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Hitachi Research Institute

President Column

Commentary by our President, Hitoshi Shirai

President Column #10: Geopolitics and Lacking a Sense of Direction

As I understand it, a person lacking a sense of direction is defined as someone who by nature gets lost easily. As a phenomenon, this means that even after the person in question obtains vital information about their surroundings from the landscape and buildings, they still misjudge the direction of their destination or have difficulty in determining their current position based on the surrounding topography shown on a map.

From childhood, I was severely lacking in a sense of direction and I was the only one to stray and get lost on family outings. One of my friends even made mention of my poor sense of direction in a speech at my wedding, warning my wife, “In your new life where you two will now walk together, as the wife of this man, you must never think of following him from behind in silence. If he suggests going to the right, you should head for the left.”

Most people seem to construct some kind of subjective coordinate axes in their minds, positioning themselves at the center, which they use to determine their position and their surroundings or to confirm their location based on objective coordinate axes like the sun, stars or a map. For some reason, I lack the ability to do this. Up until a certain point in my life, I tried to address this problem, thinking that perhaps I might be able to overcome this deficiency through independent efforts or that I might be able to avoid making serious errors if I at least carried a map with me. At some point, however, I realized that in proportion to my efforts both approaches could yield only limited improvement.

After joining Hitachi, I learned of a type of technology still in the developmental stage that was like a dream technology for a person like me. It was car navigation technology. Although this technology is widely used today, when I asked a researcher in the development department about it in the early 1980s, it was still at the stage where he excitedly told me, “We have finally narrowed the margin of error to 10 kilometers!” I remember thinking that it was still amazing. In 1990, a commercial car navigation system using GPS to determine positions by satellite was released onto the market and immediately gained popularity. And today we have arrived at the stage where people walking down the street can download navigation software to their smartphones in a short period of time, so that even people like me can successfully arrive at their destinations just like other people.

Just after I turned 30, the frequency of my overseas business trips increased significantly, and so too did my opportunities for looking at world maps. Until then, I had thought that world maps were fairly universal. When I happened to look at the world map on the wall of a government organization I visited in China in 1986, however, I found that the Korean peninsula was depicted as a single country with Pyongyang as its capital. I realized then that various kinds of world maps exist in the world, each reflecting the vested interests of a particular country at a particular time.

How the world appears to people differs significantly depending on which country is positioned at the center of the world map they view. When people are accustomed to seeing their own country at the center of the world map, they tend to think that the world revolves around their country. When we as Japanese get used to looking at world maps where our country, an island nation in the Far East, occupies center position, we sometimes place ourselves under false illusions.

Recently I had the opportunity to go on a business trip to Cape Town in the Republic of South Africa. Before I left, a number of my friends and colleagues at work expressed concern, asking, “Is the Ebola situation okay there?” While they all lie within the continent of Africa, the direct distance from Cape Town, close to the southernmost tip, to the three west African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone is more than 5,000 kilometers as the crow flies. In terms of distance, this is equivalent to being concerned about someone traveling to Japan when Indonesia is suffering from an avian flu epidemic. Considering the enormous distance from Japan to Africa, however, I guess it is understandable that people have difficulty in getting a sense of distance given the vastness of the African continent itself.

In the past when I was working in Singapore, by my desk I used to have a world map that showed Southeast Asia at the center. From this map, it was easy to see how all the ASEAN countries are linked by sea as far as India, from the expansive South China Sea in the East, the Bay of Bengal in the West, and the Indian Ocean with the Malay Peninsula in the center (where Singapore is located). A review of history shows that the hub of economic exchanges in modern world history was the maritime area centered on Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the 14th century, Islamic culture spread to the Indian Ocean Rim economic sphere while the East China Sea and the South China Sea were under the influence of China, and this region saw the intersection of these two civilizations. The Japanese anthropologist Tadao Umesawa once pointed out that between the East and the West was a “middle ocean” that did not belong to either of these civilizations, a maritime region centered on the Indian Ocean. The West, that is, people from Europe, took back to their countries many goods via the Indian Ocean, and these goods brought prosperity to Europe.

Think tanks interpret events from various viewpoints in their work, by combining the viewpoint of geopolitics (viewing the world map from a global perspective) with the viewpoints of history and civilizations. After going through many transitions in the course of its long history, the area encompassing Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean is once again becoming a major hub linking the world’s trade and economic development. China is advocating the establishment of a “Maritime Silk Road” in this region and is making efforts to enhance its involvement through the provision of assistance in constructing infrastructure such as port infrastructure in surrounding countries.

Historically, Japan and the United Kingdom were the first to achieve economic development as beneficiaries of trade in this region, as “maritime nations” located at either end of the Eurasian continent. The development of this region presents significant opportunities for Japan in the future. Now is the time to draw a new “sea chart” by establishing accurate coordinate axes.

No matter what the era, if the leaders of a country or major organization lose sight of their coordinate axes and go in the wrong direction, it will result in terrible losses later. Leaders must make decisions from a dynamic point of view that takes into account trends in the region, the history of the past and a vision for the future.

Kaplan, Robert D. 2010. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (Japanese translation by Shinji Okuyama and Mitsuhiro Sekine. Intershift, 2012). Umesao, Tadao. 1990. “Countries in the Middle Ocean,” Collected Works of Tadao Umesao (Volume 4). Chuo Koron-sha.
Kawakatsu, Heita. 1990. Maritime History of Civilization. Chuo Koron-shinsha.