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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.