting, short piece on how Chinese is affecting the English spoken around the world. Here’s Slate’s helpful one paragraph summary:

The "likely consequence" of growing numbers of Chinese learning English without "enough quality spoken practice" means that "more and more spoken English will sound increasingly like Chinese." Already, nonnative speakers far outnumber native speakers, and in the next decade, native speakers will make up only 15 percent of those who use the language. English is "on a path toward a global tongue—what’s coming to be known as Panglish." And, "[s]oon, when Americans travel abroad, one of the languages they’ll have to learn may be their own."

Can Japan Become More Entrepreneurial?

This seems to be the fundamental question about the future of Japan’s competitiveness. Japan, the world’s second largest economy, remains the largest exception to the argument that many have made (such as yours truly, in this mini-essay) which is that entrepreneurship is a critical component to a country’s economic growth. Japan lacks an entrepreneurial culture; is dominated by big firms; has little tolerance for risk-taking and failure; etc etc. Can it survive this way? Probably not.

The FT today re-surfaces this issue, emphases my own:

The Japanese government has accordingly announced a Y100bn venture fund to invest in fledgling technology businesses. The idea is to encourage more private and institutional investors to pump their money into start-ups too.

However, there are formidable barriers to injecting some of the pep of Silicon Valley into the commercialisation of new technology in Japan. The biggest is that Japan does not have an Anglo Saxon-style enterprise culture. Would-be entrepreneurs have few role models apart from Masayoshi Son, founder of communications group Softbank. Aspiring to become very wealthy is regarded as faintly unJapanese.

Equally, "business failure is seen as shameful in Japan, though that perception is beginning to erode", says Seiichi Yoshikawa of Nippon Keidanren, Japan’s powerful business lobby. When new technology ventures fail, it tends to be as units of large corporations, rather than as standalone companies. This cushions the impact. The downside of the system is that it can suppress maverick talent.

At Japan’s ministry of economy, trade and industry, Yuji Tokumasu, who works on science and technology policy, is fretting over a parallel problem. According to a chart he brandishes, even as Japan’s spending on research and development has soared in the past 20 years, value added in the manufacturing sector has stagnated.

Japan already spends more than 3 per cent of its gross domestic product on R&D – more than any other country. One way of reading the chart is to surmise that diminishing returns have set in, that every extra yen spent on R&D goes to employ less talented researchers, who study less promising approaches to the same problems. Japanese universities’ poor record on turning research funding into results published by top scientific journals suggests that government money can be more efficiently spent. It could be that rather than spending too little on R&D, Japan spends too much.

However, Mr Tokumasu and others in the technology establishment take heart from R&D expenditure data. If only Japan could convert all of this spending into scientific breakthroughs, new businesses and saleable products, they argue, it would prove a powerful source of economic growth.