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Just Say Noh

The Japan That Can Say ‘No’: The Card for a New US–Japan Relationship

by Morita Akio, by Ishihara Shintaro
Kobunsha, 160 pp., 800 yen

Is there a possible connection between the Sony Walkman and the Japanese emperor? Or, if that sounds too farfetched, is there a link between haiku poems and the FSX jet fighter? Or, if that is too outré, what about computer technology and the uniqueness of the Japanese brain? In sum, can Japanese proficiency in high technology be a function of Japanese culture?

Ishihara Shintaro, Liberal Democratic party politician, former Minister of Transport, failed candidate for the prime ministership of Japan, and one of the authors of the book at hand, thinks it is. I first read his argument, largely repeated in the book, in an article that appeared at the time of the late emperor Hirohito’s funeral. It was published in Bungei Shunju, one of the more serious literary journals in Japan.

The argument went roughly as follows: because of its climatic and geographical position, as well as its racial homogeneity, Japan has developed a unique culture, whose unique symbol is the Japanese emperor. In Ishihara’s words:

The essence of Japaneseness has remained unchanged…. The firm unity of the Japanese people has developed over the ages for many reasons, but it explains why we identify with our emperor, which is how we are able to evaluate our lives…. Our honest and sincere emperor is the tribal symbol within our national polity and our culture; indeed, he is like the father of our family….

Having established the preeminence of the imperial symbol, Ishihara goes on to define what he sees as the national genius. This is the unique talent to receive ideas or forms from abroad and refine them beyond the wildest dreams of the cruder peoples who initiated them. The examples, says Ishihara, are legion: Buddhism, Confucianism, art, architecture—all these reached the pinnacle of sophistication in Japan.

One can usually tell by the foreigners a Japanese thinker quotes where he or she is, as they say, coming from. Ishihara quotes Toynbee and Malraux, both solid standbys in the arsenal of Japanese nationalists; Toynbee because of his prophecy of doom for the West and Malraux because he pleased his hosts by pronouncing at every opportunity upon the spiritual superiority of Japanese art, in this case Japanese Buddhist sculpture. Ishihara also cites a Japanese, whom he professes to have admired above all others: Genda Minoru, the “genius who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour.” Genda observed that whereas the European sword was merely a tool for killing people, the Japanese sword was a thing of extraordinary and mysterious beauty, a true work of art, again a clear sign of superior sophistication.

What, then, is the reason for this? Ishihara starts off with a fairly down-to-earth explanation: Japan, being at the outer edge of a great continental civilization, could not pass on its culture elsewhere and instead polished to greater perfection whatever it received. But soon wilder flights of fancy take over: “The special quality of our people may have been a gift from Heaven, in any case, it is without parallel.” Or it may be the uniqueness of the Japanese brain, according to the dubious theory propounded by Dr. Tsunoda Tadanobu, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist whose views get attention in the Japanese press. Ishihara is not entirely sure how this uniqueness, the details of which we can dispense with here, is related to, say, the national genius for inventing and developing high technology, but “it surely must go some way to explain it.”

What is, in any case, beyond doubt in Ishihara’s mind is the connection between the talent for compressed poetry and artistic refinement and the Japanese success in modern technology. And so, from the emperor cult, via the haiku and the sword, with a short side trip to neurophysiology, we arrive at the FSX fighter plane. So far the FSX, developed at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, is only a blueprint, but Ishihara believes the FSX is so superior to any American or Soviet fighter that the US had to force the Japanese to share their technology. Not one to beat around the bush, Ishihara put it more bluntly: “America wants to steal Japanese know-how.”

Japanese technological supremacy has had another consequence: the US and the Soviet Union, both white nations with racist attitudes, are banding together out of fear of becoming fatefully dependent on Japanese technology. If only Japanese politicians would play their cards more forcefully and know how to say “No” to America, and if only the Japanese would use their superior skills as a tool in world politics, why then “we could force the military superpowers to compromise and live in harmony.” For, as Ishihara points out over and over, Japan is about to create a brand-new civilization that will benefit all of mankind, just as, he says with almost paternal pride, such currently successful Asian nations as Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea benefited from Japanese administration in the past.

All this is rather strong meat at a time of increasing American suspicion of its most powerful East Asian ally. More than half of the Americans polled by Newsweek considered Japan’s economic might a greater threat than the military power of the Soviet Union. And when Sony bought Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion, 43 percent thought this was a bad thing. These people will not be reassured to hear that Ishihara’s coauthor of The Japan That Can Say “No” is none other than Sony’s peripatetic chairman, and the business pundit-at-large, Morita Akio.

Morita, an experienced operator in American public relations, is shrewd enough to realize this, and is said to be extremely chary of having the book appear in English. Certainly, on literary and intellectual merit, the book deserves to be ignored. It consists of a number of speeches pitched at the level of a traveling salesman’s convention, cobbled together by a publisher eager for copy. But Ishihara and Morita are powerful men, the book has sold well in Japan, and many of the opinions expressed seem fairly representative of the current mood of the nation, or at least of the nation’s press and televison. As Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions…their passions a quotation.” So I think it is vital for a book such as this to be translated for an American audience.

On the face of it, Ishihara and Morita are a peculiar double act: Ishihara is a gung-ho, Japan-must-go-it-alone jingoist, while Morita is a suave jetsetter, much of whose business is outside Japan. And being a smooth salesman and friend to the stars, his tone is a lot less shrill than Ishihara’s. Still, there must be considerable sympathy between the two, for Ishihara believes that Morita would make a splendid Japanese ambassador to Washington.

In fact, there are at least two sides to Morita, which potential shareholders in Columbia Pictures might be interested to know about. One side is the superb self-promoting international entrepreneur, a kind of Japanese combination of Lee Iacocca and Malcolm Forbes (they probably meet at some of the same parties). Fortune called him “remarkably American.” There is some truth to this observation and, as we shall see, it has some bearing on the other side of Morita, that of the unofficial roving minister of Japanese propaganda. Morita’s often repeated portrait of himself as an unknown transistor salesman who moved to the Big Apple with nothing much more than pluck, native ingenuity, and the boundless energy to knock down doors, fits right into early Frank Capra or late Francis Ford Coppola movies; Morita’s self-portrait recalls not so much Forbes or Iacocca as Mr. Smith or Preston Tucker. And like a Frank Capra hero, Morita made good in America, so good, indeed, that he can now afford to lecture America on its sloth, its decadence, and its racism (the US decision to punish Toshiba for selling proscribed technology to the Soviet Union was “similar in substance to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war”).

The message of Morita as an unofficial propaganda minister has been so often told and commented upon, in these pages among others,1 that one grows weary of repeating it yet again. But the balls lobbed with such unflagging vigor by Morita usually find such feeble opposition that at least a few of them should be returned. American companies, he argues, disregard the “human rights” of American workers by laying them off when times are bad. Japanese companies, in contrast, are, as Morita puts it, “not so much profit-making organizations as welfare organizations.” For, he goes on to explain, “once an individual is hired, he has been hired for life and unless he commits a serious offense, the company cannot fire him.” The Japanese company is “a community with a common fate or destiny.” Sony workers don’t need outside unions to look after their interests, for “they feel that the plant is their home.” The Japanese phrase for this wonderful world of common destiny and warm solidarity is nakama-ishiki, literally, “group consciousness.”

The minister forgets to mention that the so-called lifetime employment system is limited to the largest corporations, covering roughly one third of the Japanese work force. The rest are employed as seasonal contract workers or work for small subcontractors. So while the staff employees of Sony or Matsushita are relatively secure in difficult times, the other two thirds of the Japanese work force can be and often are out on their ears without much of a safety net to tide them over. The next time a captain of industry holds forth about common destiny and the company family one might give some thought to the majority of Japanese factory workers who are left out.

Naturally, Morita has strong views on the trade imbalance between the US and Japan. It is really quite simple:

There are few things in the US that Japanese want to buy, but many things in Japan that Americans want to buy.

It is an argument that is almost never challenged, by Japanese or foreigners, who nod ruefully and think that maybe Toynbee was right and the West is kaput, or at the very least that foreign businessmen really should try harder to learn Japanese and sell their wares more efficiently. To be sure, the Japanese have many desirable consumer goods that we would all like to get, but whether the Japanese would buy more foreign products at competitive prices is impossible to tell, as Morita says:

Even when we all agree that Japan should open its domestic market, we make little progress, because there are too many separate arguments against doing so.

When the US does have something to sell, such as telecommunications equipment, for example, sales are either obstructed or Japanese arms must be twisted so hard that politicians and industrialists squeal about the need to say “No” to America.

There is, however, another reason why Morita believes Japan should learn to say “No,” a reason more difficult to understand for outsiders perhaps, but one very much in keeping with his role as propaganda minister. “As Ishihara said, I think Japan must say what it wishes to say and indeed what needs to be said, for if we do not, Japan will lose its identity.” Here it is again, that dreaded word: “aidentitee”—Morita uses the English word in his Japanese text. He has clearly given the Japanese aidentitee some serious thought and come up with the usual clichés, usual, that is, for those familiar with the voluminous Japanese literature on the subject, collectively known as “the theory of Japaneseness” or Nihonjinron. To give but a taste of this kind of thing, I quote one example from Morita’s text:

When Japanese read Chinese literature we need signs to change the word order, while Chinese can simply read from beginning to end and understand the sentence at once. English is like Chinese in this way. This means that American thought processes follow a different order from ours. And so, no matter how excellent the interpreter, a Japanese will not be able to understand an American by following the order of Japanese thought processes. Regrettably, when it comes to putting our message across, the order or our thoughts puts us in a minority in the world. If we don’t communicate with Westerners in an order they can grasp, we cannot be understood….

Another thing that non-Japanese regrettably cannot fathom is the Japanese facility for nonverbal communication. This, says Morita, as well as an army of Japanese identity pundits, is a uniquely Japanese trait. If true, the peculiar Japanese identity would make doing business with Japanese very difficult indeed, let alone working for Japanese bosses. But I don’t think Columbia employees should worry too much about this. Morita himself has shown how an intelligent Japanese, with a reasonable grasp of English, is capable of communicating with foreigners.

But maybe Morita does not quite mean that. Maybe he is trying to get at something vaguer, more mystical, more in tune with the “uniqueness” that Ishihara argues must be protected at all costs. As with the beautiful and mysterious Japanese sword, Genda, the hero of Pearl Harbor, is cited by Ishihara to make this point:

If we Japanese can develop our current technology to increase our lead over other nations farther, that would ensure the security of Japan, especially if our technology, not directly related to military projects, benefits the whole of mankind.2

Quite how far Japan ought to be ahead of its rivals is not mentioned in the magazine article, but in the book Genda is quoted as saying that ten years would do to see Japan through the first quarter of the next century. These ideas, writes Ishihara, “transcend strategic thinking, indeed they are more like a concept of civilization.”

This may seem reasonable, indeed persuasive to those of a pacifist bent who believe that world peace is threatened mainly by American and, to a lesser extent, Soviet hawks. In fact it is a familiar kind of Japanese nationalism couched in pacifist terms: the world will only be safe under Japanese domination, not military domination this time, but the domination of superior Japanese technology which will be good for us all. If that is the way things are, American companies trying to sell high technology, let alone European or Asian companies, might as well give up competing for a share of the Japanese market, for they would be seen as a threat not just to Japanese corporate profits but to world peace.

One should bear in mind that the Ishihara-Morita message was never meant for those whose thought processes follow a non-Japanese pattern. It is aimed very much at a Japanese audience. Why now? Why do the Japanese have to be reminded yet again of the company family spirit, of unique Japanese culture, of lazy and racist Americans, etc. And why by the likes of Morita and Ishihara?

One can only speculate, but I think the book’s message can be connected with a defensiveness on the part of the Japanese powers that be: the Liberal Democratic party has been shaken quite severely by recent scandals. The Japanese Socialist party at last is beginning to behave like a genuinely competitive party with workable ideas, which could make it more than a marginal chorus of futility. And there are signs that Japanese consumers are starting to get uppity, for they realize they are getting a raw deal out of the Japanese Economic Miracle. Foreigners buy many Japanese products at prices lower than the ones in Japanese shops, and many well-paid Japanese can’t afford apartments reasonably close to their work place.

This does not make them necessarily sympathetic to foreign trade demands, although in some ways it should, nor is the Japanese Socialist party manning the barricades for a more open, cosmopolitan society. But things are changing enough to make life at the political-bureaucratic-corporate top a little less comfortable, a little more vulnerable, especially now that Washington is talking tough about trade. This is clearly Morita’s concern. Ishihara on the other hand expresses Japan’s understandable frustration at being so rich and yet almost totally dependent on the US for defense, reason enough for the Japanese right wing to continually accuse the government of spinelessness.

It is an interesting phenomenon in modern Japanese history that the most vociferous promoters of nationalist propaganda are often people on the fringes of the establishment: academics from the lesser universities, maverick politicians, eccentric activists. Ultranationalist organizations in the 1930s attracted few major writers or graduates from the Imperial University law school, but more than a few minor intellectuals, often, curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, specialists in European languages. It was as though they had to prove their pukka Japanese credentials by being chauvinistic blow-hards. In exchange for their efforts the propagandists were allowed to, as it were, sit at the table of bigger and more powerful boys.

I am not suggesting that Morita or Ishihara are minor figures in that sense, but they are both mavericks, outsiders in a very conservative establishment. Ishihara made his name as a novelist in the 1950s with a succès de scandale called Season of the Sun, all about rebels without a cause frolicking scandalously in a beach resort south of Tokyo. It was made into a movie, which was supposed to star Ishihara himself, but instead featured his brother Yujiro. Ishihara is a handsome, flamboyant figure, most unlike his stuffy colleagues who rose to the top through the best universities and the most powerful ministries. One cannot imagine any other Liberal Democratic party politician posing, as Ishihara did recently, in Penthouse magazine, leaning on a Japanese sword, wearing a tuxedo, and surrounded by a bunch of half-naked girls. Ishihara’s unorthodox style has barred him from the head of the big boys’ table, even though he too attended one of the best Tokyo universities. As though to make up for this, he has become a promoter of right-wing chauvinism, nostalgic for a Japan that once had the patriotic spirit to go it alone.

Morita, as much of a showman as Ishihara (imagine the CEO of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries posing with Cindy Lauper on the cover of the New York Times Magazine), is an oddball in the Japanese corporate world. Sony, however famous abroad, is not one of the venerable old companies like Mitsui, Mitsubishi, or Sumitomo; nor is it as powerful in Japan as National or Nissan. Morita is a self-made man, indeed much like an American entrepreneur, who benefited from the freedom of the 1940s and 1950s, when Japan had to get on its feet again and there was plenty of elbow room for a young man with ideas. Morita and his less flashy colleagues had good ideas and they made it, but more was needed to sit at the same table as the big boys. And so Mr. Sony became Mr. Japan, Minister of Propaganda. This way he can compensate for being an upstart, for larding his Japanese with English, for being, well, a little too American.

None of this is to say that Sony should have been stopped from buying Columbia Pictures. On the contrary, let us welcome Morita the businessman, but be wary of Morita the minister. And come to think of it, perhaps he should be made ambassador to Washington. At least then we would be sure to know where he is coming from.

  1. 1

    See my review of Morita’s Made in Japan in The New York Review, March 12, 1987.

  2. 2

    Bungei Shunju, March 1989.

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