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Vulnerable Japan

Japan: The Fragile Superpower

by Frank Gibney
Norton, 347 pp., $10.00

Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman

edited by John W. Dower
Pantheon, 497 pp., $5.95 (paper)

A Political History of Japanese Capitalism

by Jon Halliday
Pantheon, 466 pp., $15.95

The Development of Japanese Business 1600-1973

by Johannes Hirschmeier, by Tsunehiko Yui
Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $12.00

Japanese Economic Growth

by Kazushi Ohkawa, by Henry Rosovsky
Stanford University Press, 327 pp., $15.00

Iemoto: The Heart of Japan

by Francis L.K. Hsu
Wiley, 260 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Japanese Economy in International Perspective

edited by Isaiah Frank
Johns Hopkins, 300 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Japan: Divided Politics in a Growth Economy

by J.A.A. Stockwin
Norton, 296 pp., $3.95 (paper)


The major fact about Japan is that it is both uniquely like and spectacularly unlike the West. It is alike since, alone among all non-Western societies, it has made a transition from a feudalism remarkably similar to that of Europe to being a capitalist power of the first order. In doing so it has imported “Westernization” wholesale, to the point where more naïve Americans have from time to time thought of it as essentially a yellow-skinned United States.

Even the sensible Frank Gibney is tempted into hyperbole in his new book: “Japan…shares with the United States common social aspirations, a working commitment to the democratic principle, and a strikingly similar urban technological way of life” (p. 22). On the other hand it is, as every visitor to the country knows, startlingly strange and incomprehensible without elaborate exegesis, a fact which has enabled many a journalist-guide to tourists or businessmen to turn an honest dollar, Gibney being an excellent specimen of the genre. Since Lafcadio Hearn generations of Zen-buffs, ladies practicing flower-arrangement, stone-gardeners, and enthusiasts for Kabuki, Noh, tanka, and samurai movies have existed because Japan is like nowhere else.

In China, observed a British traveler in 1793, the most common tools “have something peculiar in their construction, some different…always clearly indicating that, whether better or worse fitted for their purposes than those used in other countries, the one did not serve as the model for the other.” This is also, and perhaps even more markedly, so in Japan. The difficulty of the outsider lies not so much in material techniques, since their purpose is recognizable even when they are not (as they increasingly are today) the same as ours, as in social relations, culture, anything mediated through image, sound, gesture, and above all words. But at the same time Japan has also adopted outside models more enthusiastically than have most other societies. The combination, as in the amalgam of nineteenth-century top hats and tail coats, kimonos and Shinto priests at Japanese weddings, is not the least disconcerting aspect of that remarkable country.

In other words, Japan raises in a particularly dramatic form the great problem of comparative history of indeed of any kind of historical generalization: the relation between what is general and what is specific, between functional identity and historical dissimilarity, between the history that is made by men and the historical heritage which limits and shapes the tools they construct for making it.

The interpretations of Japanese development since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and, by projection into the past, earlier centuries, have always had difficulty with this dialectic. This difficulty has been compounded by the powerful political and ideological commitments of the two major schools of analysis, the Japanese, which is predominantly Marxist, and the American, which is only just beginning to emerge from the orthodoxies of “modernization theory” into which it forced itself in the 1960s. Most of the literature available to English readers belongs to the second type, though it is good to see that examples of the first—E. H. Norman’s Origins of the Modern Japanese State and Jon Halliday’s Political History of Japanese Capitalism, both introduced by John W. Dower, are now available.1 Norman was a brilliant historian who committed suicide in 1957 in Cairo, where he was the Canadian ambassador. This, as Dower writes, was “after a period of recurrent pressure emanating from the United States because of his early leftist views and associations.”

Why Japanese professors should, since the interwar years, have so generally welcomed Marxism while American ones in the 1950s and 1960s should have identified with their own state’s policy in a manner which recalls German academics in 1914, are questions—not least of the sociology of the respective countries’ intellectuals—into which it is impossible to enter here. The point is that both schools are in different ways committed to fitting Japan into a general pattern as a “case-study.” Though of course Marxism is incomparably superior as an approach to history than “modernization,” which is not an explanatory model but a descriptive euphemism like “senior citizen” or “the fuller figure,” designed to purge reality of its earthier associations. More precisely, both seek to offer Japan a general historical destiny—the Marxists looking to a future convergence of Japan with the rest of the world in socialist societies, the “modernizers” regarding the convergence as already in the process of achievement through assimilation to the pattern of what the sociologist Robert Bellah described as the country that “is closer to whatever is meant by modern society than any other,” namely the United States.2

As Dower’s long introduction to Norman’s book points out, “modernization” theories were largely applied to Japan as an antidote to Marxism. They are antihistorical in two ways: in substituting the empty progress from “traditional” to “modern” for what happens to real societies, and in reading the past, in the manner of the “Whig interpretation of history,” essentially as the preparation for a satisfactory, though not yet perfect, present. The peculiar emptiness of these categories makes them easy to fill with ethnocentric and propagandist gas. Subjection, injustice, and social inequality have no place in a model of what Hirschmeier and Yui call the “unified response of a homogeneous society answering the challenges from the advanced countries” (p. 91). The dark side of Japan disappeared behind an indulgent accentuation of the positive; class struggles were redefined as growing pains, though with the decline of the fashion it is now again recognized, as Professor John W. Hall suggests, that “tension models and confrontations” may be worth emphasizing.

Modernization” studies have therefore been most successful when placed at one or two removes from human realities, and when history can be smoothed into “trends,” as in analyses of the mechanics of Japanese economic growth. There is no doubt that the best of such studies are both impressive and illuminating; for example Ohkawa and Rosovsky, in their book Japanese Economic Growth, are more illuminating about the actual operations of the modern Japanese economy than any Marxist writing in English. Yet their success rests on the deliberate neglect of historical questions and explanations. To explain Japan’s enthusiastic and successful adoption of capitalism by observing that in the pre-Meiji period it was “backward economically, but not in other respects” is merely to pass the buck; and Ohkawa and Rosovsky are good enough scholars to be aware that a buck is being passed.3

However, the transformation of Japanese history into a general model conceals a curious paradox, arising from the conservative political objectives of the “modernizers.” The triumphant “economic growth” they recommended and analyzed was not an end in itself, but a means to building a stable and manipulable noncommunist world, safe from ideology and revolution. Growth was infused with values, and the theories which stressed both modernization as a process of growing universal “rationality” and Japan as a model for other Asian countries also stressed the unique and happily conservative cultural and social values of Japan, which its rulers had succeeded in using as instruments of politically safe change. Not without the help of American political scientists, who, after all, had since 1945 been instrumental in preserving both imperial bureaucracy and emperor, and in reformulating the imperial function. In fact, the success of “modernization” depended precisely on what is not “modernized,” and conversely, the progress of “modernization”—i.e., of “values other than the traditional values”—puts the system at risk and “is a source of worry to many responsible people.”4

While the “modernizers” recognize and stress the existence and combination of “old” and “new,” Japanese and Western elements, their conceptual approach precludes establishing any but mechanical relations between both. The peculiarities of Japanese society are either taken as given and fed into the analysis as and when needed5—or discussed separately, perhaps as the particular “secrets” of Japanese success.6 What is missing is the integration of both into a historical process.

E.H. Norman, that unhappy victim of McCarthyism and a more academic kind of blacklisting, may or may not have been “superseded” by subsequent research. But it is not only his civilized literacy and the feeling that he cares about what the Japanese common people went through—rare qualities in the literature—that makes reading the introduction to The Origins of the Modern Japanese State so satisfactory an experience for historians. It is Norman’s ability to see social transformation as a whole while losing none of its concreteness and complexity, its unity or its internal tensions. This was Norman’s greatest debt to that association with Marxism for which he suffered in life and death.


The Marxist approach is suited to Japan not only because it is politically radical—i.e., critical of the bland optimistic homogenizers7—and anyway a good method for history, but because Marx’s own central historical problem, the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the subsequent development of that system, focuses on the central problem of Japanese history since 1868. Plainly Tokugawa Japan was feudal, if that term has any meaning. The capacity of the Japanese economy to make so striking a success of capitalist development must be sought in the indigenous development of its feudal society, which has no parallel outside Europe. (Unfortunately none of the books under review concentrates on the economic dynamics of Tokugawa Japan, though Hirschmeier and Yui’s chapter on the merchants of this period is informative. The work of Thomas C. Smith in this field is particularly illuminating.) Equally plainly Japan is today unequivocally capitalist, and “feudal remnants” are insignificant, in spite of the Japanese preference for TV serials based on the adventures of samurai rather than cowpunchers (but with much the same music).

Yet the attempt to fit this transition into patterns derived too closely from Western history or from ideological interpretations arising out of Western history is largely beside the point. Unlike the development of Western countries, the Japanese transition to capitalism was not indigenous but imported, though indigenously achieved, adapted, and controlled. To seek a “bourgeois revolution” in it, potential, partial, or aborted, is historical confusion. The interwar discussions between the two rival groups of leftist scholars, the Koza and Rono schools, which turned on this question, proved intellectually fruitful, because the problem of the transition to capitalism was a real one.8 However, the differing political policies of the two groups—which still seem to haunt the Japan Socialist Party—were more debatable, because their formulation of the political problem as one of the relation between “bourgeois” and “proletarian” revolution, was not realistic. Even the familiar, and in general illuminating, comparison of Japan with Prussia/Germany has its limits.

Admittedly in both Germany and Japan capitalist development was sponsored, and a good many institutions of bourgeois society were introduced, not by a bourgeoisie or through revolution but by Junkers and samurai, and through controlled reform from above. In both cases the failure to take the liberal-revolutionary road into modern capitalism affected their institutions, ideological superstructures, and future historical options. Both show an overdeveloped ideology of “national community” which helped (intentionally as Halliday would argue) to sidetrack growing internal tensions. Both were strongly marked by militarism, a taste for ultra-right-wing strong-arm movements, and an inclination to drop their liberal elements with little hesitation when trouble struck the system.

  1. 1

    A remarkably interesting Marxist analysis of the peculiarities of Japanese development is also to be found in Perry Anderson’s recent Lineages of the Absolutist State (reviewed in The New York, Review, April 17, 1975).

  2. 2

    Quoted by Dower in E. H. Norman, p. 60.

  3. 3

    Ohkawa and Rosovsky, pp. 3ff., 216.

  4. 4

    Hirschmeier and Yui, p. 314. The simple-minded acceptance of “modernization” orthodoxy by these authors reveals its contradictions with particular clarity. Their book is in other respects a lucid and most helpful guide to the development of Japanese business organization and management.

  5. 5

    Cf. the discussion of the system of “permanent employment” in Ohkawa and Rosovky, pp. 53, 136, 137, 139, 214, 219, 220.

  6. 6

    Cf. Francis L.K. Hsu, p. xi: “This book asserts that Japan responded so well and so rapidly to the challenge of the West because…the iemoto pattern of interpersonal relations enabled her to adapt herself to the requirements of modern industrialization and nationism.” This approach risks falling into the pit of post hoc-propter hoc. If Albania had turned out to be a strikingly successful nursery of capitalist industrialization and accumulation—and why not, it the Basques took to it?—one may guess that monographs would now be written ascribing this to their clan system and blood feuds.

  7. 7

    Even modest criticism in this quarter appears to require apology. Cf. the tone of the following passage from Ohkawa and Rosovsky, pp. 231-232: “When, sitting in the comfortable armchair named hindsight, one considers the past hundred years, it is tempting to say that a few percentage points of the growth rate might well have been sacrificed for greater social welfare. This may sound unduly facile, and as a serious statement it would require extensive amplification. Nevertheless, when Japan is held up as an admired example, the blemishes of the 1920s and 1930s as well as the immense suffering of the 1940s should not be forgotten.” (My emphasis)

  8. 8

    For these debates see Dower’s introduction to Norman, pp. 35-38, Halliday, p. 338, and Stockwin, pp. 149-150.

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