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Satyajit Das: Two Views of Japan’s Setting Sun

Yves here. Das discusses two recent books on Japan, and both provide windows on how Japan is coping with its now lost two decades. One of them is by Tag Murphy, who I met in my days in Japan and has long been a very insightful commentator. As I said at the Atlantic Economy conference, rather than trying to “jump start the economy,” which would take more radical restructuring than they are willing to engage in, the top wealthy might be better served to worry about managing low growth better. And for its many flaws, egalitarian Japan has muddled through a far more severe bubble and bust with more grace than we have.

By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money

David Piling (2014) Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, Allen Lane

R. Taggart Murphy (2014) Japan and the Shackles of the Past, Oxford University Press

The Occident and Occidentals have always had a deep fascination about the Orient and Orientals. Nowhere is this more evident than in studies of Japan.

But much of popular understanding may be superficial. French President Charles de Gaulle dismissed one Japanese Prime Minister as nothing more than a transistor salesman. Singer Britney Spears did not want to go to Japan for the following reason: “I don’t like eating fish. And I know that’s very popular out there in Africa.”

Foreign interest is focused on society, culture, art, and, more recently, on economics. In the case of Japan, well founded clichés about stoicism, societal solidarity, appreciation of beauty and creativity have multiplied over the year. Yet, the reality is infinitely more complex. Japan abounds in contradictions. Alongside much admired qualities, there are a number of less attractive features like corruption, fatalism, paralysis, secretiveness, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, a predilection for sexual violence at least in its literature and sex industry and disregard for the environment and wildlife, evidenced by Japan’s attitude to whaling. But, as in most cultures, the desirable and undesirable attributes co-exist.

In the economic sphere, the initial focus of analysis was on the Japanese miracle which led to blind aping of industrial and management practices. More recently, as Japan endured a quarter of a century of stagnation, the emphasis has been on whether the disease is transmissible and different treatment approaches.

The better known books about Japan include John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, Ian Burama’s Wages of Guilt and A Japanese Mirror, Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan, Kenneth Pyle’s Japan Rising and Karel van Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power. Analysts generally fall into the “Japan admiring camp” or “Japan bashing camp”, depending on their prejudices. Some manage to fall into both schools. Bending Adversity and Japan and the Shackles of the Past are recent additions to this vast industrial scale Western literature on “understanding Japan”.

The analysis does not interest the Japanese. After all Westerners are “a special variety of goblin that [bear] only superficial resemblance to a normal human being”. David Piling appears puzzled when an academic asked to comment on a draft of his essay responds: “it seems to me the only people on earth that are not worried about understanding Japan are the Japanese”. She goes on to observe that “nobody can ‘understand’ Japan in the Western sense of the word, because in Japan there is no absolute”. It is a characteristic Japanese belief that all there is to know and all that can never be known about their nation is beyond the understanding of outsiders.

Despite some similarity in the areas covered, Bending Adversity and Japan and the Shackles of the Past are very different books.

Mr. Piling is the Financial Times Asia Editor who spent some years covering Japan. Bending Adversity is constructed around his return to Japan to report on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami as well as the related Fukushima nuclear disaster. He uses the events to frame a series of reflections on Japan, its history, the post-bubble economy and its politics.

Bending Adversity’s discussions of Japan itself are derivative and draw heavily on existing sources. The better part of the book is it reportage on the tsunami. These sections are well written and personal, evoking with great compassion the magnitude of the destruction and anger at the predictable deceitful and inept response of the government and especially officials. In reality, the Japanese attempt to deal with the crisis was no better or worse than, say, the US attempt to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Who can forget President Bush’s gushing praise of Michael Brown’s handling of the situation “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, a phrase now synonymous with politically connected incompetence.

The book relies stylistically on a narrative structure driven by interviews with well-known people – Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, author Haruki Murakami etc. It is unclear whether this is intended to establish the author’s standing and the authenticity of the observations. The problem is that many of his interviewees are famous but not enlightening. The journalistic need to preserve access and maintain relationships also makes critical scrutiny of his subjects understandably delicate.

Novelist Murakami tells the author: “When we were rich, I hated this country.” It is unclear what the statement means. Japan is still rich. In the words of one visiting English parliamentarian presumably based on a standard brief survey of the Ginza: “If this is a recession, I want one”. Few Japanese or citizens anywhere else believe in poverty for its own sake.

Murakami also tells Mr. Piling: “Most Japanese don’t have any sense of direction. We are lost and we don’t know which way we should go. But this is a very natural thing, a very healthy thing. It is time for us to think. We can take our time.” Whatever Murakami’s considerable abilities as a novelist, this is inanity elevated to philosophy. Mr. Piling reports his “old friend”, the charming and fluent English speaking Deputy Governor for international relations at the Bank of Japan, stating: “Japan is a country of good soldiers but poor commanders”. But as former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti observed: “If Italians still voted for Berlusconi, they are the problem not him”.

Taggart Murphy identifies the change in the type of foreign journalist that was assigned to Tokyo as Japan became mired in economic and political stagnation. Editors wanted human interest and exotic puff pieces about Japan focused around the Mrs. Watanabes who trade, Tokyo’s androgynous male metro-sexuals, the parasite singles and the marginalised male herbivores. It was the journalism of “Japan passing”. Mr. Piling strays a little too close to that approach for at least this reader’s taste.

Mr. Piling’s obvious love of Japan and an admirable desire for objectivity and balance is a virtue. But at times it does not suit the subject. The best analysis frequently comes from those without any interest in Japan or insiders who love it but see it in all its faults and contradictions with terrible clarity.

Japan and the Shackles of the Past is ultimately the more challenging and rewarding work. A Professor of International Political Economy at the Tokyo campus of the University of Tsukuba and a long term resident of Japan, Taggart Murphy has crafted a precise and highly critical analysis of Japan’s problems.

Professor Murphy sees the current state of Japan as a logical and inevitable result of its historical evolution. The first part of Japan and the Shackles of the Past looks at the driving forces of this change: the Meiji revolution, the militarism of the early twentieth century and its post-war recovery as an US satellite. The second part looks at how this history affects the economy, finances, society, culture, politics and international relations. Much of the analysis is not new, but Professor Murphy brings together existing material well to make his arguments strongly.

At the heart of Japan and the Shackles of the Past is Karel van Wolferen’s astute observation that Japan has been involved for the last 200 years in the “management of reality”. Nothing exemplifies this better than Emperor Hirohito’s unprecedented 15 August 1945 broadcast announcing the nation’s surrender after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when he advised the Japanese people that “the war had not necessarily developed to Japan’s advantage”.

Japan is a series of elaborate but careful falsehoods. The Meiji restoration was based on the two fictions of an idealised past of imperial rule and its Western counterpoint of constitutional government and the rule of law, at east as it was implemented in Japan. The nation’s participation in World War 2 was driven by a confused combination of the need for Lebensraum (living space) and access to resources. It culminated in actions that leaders realised would always result in catastrophe. Defeat, in the wake of two nuclear attacks, allowed perpetual victimhood, enabling successive generations to continue to avoid taking responsibility for wartime atrocities.

The falsehoods are aided and abetted in the post-World War 2 era by American co-operation. Needing a fixed aircraft carrier for military operations in Korea and a bulwark against communism, America actions nurtured this strange Japanese reality. As John Dower wrote in Embracing Defeat: “If the man in whose name imperial Japan had conducted foreign and military policy for twenty years was not held accountable for the initiation of or conduct of the war, why should anyone expect ordinary people to dwell on such matters, or to think seriously about their own personal responsibility?’ The Americans’ exoneration of the emperor turned the issue of ‘war responsibility’ into a joke.”

Professor Murphy highlights Japan’s curious combination of a stunted democracy and economic prosperity. Japan’s dysfunctional political system emerges as the result of long-standing feudalism, and manipulation by the US and its agencies including the CIA which helped create the Liberal Democratic Party (“LDP”) to prevent leftist forces from gaining power. The political infantilism was balanced by the fantasy-land of happy consumerism, exquisite design and exacting hygiene standards for the happy children of Japan. Except that economic prosperity was really built on a weak currency, crony capitalism guided by the government, preferential financial access, social repression and environmental damage, such as the tragedy of Minamata.

The most obvious point of difference between Bending Adversity and Japan and the Shackles of the Past is the country’s future trajectory. Mr. Piling is the more optimistic. He devotes considerable time to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the “samurai with a quiff”, and current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Abe-nomics. Typically guarded, Mr. Piling appears to believe that genuine reform is feasible and possibly under way. In contrast, Professor Taggart is less sanguine about the prospects for change.

Japan and the Shackles of the Past sees change as difficult. The author sees a system in which doublethink is deeply engrained and power holders deceive themselves both about what they are doing and about their motives for doing it. The position is complicated by a powerful bureaucracy who see themselves as “servants of the emperor” rather than voters and particularly ephemeral politicians. As Brazilian President Lula once in Japan, you say good morning to one prime minister and good afternoon to another.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ultimately was not a significant reformer. Like most Japanese politicians descended of a traditional political lineage, he simply recognised the power of modern media and the need for ‘reformist status’ for electoral success. Even his much mentioned historic victory on a platform to privatise Japan Post is not what it seemed. As both Mr. Piling and Professor Taggart point out, the Prime Minister did not actually know what he wanted to do with his mandate, retiring shortly thereafter in favour of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prime Minister Abe is himself the scion of a significant political dynasty. His father and grandfather were politicians. His maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was a member of the Tojo Cabinet during the Second World War and later prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960 after release from Sugamo Prison. Western observers have focused on Prime Minister Abe’s economic agenda.

Prime Minister Abe’s agenda is rooted in history and deep seated nationalism. Since Commodore Perry used military power to force Japan to open to the West, Japan’s obsession has been to be and to be recognised as a first ranking country – itto koku. Japan went to war to avoid being reduced to a second rate or worse country. In the aftermath of its defeat, the term yonto koku (meaning fourth rate country) was widely used to represent Japan’s post surrender decline and humiliation. Current initiatives are a part of a process of the restoration of Japan’s national status and security, of which economic recovery is a small component. The Prime Minister wants to recreate a nostalgic imperial idyll, based on military and economic strength. The policies are oddly reminiscent of an old slogan from the Meiji restoration, fukoku kyohei (a rich country and a strong army).

For the West, Japan is now a laboratory or experimental test bed. The world is at risk of turning Japanese, at least economically; now facing an environment similar Japan’s lost decades. Many of the symptoms – slow growth, deflation- and the therapies –fiscal stimulus, low rates, debt monetisation- are comparable. But there are significant differences which make comparisons misleading. A close reading of Bending Adversity and Japan and the Shackles of the Past indicate that the real lessons are not economic, but social and political.

Globally, economic stagnation is creating a kakusa shakai, society of disparities. Ordinary people get poorer, as their savings lose purchasing power or are appropriated. The labour market is bifurcated into a small number of well-paid secure jobs and a sub-culture of poorly paid contract or part time work. The social consequences include delays in family formation and declining birth rates. There are lost generations of parasite singles who continue to live at home and agoraphobic herbivores who spend their days absorbed in video games and the internet. Societal stresses find release in self-absorption and anti-social behaviour.

Politically, there are also similarities. Japan’s power elite have accepted contradictions as essential, using propaganda and social pressures to silence dissent without obvious coercion. In combination with a bureaucracy which because of its scale and complexity is barely under political control, it allows control of society under conditions of a managed depression. Japan’s current Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso speaking about changing Japan’s constitution outlined the approach: “We should proceed quietly. One day people realized that the Weimar constitution had changed into the Nazi constitution. Why don’t we learn from that approach?” Japan may now be the political template for America, Europe and elsewhere.

Oscar Wilde thought that: “The whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country; there are no such people.” That may or may not be true. But there is a lot that can be learnt from real and unreal Japan. As William James advised about religious experience, moments of extremity can often reveal the true essence of things.

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19 comments

  1. Clockwork Apple

    It’s nearly impossible for a mature economy in Japan’s demographic situation to have any sort of an impressive growth. The wealthy half of Europe is following a similar path, and in all likelihood so will South Korea and China sooner or later. My worry is that those countries won’t be able to cope with it as well as Japan has.

  2. Metatone

    On the one hand I tend to a pessimistic view of Japan’s situation.

    On the other, I find it a bit rich to accuse them of living inside a set of elaborate falsehoods which disguise a political system where “democracy” is largely a device for covering up the control exercised by the wealthy and powerful.

    We may have had a better situation once, but we’re converging on that very quickly…

    1. James Levy

      Yes, I can’t help but feel that almost everything I read about Japan is tainted with either contempt or paranoia (you get the vibe in most writing about Germany also). It is strange that the American Imperial Project, from the overthrow of Arbenz to the destruction of Libya, has killed millions, yet we as a people are never portrayed as both culpable and malignant the way the Japanese and Germans are. It’s as if our policies were “all a mistake”, and an innocent one at that. I think this has to do with the fact that the average American is seen as likeable and accessible, whereas the average Japanese and German is seen as wary and evasive, speaking languages that no one else needs or bothers to learn (how pig-headed of them! they must have a sneaky agenda to go on doing such a thing). And the use of the outdated term oriental in this article was just jarring, like speaking about black people and calling them negroes.

      1. Christer Kamb

        Well James, that´s how it feels living inside a late stage imperial bubble, still setting the international agenda and deciding how values are defined. History though is always written by the next “Rome”. Guess the US´ obituary will be a bit different from the US self-image.

      2. Bobbo

        I actually found it refreshing to see the archaic term “oriental” set alongside the archaic term “occidental”. In the US this may be a no-no but in other parts of the world the rules are not so strict. But your comment reminded me of something my Japanese ex-girlfriend told me many years ago. She told me that Japanese do not see themselves as part of Asia. They have a conception of Asia that includes China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. — but they aren’t part of it. In the Japanese mind, she explained, “Japan is Japan and Asia is Asia”.

        Having just returned from a business trip to Japan, I think the Japanese are actually doing a fine job of downsizing, and doing it in a way that preserves a sense of beauty. Despite this talk of “lost decades” I think the Japanese are doing just fine, and will continue to do just fine.

      3. different clue

        Well, no . . . it stems simply from having not been defeated, conquered and occupied in an overtly visible war which everyone knows was fought and lost, the way Germany and Japan were.

        Now, America IS being stealth-conquered and stealth-colonized by the International Free Trade Conspiracy, of which TPP and TTIP are some major final offensives. One can imagine Obama secretly saying to his Inner Henchmen . . . ” We need a Final Solution to the Democracy Question in America today.” But since it is a stealth-war, if it totally succeeds as the traitors-within plan and hope, Americans will end up feeling like the Chinese felt and feel after 2 centuries of foreign humiliation and occupation.

        “America has stood up!” Who will be the Resistance President who gets to say that some day?

        1. Christer Kamb

          The implicit(early) fascism or lets say the “corporate inside revolution” built on political corruption is the last stage in a great economic (US-)cycle from the late 19th century. Diminishing returns easy measured by an exponential scale(using i.e inflation v.s deflation) tell the tale of why an empires always fools themselves for the “fast buck” including holding power at all costs.

  3. twonine

    Eamonn Filgleon’s book “In the Jaws of the Dragon” seemed credible. Is he wrong about the lost decade?

    Also, I had the fleeting thought that high Japanese deficits amount to a de facto platinum coin if the population isn’t propagandized to fear them.

  4. Mel

    “Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi [ … ] simply recognised the power of modern media and the need for ‘reformist status’ for electoral success.”

    Echoing Metatone, I find this strangely familiar.
    I’m still wondering whether Japan is providing us with a model for a zero-growth society. No answers yet.

    1. different clue

      James Klunster thinks it is. James Klunster thinks Japan will get there first and has the best chance of surviving the transition.

  5. flora

    Interesting article. One quibble. The line “As John Dower wrote in Embracing Defeat: “If the man in whose name imperial Japan had conducted foreign and military policy for twenty years was not held accountable for the initiation of or conduct of the war, why should anyone expect ordinary people to dwell on such matters, or to think seriously about their own personal responsibility?’ The Americans’ exoneration of the emperor turned the issue of ‘war responsibility’ into a joke.” “ shows little understanding of what American foreign policy learned from the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, the Treaty of Versailles, and resulting German political and civil society free fall after WWI.

      1. flora

        Yes. The Japanese, however, were preparing to fight to the last soldier and civilian to defend the Emperor. Army estimates of US casualtes should a land invasion of Japan be necessary were very high.

  6. Ken Ward

    Mr Das seems to know next to nothing about Japan. We can’t blame him for that but, if he reviews a book by David Pilling and calls him ‘Piling’ throughout and praises books by Ian Buruma and calls him ‘Burama’, one wonders how much of his mind he focused on this effort. It is odd he doesn’t mention Chalmers Johnson’s work.
    “It is a characteristic Japanese belief that all there is to know and all that can never be known about their nation is beyond the understanding of outsiders.” If this is the case, why do we find Japanese studying Japanese affairs in foreign countries? Are foreigners’ books on Japan, such as van Wolferen’s, never translated into Japanese?

  7. RBHoughton

    The militarization of Japan is an aspect of global uncertainty pursuant on the west’s crusade against Islam. We have to seek out and extinguish those who suppose there is an alternative to our way. We have not displayed willingness to discover a third way.

    This requires every alert country to perform self-strengthening; to discover and cultivate real allies with whom it can co-ordinate defences and deter attack. I suppose the UN should be involved but its funding arrangements prevent it. We still have choices but there are influences on powerful governments to hold the line and stay the course. It does not look hopeful.

  8. es

    Japan will not be a test bad, but a follower. It will adopt U.S. austerity and off-shoring, destroying its parternalistic companies to raise profits with wealth redistribution, i.e. USA.

  9. hidflect

    After 15 years of living in Japan I can say the best book I read on the place was The House of Nomura.
    I can also second Bobbo’s anecdote from his ex-girlfriend. The way it was told to me was, “Between Japan and Europe lies Asia”. Most foreign corporations in Japan had until recently an APAC division and a Japan division to reflect that.

  10. Newtownian

    I’ve long found describing Japan as ‘lost’ a bit curious. Presumably it means lost in the sense of some loss in nominal GDP increase. Yet as is noted they appear to have an enviable recession. And they lead the world in mass soma such as video games, reality tv and apocalyptic visions.

    Beyond that is the issue of where the rest of the G8 are going? Beyond struggling for an endlessly growing economy there doesnt seem to be a shared society wide vision among Europe and Anglosphere residents. What is the endgame of neoliberalism except to achieve more of what is called vaguely or incorrectly freedom? Seems to me we are arguably even more lost than the Japanese in that we think we arent lost.

  11. Demeter

    “…Japan and the Shackles of the Past sees change as difficult. The author sees a system in which doublethink is deeply engrained and power holders deceive themselves both about what they are doing and about their motives for doing it. The position is complicated by a powerful bureaucracy who see themselves as “servants of the emperor” rather than voters and particularly ephemeral politicians…”

    Is that not an accurate description of the USA, as well?

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