Visiting Japan is one thing, but explaining it -- now that's tricky
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail April 25, 1992)

The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan
by Jonathan Rauch
McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 200 pages $27.95

The Takeover
by Saburo Shiroyama (translated by Keiko Ushiro)
Vantage Press, 224 pages $15.95

While reading The Outnation I had the terrible desire to grab its young author by the lapels and screech, "I don't care how smart or well-connected you are, no one can visit Japan for six months and write the definitive book on its soul!" Old Japan-hands urge first-time visitors to resist sharing their valuable insights with the world. They know that every argument can be refuted, every example countered, and the beast being described (Rauch compares himself to a blind man investigating an elephant) can rotate so suddenly that what one knew to be a tail turns into a tusk. Still, the temptation to explain Japan remains overpowering. Those who've done it best - Lafcadio Hearn, Kurt Singer, Edwin O. Reischauer and Donald Ritchie - each spent years living in Japan.

Since the arrival of Commodore Perry in Tokyo Bay in 1853, America's interest in Japan has been matched by the equally intense interest of the Japanese in Americans. Jonathan Rauch is half-serious when he observes that every American intellectual he knows is either in Japan or at home writing about it. And what they have to say, however outrageous or offensive, finds a huge readership in Japan.

Rauch arrived there in 1990, just shy of his 30th birthday, a Washington-based writer on politics and business for The New Republic and The Atlantic. Here, in 200 epigrammatic essays of various lengths, he sets out and tries to answer several tricky questions: How can we call Japan a democracy when it works like a feudal state, a hive of interpersonal relationships that have survived since the 17th century? How effective still are the forces that made Japan's recovery after the Second World War so vital that she now alarms her principal conqueror and benefactor, the United States? How can American farmers and manufacturers break the trade barriers erected either in an unholy alliance or a necessary partnership between Japanese producers and their Ministry of International Trade and Industry? And, most revealing of all: "In trying to figure out what to do about a foreign power, Americans rightly ask the first question: Is this nation's social system or way of life so deeply inimical to ours that its very existence is a threat?" In other words, does Japan pose a serious danger to the American empire?

In his search for a serviceable answer, Rauch travelled from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. He visited small towns and toured Tokyo, talking to salarymen and farmers, students and professors. Much of what he saw he admired, even as he filtered each piece of information through the prism of America: "The (Japanese) economic system looks a lot like America a hundred years ago . . . before the Progressives busted up the trusts." Or, "American democracy is noisy and fast, with political competitors inventing choices and voters grabbing them. Japanese democracy is quiet and slow, with the ruling party feeling for vibrations . . . and responding when it senses trouble." And finally, "Japan needs but lacks a populist, hang-'em-high political tradition."

In Rauch's expectations for the future lie some of his most original, if flawed, thinking. He bemoans the fact that this country of 125 million people living in unprecedented wealth and harmony lacks the ability to set its own national agenda: to do this, someone or some group would risk giving offence and generating conflict. The unpopular task falls to - that's right - the Americans, who have in the past steered the Japanese out of stagnation and away from authoritarianism. Through this process of gaiatsu (outside pressure), the United States has become, he claims, Japan's only opposition party.

What does America receive for this service besides Japan's political allegiance and a disappointing balance of payments? Not much now, but Rauch has hopes. So far most attempts to graft Japanese models onto American institutions have failed. Notions of quality control, for example, don't work in a society that rewards individual rather than group achievement: stockholder dividends still come ahead of re-investment in aging industries. Most important, Americans remain eager to blame others, especially the Japanese, for their troubles.

With this failure of America to confront its basic social problems, with the European community prospering, and with Japan becoming the centre of its own Pacific empire, it may be too late to hope for better relations in the future. The American grip on the Japanese imagination is slipping, Disneyland and rock 'n' roll excepted. For as James Fallows, another Japan-watcher reminds us in his introduction to this book, the German economist Kurt Singer, writing about Japan in the 1930s, got it right: "The Japanese are particularly sensitive to the smell of decay, however well screened," and they trust a foreign power "only as long as that nation is strong."

Americans, on the other hand, can take perverse comfort from the recent plunge of the Tokyo stock market, the increased demand for profits by shareholders, and pressures from consumers. These changes have prompted some to predict a convergence between U.S. and Japanese business practices: America, in this scenario, won't learn Japanese prudence, and the Japanese will become addicted to American-style short-term gratification.

Swift changes such as these illustrate the dangers inherent in the flyover analysis of that complex entity called Japan; not only can the beast present the novice social observer with its remote side but the damn thing can transform itself completely into a butterfly, say, or a mole. Perhaps because he earns his living as a writer, Jonathan Rauch is particularly sensitive to the abuses he sees in Japanese publishing, the one place where the rough-and-tumble market system he so admires is in place. There are almost 4,000 magazines published, most of them weekly, and sales keep climbing. In 1989, Japan, with about half the population of the United States, published almost as many books. The quality, however, is poor, they're badly edited and writers are underpaid and overworked.

Genres of fiction everywhere follow popular preoccupations: one currently successful category in Japan is the business novel, with stories so flat and outrageously sentimental they must be intended to reassure readers that life on the trading floor can be as understandable as life in a beauty parlour or sushi shop.

The Takeover is written by Saburo Shiroyama, who is really Eiichi Sugiura, a former professor of economics. It concerns the fate of Akashiya, a department store in a chic area of Tokyo. While competitors have updated their businesses, this undercapitalized family-run firm is languishing. Enter Fumimaro Aoi, who attempts to corral control of the stock. Even he has trouble raising capital and confronts his bank's president: " 'If you abandon me, Chairman, I will have to go to a moneylender and pay his exorbitant interest.' He looked at Gondo with wet eyes. 'I could even consider paying a little extra interest through the back door.' "

Clearly these books with their bland realism and moral overtones are one way Japan chooses to explain itself to itself. For North Americans they are pure subtext to be sifted through for more clues about Japan. I won't tell you how the story ends except to say that it is infinitely less subtle and far more predictable than the country that produced it, and a good deal less exciting.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1992

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