A most unusual advertisement appeared in the International Herald Tribune the other day. It was an ad for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The Imperial always was a good hotel. It was also one of the most handsome, until Frank Lloyd Wright’s original building was replaced by a glossy high-rise in the 1960s. The advertisement went like this:
Tokyo, September 1945. The US Occupation had begun, and soldiers were all over the famed Imperial Hotel. They even ran our kitchen like an army mess hall, serving up army fare like potatoes and frankfurters. But in the process, they also taught us the highest standards of orderliness and good management. We learned to keep our facilities ship-shape. And to pay scrupulous attention to our guests’ every need, big or small…. Today, the Imperial is still one of the grandest hotels in Asia. For this, we owe much to US officers who stayed with us nearly 50 years ago—and to all the VIPs and executives who have stayed with us since. All, without exception, have kept us on our toes. They made us what we are. And we love them for it.
Exquisite Oriental irony? A ritual form of self-abasement? Or simply an attempt to flatter Americans in their age of “decline”? Whatever the intention, there is a strong whiff of the past in this advertisement. It conjures up visions of crisp uniforms, patent leather shoes, deep bows, lipstick smiles, and filthy urchins shouting “chewingu gummu pureesu.”
Ah yes, those were the days, when GI Joe was Number One, the biggest, the richest, the strongest. America, shipshape, efficient, set the tune to which lesser nations danced. MacArthur was the Shogun, aviator shades, corncob pipe, and squashed cap were his regalia. And Japan lay at his feet, ready to learn and eager to please. But the Americans were not just the biggest and the best, they were also the most generous. Instead of exacting the punishment which was the victor’s due, Uncle Sam would remake Japan more or less in his own image. Out with samurai, feudalism, militarism, chauvinism, racialism—welcome Glenn Miller, baseball, chocolate, boogie-woogie, demokurashee!
Politically, Shogun MacArthur famously said, the Japanese were twelve-year-olds. But SCAP (Supreme Commander, Allied Powers) was there to set this straight. The Japanese would have to learn everything from scratch. The process would be supported by the so-called Three S’s: Screen, Sex, and Sports. The revival of baseball, was to be encouraged (hardly necessary, in fact), because it was healthy, American, and democratic. A certain amount of physical affection, within bounds, was healthy too, among your own kind, of course. The Japanese should at least learn to kiss their girls in public, just like us. And the movie screen was best of all, to show the way to the yellow brick road, strewn with healthy, democratic, American values.
It is easy, in retrospect, to be facetious about America’s finest hour, just as it is easy to forget that the Americans really were the most generous of conquerors, and in many cases the most well-meaning of teachers. The question is whether, in retrospect, SCAP and his loyal retainers got it right. Did they teach the right lessons, in the right way? Was MacArthur’s Occupation indeed the glowing success story of American tutelage that people of that generation still like to say it was, or are some of the problems with Japan today actually the result of that remarkable time?
Joseph Goebbels was not the only one to have discovered the efficacy of movies as a tool of propaganda. The Japanese, too, had been superb film propagandists during the war. Their best wartime films were, on the whole, better propaganda and better art than similar fare in America, Britain, or Germany, because they were more realistic and less strident. Not much effort was spent on demonizing the enemy (partly because of the lack of Caucasian extras). Instead, the emphasis was on brave soldiers toughing it out overseas, and on loyal, patriotic families on the homefront sacrificing personal gain for the greater national good. The very real sacrifices and deprivations people had to suffer in Japan were not hidden or ignored; quite the contrary, they were celebrated as examples of heroism, of what made the Japanese Volk great.
In her fascinating book on Occupation movie policies, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, Kyoko Hirano mentions the regulations issued during the war by the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs. There was a rule against “films describing individual happiness,” as well as—naturally—“films dealing with sexual frivolity.” That some of the most active wartime propagandists were former Communists is not really so surprising. The spirit of collectivism and the suppression of individual desires (“greedy materialism”) were not entirely uncongenial to them.
The right (perhaps even the duty) of the individual to be happy was, however, precisely what the Americans wanted Japanese films to propagate after the war. Hence the sensation of the first Japanese screen kiss, an episode which Hirano describes well. The kiss was proposed by an American censor to the Shochiku film company. An actress, named Ikuno Michiko, was trained by her (American) boyfriend to do it properly. When the scene was shot, she allegedly covered her lips with a piece of gauze to avoid direct contact with her costar Osaka Shiro. The film, Twenty-Year-Old Youth, was released on May 23, 1946.
The audiences loved it. Students cheered and shouted “banzai!” when the famous kiss arrived. An eyewitness, quoted by Hirano, described audiences as “gulping, sighing, and yelling.” The first screen kiss clearly had a liberating effect, just as the censor (the sweet irony of it!) had intended. And, as is the way in the film business, this first success was followed by a spate of kiss movies. Conservatives were upset, of course, about this affront to traditional morals. And some left-wing critics were just as severe. The Free Film Workers Group said that film makers were engaging in irresponsible sensationalism instead of making films with a “truly democratic spirit.”
The Japanese leftists and most of the American censors agreed about one basic thing, however: to foster a democratic spirit, “feudalism” had to be rooted out. This led to some of the oddest policies of the Occupation. Since much of the Japanese artistic tradition could be crudely classified as “feudal,” much of it had to go. Kabuki theater, for instance, often appears to celebrate feats of samurai valor and sacrifice; loyal retainers committing suicide or wreaking revenge for the sake of their lords, that kind of thing. Whether Kabuki plays really were celebrations of samurai values is open to question. Arguably the commercial classes, which formed the main Kabuki audience, took pleasure in watching the human tragedy brought on by such values. But this was too complicated for most censors, and so many classics of the Kabuki theater were banned.
The cinematic version of Kabuki was the swordfight movie, long a mainstay of Japanese entertainment. Like American westerns, which they sometimes emulated, these films featured violent heroes. But their ethos was by no means straightforward. The Japanese had discovered the antihero centuries before Hollywood did. The tragic black-hat, who was inevitably defeated by the same superior forces that kept the common people down, was a subversive figure, antifeudal, if anything. Still, swordfight movies, being very “feudal,” had to go. Reels and reels of precious film were burned and dumped into a river south of Tokyo.
Even Mount Fuji was “feudal.” The famous cone always was the most revered object of Japanese nature worship. And since the worship of Japanese nature easily slides into worship of Japan, Mount Fuji was seen as a symbol of imperialist chauvinism, so Mount Fuji had to go too, at least on film. It could not even be shown in a movie about farmers cultivating land on the slopes of the volcano.
I doubt whether the democratic spirit was promoted by these anti-feudal actions. But it probably was not damaged either. More serious was the underlying hypocrisy of the American enterprise. Hypocrisy is of course part of any propaganda in political correctness. But Occupation PC was hypocritical in a fundamental way. The official American guidelines for a PC cinema in postwar Japan included the following: “Approval of free discussion of political issues” and “Dramatizing figures in Japanese history who stood for freedom and representative government.”
These were both fine things. But free discussion, like sexual expression, had its limits. Crimes committed by American soldiers in Japan could not be shown, or even reported. The Japanese papers had to use curious circumlocutions, such as “The criminals were unusually tall and hairy men.” War damage inflicted by American bombing raids was not to be mentioned. Hirano gives the example of a famous film by Ozu, Late Spring, in which one of the characters compares the serene beauty of Kyoto to the ruined city of Tokyo. The original line “[Tokyo] is full of burned sites” had to be changed to “It’s so dusty all over.”
Criticism of American Occupation policies was strictly forbidden. A movie, entitled Between War and Peace, by two leftist directors, Kamei Fumio and Yamamoto Satsuo, showed workers carrying banners that said “Freedom of Speech” and “Let Us Who Work Eat.” The scene was banned by the censors for being “suggestive of criticizing SCAP censorship and encouraging labor strikes.” The censors of the free world, in short, had to censor references to their own censorship.
Not only was SCAP above critical scrutiny, but a negative picture of the United States was also deemed undesirable. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra picture, released in Japan in 1941, could no longer be shown in 1946, because its depiction of graft and corruption might give a false impression of American democracy. And portrayals of the extremes of poverty and wealth in America were censored. As Hirano tells us, a montage in The Great Gatsby (1949) of young people joy-riding, drinking, and running speak-easies had to be cut for distribution in Japan.
The race factor, then as now a central issue of political correctness, tied SCAP’s censors into intricate knots. During much of the Occupation, fraternizing with the former enemy was forbidden to the American occupiers. Inevitably, however, a great deal of fraternizing went on. But the problems involved in affairs between American soldiers and Japanese women could not be shown on screen. On the other hand, Hirano mentions a film, entitled Sorrowful Beauty, which raised objections against an interracial marriage. This had to be revised, the censors decided, “on the ground of racism.”
Perhaps most serious of all was the matter of the Japanese emperor. Representative government was all very well, but the emperor, in whose name war had been declared in 1941, had to protected “from ridicule, vituperation or virulent criticism.” This was the official guideline. SCAP, in the best tradition of Japanese Shoguns, thought he could rule Japan most effectively with the emperor as a symbolic figure who was unassailable from below and easy to manipulate from above. So protection was essential. Not only could the emperor not be called as a witness, let alone be tried as a defendant at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, but his innocence during the war could not even be questioned. Hirano discusses at length the case of The Japanese Tragedy (1946). It is an unusual case, since it concerns a film passed by the censors at first, only to be banned later. The Japanese Tragedy, directed by Kamei Fumio, was a montage of newsreels, films, photographs, and newspaper cuttings suggesting that Emperor Hirohito was formally responsible for going to war. The point Kamei and other critics of the imperial system sought to make was that to be democrats, the Japanese had to be weaned from emperor worship. This could not succeed without a critical analysis of the imperial role during the war.
After having passed the censors, the movie was screened privately for the then prime minister Yoshida Shigeru, in the presence of Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, head of the Military Intelligence Section. Yoshida was a conservative patriot with Churchillian pretensions. Willoughby, to put it mildly, had little sympathy for the “pinko” New Deal Democrats employed by SCAP. Yoshida complained that the film was too critical. Willoughby agreed. The film was banned. And when Hirano saw The Japanese Tragedy in 1984 with Kamei, she was told that “it was around the time that the film was banned that the Japanese people stopped actively discussing the responsibility of Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal.” In effect, the greatest test of postwar Japanese democracy had been flunked, not because the Japanese were political twelve-year-olds, but because Shogun MacArthur took away their right to free speech.
By 1952 China had been lost, the Korean war almost lost, and SCAP’s reign in Japan terminated. The so-called Reverse Course, a key phrase in the lexicon of left-of-center Japanese historians, had already taken place. Halfway up the yellow brick road to democracy, Japan had been turned around, by Japanese bureaucrats and American conservatives, and remodeled as an anti-Communist bastion against Red China. SCAP had helped to slap down the same labor unions it had encouraged earlier. Former war criminals emerged from prison to join the government once again. The leftwing parties were pushed into the margins, where they remain today. And Japanese industry was urged to let it rip. Japan would be a pacific exporting nation, while the US took care of war and peace.
But if the course of Japanese politics had been reversed, an equally dramatic reversal took place in Japanese movies. As soon as SCAP left town, the forbidden fruit was swiftly displayed. Films about Hiroshima made it clear just who should feel guilty about the war. Movies about American military bases revelled in American crimes. Scenes of big GIs, usually black, raping innocent Japanese girls became a stock image in Japanese films about the Occupation. And the taste for sensational imagery of the US, showing the former enemy in the worst possible light, has persisted to this day.
None of this means that the Japanese are implacably anti-American. It just proves that propaganda can produce the opposite effect from the one intended. People cannot be fooled all the time, and the price of American hypocrisy was a lingering resentment among many Japanese intellectuals, on the left and the right, and a propensity toward self-pity among the general public. Which is not to say that American culture had no positive impact. Glenn Miller, screen kisses, and easy manners did much to loosen up Japanese social life. But, apart from the unique case of the first kiss, these were not part of SCAP propaganda. People danced to “In The Mood” because they wanted to, not because it was a lesson imposed on them.
One might well wonder what problems with Japan today have to do with cultural propaganda of almost fifty years ago. They are linked, however, in a confused and confusing manner. One legacy of Occupation propaganda is a myth which has lost none of its tenacity; the myth that economic policies or political arrangements are mainly a reflection of cultural values, of mentalités. There was, and still is, a strong belief, for example, that democracy is a Western value, fostered by Christianity, and so on. To become a democrat you must be “Westernized,” and preferably play baseball, and kiss your girl. There is, on the other hand, the belief that the Japanese Economic Miracle can be explained primarily by ancient Japanese traditions, instead of policies decided upon by American cold warriors and Japanese officialdom. And there are those who think that the authoritarian nature of Japan’s so-called democracy is mainly caused, let us say, by Confucianism, rather than by the monopoly on power, skillfully achieved by pork-barrel politicians and bureaucrats who have managed to rig the electoral system.
Culture, some maintain, is why we have to worry today about the mighty Japanese—not because there is something flawed in Japan’s political relations with the outside world, but because they are Japanese, heirs to the samurai tradition, lacking in universal values, etc. The myth fostered by the Occupation was that if only Japanese values could be changed, which in time they would, then all would be right between Japan and the world. In the meantime, until that happy day when the Japanese could be truly trusted, they would be kept under the protective American thumb.
The confusion was made worse by a number of well-meaning American experts, collectively known as the Chrysanthemum Club, who saw it as their duty to protect the delicate Japan-US relationship by deflecting criticism of Japan. Like professional Pollyannas, they would tell us over and over that, despite appearances to the contrary, the Japanese, given some patience, would one day be just like us. In 1965, the late Edwin O. Reischauer, the doyen of Chrysanthemums, wrote that Japan had “passed from the ‘investment boom’ of the early 1950s to the ‘leisure boom’ of 1960 and the ‘vacation boom’ of 1963.”1
Reischauer was wrong. But the Pollyannas were perhaps right in a way that none of the SCAP’s men anticipated. The film maker Oshima Nagisa was a teenager during the Occupation. He remembers how hungry the Japanese were for any entertainment, anything from the outside world, where people had money, ate plenty of food, and lived in big houses, instead of among the ruins. They wanted to see America, if only in flickering images on a torn and dirty screen. But did these films teach the Japanese democracy? Oshima thinks not. Instead, he believes, Japan learned the values of “progress” and “development.” Japan wanted to be just as rich as America, no, even richer. “And if we think about the extraordinary speed of postwar progress and development in Japan, perhaps we should say that the route upon which we travelled was that Union Pacific railway line, which we saw in those Westerns several decades ago.”2
Ever since Japan was exposed to the expansive power of Europe and America, Japanese thinkers have been exercised by the cultural problem. Nationalists in the eighteenth century, such as Aizawa Seishisai, thought Christianity explained the strength of the Western world. (Max Weber, incidentally, thought so too. He argued that Protestantism produced successful capitalists, and Confucianism kept them back.) Japan, so Aizawa believed, needed a unifying religious force of its own, something purely Japanese. This turned out to be an official version of Shintoism, with the emperor as the apex of the cult. And so Japanese were furnished with an unchanging “soul,” even as they acquired the techniques of modern life from the West.
The desire to separate the purely native from Western importations is still strong. Prominent political writers, such as Eto Jun, maintain, for example, that the American Occupation robbed Japan of its purity, its true identity, by censoring traditional culture and stifling the imperial cult. He has the ear of quite a few Western journalists and Japanophiles who worry about national identity, too, especially in non-Western countries supposedly “swamped” by Americana. Western romantics have sought to escape for centuries from the messy reality of their own world to a purer universe across the horizon: in Shangri-La, Cathay, or the Land of the Rising Sun.
But while Lafcadio Hearn could still dream on betwixt the cherry trees (and even he lamented the continuing hemorrhage of purity), the modern visitor to Japan, or anywhere in Asia, can hardly overlook the lively cultural mess. What makes Leo Rubinfien’s photographs, published in A Map of the East, so superb is his refusal to overlook it. Instead, he finds poetry in the hybrid vulgarity of contemporary Asia. The temptation for a Western artist in Japan is to look for juxtapositions: East-West, foreign-native, Buddhas and Coca-Cola. Rubinfien, although he, too, according to his own introduction, is given to lamenting what has been lost, avoids this easy choice. His photographs of Japanese picking their way through the urban landscape show everything at once: kimonos, business suits, paper lanterns, jazz coffee shops, skyscrapers, Shinto shrines. It is all here, the architecture, the clothes, the clutter of life, presented without cheap irony. Some of it might have originated in China, or Paris, or New York, yet all of it is unmistakably Japanese. Categories like East and West, let alone pure and impure, cease to exist, or at least to matter.
This is also evident from the more sophisticated anthropological works on Japan. The search for purity appears to be on the wane—except in Japan itself. The contributors to Re-Made in Japan have their hearts in the right place. If only they could write a straight sentence in English—not “pure” English, mind you, but intelligible English. But alas, in many cases, the blight of Baudrillard has wrecked their prose, even if the authors do not always agree with his ideas. Oddly enough, the dated Parisian jargon of deconstruction has had a more devastating effect in America and Japan than anywhere else. It is distressing to open a promising Japanese journal of criticism, only to find every sentence messed up with ekurituru (écriture) and disukuru (discours).
Re-Made in Japan has its fair share of this jargon. Here is Dorinne Kondo, on Japanese fashion designers working with Western styles: “As these questions construct a transnational space, essentializing gestures and geopolitical relations simultaneously refabricate national boundaries.” But once one disentangles the language, there is much of interest in the book, particularly on the artificial separation of East and West. The key term running through most of the essays is “domestication.” The Japanese are not passive receptacles of Western influence, but active shoppers in a global bazaar, picking and choosing what they want, before turning it into something of their own. The Japanese version of the English language, for instance, sometimes known as “Japlish,” is hardly intelligible to the English speaker. Who in London would know that sebiro means men’s suit, and was derived from Savile Row? But, as James Stanlaw points out quite rightly. “Japanese English is used in Japan for Japanese purposes.” Maybe the same is true of ekurituru, but I doubt it.
To balance the domestication of cultural imports, the Japanese have always been active inventors of native “traditions.” They did this when China was the main source of imports. And they do it today, in their lavish department stores, for example. A walk through the food halls of Mitsukoshi or Takashimaya reveals two distinct worlds, or perhaps even three: a Western one, offering Japanized versions of Italian or French delicacies, sometimes accompanied by piped European music; a Chinese one, displaying stacks of bamboo baskets filled with steamed dumplings and other delights; and a Japanese one, where, in Millie R. Creighton’s words, “employees dressed in hanten (happy coats) and hachimaki (headbands) clap and chant the virtues of their noodles, pickles, and bean cakes using the same boisterous sales techniques favored by street vendors of three or four centuries ago.”
The point of these culinary theme parks is to establish clear cultural boundary lines, however invented they might be. As Creighton says: “Through this dialectic of ‘us’ and ‘other’ depato [department stores] help their modern clientele affirm Japaneseness in a culturally eclectic age.”
This is clearly true. Where I think I differ from some of the contributors to Re-Made in Japan is in their emphasis on modernity, as though cultural eclecticism were a specific product of the modern age (whenever that may have started). Culture never was pure, traditions always were invented, or parodied. Nancy Rosenberger quotes Baudrillard and Bourdieu (another one of those sacred French cows) to observe that Japanese consumers advertise the status they desire by the products they buy, by simulating “the tastes…of the higher classes they aspire to.” First, one does not need Bourdieu to tell us this. Second, the phenomenon is not new, or, if one prefers, “modern.” Edo period merchants paid good money to acquire samurai culture. They even paid good money for prostitutes to act as noble beauties of the Heian period.
What has changed—perhaps the real point of this book—is Japan’s relative wealth vis-à-vis the rest of the world, particularly the West. In a very interesting essay on Tokyo Disneyland (bigger than the lands of Anaheim and Orlando), Mary Yoko Brannen challenges the Baudrillardian assumption that Disneyland means American cultural imperialism. As she describes the place, it is rather the other way round. The Japanese have turned Disney into a modern Japanese equivalent of nineteenth-century European Japonaiserie. One might call it Americainerie. The Western craftsmen and guides, who are not allowed to speak Japanese and, unlike their Japanese colleagues, do not wear name tags, are put on display like exhibits in a Victorian ethnological fair. The theme parks, such as “Meet the World.” have been carefully redone to make the Japanese look both normal (to the Japanese) and unique (to everybody else), and the foreigners exotic (in the case of Westerners) and disreputable (in the case of Chinese). She concludes that “the selective importation of Disney cultural artifacts works in the service of an ongoing Japanese process of cultural imperialism.”
What would SCAP make of it all? Now Japanese executives land in LA, New York, and Honolulu and buy the flashiest buildings, the finest companies, and the biggest studios in Hollywood. GI Joe is still in Japan, to be sure, but he can hardly afford to leave his base. Indeed, the more salacious Japanese weeklies love to recount that his own wife is sometimes constrained to meet Japanese patrons to exchange her favors for yen. Meanwhile Japanese politicians and popular authors write best sellers about the Japanese ruling the world. One of the latest is entitled This Is How History Begins. The jacket announces that “Japanese civilization has begun to take over from the white man’s civilization,” and that “for the next 250 years, Japan will move the world.”3 No wonder people in the West are beginning to feel anxious.
The new fashion for Yellow Peril fiction is one anxiety symptom. There is the pulp end of it, with titles like The Tojo Virus by John D. Randall, about a dastardly Japanese plot to cripple the military, scientific, and business computers in America by infecting them with a virus. Or there is Blood Heat, about Japanese biological warfare against American civilians. Or Dragon, about Japanese nuclear blackmail. Then there is the sophisticated end of the market with Michael Crichton’s best seller Rising Sun.4
What most of these books have in common is an image of the Japanese that makes them seem omnipotent, sinister, fanatical, and sexually threatening. The cover of Steven Schlossstein’s Kensei reads: “Calculation. Determination. Elimination. The samurai code for total victory in the war on America.” Those tired old samurai again. Since these books also play up the idea of American doom, Americans are often depicted as venal, decadent, or simple suckers. As a Japanese character in Dragon observes to an American opponent: “You’ve become a cesspool of deterioration, and the process is unstoppable.” 5
More rational, or at least more sympathetic, are the books on how to learn the secret of Japanese power. Miyamoto Musashi’s eighteenth-century tract on samurai tactics, entitled The Book of the Five Rings, has proven a popular book among the businessmen seeking insights into Japanese business strategy. More upto-date accounts have such titles as Yen, or Why Has Japan Succeeded?, or Japanese Power Game. The most detailed and by far the best informed of the crop is Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power.
Now there appears to be a third genre: how to cash in on Japanese economic power by joining it. Some, like Yankee Samurai, by Dennis Laurie, or Funny Business: An Outsider’s Year in Japan, by Gary Katzenstein, are accounts of what it is like to be employed by Japanese companies. One of the odder specimens of this ilk is by Jina Bacarr, a longtime student of Japanese culture, and a “spokesperson” for the Japan Mutual Food Company. It bears the straightforward title How To Work for a Japanese Boss. The book is an amalgam of advice, potted history (from 660 BC to 1992 in four pages), and cultural analysis.
But culture is just one aspect of Bacarr’s objective, which is “to teach you how to think Japanese.” She tries to achieve this by combining the down-to-earth and the airy-fairy in a disconcerting way. Her advice on how to do business with Japanese is practical, even though presented in the kind of babytalk to which readers of American business magazines have become accustomed. Chapters open with haiku-like personality sketches, which read like captions to Glen Baxter cartoons: “As Kurt followed the kimono-clad waitress to his table in the Japanese restaurant, he paid little attention to the beautiful decor and the sound of the small brook running through the restaurant.” If much of her advice to aspiring American “salarymen” seems more appropriate to aspiring courtiers, that is because the unfortunate salaryman’s chances of success do indeed depend to a large extent on his or her capacity for fawning, dissembling, and attending to the boss’s whims.
What is distressing about this book is how little we seem to have progressed from the cultural clichés of the Occupation. Bacarr, like so many others before her, has this to say about “the Japanese character”: 1. They are good at copying; 2. Zen, or “the contemplation of the void,” is “the root of much of their success”; 3. The Japanese are masters of “group-think.” The Americans, she concludes, “tend to use logic,” whereas “the Japanese use a system based on emotions and spiritual values that goes back to feudal times when they were ruled by a class of samurai who…etc. etc.”
Of course, it would be foolish to ignore culture altogether. Cultural differences exist, and they affect the way we do things. But if crude cultural distinctions are to be the main explanation for economic and political arrangements, there are only three options when conflicts arise with countries whose cultures are different from our own; they become like us, we become like them, or we go to war, by boycotting their trade, or, in extreme cases, by taking up arms.
To judge from the latest books, good and bad, there are few takers any longer for the idea that Japan will be just like us. In this respect, the Chrysanthemum Club has lost, and the so-called revisionists, who maintain that the Japanese (or East Asian) version of capitalism is fundamentally different from the Anglo-American system, have won. Quite how Japan differs is a matter of contention, even among the revisionists. Taggart Murphy, a former investment banker, now writing as a revisionist on Japanese finance, argued in The Washington Post that Japanese bureaucracy was not able to restrain Japanese corporations, whose expansionism he compared to units of the Imperial Army in the 1930s. American pressure, he said, could help the bureaucracy to be more forceful. Karel van Wolferen commented in the same paper that the main problem with Japan was the control exercised over the Japanese economy by bureaucrats “under the wings of Japan’s Finance Ministry.”
Whatever their differences, however, many revisionists share a portentous tone of gloom. They are the professional Cassandras, as opposed to the Chrysanthemum Pollyannas. Their very language invites visions of catastrophe. On the subject of American decline, they tend to sound like French nationalists after losing the war with Prussia in 1871. It is as though the virility of the nation were at stake. When Michael Crichton began to research Rising Sun, he “was stunned to discover how desperate our situation really is.” America, I was told by a revisionist in Tokyo, was now going through its “darkest hour.” Van Wolferen, not himself an American, warns that American inaction on Japanese trade will invite “calamity.” His op-ed piece for The Washington Post bears the headline, “Japan: Different, Unprecedented and Dangerous.” These are not his own words, but they do reflect the tone of the revisionist debate.
The least one can say about America’s relative economic decline is that opinions differ. According to a report issued recently by the Center for Applied Economics at New York University, “Japan’s higher growth rate has been slowing down and is now hardly ahead of ours anymore, while the level of Japan’s manufacturing productivity certainly remains well below ours.”6
Views are equally divided on just what, if anything, should be done about Japan’s brand of capitalism, whose differences the revisionists have done such a sterling job in revealing. Is it a threat? Is the American economy really being ruined by Japanese trade practices? So far, the biggest losers as a result of Japanese mercantilism have been the Japanese consumers, who pay too much. In the US and Britain many people have benefitted from Japanese trade, as consumers, as employees, and as recipients of investment. Are these benefits outweighed by other, darker factors, such as a dangerous dependency on Japanese capital or technology? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certainly true is that the present relationship between the US and Japan is an unhealthy one. Japan is a resentful and mercantilist power locked into a state of infantile dependence on US security.
Two recent articles, one by Chalmers Johnson, and the other by Joseph Nye, offered two different solutions to the problem.7 Johnson, professor of Pacific international relations at the University of California, San Diego, is often called the doyen of the revisionists. Nye, a Harvard professor of government, is a traditional American liberal. Of the two, Nye favors the more conservative solution. Basically, in his view, GI Joe should stay in Japan. For if Japan were to become a military power, all kinds of unpredictable things might happen, including an East Asian arms race. The best thing, Nye believes, would be for Japan to become a “global civilian power.”8 This would mean a bigger role in UN agencies, including a seat in the Security Council, even though Japan would be unable to implement the military policies it would have to help to decide.
Johnson thinks a greater change is in order. Unlike Nye, Johnson wants to end the Occupation, not just in form, but in fact. The US, in his opinion, can no longer afford to be the policeman of East Asia, and the Japanese will resent it more and more. The cold war, after all, is over, and it is time the Japanese took care of their own affairs. The continued presence of American troops stops them from doing so. Ergo, if the US pulls out, Japan will be weaned from its narrow mercantilism and become a more responsible, more “normal” regional superpower. Or so we can only hope.
I believe he is right. But it will take some doing, and the process will not be helped at all by the Amerika Erwache rhetoric that is currently so popular. For the image of Japan as a fundamentally dangerous nation will impede any moves toward an end to the informal Occupation. Herein lies one of the paradoxes of revisionism. All the revisionists, including Chalmers Johnson, are agreed that if something is not done to stop Japanese mercantilism in its tracks, there will be a dangerous, emotional backlash in the US. So Americans have to be woken up to a danger, posited by the revisionists, in order for those same Americans not to get emotional when they finally realize that the revisionists were right. If the shrill tone of fictional propaganda helps to wake them up, so be it. As James Fallows, an eminently reasonable member of the revisionists, observed to the Los Angeles Times: “We [America and Japan] have serious conflicts and we need to resolve them. To the extent that fiction reveals them, it’s having a useful effect.”
This is how SCAP’s censors argued too, except it was their business to avoid further conflict, and their fictions were more benign.
March 25, 1993
John K. Fairbank, E. O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: The Modern Transformation (Houghton Mifflin, 1965), p. 826. ↩
Oshima Nagisa, Taikenteki Sengo Eizoron (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbunsha, 1975), p. 70. ↩
Watanabe Shoichi, Kakute rekishi wa hajimaru (Tokyo: Crest, 1992). ↩
See my essay in The New York Review, April 23, 1992. ↩
Quoted from Mark Schreiber’s article in Tokyo Journal. ↩
C.V. Starr newsletter, published by New York University, Volume 10, 1992. ↩
Chalmer Johnson’s article appeared in Daedalus, Fall 1992. Nye’s essay was in Foreign Policy, Winter 1992. ↩
The phrase was coined by Funabashi Yoichi in an article in the Spring 1992 Foreign Policy. ↩