We Japanese

My Life Between Japan and America

by Edwin O. Reischauer
Harper and Row, 367 pp., $22.50

Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony

by Akio Morita, with Edwin M. Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura
Dutton, 309 pp., $18.95

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.

Naturally, Japan’s rather cushy economic deal and her lack of a foreign policy beyond wishing, like any good merchant, to remain friends with everybody, irritated Americans and Europeans at times, but this is where Reischauer could be counted upon to explain Japanese cultural sensitivities to the unthinking and unfeeling barbarians.

Besides speaking Japanese, Reischauer was a youthful representative of Kennedy’s Camelot, and was married to a Japanese. Almost as soon as they arrived in Tokyo, Reischauer and his wife, Haru, became superstars for the Japanese press. He saw his job “as being essentially educational, as it had been at Harvard.” This meant explaining America to the Japanese, but more importantly for a Japanese scholar, it meant explaining Japan to Americans. Reischauer often showed impatience with American newsmen who did not show an adequate understanding of things Japanese. The great Japanese public which adores benign pedagogues, especially when the subject concerns the great Japanese public itself, loved Reischauer. And Japanese officials, who know a soft foreign touch when they see one, loved him too.

There is obviously nothing wrong with promoting mutual understanding. Indeed, it is desirable. But understanding Japanese feelings is held to be synonymous in Japan with seeing things from Tokyo’s point of view. Understanding, in other words, implies agreement. Mixing politics and culture, therefore, almost always works toward Japan’s advantage. In the 1960s Japan’s advantage was held to be America’s advantage, too—few people had woken up yet to the potential might of the Japanese industrial machine. So in the mood of his time, Reischauer did a good job. In the 1980s things are a little different, however. And it would have been fascinating to know what the old conciliator thinks now of the trade imbalance between the US and Japan, and to what extent it can be traced to policies laid down in the days of his own Tokyo Camelot.

Alas, not a word. Instead, endless space is devoted to more prestigious (a favorite Reischauer word) matters: awards, distinguished guests, speeches received rapturously, prestigious positions on prestigious panels of prestigious organizations and so on. When Reischauer vents his spleen about not receiving a Purple Heart—“which I felt I deserved for my close brush with death in the service of my country”—after being stabbed in the thigh by a Japanese lunatic, one is not sure whether he is being facetious. One rather thinks not.

Morita, as a true insider, could have given us an important account of how the Japanese economic system was set up, how the Ministry of International Trade and Industry decided upon policies, how they benefited Japanese companies, and how Sony, as a postwar parvenu, fit in with more established concerns with closer links to the bureaucracy. But Morita is so busy promoting himself—so much for the stereotypical self-effacing Japanese—and the virtues of Japanese culture that he explains absolutely nothing, except, well, himself. “As I said to Henry Kissinger…”; “I was frank with Deng…”; “I told President Reagan…”; “I pointed out to my friend George Shultz…Herbert von Karajan…Cyrus Vance….” And there usually follows a self-serving platitude about the feelings of We Japanese. Although Morita likes to think of Sony, perhaps rightly, as an exceptional company in Japan, it is not always clear which hat he is wearing: that of Morita, the man, Morita, the chairman of Sony, or Morita, the spokesman of We Japanese. As far as the man’s exceptional talents are concerned, we are told that these were “handed down to me through the family genes.” But he also believes that as a manager he is blessed with “a kind of Oriental sixth sense.” This piece of wisdom was actually suggested by William Bernbach, the New York advertising man, and Morita took to it instantly.

Reischauer, too, appears to have imbibed Oriental wisdom in his baby cot. The first sentence of Chapter 1 reveals a great deal about the ambassador’s character:

In my youth, American children born in Japan, especially those of missionary parentage, were called BIJs. We were very proud of the distinction and felt superior to our less fortunate comrades. We tended to know a great deal more about living in Japan than they did and to speak better Japanese.

The BIJ mentality seems to have stuck for life. As did the missionary zeal to teach mankind the morally correct position, as it were. Reischauer takes trouble to inform his readers that unlike other foreigners, “the fundamental attitude…in my own home…was one of deep respect for the Japanese.” Four paragraphs later he repeats that “I was free from racial prejudice,” and that this meant that “I was a generation or two ahead of my time.” It is splendid and reassuring to know that the ambassador was not a racist, but there is something annoying about the way he has to ram the point home. It also betrays the peculiar defensiveness of a man who is emotionally committed to two countries, which do not always get along too well. Reischauer is constantly ready to defend Japan against would-be attackers. This may not have been quite the right frame of mind for a man with the brief to defend American interests in a tough and competitive world.

Reischauer is a little too proud of his own righteousness. Like a considerable number of liberal-minded people at the time, he thought in the late 1930s that Western colonial empires had had their day. In 1939 he wrote a proposal to the State Department, which argued that “all the peoples and nations of the Pacific Area are by nature equal as nations, peoples and individuals” and that “all discrimination based upon differences of race” should be ended. These were noble sentiments, with which one can have no quarrel. But to say that “I was light-years ahead of most other people” is perhaps an overstatement. “Who could envisage the disappearance of the British, French, and the Dutch empires?” Well, quite a few people actually. Why does he think Gandhi had so much support in Britain?

The point, however, is not so much that Reischauer is a boaster. Modesty may be a virtue, but it is a virtue lacking in many great men. There is a more important flaw in the BIJ’s character, a flaw shared by many liberals, especially liberals born to missionary parents. Reischauer is so intent on proving his moral righteousness that he risks losing touch with reality. Or, to put it in another way, reality is rejected when it does not fit into his moral vision. How else can one explain Reischauer’s insistence that the US and Japan shared an “equal partnership,” when this was—and is—so patently beside the truth? An equal partnership, when the US ambassador to Tokyo “ranked somewhere between the imperial family and the cabinet”? The equal partnership is of course a fine ideal based upon another ideal, presented by Reischauer as if it were reality. This is that

the two nations shared common basic ideals of democracy, human rights, and egalitarianism, and yearned alike for a peaceful world order made up of truly independent nations, bound together by as free and open trade as possible.

We all want peace. And Japan certainly benefits from free and open trade in other countries. But the same common ideals of democracy and human rights? This is an act of faith, by no means always justified by facts.

Not that allies necessarily need to share the same ideals, as long as they share the same interests. It is certainly in the interests of both Tokyo and Washington that conflict between the countries is avoided. But one wonders whether that cause is served in the long run by painting a rosier picture than one ought, and by tolerating political gambits in the guise of cultural proclivities.

Morita’s book is political. It is a huge red herring aimed at American businessmen wringing their hands at so many Japanese miracles. His cultural explanations for Japanese business success are not only self-serving and disingenuous, but false. It is not true that Japanese companies never fire workers, because “we are part of the same family.” Only the largest corporations offer the so-called lifetime employment system, which covers about one third of the Japanese work force. The rest are employed as seasonal contract workers or work for small subcontracting firms, which have a vital part in Japanese industry. So, while it is true that large corporations can ride economic crises without letting many workers go, this is at the expense of smaller firms, who no longer enjoy the trickle-down benefits of the big companies. It is they who suffer from the high yen rate, while the large corporations export as many cars and video sets as before. And plenty of workers get fired in the process.

It is not true that “the competition on our domestic markets makes the consumer king.” Japanese consumers sometimes pay as much as 50 percent more than any Westerners for manufactured goods,1 and about five times as much for beef or rice (rice farmers are protected from any outside competition because they are part of the “Japanese cultural heritage,” as well as voters for the ruling Liberal Democratic party).

It is not true that “today’s Japanese do not think in terms of privilege” or “that we have a kind of equality that does not exist elsewhere.” Japanese society is very hierarchical indeed, especially when compared to the US. And the historical example of eighteenth-century actors who broke into the upper classes by dint of their success is absurd; actors, like black slaves, were sought after as illicit sex partners, but they were still beyond the pale in class terms, an attitude that persists even today. When Morita’s own son wanted to marry a popular singer, he was almost disowned by his father. As an instance of his own egalitarianism—as opposed to American elitism—Morita tells us that he was prepared to pose for pictures with the staff of a Sony lab near Palo Alto. And as for the idea that “money is not the most effective tool” to motivate Japanese workers, but that “family loyalty” is, well, I would like to hear that from a factory worker, not from his very rich boss. (One wonders, incidentally, what could have stimulated a respected journalist like Edwin Reingold to help write this shoddy book, if it was not money—but then, of course, he is a materialistic American.)

But even if all these things were true, they still do not explain why so many foreign products cannot be sold in Japan at competitive prices. Forget about American cars, what about products from South Korea or other Asian countries? A worse problem is that by monopolizing specific markets abroad, Japanese corporations systematically undermine entire industries in other countries.2 Learning Japanese or working harder is not going to save these industries. Morita is quite right to say at the end of his book that the “future holds exciting technological advances that will enrich the lives of everybody on the planet.” Telecommunications, for example, a field in which the US is still superior. Professor Chalmers Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley, has written a detailed study of how two Japanese ministries are gearing up to set the stage for another Japanese miracle: the future monopoly of the telecommunications market by Japanese corporations.3 What is to be done about this? Peter Drucker, among others, suggests bilateralism or “reciprocity”: tariffs and other penalties applicable only to goods from countries that refuse to import similar goods.

Morita’s answer? “Reciprocity would mean changing laws to accept foreign systems that may not suit our culture.” Indeed.

  1. 1

    See an article by Peter F. Drucker in The Asian Wall Street Journal, January 7, 1987.

  2. 2

    For an analysis of how the Japanese system is set up to do this, see “The Japan Problem” by K.G. van Wolferen in Foreign Affairs (Winter 1986).

  3. 3

    Chalmers Johnson, “MITI, MPT, and the Telecom Wars: How Japan Makes Policy for High Technology” (BRIE Working Paper, Berkeley, September 1986).