The Real Japan

The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation

by Karel van Wolferen
Knopf, 496 pp., $24.95

Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan to Take the Lead

by Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr.
Basic Books, 365 pp., $19.95

Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power is the subject of much controversy and has been generally vilified in Japan, even though it has not been officially published there, is written in a language most Japanese cannot read, and does much to explain the roots of the political crisis that has preoccupied Japan for most of the last year. The book would be important for non-Japanese readers even if it had evoked no reaction whatever from the Japanese. The Enigma of Japanese Power will, I think, stand with other classic attempts by foreigners to interpret Japanese society and institutions, including Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword and Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle. Like those books, this one will change the course of subsequent debate about Japan; it will be very hard for anyone to discuss the Japanese political system without responding to Van Wolferen’s argument. The intensity of the Japanese reaction against the book underscores the significance of the messages Van Wolferen is trying to convey.

The furor began three years ago, when “The Japan Problem,” a précis of some of the arguments Van Wolferen has developed in his book, was published in Foreign Affairs. The article advanced a view that the subsequent twists of Japanese politics would seem to have borne out: that there is not a clear center of power in the Japanese government, but that the “buck” is circulating constantly and does not stop on anyone’s desk. The Japanese government is extremely influential, Van Wolferen said, if one considers the cumulative effects of its various parts, but it is not centrally directed or controlled. A variety of Balkanized ministries exercise very strong supervision of trade policy, the schools, public works, prisons, banks, the medical and legal systems, et cetera, but no one stands above the separate organizations, with the authority or power to steer the entire system in a new direction. The best parallel in the American government would be the Pentagon, with its strong but very independent bureaucracies (the ship-building faction of the navy, the long-range bombing faction of the air force, the research-and-development faction, and so on) that fiercely resist the attempts of any president or defense secretary to coordinate them.

Van Wolferen was saying, in short, that Japan may seem structurally and legally a typical liberal democracy, but in practice its politics work differently from those of most other democratic states. One basic difference is that Japan’s is effectively a one-party system. Since 1955, when the ruling LDP was formed, the party has constantly dominated the Diet and therefore the prime minister’s office and the bureaucracy. (In English it is more appropriate to use the neutral acronym LDP than the full name “Liberal Democratic Party,” which is the direct translation of the Japanese name, Jiyuminshuto. The Jiminto, as it is colloquially known, was created from the merger of Japan’s main conservative parties, and the role it plays is exactly the opposite of what Americans think when they hear the…

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