Must We Copy Japan?

Japan As Number One: Lessons for America

by Ezra F. Vogel
Harvard University Press, 272 pp., $12.50

The Japanese Challenge: The Success and Failure of Economic Success

by Herman Kahn and Thomas Pepper
Thomas Y. Crowell, 162 pp., $10.00

The opening pages of Japan As Number One: Lessons for America are as much about America as about Japan—less admiring of Japanese accomplishments than troubled by a sense that America is becoming weaker. The Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel writes that he is “increasingly preoccupied with what is happening in America, with the decline of our confidence in government, with our difficulty in coping with problems such as crime, urban disorganization, unemployment, inflation, and government deficits,” and he suggests that Americans learn from the Japanese, who seem to him to solve these problems better.

As in the nineteenth century the Japanese reorganized their society in order to compete with the industrial West so today, Vogel argues, Americans should take the opportunity to borrow from a more successful culture—even a culture as different as the Japanese. In this respect his book is part of the tradition by which social scientists have tried to explain why one society is superior to another. Anthropology, for example, was once a thinly disguised commentary on white supremacy over “primitive” colored peoples—until Lévi-Strauss and others challenged that approach. And evolutionary sociologists, beginning most notably with Herbert Spencer, have tried to show how “late developing” societies might imitate the social evolution of the “advanced” modern nations.

In Japan as Number One, Vogel merely inverts Spencer’s proposition. Once considered an “underdeveloped” or “late-developing” nation, Japan has been fundamentally reorganized during the past hundred years, largely by studying the industrial West; but this modernization has been so successful that now, Vogel argues, Japan can provide lessons for America. Proposing that a Western country emulate an Asian one, Vogel has reversed the basic premises of Spencer and Max Weber, while retaining the doubtful idea that one culture can closely and successfully copy a radically different one.

Japan As Number One can also be seen as the most recent of dozens of books—in large measure by the Japanese themselves—that attempt to reveal what is unique about Japan. The earliest books of this sort, which appeared in the nineteenth century, were written by Japanese intellectuals in answer to Westerners who suggested that the Japanese were an imitative people without a distinctive culture of their own. Nitobe’s essay on “Bushido,” for example, written in 1900, and Okakura’s contemporary piece on “Tea”1 were written largely for Western readers who misunderstood and underestimated the Japanese.

The tone of this writing changed somewhat during the Second World War. In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword Ruth Benedict used the fundamental symbols in Japanese culture to explain Japan’s recklessness in starting the war with America and pursuing it as singlemindedly and indeed ruthlessly as it did. Since then a number of Japanese writers have followed Benedict’s example, investigating not the customs but the deeper social structure of Japan. Several studies appeared in the West in the early 1970s, including Japanese Society by Chie Nakane and The Anatomy of Dependence by Takeo Doi. Nakane suggested that Japanese society is held together by the loyalty that people feel for…

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