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 others of different ages and rank, while Doi argued that the culture owes its distinctiveness to maternal child-rearing practices. Indeed concern with the question why the Japanese are “different” is so pervasive that few people writing about contemporary Japan have been able to avoid it altogether. When Edwin O. Reischauer, the former American ambassador to Japan, turns to the issue in his most recent book,2 he writes ambivalently that although in certain ways they are not really unique, they are still somewhat different.

Vogel believes that this Japanese uniqueness can provide a lesson for Americans. For Vogel, the Japanese are not only different but also generally “more successful at solving the basic problems of post-industrial society.” He praises Japan’s “achievements in economic productivity, educational standards, health and the control of crime.” But what he seems to admire most, finally, is the organizational finesse of the Japanese—a quality to be admired not only as a means to economic goals, but also as an end in itself.

It may well be that Americans need to be taught a few lessons, as they tend to be a parochial lot. The dollar is falling while the yen rises, and yet Americans—who usually show little interest in trying to understand other nations in Asia or the West—still complacently feel that the US economy is naturally superior. If a foreign competitor gains an advantage, whether in automobiles, television sets, or machine tools, Americans generally assume that there has been foul play. The issue is an important one, and Vogel is justified in challenging Americans’ complacency, which has less and less basis in reality.

It is with a sense of urgency and impatience that Vogel has written Japan As Number One, hoping to shock Americans by challenging their inflated sense of their country’s strength. Americans, he observes, have been deluded by their own self-confidence: “On the American side, our confidence in the superiority of Western civilization and our desire to see ourselves as number one make it difficult to acknowledge that we have practical things to learn from Orientals.” He suggests Americans look beyond the merely economic side of “the Japanese miracle” to the institutions and habits and attitudes that have contributed to that success. Americans have been deceived, he argues, by the “innately modest” manner in which the Japanese describe their own society, however confident they are about selling their products abroad.


In Vogel’s account, the Japanese economic success can be attributed to people’s loyalty to their community, or to the series of communities in which they live and work, and their willingness to cooperate with policies set by the state and the company. He shows that throughout Japanese society—in the family, the company, and at school—people are trained and encouraged to dedicate their efforts to the prosperity and well-being of the group, and they expect to be rewarded for this dedication.

In business, for example, Japanese management demands considerable hard work and self-sacrifice from employees, who know that they can expect to stay in the firm until they retire at a relatively early age. A company will frequently forfeit short-term profits in order to maintain high employment, while the workers—who see their own careers as being closely bound to company success—rarely object to changes in technology or management’s decisions to transfer them to other jobs within the company. The pay scales do not allow large salary differentials and, when times are bad, company executives accept less along with ordinary workers. Their salaries are modest in comparison with those in America, and they can be seen wearing company clothes along with everyone else. Company housing, company vacation resorts, and company outings, as well as the frequent bonuses provided by the firm, reinforce the employee’s sense of loyalty to fellow workers and to the business.

According to Vogel, similar informal relations complement all formal relations among Japanese—between management and union officials, businessmen and government employees, and among competitive businessmen. He explains, for example, that “to avoid an excessive adversary relationship and create a proper climate, management finds time to socialize with union leaders without waiting for disruptions that engender an atmosphere of controversy.” Indeed openly bitter adversary relations are relatively rare in Japan and when they occur, they tend to become ritualized, as with yearly wage negotiations. Instead, according to Vogel, there is widespread agreement on social and economic goals, and the Japanese “cooperate for mutual benefit,” carrying out the well-researched competitive strategies of the company and the state.

Vogel argues that while competition is much encouraged in Japan, it is also carefully regulated to prevent inequalities that would cause outbreaks of anger and protest. As he reports, over 90 percent of the Japanese consider themselves middle class. Competition can be fierce, particularly among high school students for university entrance, but the patterns of promotion and advancement—in the schools, in the government bureaucracy, in politics, and in industry—are everywhere similar and people soon know where they stand. Considerable achievement is expected, from technicians and business executives, for example, but mediocrity is also tolerated; so the system spares many from having to admit failure. By finding a place for the less as well as the more productive—and engaging the loyalty of all—both industry and government are able to function with great efficiency.

Unfortunately, however, Vogel’s admiration for these successes blinds him to many of the problems in Japan—in large part problems linked to its successful growth. An overwhelming proportion of available capital has been allocated for industrial production, and the social costs of this policy have been very high indeed. Government welfare services are poor, for instance, and public works—such as roads and sewers—have been badly neglected. Describing mainly the efficiency and harmony of modern Japan, while concealing or de-emphasizing the costs of its advances. Vogel helps neither the Japanese nor those who would emulate them. In the interest of a strong industrial economy, the Japanese have been willing to tolerate much damage to their traditional ways of living; but their ability to do so often has had more to do with their composure and sense of community than with managerial talent or organizational finesse.

Housing is a case in point. Vogel writes in detail about the housing that companies provide for employees, but he does not describe Japanese public housing, the ubiquitous many-storied apartment buildings called danchi which blight the urban landscape. They are popular among Japanese, but only, one suspects, because other housing is so limited and prohibitively expensive. And indeed, if the Japanese who live in them did not share a sense of community and trust, the crowded danchi would be virtually uninhabitable. Transferred to American cities embittered by racial strife, they would be called slums. Similarly, Vogel says little about the much publicized stories of Japanese industrial pollution, such as the mercury poisoning at the Minamata chemical firm, or about the delayed construction of the Narita airport, begun by the government in the late 1960s and opposed not only by saboteurs but by many conventional politicians, teachers, and business people. He mentions but dismisses such matters, since for him they are unrelated to the lessons he would teach Americans.


Other Western observers have been more frank about the things that Western visitors would find jarring or repugnant in Japan. The French journalist Robert Guillain, for example, who lived in Japan for over twenty-five years, recently described the backwardness of Japanese sanitation and garbage collection.3

For many years Tokyo was worse than dirty. People threw filth and garbage everywhere, and since it wasn’t taken away, the wind spread papers and plastic around the city. It isn’t like that anymore, but, outside the cities, the problem of sanitation has not been solved. Seventy percent of Japan does not yet have sewage systems, and until fairly recently Tokyo was drained by canals, horrible open sewers that were black and nauseating.

Like the Tokyo sewers, the much publicized standards for control of pollution are relatively new. Guillain reports that

the Japanese have done much to cut pollution, once a grave problem. The standards for automobile exhaust are much more severe than ours…. The sky in Tokyo had been so polluted and darkened by chemical wastes that the famous Mount Fuji, which figures in all the old prints representing the Japanese capital, was almost entirely invisible during the years between 1950 and 1970. Today one can again see Fuji on the horizon.

The Japanese themselves are greatly troubled by these problems associated with growth, but Vogel largely passes over such concerns. He suggests that the Japanese are simply modest about their achievement, when in fact they increasingly express doubts about their goals. Most Japanese understand and accept that technological progress is inevitable, but they question whether there might have been too much growth too fast, and that some of the effects—ecological, aesthetic, and emotional—may have disastrous consequences for the future.

The first Japanese to criticize growth, in the late Sixties, were members of the ecology movement and some of the more radical parties. But even before the shock of higher oil prices in 1973, newspaper and television journalists, middle-class professionals, government bureaucrats, and even corporate management had begun to complain about the pace and consequences of technological development. According to Japanese opinion polls, the “Down with GNP” campaign (Kutabare GNP) launched by the mass circulation Asahi newspaper in May 1970 has had considerable effect on public attitudes. Consumer and labor groups have recently brought suits in the courts against pollution and dangerous industrial practices, and several far-reaching decisions have supported citizen’s rights against the claims of industry. The antigrowth movement is no longer simply an opposition movement, and seems to be eroding the consensus that has guided Japan since the end of the Second World War.

Much discussion centers around specific issues—such as the declining quality of fresh fish, citizens’ rights to sunlight, diseases caused by pollution, and the stripping of agricultural land in order to build high-speed railroad lines—but one also senses a deeper uncertainty. A number of scholars have shown interest in reviving the traditional Japanese sense of community,4 while other writers have stressed the importance of maintaining the autonomy of Japanese intellectual life in the face of business and political pressures—all questions that reflect uneasiness with the consequences of industrial growth. Against this background, Vogel’s praise for Japan’s competitive strategies and for its rapid industrialization seems both untimely and to offer compliments that, to many Japanese, would be unwelcome.

Like Vogel, Herman Kahn and Thomas Pepper, the authors of The Japanese Challenge: The Success and Failure of Economic Success, greatly admire Japan and look forward to its continuing economic strength. But unlike him they take the antigrowth movement seriously. Business leaders, they argue, underestimated the movement and failed to take account of the new “consensus” behind it:

Major business interests initially looked upon the antigrowth movement as a mere fad that would quickly pass, but this turned out to be a serious misreading of the movement…. Indeed, an antigrowth consensus arose in Japan to a greater degree than in virtually any other developed country.

And, one might add, the problems created by this dissent are considerably more acute in Japan than they would be, say, in the US where opposition to social and economic policies is more expected. For when consensus and unanimity fail, few Japanese are willing to push through a policy that other Japanese do not want. As the more than ten-year delay in constructing the Narita airport showed, dissent can be virtually crippling in Japan.

Kahn and Pepper believe, however, that growth can be redirected in a way that is both good and necessary for Japan if it is to continue competing in international markets. The title of the Japanese edition of their book could be translated, “Japan Will Grow Nevertheless: By Advancing Out of the Malaise of Pessimism.” The problem, as they see it, is that Japanese industry has been running at “excess capacity” and thus distorting international trade by exporting too many goods. Their solution is a revised version of the “Tanaka Plan” for “remodeling the Japanese archipel-ago,” a plan originally proposed by Kahn in his earlier book, The Emerging Japanese Superstate. Kahn wants the Japanese to increase investment in the economic “infrastructure”—in superhighways, for example, housing, and education—and in social welfare programs. This elaborate and rather abstract plan is hard to judge, but at least it can be said that Kahn and Pepper begin by acknowledging that contemporary Japan faces growing difficulties and doubts that may block continuing “progress” of the kind Vogel celebrates.

Vogel can pass over the current Japanese debate because he is largely interested in Japan in so far as it is “a mirror for America.” But how many Americans could recognize a possible way of life for themselves in the mirror that Vogel holds up? He suggests, for example, that the US should greatly strengthen its state bureaucracy, imitating the small group of “permanent bureaucrats” who guide Japanese economic policy and determine the budget. Similarly, he would want Washington to take a more active part in guiding American business, adopting perhaps a master plan for industrial and trade policy like that of the Japanese government Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Under such a plan the government would analyze international markets, guide industrial growth, encourage the more promising industries, and help the less likely ones either to merge or go out of business. Which politicians would Americans entrust with such powers? It is even more difficult to imagine how a version of Keidanren—the federation of the seven hundred biggest Japanese firms—would work in America, as Vogel recommends. In Japan the Keidanren is one of the means by which all businesses make regular and sizable contributions to political parties, “to make sure,” as Vogel writes, “that they have entree when politicians consider issues like tax rates, and protections against foreign industrial threats.” At least the many business lobbies in the US now sometimes act so as to offset one another’s intrigues. United in an American Keidanren, they might achieve unchecked power.

But even if Americans were to decide to imitate Japanese success, the enormous differences between the two peoples make it difficult to see how the Japanese lesson would be applied. Americans cannot count on the homogeneity and communal trust that underlie Japanese society. As Ronald Dore suggests in his book British Factory, Japanese Factory,5 it is possible that the Japanese industrial system could be made to work in a country like Great Britain, where the work force is somewhat more homogeneous. But the American history of immigration from Europe, Asia, and Latin America as well as the internal migrations of both blacks and whites make it seem less likely that the Japanese lesson would be helpful for Americans. It is hard to see how the US, with its diverse racial, ethnic, and religious groups, could support a standardized economy like the one Vogel describes. In Japan itself the one large group of immigrants, the nearly one million Koreans, are treated as a foreign people and virtually excluded from Japanese society. The French writer Robert Guillain reports with a frankness that is missing in Vogel’s book that in Japan,

one does not marry a Korean, and it is with great difficulty that he is admitted into a Japanese business. Since they are excluded from the Japanese economy, the Koreans have created their own economy within Japan. They reign over the clandestine sector of gambling, pachinko [Japanese pinball], night clubs, Turkish baths and the black market. Often associated with shady business, they have a bad reputation, and so the Japanese exclude them—it’s a vicious circle.

Vogel assumes that this attitude toward foreigners is one of the aspects of Japanese society that Americans would “devise ways to avoid.” He does not question whether the Japanese system could work in a country where ethnic diversity has been so important and the source of so much conflict and tragedy.

In the same way, Vogel says very little about the place of women in Japan, or about the disadvantages they suffer in, say, hiring, promotion, and guaranteed employment—particularly severe for married Japanese women, who are not assured maternity leave. Vogel ignores most of these difficulties, again greatly undermining his suggestion that Japan is an appropriate model for Americans. He largely dismisses the American values of individualism and diversity, finding them obsolete and generally wasteful. “In the guise of pursuing freedoms,” he suggests, “we have supported egoism and self-interest and have damaged group common interests.” Moreover, he believes, “It could be argued that in the complex modern world the dangers of chaos from centrifugal force is a greater threat to most countries than the threat of overly tight control.” Vogel’s answer to this threatening “chaos,” borrowed of course from Japan, is greater planning and centralized control, coordinated by a small bureaucracy working closely with industrial management.

He is not much concerned whether reorganizing the American federal system to accommodate such centralization would conflict with American traditions of constitutional freedom and cultural diversity. Nor does he consider how unions and other pressure groups would fit into a more centralized scheme. Vogel’s conviction that the American economy must be entirely revamped seems to override such questions. But if Americans were to consider such revolutionary changes, they would do well to think of the costs—to local initiatives, to the constitutional system of “checks and balances,” and to Americans’ sense that disagreement itself can be useful—that are largely ignored in Japan As Number One.

At issue, finally, is not whether the Japanese have a system that works reasonably well for them or whether America’s confidence and competitiveness are faltering. The real question is whether it is possible or desirable to reshape one society by imitating an entirely different one that evolved in dissimilar circumstances. Here we might recall Marx’s warning in The Eighteenth Brumaire against mechanically drawing lessons from history: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second farce.” The history of modern Japan is impressive but it is also in many ways tragic. To imitate it out of impatience with America’s own uncertainties would surely be to stage a farce.

This Issue

February 21, 1980