Boost Japan’s magnetic charm and communicative power / Open a new era of peace, freedom and humanity

As a new year begins, images of battlefields are depressing many people.

In the two world wars of the 20th century, mankind learned a bitter lesson about the preciousness of peace. Now, we seem to have reverted to pre-modern times. The situations in Ukraine and the Palestinian territory of Gaza are so devastating that it is difficult to look directly at them.

Tensions are also ever rising around Japan. Russia has been solidifying its occupation of the northern territories and strengthening its military pressure against Japan, while China continues to expand its influence in areas covering the Senkaku Islands and the South Pacific. The threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities is also on the rise.

In such difficult times, Japanese politics is mired in the public distrust that it has brought upon itself. Political turmoil can also destabilize regional affairs. The administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should recognize the heavy weight of its responsibility.

Another uncomfortable reality of the present day is that the latest technology supports the barbaric violence on the battlefields of Ukraine and Gaza.

The cruel day and night attacks that have targeted nuclear power plants and destroyed hospitals and other facilities, taking the lives of infants, patients and others, are only possible with night-vision equipment and precise targeting enabled by digital technology.

High-tech dreams, barbaric violence

The smartphones that put such devastating scenes into our hands also bring fake videos and misinformation. Robots and artificial intelligence technology, once depicted as dreams of the future in manga for boys, are now abundantly present in every aspect of daily life.

In an age where the development of cutting-edge technology and barbaric violence are both spreading at the same time, what should we base our decisions on, and how should we act? In addition to respect for reason and adherence to the rule of law, there seems to be a need for a philosophy that transcends religious and ideological differences and springs from a deeper source.

A clue is in Gaza. A humanitarian pause in the fighting was achieved there, albeit temporarily. In response to the brutal acts that took even the lives of infants and women, the cry from the hearts of the people to “protect human lives” affected the situation. This fact is noteworthy.

The psychological function that puts us on the same footing as others, letting us share the same feelings, is called “common sense.” It is through this that human society is made possible.

Common sense is normally translated into Japanese as “joshiki” and often thought of as pedestrian worldly knowledge, but it is not just that.

A common sense of seeking humanity, peace and freedom can be called the point of origin from which mankind can move forward in solidarity.

With that common sense as a starting point, people must be able to face difficulties in unity.

Japan should take the lead in shaping international public opinion under the banner of peace and humanity. It is urged to take proactive steps through multilateral relations such as the Group of Seven nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as through the United Nations.

Japan has suitable characteristics for this role. Reflecting on the history of the war, in which the nation brought calamity to its neighboring countries and threatened its own existence, postwar Japan has consistently followed the path of a peaceful nation.

Since then, it has never been at war with another country, nor has it ever posed a military threat. Even in strengthening its defense capabilities, Japan has strictly adhered to its objectives of self-defense, deterring threats, and contributing to international peace.

Japan has also provided economic assistance to other countries to promote their industries and improve their people’s lives. Many Japanese doctors and technicians continue to work as volunteers in various parts of Asia, Africa and other regions to provide medical care and livelihood support for refugees and other people.

Common sense of humanity

Based on these achievements, Japan’s mission should be to appeal to the world on the importance of peace and the sanctity of human life, and to call for truces, ceasefires, restoration of peace, and the creation of a new order.

It is not only military strength and economic power that influence the international stage. The power of opinion, or international public opinion based on a common sense of humankind, is not light either.

It is also important to improve Japan’s internal strength. As the number of visitors to Japan from overseas is rapidly increasing, Japan is full of diverse attractions from foreign points of view.

There are streets that are kept squeaky-clean, a sense of safety that allows people to walk even at night, and traditional culture such as food, crafts, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, noh, kyogen and kabuki, as well as new culture such as anime.

These are valuable assets that attract people from around the world to Japan like magnets. They also have the effect of increasing people’s faith that Japan is a country they can rely on. It is necessary to enhance these magnetic charms.

High-level academic research and technological development are also among Japan’s internal strengths. They attract so much attention from abroad that measures must be taken to prevent the outflow of technologies to other countries. Supercomputers, optical communication technology, and pharmaceutical research and development are all at an advanced level.

However, the reality is that Japanese companies are not making full use of their strengths, even though they should be leading the world with these technologies.

This is said to be the result of prioritizing management focused on short-term performance through cost-cutting, but it also appears that the entrepreneurship of the past, rich in the spirit of self-motivation to accomplish things, seems to be on the wane.

It is crucial not to overlook the fact that Japan’s proud virtues have become dimmed and distorted in recent years. A comprehensive look at the present conditions of the state and society is needed.

In Japan, the delay in digitization compared with other countries is referred to as “digital defeat.” Perhaps impatient with the decline in the nation’s capacity for innovation, the government’s current feverish rush to digitize — with the cry of “Don’t repeat the digital defeat” — appears to be a worrisome stance.

Don’t let AI supplant ability to think

Digital technology is beneficial, and its use needs to be hastened to improve efficiency in administrative work, economic productivity and convenience for consumers. However, new technology also comes with its downsides.

In particular, the danger of misuse of generative AI has already become a reality with the spread of false information and fake videos on the internet. Fake videos of Kishida and others, which mimic their faces and voices to convey nonsensical statements, have also been circulating.

A serious risk is emerging that it is difficult to discern the true from the false, and that can cloud one’s judgment.

It may be convenient to get answers instantaneously, but relying on digital conveniences diminishes one’s ability to think. Thinking is the basis of human existence. It is a matter of great importance to human dignity.

Don’t violate human dignity

Some people say that technological progress is unstoppable, but they are wrong. There are a number of cases where the international community has agreed to prohibit research, development, and use of technologies that may violate human dignity, even if they are technically feasible.

Cloning technology is one such example. In 1996, a cloned sheep appeared in the United Kingdom following research using cells to produce new individuals with the same genetic information. Some scholars had talked about research on human cloning.

A global uproar ensued, and UNESCO adopted a universal declaration banning human cloning on the grounds that it is contrary to human dignity. In Japan, laws to regulate human cloning were enacted in 2000, with penalties included.

Regulations on AI are currently being considered in Europe and in the United States, the home of major tech companies. Despite this, it is hard to understand why Japan’s government is reluctant to regulate the use of generative AI while giving priority to its utilization. The government must not be seduced by its utility and make the wrong decision.

There is an even more critical issue. The biggest challenge facing Japan is how to halt its population decline.

Japan’s population is rapidly declining after peaking at 128.1 million in 2008. At the current pace of low birthrates and aging, the population will fall to less than half of that in 2110, at around 55.82 million, returning to the level of around 1915.

Although the size of the population will be similar, only about 5% of the population was elderly around 1915. This is completely different from the projected 40% who will be elderly in 2110. Even if productivity can be increased and economic strength maintained to some extent, it will be difficult to fully support the elderly when they account for 40% of the population. This is a “quiet emergency.”

The expansion of child allowances and other programs that the Kishida administration cites as “different dimension” measures lie only within the framework of already existing measures. The administration has said, “there will be no real burden on the people” for the measures. This casts doubt on the seriousness of the administration.

How to tackle quiet emergency?

The government should review its measures from a comprehensive perspective to determine what is needed to maintain a healthy society and appeal to the public for their cooperation up front, including the burden they will bear.

This year is also an election year. Leaders will be elected in the United States, Russia, Taiwan and elsewhere, and the results will have a major impact on international affairs. Last year in Europe and South America, candidates and political parties advocating radical stances such as xenophobia won one after another.

In Japan, a dissolution of the House of Representatives and subsequent general election are expected as well. In a climate of growing political distrust, extreme claims can easily reach the ears of voters, but they can cloud voters’ judgment and jeopardize a free democratic system.

The Yomiuri Shimbun upholds as its basic philosophy “The Creed of The Yomiuri Shimbun.” This means to live up to the trust of its readers through fair reporting and responsible discourse.

The creed’s main pillars are “freedom, humanism and internationalism.” This year, the 150th anniversary of The Yomiuri Shimbun, we would like to reaffirm this philosophy and use it as a starting point for our best efforts to contribute to peace.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 1, 2024)