Vulnerable Japan

Japan: The Fragile Superpower

by Frank Gibney
Norton, 347 pp., $10.00

Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman

edited by John W. Dower
Pantheon, 497 pp., $5.95 (paper)

A Political History of Japanese Capitalism

by Jon Halliday
Pantheon, 466 pp., $15.95

The Development of Japanese Business 1600-1973

by Johannes Hirschmeier and Tsunehiko Yui
Harvard University Press, 350 pp., $12.00

Japanese Economic Growth

by Kazushi Ohkawa and Henry Rosovsky
Stanford University Press, 327 pp., $15.00

Iemoto: The Heart of Japan

by Francis L.K. Hsu
Wiley, 260 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Japanese Economy in International Perspective

edited by Isaiah Frank
Johns Hopkins, 300 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Japan: Divided Politics in a Growth Economy

by J.A.A. Stockwin
Norton, 296 pp., $3.95 (paper)


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…

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