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Americainerie

The point of these culinary theme parks is to establish clear cultural boundary lines, however invented they might be. As Creighton says: “Through this dialectic of ‘us’ and ‘other’ depato [department stores] help their modern clientele affirm Japaneseness in a culturally eclectic age.”

This is clearly true. Where I think I differ from some of the contributors to Re-Made in Japan is in their emphasis on modernity, as though cultural eclecticism were a specific product of the modern age (whenever that may have started). Culture never was pure, traditions always were invented, or parodied. Nancy Rosenberger quotes Baudrillard and Bourdieu (another one of those sacred French cows) to observe that Japanese consumers advertise the status they desire by the products they buy, by simulating “the tastes…of the higher classes they aspire to.” First, one does not need Bourdieu to tell us this. Second, the phenomenon is not new, or, if one prefers, “modern.” Edo period merchants paid good money to acquire samurai culture. They even paid good money for prostitutes to act as noble beauties of the Heian period.

What has changed—perhaps the real point of this book—is Japan’s relative wealth vis-à-vis the rest of the world, particularly the West. In a very interesting essay on Tokyo Disneyland (bigger than the lands of Anaheim and Orlando), Mary Yoko Brannen challenges the Baudrillardian assumption that Disneyland means American cultural imperialism. As she describes the place, it is rather the other way round. The Japanese have turned Disney into a modern Japanese equivalent of nineteenth-century European Japonaiserie. One might call it Americainerie. The Western craftsmen and guides, who are not allowed to speak Japanese and, unlike their Japanese colleagues, do not wear name tags, are put on display like exhibits in a Victorian ethnological fair. The theme parks, such as “Meet the World.” have been carefully redone to make the Japanese look both normal (to the Japanese) and unique (to everybody else), and the foreigners exotic (in the case of Westerners) and disreputable (in the case of Chinese). She concludes that “the selective importation of Disney cultural artifacts works in the service of an ongoing Japanese process of cultural imperialism.”

3.

What would SCAP make of it all? Now Japanese executives land in LA, New York, and Honolulu and buy the flashiest buildings, the finest companies, and the biggest studios in Hollywood. GI Joe is still in Japan, to be sure, but he can hardly afford to leave his base. Indeed, the more salacious Japanese weeklies love to recount that his own wife is sometimes constrained to meet Japanese patrons to exchange her favors for yen. Meanwhile Japanese politicians and popular authors write best sellers about the Japanese ruling the world. One of the latest is entitled This Is How History Begins. The jacket announces that “Japanese civilization has begun to take over from the white man’s civilization,” and that “for the next 250 years, Japan will move the world.”3 No wonder people in the West are beginning to feel anxious.

The new fashion for Yellow Peril fiction is one anxiety symptom. There is the pulp end of it, with titles like The Tojo Virus by John D. Randall, about a dastardly Japanese plot to cripple the military, scientific, and business computers in America by infecting them with a virus. Or there is Blood Heat, about Japanese biological warfare against American civilians. Or Dragon, about Japanese nuclear blackmail. Then there is the sophisticated end of the market with Michael Crichton’s best seller Rising Sun.4

What most of these books have in common is an image of the Japanese that makes them seem omnipotent, sinister, fanatical, and sexually threatening. The cover of Steven Schlossstein’s Kensei reads: “Calculation. Determination. Elimination. The samurai code for total victory in the war on America.” Those tired old samurai again. Since these books also play up the idea of American doom, Americans are often depicted as venal, decadent, or simple suckers. As a Japanese character in Dragon observes to an American opponent: “You’ve become a cesspool of deterioration, and the process is unstoppable.” 5

More rational, or at least more sympathetic, are the books on how to learn the secret of Japanese power. Miyamoto Musashi’s eighteenth-century tract on samurai tactics, entitled The Book of the Five Rings, has proven a popular book among the businessmen seeking insights into Japanese business strategy. More upto-date accounts have such titles as Yen, or Why Has Japan Succeeded?, or Japanese Power Game. The most detailed and by far the best informed of the crop is Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power.

Now there appears to be a third genre: how to cash in on Japanese economic power by joining it. Some, like Yankee Samurai, by Dennis Laurie, or Funny Business: An Outsider’s Year in Japan, by Gary Katzenstein, are accounts of what it is like to be employed by Japanese companies. One of the odder specimens of this ilk is by Jina Bacarr, a longtime student of Japanese culture, and a “spokesperson” for the Japan Mutual Food Company. It bears the straightforward title How To Work for a Japanese Boss. The book is an amalgam of advice, potted history (from 660 BC to 1992 in four pages), and cultural analysis.

But culture is just one aspect of Bacarr’s objective, which is “to teach you how to think Japanese.” She tries to achieve this by combining the down-to-earth and the airy-fairy in a disconcerting way. Her advice on how to do business with Japanese is practical, even though presented in the kind of babytalk to which readers of American business magazines have become accustomed. Chapters open with haiku-like personality sketches, which read like captions to Glen Baxter cartoons: “As Kurt followed the kimono-clad waitress to his table in the Japanese restaurant, he paid little attention to the beautiful decor and the sound of the small brook running through the restaurant.” If much of her advice to aspiring American “salarymen” seems more appropriate to aspiring courtiers, that is because the unfortunate salaryman’s chances of success do indeed depend to a large extent on his or her capacity for fawning, dissembling, and attending to the boss’s whims.

What is distressing about this book is how little we seem to have progressed from the cultural clichés of the Occupation. Bacarr, like so many others before her, has this to say about “the Japanese character”: 1. They are good at copying; 2. Zen, or “the contemplation of the void,” is “the root of much of their success”; 3. The Japanese are masters of “group-think.” The Americans, she concludes, “tend to use logic,” whereas “the Japanese use a system based on emotions and spiritual values that goes back to feudal times when they were ruled by a class of samurai who…etc. etc.”

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore culture altogether. Cultural differences exist, and they affect the way we do things. But if crude cultural distinctions are to be the main explanation for economic and political arrangements, there are only three options when conflicts arise with countries whose cultures are different from our own; they become like us, we become like them, or we go to war, by boycotting their trade, or, in extreme cases, by taking up arms.

To judge from the latest books, good and bad, there are few takers any longer for the idea that Japan will be just like us. In this respect, the Chrysanthemum Club has lost, and the so-called revisionists, who maintain that the Japanese (or East Asian) version of capitalism is fundamentally different from the Anglo-American system, have won. Quite how Japan differs is a matter of contention, even among the revisionists. Taggart Murphy, a former investment banker, now writing as a revisionist on Japanese finance, argued in The Washington Post that Japanese bureaucracy was not able to restrain Japanese corporations, whose expansionism he compared to units of the Imperial Army in the 1930s. American pressure, he said, could help the bureaucracy to be more forceful. Karel van Wolferen commented in the same paper that the main problem with Japan was the control exercised over the Japanese economy by bureaucrats “under the wings of Japan’s Finance Ministry.”

Whatever their differences, however, many revisionists share a portentous tone of gloom. They are the professional Cassandras, as opposed to the Chrysanthemum Pollyannas. Their very language invites visions of catastrophe. On the subject of American decline, they tend to sound like French nationalists after losing the war with Prussia in 1871. It is as though the virility of the nation were at stake. When Michael Crichton began to research Rising Sun, he “was stunned to discover how desperate our situation really is.” America, I was told by a revisionist in Tokyo, was now going through its “darkest hour.” Van Wolferen, not himself an American, warns that American inaction on Japanese trade will invite “calamity.” His op-ed piece for The Washington Post bears the headline, “Japan: Different, Unprecedented and Dangerous.” These are not his own words, but they do reflect the tone of the revisionist debate.

The least one can say about America’s relative economic decline is that opinions differ. According to a report issued recently by the Center for Applied Economics at New York University, “Japan’s higher growth rate has been slowing down and is now hardly ahead of ours anymore, while the level of Japan’s manufacturing productivity certainly remains well below ours.”6

Views are equally divided on just what, if anything, should be done about Japan’s brand of capitalism, whose differences the revisionists have done such a sterling job in revealing. Is it a threat? Is the American economy really being ruined by Japanese trade practices? So far, the biggest losers as a result of Japanese mercantilism have been the Japanese consumers, who pay too much. In the US and Britain many people have benefitted from Japanese trade, as consumers, as employees, and as recipients of investment. Are these benefits outweighed by other, darker factors, such as a dangerous dependency on Japanese capital or technology? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certainly true is that the present relationship between the US and Japan is an unhealthy one. Japan is a resentful and mercantilist power locked into a state of infantile dependence on US security.

Two recent articles, one by Chalmers Johnson, and the other by Joseph Nye, offered two different solutions to the problem.7 Johnson, professor of Pacific international relations at the University of California, San Diego, is often called the doyen of the revisionists. Nye, a Harvard professor of government, is a traditional American liberal. Of the two, Nye favors the more conservative solution. Basically, in his view, GI Joe should stay in Japan. For if Japan were to become a military power, all kinds of unpredictable things might happen, including an East Asian arms race. The best thing, Nye believes, would be for Japan to become a “global civilian power.”8 This would mean a bigger role in UN agencies, including a seat in the Security Council, even though Japan would be unable to implement the military policies it would have to help to decide.

Johnson thinks a greater change is in order. Unlike Nye, Johnson wants to end the Occupation, not just in form, but in fact. The US, in his opinion, can no longer afford to be the policeman of East Asia, and the Japanese will resent it more and more. The cold war, after all, is over, and it is time the Japanese took care of their own affairs. The continued presence of American troops stops them from doing so. Ergo, if the US pulls out, Japan will be weaned from its narrow mercantilism and become a more responsible, more “normal” regional superpower. Or so we can only hope.

I believe he is right. But it will take some doing, and the process will not be helped at all by the Amerika Erwache rhetoric that is currently so popular. For the image of Japan as a fundamentally dangerous nation will impede any moves toward an end to the informal Occupation. Herein lies one of the paradoxes of revisionism. All the revisionists, including Chalmers Johnson, are agreed that if something is not done to stop Japanese mercantilism in its tracks, there will be a dangerous, emotional backlash in the US. So Americans have to be woken up to a danger, posited by the revisionists, in order for those same Americans not to get emotional when they finally realize that the revisionists were right. If the shrill tone of fictional propaganda helps to wake them up, so be it. As James Fallows, an eminently reasonable member of the revisionists, observed to the Los Angeles Times: “We [America and Japan] have serious conflicts and we need to resolve them. To the extent that fiction reveals them, it’s having a useful effect.”

This is how SCAP’s censors argued too, except it was their business to avoid further conflict, and their fictions were more benign.

  1. 3

    Watanabe Shoichi, Kakute rekishi wa hajimaru (Tokyo: Crest, 1992).

  2. 4

    See my essay in The New York Review, April 23, 1992.

  3. 5

    Quoted from Mark Schreiber’s article in Tokyo Journal.

  4. 6

    C.V. Starr newsletter, published by New York University, Volume 10, 1992.

  5. 7

    Chalmer Johnson’s article appeared in Daedalus, Fall 1992. Nye’s essay was in Foreign Policy, Winter 1992.

  6. 8

    The phrase was coined by Funabashi Yoichi in an article in the Spring 1992 Foreign Policy.

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