My Life Between Japan and America
Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony
The two books under review, one by an American scholar and former ambassador to Japan, the other by a Japanese industrialist, complement each other to a remarkable degree. The ambassador tells us how America gave Japan a break; the industrialist describes how he took advantage of it. Neither puts it in quite those terms, of course. While Edwin Reischauer speaks vaguely of “shared ideals” and “world peace,” Morita explains the Japanese Economic Miracle as an expression of unique Japanese cultural qualities: devotion to work, loyalty to company, love of learning, and so forth. Both men (one hesitates to call Morita an author—his book bears the marks of having been dictated in a hurry, between appointments) plead for understanding for Japanese culture.
But they do so in a way that reminds me of something that happened to a friend of mine about fifteen years ago. A young Chinese homosexual, who was living in the house of a middle-aged French restaurateur, had the habit of coming home late and sleeping late in the mornings. The Frenchman got so annoyed by this that he woke his friend one day by dousing him with a bucketful of cold water. The Chinese was furious. The main reason for his rage appeared to be his wounded pride. “How could he have done such a thing?” he asked me. “I am Chinese!” He had lost face, as a Chinese. It is hard to imagine a Frenchman reacting in this way. He might be outraged by having cold water thrown in his face, but not because he is French.
Something a little like this can play a part in international relations. “Face” is a fragile thing in east Asia, and cultural sensitivities are easily affronted. It is interesting to see how often the Japanese, for example, plead understanding for their side in trade disputes on cultural grounds. Tariff barriers cannot come down just yet because of traditional social harmony, or the long history of isolation, or delicate domestic sensitivities, or whatnot; but never because it would force local businesses into unwelcome competition with foreigners. Even more interesting is how many American experts, scholars, and diplomats come to the fore on these occasions to argue the Japanese case. If Reischauer started this tradition, the present ambassador to Tokyo, Mike Mansfield, has stuck faithfully to it. I have never heard of a Japanese expert on America explaining Washington’s point of view to his countrymen on the grounds of special American sensitivities. Face, delicate feelings, a long history, all are part of the East. The West is supposed to be as coldly neutral as the machine age it introduced to the unsuspecting world. (Hence, perhaps, the genuine astonishment of many Japanese when Americans yelp in pain when hit in a soft spot, as when Prime Minister Nakasone made his remarks about blacks and Hispanics dragging American educational standards down.)
Morita, one of the founders of Sony and perhaps the most effective publicrelations man for Japan Inc., appears to be in two minds about Americans. They clearly lack the warm family feelings of “We Japanese” (a favorite Morita expression), they see nothing wrong in hopping from one employer to another, or in firing workers when times are bad. But when they attack We Japanese for obstructing American trade, they are “too emotional” and show signs of a “victim complex.” At one point in his book Morita’s own emotions get the better of him:
In Japan we are still the inheritors of an agrarian cultural tradition and philosophy, which are influenced by nature and the change of the seasons…. We have thousands of years of history and tradition and that is why we are not pleased when we are treated as newcomers by such a young—even though great—country as the United States.
One might well ask what the four seasons have to do with international terms of trade, but this is one of the most often-heard clichés of the great Japanese cultural tariff barrier, that cluster of myths commonly believed to be signs of Japanese uniqueness. These myths are worth examining, for they affect the way Japan wishes to be seen by the outside world, and thus they affect international affairs. Part of the mythology is Japan’s unique claim to the guardianship of peace, linked on the left to the unique suffering from American nuclear bombs, and on the right to a celebration of “our one-race nation” (Morita), with its uniquely harmonious industrial relations. As an example of Japan’s peaceful nature, Morita points out that there were no wars in Japan during the country’s period of virtual isolation from 1603 to 1868: “Japan may have been the only country in the world where complete peace reigned for such a long time.” And he goes on to write, “in our labor relations, we have a kind of equality that does not exist elsewhere.” This is complete nonsense, but more about that later. Suffice it to say at this point that many heads were cracked before the power of independent Japanese unions was broken. The implication of Morita’s claim is clear, however. Foreign pressure threatens Japanese harmony.
An associate professor of philosophy called Hasegawa Michiko wrote three years ago that Japan unleashed its fifteen-year war in Asia because the Japanese “began to subscribe to the characteristically Western world view of dividing nations into friends and foes…and of behaving antagonistically towards enemies.” After the war, however, “the Japanese determined never again to take up residence in the violent Western-style international community.” Hasegawa is regarded as a right-wing Japanese nationalist. The position of the Japanese left can be summed up best by quoting from Introduction to Peace Education, a booklet published by the Hiroshima Peace Education Research Center:
Japan suffered incalculable human, spiritual and material damage from the war. We repented our aggression. We are a new people who will never take part in or start another war…. In our constitution it is clearly expressed that we negate war and seek eternal peace…. However, after the war, Japan, under the US Occupation forces, was dragged into the so-called cold war and forced to rearm against the Soviet Union.
The Japan-US security treaty allowing the US to keep its forces in Japan, the booklet goes on to explain, is “absolutely contrary to the spirit of the constitution.”
The security treaty was extended in 1960, when Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, a former minister in General Tojo’s wartime cabinet, pushed it through parliament. The extraordinary riots that followed cost President Eisenhower his planned trip to Japan and Kishi his job. It was under these, or, more precisely, because of these circumstances that Edwin O. Reischauer was appointed by President Kennedy as US ambassador to Tokyo. Reischauer, born in Japan and a noted Harvard scholar in East Asian affairs, was an expert in Japanese cultural sensitivities and his brief was, in the parlance of the time, to “restore the broken dialogue”—the dialogue, that is, with the Japanese left.
Was he the right man for the job? The Japanese, as Reischauer himself points out over and over again, certainly thought so. And many Americans thought so too. In a typical passage Reischauer quotes “a certain Ambassador Flake, who…told us upon leaving that never in his thirtyfive years in the Foreign Service had he seen the morale and spirit of an Embassy rise so sharply as ours did after we came.” Even the Japanese emperor was pleased to see the great conciliator:
At court functions, the Emperor could not conceal his boredom as he gravely murmured to each person in turn, “Yo koso (You are welcome).” However, on more than one occasion early in our stay, he suddenly broke his usual solemn round when he looked up and saw that he was shaking my hand and, bursting into a broad smile, would say with enthusiasm, “Honto ni yo koso (You really are very welcome).”
Ambassador Reischauer, it seems clear, came, saw, and conquered. Ironically, the only ones who never much took to him were the Japanese leftists who rightly saw the so-called Reischauer line (basically the strengthening of Japan as the main capitalist Asian ally against Chinese and Soviet communism) as inimical to their pan-Asian socialist aspirations. These aspirations petered out in time. Today the voice of the left is hardly audible. Many reasons have been given for this. Few have much to do with Reischauer’s ambassadorial dialogues. US and subsequently Japanese recognition of China took much of the wind out of the pan-Asian cause. And the sharp rise in living standards that began with the economic boom of the 1960s was part of a deliberate political strategy to undermine political activism. The so-called income-doubling plan was hatched when Kishi was still prime minister, but carried out under his successor, Ikeda Hayato. The South Korean leader Park Chung Hee, though a far more authoritarian figure than Ikeda, did the same thing for similar reasons. Oddly, Reischauer only refers to Park in the most scathing terms.
So the basis for the Japanese Economic Miracle was laid during Reischauer’s tenure which ended in 1966. The miracle seemed to suit the political goal of making Japan a strong, dependable (and indeed, highly dependent) US ally. Which is why Japan was treated as a special case, like a gifted child who needs to be carefully nurtured. It led to a comfortable arrangement whereby Washington, more or less, took care of Japanese defense and foreign policy, while the Japanese got on with getting rich. In effect, Japan could build a partly statesubsidized and -managed export economy, retaining domestic tariff barriers to an extent unthinkable in Western Europe or the US, and still be treated as if it were a free-trading nation. Of course, once a subsidized industry had cornered the Japanese market, the tariffs could gradually come down. One must give the Japanese credit for using the circumstances to their best advantage and setting up a highly efficient industrial policy.
It was during that golden age of the transistor salesman that Morita built his empire. He describes in his book how he appeared in 1969 before a Joint Congressional Economic Committee in Washington. He was asked by a congressman “whether it was possible for us Americans to start a firm in Japan when you started Sony in Japan.” “No,” said Morita, “it was not possible.” Whereupon the congressman said: “But Sony has now established a firm in America. Why is it that America is not allowed to enter Japan?” And Morita said: “The Japanese had a fear complex that giant America’s free inroads into Japan would immediately outmarket them. Whatever the reason, as long as they have this fear complex, they will feel resistant toward liberalization.” Quite how this fits in with Morita’s admonishments that if only American businessmen would learn Japanese and work harder the Japanese market would be theirs, is never explained.