The major fact about Japan is that it is both uniquely like and spectacularly unlike the West. It is alike since, alone among all non-Western societies, it has made a transition from a feudalism remarkably similar to that of Europe to being a capitalist power of the first order. In doing so it has imported “Westernization” wholesale, to the point where more naïve Americans have from time to time thought of it as essentially a yellow-skinned United States.

Even the sensible Frank Gibney is tempted into hyperbole in his new book: “Japan…shares with the United States common social aspirations, a working commitment to the democratic principle, and a strikingly similar urban technological way of life” (p. 22). On the other hand it is, as every visitor to the country knows, startlingly strange and incomprehensible without elaborate exegesis, a fact which has enabled many a journalist-guide to tourists or businessmen to turn an honest dollar, Gibney being an excellent specimen of the genre. Since Lafcadio Hearn generations of Zen-buffs, ladies practicing flower-arrangement, stone-gardeners, and enthusiasts for Kabuki, Noh, tanka, and samurai movies have existed because Japan is like nowhere else.

In China, observed a British traveler in 1793, the most common tools “have something peculiar in their construction, some different…always clearly indicating that, whether better or worse fitted for their purposes than those used in other countries, the one did not serve as the model for the other.” This is also, and perhaps even more markedly, so in Japan. The difficulty of the outsider lies not so much in material techniques, since their purpose is recognizable even when they are not (as they increasingly are today) the same as ours, as in social relations, culture, anything mediated through image, sound, gesture, and above all words. But at the same time Japan has also adopted outside models more enthusiastically than have most other societies. The combination, as in the amalgam of nineteenth-century top hats and tail coats, kimonos and Shinto priests at Japanese weddings, is not the least disconcerting aspect of that remarkable country.

In other words, Japan raises in a particularly dramatic form the great problem of comparative history of indeed of any kind of historical generalization: the relation between what is general and what is specific, between functional identity and historical dissimilarity, between the history that is made by men and the historical heritage which limits and shapes the tools they construct for making it.

The interpretations of Japanese development since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and, by projection into the past, earlier centuries, have always had difficulty with this dialectic. This difficulty has been compounded by the powerful political and ideological commitments of the two major schools of analysis, the Japanese, which is predominantly Marxist, and the American, which is only just beginning to emerge from the orthodoxies of “modernization theory” into which it forced itself in the 1960s. Most of the literature available to English readers belongs to the second type, though it is good to see that examples of the first—E. H. Norman’s Origins of the Modern Japanese State and Jon Halliday’s Political History of Japanese Capitalism, both introduced by John W. Dower, are now available.1 Norman was a brilliant historian who committed suicide in 1957 in Cairo, where he was the Canadian ambassador. This, as Dower writes, was “after a period of recurrent pressure emanating from the United States because of his early leftist views and associations.”

Why Japanese professors should, since the interwar years, have so generally welcomed Marxism while American ones in the 1950s and 1960s should have identified with their own state’s policy in a manner which recalls German academics in 1914, are questions—not least of the sociology of the respective countries’ intellectuals—into which it is impossible to enter here. The point is that both schools are in different ways committed to fitting Japan into a general pattern as a “case-study.” Though of course Marxism is incomparably superior as an approach to history than “modernization,” which is not an explanatory model but a descriptive euphemism like “senior citizen” or “the fuller figure,” designed to purge reality of its earthier associations. More precisely, both seek to offer Japan a general historical destiny—the Marxists looking to a future convergence of Japan with the rest of the world in socialist societies, the “modernizers” regarding the convergence as already in the process of achievement through assimilation to the pattern of what the sociologist Robert Bellah described as the country that “is closer to whatever is meant by modern society than any other,” namely the United States.2

As Dower’s long introduction to Norman’s book points out, “modernization” theories were largely applied to Japan as an antidote to Marxism. They are antihistorical in two ways: in substituting the empty progress from “traditional” to “modern” for what happens to real societies, and in reading the past, in the manner of the “Whig interpretation of history,” essentially as the preparation for a satisfactory, though not yet perfect, present. The peculiar emptiness of these categories makes them easy to fill with ethnocentric and propagandist gas. Subjection, injustice, and social inequality have no place in a model of what Hirschmeier and Yui call the “unified response of a homogeneous society answering the challenges from the advanced countries” (p. 91). The dark side of Japan disappeared behind an indulgent accentuation of the positive; class struggles were redefined as growing pains, though with the decline of the fashion it is now again recognized, as Professor John W. Hall suggests, that “tension models and confrontations” may be worth emphasizing.


“Modernization” studies have therefore been most successful when placed at one or two removes from human realities, and when history can be smoothed into “trends,” as in analyses of the mechanics of Japanese economic growth. There is no doubt that the best of such studies are both impressive and illuminating; for example Ohkawa and Rosovsky, in their book Japanese Economic Growth, are more illuminating about the actual operations of the modern Japanese economy than any Marxist writing in English. Yet their success rests on the deliberate neglect of historical questions and explanations. To explain Japan’s enthusiastic and successful adoption of capitalism by observing that in the pre-Meiji period it was “backward economically, but not in other respects” is merely to pass the buck; and Ohkawa and Rosovsky are good enough scholars to be aware that a buck is being passed.3

However, the transformation of Japanese history into a general model conceals a curious paradox, arising from the conservative political objectives of the “modernizers.” The triumphant “economic growth” they recommended and analyzed was not an end in itself, but a means to building a stable and manipulable noncommunist world, safe from ideology and revolution. Growth was infused with values, and the theories which stressed both modernization as a process of growing universal “rationality” and Japan as a model for other Asian countries also stressed the unique and happily conservative cultural and social values of Japan, which its rulers had succeeded in using as instruments of politically safe change. Not without the help of American political scientists, who, after all, had since 1945 been instrumental in preserving both imperial bureaucracy and emperor, and in reformulating the imperial function. In fact, the success of “modernization” depended precisely on what is not “modernized,” and conversely, the progress of “modernization”—i.e., of “values other than the traditional values”—puts the system at risk and “is a source of worry to many responsible people.”4

While the “modernizers” recognize and stress the existence and combination of “old” and “new,” Japanese and Western elements, their conceptual approach precludes establishing any but mechanical relations between both. The peculiarities of Japanese society are either taken as given and fed into the analysis as and when needed5—or discussed separately, perhaps as the particular “secrets” of Japanese success.6 What is missing is the integration of both into a historical process.

E.H. Norman, that unhappy victim of McCarthyism and a more academic kind of blacklisting, may or may not have been “superseded” by subsequent research. But it is not only his civilized literacy and the feeling that he cares about what the Japanese common people went through—rare qualities in the literature—that makes reading the introduction to The Origins of the Modern Japanese State so satisfactory an experience for historians. It is Norman’s ability to see social transformation as a whole while losing none of its concreteness and complexity, its unity or its internal tensions. This was Norman’s greatest debt to that association with Marxism for which he suffered in life and death.


The Marxist approach is suited to Japan not only because it is politically radical—i.e., critical of the bland optimistic homogenizers7—and anyway a good method for history, but because Marx’s own central historical problem, the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the subsequent development of that system, focuses on the central problem of Japanese history since 1868. Plainly Tokugawa Japan was feudal, if that term has any meaning. The capacity of the Japanese economy to make so striking a success of capitalist development must be sought in the indigenous development of its feudal society, which has no parallel outside Europe. (Unfortunately none of the books under review concentrates on the economic dynamics of Tokugawa Japan, though Hirschmeier and Yui’s chapter on the merchants of this period is informative. The work of Thomas C. Smith in this field is particularly illuminating.) Equally plainly Japan is today unequivocally capitalist, and “feudal remnants” are insignificant, in spite of the Japanese preference for TV serials based on the adventures of samurai rather than cowpunchers (but with much the same music).


Yet the attempt to fit this transition into patterns derived too closely from Western history or from ideological interpretations arising out of Western history is largely beside the point. Unlike the development of Western countries, the Japanese transition to capitalism was not indigenous but imported, though indigenously achieved, adapted, and controlled. To seek a “bourgeois revolution” in it, potential, partial, or aborted, is historical confusion. The interwar discussions between the two rival groups of leftist scholars, the Koza and Rono schools, which turned on this question, proved intellectually fruitful, because the problem of the transition to capitalism was a real one.8 However, the differing political policies of the two groups—which still seem to haunt the Japan Socialist Party—were more debatable, because their formulation of the political problem as one of the relation between “bourgeois” and “proletarian” revolution, was not realistic. Even the familiar, and in general illuminating, comparison of Japan with Prussia/Germany has its limits.

Admittedly in both Germany and Japan capitalist development was sponsored, and a good many institutions of bourgeois society were introduced, not by a bourgeoisie or through revolution but by Junkers and samurai, and through controlled reform from above. In both cases the failure to take the liberal-revolutionary road into modern capitalism affected their institutions, ideological superstructures, and future historical options. Both show an overdeveloped ideology of “national community” which helped (intentionally as Halliday would argue) to sidetrack growing internal tensions. Both were strongly marked by militarism, a taste for ultra-right-wing strong-arm movements, and an inclination to drop their liberal elements with little hesitation when trouble struck the system.

Whether Japan could ever be called “fascist” is a matter of debate 9—as are all propositions about fascism—but a certain parallelism between the two countries in the 1930s and 1940s is easily discerned. In both, moreover, nonliberal and precapitalist motivation—national pride, loyalty to hierarchic superiors, kinship, and group obligations, etc.—were successfully used to organize industrial enterprise and secure a disciplined, efficient, unmilitant, and, not least, inexpensive labor force. In both, capitalist economic growth has been unusually successful, neither being committed to economic, still less to political, liberalism beyond the point where they ceased to be useful. And of course, since 1941 both countries have shared the same fate: total defeat, conquest, and the imposition of the equivalent of “bourgeois revolution” by the conquerors.10 Both were cast by the US for the role of capitalist bulwark against the red menace, and therefore loyal satellites of the global American empire. Both played the role with gusto, incidentally saving themselves the headaches of great-power policy and the expenses of armament and war at a time when neither was necessary for their economic expansion, which was spectacular. Both have, to the pained surprise of the US, emerged as more dynamic than itself and its chief competitors.

Yet the parallel cannot be pushed too far. Bismarck’s German solution can be analyzed in terms of “bourgeois revolution,” because he had to outface, outmaneuver, but in the last instance conciliate, a German liberal bourgeoisie which had actually been involved in the 1848 revolution. The object of Bismarck’s policy was to preserve Junker Germany, in so far as irresistible social forces permitted. The reforming samurai of the 1860s were not troubled by analogous political dangers. The Tokugawa regime may well have been in a state of crisis, but the only indigenous challenge to it came from rival feudal elements, and even those who hold that the Meiji Restoration was based on an “alliance” of lower samurai and merchants do not claim that the merchants saw themselves as a potentially dominant class, or that a consciously “anti-feudal” challenge was possible or conceivable.11 The reformers imported Western capitalism as part of a package of national survival by imitating their potential foreign conquerors. Whatever might have happened to the old regime, the result, but for the sudden impact and challenge of the West, would certainly not have been the radical and planned abolition of feudalism and systematic development along capitalist lines.

As it happened, the reforming samurai were lucky in the historical conditions which enabled Japan to imitate Western capitalism as, say, governments with similar desires for “modernization” in Egypt were not then able to do. They were perhaps also lucky in facing Western powers which “for reasons of their own…did not attempt to clamp Japan in the vise of neocolonialism during the period when the country was most vulnerable” to them.12 But within the country in 1868 there was no bourgeois, liberal, or capitalist challenge. Japan was transformed by a group of autocratic bureaucrats.

Hence, in spite of its importing Western politics and ideology, Japanese political development is sui generis. Even the Japanese capitalist economy showed marked divergences from any other. The procedures of Japanese business executives, efficient as they are, still puzzle and astonish those brought up on the classic model of the individualist entrepreneur-boss, whether in Detroit or Düsseldorf. 13 As for the workers. Japan is the only capitalist economy which during the first half of the twentieth century systematically opted for lifetime job security and payment by seniority instead of blue-collar insecurity and payment by the market.

The difference between Japan and Germany is particularly striking in the years when the fates of the two countries were intertwined and apparently similar. German fascism was like the uncontrollable broom of the sorcerer’s apprentice, a would-be know-nothing revolution of the radical right. It failed to abolish German monopoly capitalism along with the rest of the twentieth century, merely because this petty-bourgeois dream was a historical nonstarter. Under the circumstances it actually reinforced German capitalism, though this was far from its followers’ intention. Nevertheless this episode in the complex internal politics of the country liquidated most of the Bismarckian survivals in Germany, so that postwar “de-Nazification” merely transposed an already “modernized” Germany back into the bourgeois-democratic key. The Weimar Republic was imperial Germany minus the Kaiser, but—perhaps fortunately—the Germany of 1945, purged of the Nazis, was no longer Weimar.

On the other hand the Japan of the 1930s and 1940s saw merely another controlled adjustment to a new situation by those who had been adjusting the country and themselves since 1868. Hence the changes imposed on Japan after 1945 were far more in the nature of an imported “bourgeois revolution,” including a genuinely radical and wholesale land reform. Whatever may have been the case before 1945, since then “feudal remnants” have been without significance. Yet at the same time, and largely through the policy of the conquerors,14 the bureaucracy that actually ruled the country remained intact—fewer than 2 percent of the bureaucrats screened were removed from their jobs—and the ideological linchpin of their system, the emperor, was retained.

In fact since the war, Japan, probably for the first time, lives under the domestic tensions that stretched and distorted imperial Germany from its foundation, though twenty years of economic boom have concealed them. To take merely one example, a mass labor and socialist movement has existed in Germany since the days of Marx, but in Japan the prewar electoral peak of a similar movement was below 10 percent of the vote, its trade-union peak 7 percent of the work force, and one-third of unionized workers consisted of seamen.15 Since the war the joint vote of socialist parties in Japan has ranged from 30 to 40 percent. The percentage of unionization has never been less than a third, and in the immediate postwar period briefly touched 55 percent.


The difference between the two countries is reflected in the way in which most of us consider their future today. Surprisingly few people think much about the German future, now that the political realities of the country’s truncation and division have been accepted. It is taken for granted. But if it is twenty years since books on “whither Germany” were in fashion, today is the time for books on “Japan—what next?” In spite of the spectacular success of the Japanese economy, and the unbroken continuity of Liberal-Democratic government, the prevailing impression is one of vulnerability and impermanence (“Japan, the Fragile Superpower”), of uncertain prospects, of the end of an era.

This is partly due to the sense that a general phase in world capitalist development ended with the super-boom of the 1960s, and to the effect of the decline of the US empire, which counted on, and was counted upon by, a certain kind of Japan. The official American view, lucidly exposed in Isaiah Frank’s symposium, naturally links the two. The Japanese, it is argued, took for granted a free-trading world economy resting on US economic strength, on the dollar, and on the umbrella of US military supremacy. They approached not only economic problems but also “the issue of security” as “an expanding international trading company, not [as] a nation-state”16 and concentrated on flooding the world with their exports while protecting their own market (incidentally taking care to keep foreign capital out of Japan). They looked after the yen and let the dollar look after the world, while the US kept the Pacific safe for them at US expense.

How to convince the Japanese that they must take their share of these burdens, now that the US is too weak to carry them? Unfortunately the country has no military-industrial complex which can put business pressure behind war expenditure.17 Two arguments are brought into play. First, Japan’s almost total dependence on raw material imports from sources beyond its political control make it “a particularly vulnerable superpower.” Second, and more specifically, Japan can no longer rely on unlimited US backing on the grounds that capitalism must be backed against communism, since it is now “a major competitor against whom pressure must be brought”; and, in the US-Japan alliance, Japan is “by far the weaker and more vulnerable partner.” 18 In other words, if Japan does not see that its own interests coincide with those of the US, it can be forced to. Whether it can be, is another question.

However, the main reason for the uncertainty about Japan’s future does not lie in its international vulnerability—which as the oil crisis has shown is great but not new—or even in the peculiar duality of collaboration and competition which links it to the US, and incidentally complicates relations with the more rapidly growing economy of the EEC as well as with the socialist countries. True, a breakdown of the American-dominated neoliberal world economy would force Japan into major policy reappraisals, as happened during the great slump; though the militarist alternative which it then reluctantly adopted19 is not so readily available today.

It is also true that the current neocolonialist version of imperialism suits Japan unusually well, since it is neither able nor anxious to back its restored East Asian economic “coprosperity sphere” with political and military muscle; in this respect unlike the US in Latin America. Japan’s risks are spread: no single East Asian country takes much more than 3 percent of Japanese trade, and investment also remains modest. There is no convincing reason to suppose, as Halliday does, that “the regime can only operate according to the logic of its class interests which necessitate alliances with repressive regimes” (p. 298). On the contrary, the Japanese economy has an interest in coming to terms with any and all Pacific regimes from Australia to China and the USSR.

The real Japanese crisis is the result of two developments: the impossibility of continuing the extraordinary rate of growth and the transformations of Japanese society which, perhaps for the first time, put the control of its traditional rulers at serious risk.

Quite apart from international factors, Japan has for twenty years been, as Ohkawa and Rosovsky write, “a veritable businessmen’s paradise” (p. 233), not least because labor costs have been unusually low and private savings unusually high. They had to be, since “welfare is private and not yet public,” and savings for education, retirement, and emergencies must supplement the inadequate social security system.20 Even the rapid rise in consumption has lagged by one or two years behind the rise in incomes, chiefly because the Japanese consumer society, given the underdevelopment of consumer credit, has specialized in the cheaper durables. In 1969 only 7 percent of Japanese owned cars, compared to 39 percent in the US and 18 percent in West Germany. It is in cameras and television sets that they compare favorably with the West.

In short, Japan has achieved the second-largest GNP in the capitalist world largely because it ranks only fourteenth in income per capita. The demands of the Japanese work force remained far below what they could have been, and indeed were in other capitalist countries, where wage rises outstripped productivity gains in the 1960s.

This situation is now ending. The reservoir of able and educated workers outside large industry has been diminishing, and Japan is ceasing to be, even relatively, a cheap labor economy. Workers are in a stronger bargaining position. As expectations rise and productivity ceases to grow at the incredible average of 9 percent per year, big management may be more reluctant to grant virtually automatic wage rises when faced by the symbolic annual confrontation with the unions (the famous “spring offensive”), and unions, though virtually all organized on a company basis, may be less enthusiastic about singing the company songs. Their strikes may become less symbolic.

Meanwhile twenty years of business paradise have produced perhaps the world’s most dramatic pollution. Twenty years of property speculation have left the Japanese with far worse housing at higher costs than Westerners pay.21 The ratio of social security outlays to national income remained at 6 percent (compared to 20 percent in West Germany, 19 percent in France, and 15 percent in Italy). It is lower even than in the US.22 People have become increasingly aware that growth alone—even with 66 percent more ownership of color television sets than the Western European average—is not enough.

Japanese capitalism is therefore faced with higher costs and a substantial diversion of resources to nonprofit-making activities23 as the international conditions for its expansion become less ideal. At the same time the unusually favorable domestic political conditions it has enjoyed are also coming to an end.

Support for the Liberal Democrats, a loose-jointed political racket devoted to profits and growth, to keeping the minds of the voters off politics and doing well by politicians, is gradually eroding. In the 1960s they lost control of the big cities (where their vote in 1972 was down to 32 percent). They are maintained in power only by the conservatism of the peasants—the result of land reform—by increasingly desperate jerrymandering in favor of the rural vote, and by the divisions of the opposition. The party can hardly afford to lose the asset of being the permanent government. Neither can it be any longer so readily united by the simple call for everyone to make as fast a yen as possible. In short, the front men for Japanese government can no longer simply act like dynamic TV salesmen.

In some ways equally symptomatic is the decline of the Japan Socialist Party, long the only parliamentary opposition of significance. It never established itself as a potential vehicle of government, since it largely lacked grassroots organization and most of the labor unions outside the public sector remained both ineffective and beyond its influence. It has therefore been a Far Eastern version of the pre-1914 French socialist party, riddled with personal and ideological factions, a strong electoral minority but ineffective in action. However, in the 1960s two genuine grassroots mass-movement parties emerged: Komeito and the Japan Communist Party.

Komeito was based on a Buddhist gospeling sect and attracted early attention because it seemed to recall fascist movements. The Communist party, which had been, except for a year or two after 1945, a devoted cadre group without mass support except among intellectuals, was also transformed, especially after extricating itself from the rival appeals of the USSR and China. Though its ideology and tradition give it a formidable efficiency and far greater potential for mass action than the JSP, its success is not that of a classical labor movement. Indeed, perhaps alone among Communist parties in industrial countries, it possesses no significant union base. Concentration on local issues and personal problems, as well as an increasingly marked nationalism and a moderate position on such unpopular issues as student violence, have given it a considerable capacity to mobilize a variety of urban discontents. In short, the tensions of industrialization and urbanization have produced a political demand for both socio-economic and environmental improvement and personal reorientation, which both Komeito and the JCP have, in their different ways, begun to fill. Both essentially belong to the big cities, where the JCP won 25 percent of seats and Komeito 17 percent in 1972; JSP and the right-wing Democratic Socialist party holding another 24 percent between them (Stockwin, pp. 167 ff.).

Since there has been no dramatic shift to the left, but only a redistribution within a slowly growing opposition, these developments are symptomatic rather than immediately effective. The opposition looks as if it will remain divided, forming at best unstable “popular fronts,” difficult to maintain even as municipal coalitions and rather unlikely to threaten the government. What counts is that, at a moment when Japan faces major changes in policy under pressure and in a new and difficult world situation, its rulers find themselves groping both for an adequate basis and an adequate instrument of political support. They still possess all the resources of an autocratic bureaucracy, but the dutiful docility of the citizen inherited from the past is a wasting asset, and the era of what Gibney calls “passive politics” is ending. In the past twenty years “explosive economic growth and a stable conservative government” concealed not merely these potential weaknesses but also, and more significantly, “an acute political division on fundamental issues” between left and right.24

The prevalent view among foreigners remains optimistic—or, on the left, pessimistic. Halliday’s book is an elaboration of the proposition that “ruling class control is probably tighter in Japan than in other industrial capitalist countries” (p. 240). Yet even though it is quite true, as Gibney says, that “the Japanese are not rendered logically unhappy by sudden shifts of direction or by pursuing several varieties of culture and politics at the same time” (p. 310), the contradictions of a system which adopted capitalism as a means, but has been transformed by it, are not so readily maintained in suspense.

The strength of Japan’s rulers has been their capacity to make use of both traditional roles and values as well as unifying national goals to maintain social control. The most recent version of this goal, to beat the world at economic growth, has, apart from the possible difficulty of its further single-minded pursuit, proved both unsatisfactory and incompatible with the old controls. But “with the vociferous rejection of GNP as a symbol of national greatness, the loss of traditional values becomes all the more visible, with resulting loss of self-identity.”25 The striking pessimism of Japanese youth in 1973 is an indication of this disorientation and frustration.

The mid-Seventies are therefore the time of “sharpened conflicts” summed up by Frank Gibney:

discontented labor trying to bring down not the government, but the whole system; profiteering big business; a middle class squeezed to the point where even the Japanese begin to lose their storied sense of stolid, passive resignation. There seems no future role to fill, no obvious duty to perform, no place to go. [Page 327]

Gibney, whose knowledge of Japan carries conviction, even when his political judgments do not, argues that at this point “Japan needs a whole new Meiji generation” to restyle the country yet again (p. 332). That is precisely the danger. No doubt, whether as metaphor or as prospect, this recommendation appeals to the rulers of Japan, the bureaucracy which, in E. H. Norman’s perceptive words, provides “the key to understanding Japanese political life” (p. 313) and the big business complex which today collaborates with it on more powerful terms than ever before.

Yet a new “Meiji Restoration” (which might, incidentally, have to do something about a governing party either overcommitted to “neglect of the social aspects of growth” or tempted to add heavy social expenditures to an otherwise unchanged economic policy)26 could no longer be merely decreed from above. The forces of Japanese reaction in the past, as Norman noted with his usual acumen, “eschewed mass organization as if fearing that once large numbers of people learned the habit of acting together they might at some time pursue a policy contrary to that dictated by their self-appointed leaders” (p. 320).

But Japanese mass politics are no longer to be avoided. The “new Meiji” may this time find it not only convenient but necessary to use such politics for their own purposes. The materials for a suitable ideology of national mission and revival lie readily to hand in the traditions of imperial Japan and the propaganda of right-wing nationalism, though both have been dormant since 1945. There is no better place from which to organize such mass movements than from a position of government, as Latin American populist leaders have long discovered and the Japanese rulers do not need to discover. Nor need the ideology of such movements be hostile to that consumer society which the Japanese will be reluctant to abandon, now that they enjoy its benefits. After all, it was Nazism that invented the Volkswagen.

This Issue

July 17, 1975