Japan Doing OK

Japan – not going to the dogs or daemons

by Gwydion M. Williams

There was a time when I’d have been offended by the idea that modern Japan just wanted to live its own life without conforming to ‘world norms’. We ‘Baby Boomers’ noticed how Europe and the USA had changed for the better and was still changing. I was born in 1950, part of the crowd even though my year were past the peak.

Our generation were born when the long years of economic slump and world war had miraculously passed and the world had become bright again. Despite a real fear that it would all end in a nuclear war, the main outlook was bright, much happier than you find in the safer and vastly richer world of today. We had less material possessions and we tolerated social evils that have since been challenged or abolished. But advertising had barely begun to pump up our expectations. Only a minority then had been given the sort of bloated self-image that makes them miserable in the midst of plenty and security.

Part of our view back then – at least the view of the mainstream – was that everyone must get the benefits of what we had. Modern life must be extended everywhere: the issue was whether it did so in its Keynesian form, its Soviet form, or some other dimly-guessed-at version.

A broad process of change did occur in the ‘Anglosphere’ from the mid-1960s to 1970s. Fear of sex weakened a great deal, as did rigid class-barriers based on birth or ‘social signals’. It was a big advance, so successful that the chief beneficiaries now deny it ever happened. All that was negative: the positive side was much less clear.

The notion of Japan as a ‘Superior Keynesianism’ was around in the late 1970s, along with the thought that we might need to become more like them. For a time, Japan was seen as an admirable model to copy, a place that had kept social solidarity. That’s one way Europe might have gone – there were notions of incomes policy and workers control that have since been forgotten about, in part because a great many people have a strong wish to forget. Most of the left chose to sabotage incomes policy and workers control rather than support them. Moderates thought that things could carry on as before, militants thought they could have a revolution if reforms were prevented. Both factions were ludicrously unrealistic. Both factions would rather forget.

People in Europe were in the mood for a change in the 1970s and 1980s. It turned out that the most determined and effective reformers were the Thatcher – Reagan axis with their simple and plausible doctrine of ‘all power to the money’. Slick advertising sold these policies as both radical and conservative, but they were anything but conservative, more like trying to save a burning building by throwing petrol on it.

The curious thing is, there was a genuine conservative opportunity in the 1980s. People were tired of strife and radicalism. A Tory leader who had taken their core values from Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have preserved the social order as it then was. Instead the Tory intellectuals had settled on Adam Smith as the answer, had believed that unleashed market forcer would preserve rather than undermine. Naturally this failed to work, except to deliver more money to people who were already rich. Within the ‘Anglosphere’, what Churchill called the ‘English-speaking nations’, there has been a massive destruction of solid conservative values.

Meantime Japan got drawn into the global campaign for ‘all power to the money’. When they focused on production they had done well: when they were persuaded to play complex money-games things fell apart. They have been in a prolonged slump through the 1990s, not really recovering even today. That’s the context of a critique called Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan. [A] I’m going to detail why I think such criticisms miss the point.

Japan was in a dangerous position in the early 1990s. With the Soviet Union suddenly gone, the USA was looking for a major new enemy. They were also discarding old allies now seen as ‘surplus to requirements’. Mobutu in Zaire, Suharto in Indonesia and Ceausescu in Romania went easily enough, though Zaire/Congo has so far failed to find a new stability. Meantime Christian Democratic parties in Italy and West Germany got hit by a sudden wave of scandals, solid evidence appearing for things that had been speculated about for years. The USA seemed also to be thinking about contesting the elections in Belarus, which has consistently refused to break with Soviet-era habits and where the electorate kept on endorsing this. The Belarusian elections of 9 September 2001 were condemned as fraudulent by the West, despite plenty of outsiders accepting that the regime was popular outside of the big cities. [B]. But then on the 11th, al-Qaeda hit the Two Towers in New York and everything changed.

If the USA was still thinking of eventually going after Belarus, the USA was also determined first to trash Afghanistan, and then moved onto Iraq. At the time they strongly believed that they were going to have a brilliant success, and they did manage a quick military overrun. But the dominant Neocon ideology was pig-ignorant. It was full of illusions even about the society they lived in. There are no suitable words to describe their bungling in several different alien social orders that they had not bothered to study in any depths.

Japan meantime was mostly being ignored. As early as 1989, there were signs they were being set up for some sort of Western aggression that would be presented as defensive. There was a popular American film called Black Rain, which has Japanese gangsters plotting to flood the USA with forged 100-dollar notes as revenge for the Hiroshima bombing. Curiously, the same year saw a Japanese film also called Black Rain, [C] but the IMDb account suggests that it is wholly about the suffering of the victims and does not seem vengeful, an attitude that most people in the USA must find it impossible to believe in. 1992 saw Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, later made into a major film, which is mostly a murder-mystery but also paints Japan as a threat to the USA. But by then reality had moved on, and Yugoslavia became the main target for Anglo aggression. When the Western media reported on the disintegrating Yugoslav Federation, the Serbs were painted as Nazi-style aggressors even though it was the Croats who had been enthusiastic allies of Nazi Germany. While aspects of the Second World War have been hyped from the 1990s, other aspects are no longer mentioned. In 1941, it was the Serbs who possibly changed the outcome of the war by making a fight of it when the Nazis tried taking over Yugoslavia. They delayed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union by several critical weeks. No one much remembered that in the 1990s: many were trying to rewrite history to emphasis the Anglo role even though two-thirds of the German Army was on the Eastern Front right through to the end of the war, which came with the Soviet capture of Berlin.

Japan in the 1990s ceased to be a major issue, it had clearly fallen back in its ‘race to the top. I wondered at the time if Japan’s secretive ‘circles of power’ found this convenient. I wondered if they were imitating the subtlety of the famous ‘Forty-seven Ronin’, a case of prolonged deception in early 18th century Japan, at a time when Japan had successfully shut itself off from the outside world. The standard story is that 47 former retainers plotted for two years to get a successful revenge on the man who’d caused the death of their feudal lord. Had they attacked directly they would have died and failed: some believers in the warrior-code ‘bushido’ thought they should have done so anyway, but that was not their choice. The chief man among them seemed to become a hopeless drunk, ‘gone to the dogs’. They kept up this pretence until their target was way off guard, then made a sudden strike and killed him. They then surrendered to the authorities and committed ritual suicide, which was seen as vindicating their honour. And it’s not an isolated case: plots and deceptions happen all the time. Many outside observers not that it is common in Japan for the real power to be held by someone not in the public eye. Decisions are made well outside of public scrutiny.

Whatever about that, by the 1990s, Japan had reason to take things easy. By their efforts from the 1950s to 1970s, they had won back the ‘Honorary White’ status that they had achieved in the 1900s with their alliance with Great Britain and then their defeat of Tsarist Russia in 1904-5. Japan’s venture into wider imperialism had ended with defeat and occupation, but then when China went Communist the USA preferred to help Japan rise again as an anti-Communist bastion. In the 1950s and 1960s they were seen still as a Third World country making cheap imitations of British and US products, but then came a tidal wave of superior electronic goods.

In the 1980s, Japan looked set to capture the home computer market and small-business computer market with a system called MSX, a standardized home computer architecture created jointly by several Japanese manufacturers, and which Microsoft were also involved in. The idea was a sound one, but their may have been flaws in the design. Something very similar did happen in an entirely accidental and unplanned way: IBM decided to make their own single-user computer in response to the success of Apple Computers, and also chose to assemble it from fairly standard components. At lot of these computers sold, in part because of IBM’s name, since at the time they dominated the market for the big computers that are now called Mainframes. The IBM Personal Computer was a commercial success, and a lot of software was written for it. But other companies were able to build their own rather cheaper computers that were ‘IBM PC compatible’, a move that IBM challenged as piracy but which the courts chose to accept as legal. IBM were eventually driven out of the market they had created, while Microsoft flourished by selling a small and convenient computer operating system for all the hardware. ‘IBM PC compatible’ became the standard model, now just called PC. MSX vanished, along with many other hardware standards that were once popular, Commodore and Sinclair and Amstrad and others I have forgotten. Only Apple remains as a major hold-out with its own distinctive hardware.

Defeat in home computing perhaps exposed a Japanese weakness, a limited supply of innovation, though they have had some good new ideas, including the Walkman. But home computing and the internet have been dominated by the USA, where a lot of former hippies became successful business people. There’s a wonderful photo of Microsoft’s eleven founders, looking very much like a bunch of hippies and with Bill Gates one of the most conventional. [D] He is usually rated richest or second richest man in the world, but he doesn’t often wear a suit or tie. In the 1950s, it would have been unthinkable for one of the world’s top businessmen to be so casual. The world has changed a great deal since then.

Japan, maybe, has not changed as much. Japan maybe does not want to change as much, having retained a genuine conservatism that the New Right have successfully killed off within the Anglosphere. Japan has perhaps chosen to live more quietly and to enjoy life. I wouldn’t want to live there long-term, and I’d probably have been almost as out of place if Britain had opted for a functional conservatism rather than the dysfunctional mess we have now. But if Japan is content with itself, what right has any outsider to object?

Contrary to what I once thought, I now consider that a single homogenised world culture would be a great disaster. It might lock the world into a high and happy but basically sterile future, a Wellsian vision made flesh. Reconsidering the past, I now suspect that pre-Industrial Europe benefited from its fragmentation, while China and Japan suffered from being peaceful and mostly united under governments that underpinned their respective visions of The Good Life. Europe meantime had a kind of relay-race of progress: Italy began the Renaissance while Spain and Portugal pioneered overseas empires, but all three cultures then stabilised at a cultural level well below contemporary China. France broke the Counter-Reformation and carried through the Enlightenment, while meantime Russia was conquering the nomads of West Asia, but France then stabilised on the social order created by Louis the 14th, which most of the rest of Europe saw as a perfect model to imitate. Britain then came along and carried through the Industrial Revolution, before stabilising on a late-Victorian equilibrium that many Britons from the former ruling class are still nostalgic for. But Britain was unable to maintain this equilibrium: it was being challenged by both Germany and the USA, with the USA imposing its own standard after Britain had to call on US support in the two World Wars. Would a single European state have done all that? Would either China or Japan have wished such chaos upon themselves, had they had the choice?

That’s the broad picture. What about what I saw with my own eyes?

Having been to China in 1997, 2008 and 2009, for tourism that included the Total Solar Eclipses of those years, I had wanted to see Japan to get a better idea about what the differences are. They were larger than I’d expected: for one thing the very look of the land is different. My whole time there, I was never out of sight of a wooded hill. Of course my visit was all spent on the side of Japan that faces the Pacific, the side where all the big cities are. But that’s the part that counts economically and culturally, and it was fairly standard all the way from Hiroshima to Tokyo. China is much more diverse.

Japan is peaceful. Vending machines are common, mostly for cold drinks, and would be smashed and robbed if placed anywhere in Britain. There is evidently little vandalism, and also very few graffiti. It is still a very orderly and law-abiding society, though our guide said it was less so than it used to be. Note also that cold green tea is one item among the cold drinks: not my favourite though I did drink it when I accidentally selected it. (Hot green tea I rather like.)

Several things could confuse. The white cats doing a ‘Fascist salute’ are actually there for good luck. There are also some black cats of the same make: white and black mean something, as do left or right paw, but I forget just what. Japanese do seem to routinely rely on such superstitions: there are also small numbers of curious heads with blank eyes. The idea is that you fill in one eye before making a wish and then the other eye if it gets granted, presumably in the belief that this is some minor spirit open to bribery.

In Japan, the V-sign is understood as a symbol of peace and international friendship, so you see a lot of kids doing it to foreigners, no doubt oblivious to its other meanings.

Japan is also better seen as well-behaved rather than law-abiding. It seems that most rules can be ignored so long as no one is being harmed. My first surprise after leaving the airport was that every train ticket is tied to a seat, so I moved from a mostly-empty carriage to avoid trouble. But later and as part of a tour group, I saw people sitting in seats they were not entitled to because they wanted a window seat. This was accepted without comment by the ticket inspector: we were foreigners and not doing any harm.

Laws often exist to compel a society to be changed very fast. A culture is something you live within and do not question, and when the culture is strong and successful it is always well-behaved. Also polite. I noticed also that when our tour-guide assigned us to the correct year in the China-derived 12-animal calendar, she spoke of some of us being in the ‘Year of the Mouse’ while handing out literature that correctly identified it as ‘Year of the Rat’. That one in twelve people should be content to be associated with rats seemed a little odd, but I suppose that is a rural view. I got the feeling that Japan is still quite rural in spirit – remember the wooded hills, in sight of all of the big cities I visited and often with snowy mountains beyond. If they have copied the ugly glass-and-metal boxes of the USA’s dominant architecture, they have not lost sight of other things.

One of the complaints of Dogs and Demons was that rivers had been confined in concrete channels. I saw a lot of that, but noticed also that the channels had gravel-banks with plants growing, and also stepping-stones for people to cross. I took a lot of photos, you can see them at Flickr if you like. [E] I distinctly preferred their approach to ours.

On the matter of food, I found Japanese cooking fine so long as there was not too much fish or other seafood. There are many variants, including a special style in which all sorts of things are cooked in breadcrumbs and served on skewers, including some tasty meats and also pumpkins. Also prawns, served whole so that I got an unwanted mouthful of prawn mouthparts and antennae. (Japanese, like Chinese, do not drink milk and probably lack the enzymes to digest it, so shells and small bones are a convenient source of calcium).

When meals were not pre-booked, I mostly got some savoury filled buns and cakes from the numerous bakeries. There were hamburger places, a lot of McDonalds and at least one major home-grown competitor, but I never actually tried them. I did try one Chinese restaurant in Japan, a nice but curious meal served without rice. Cooks adapt to local tastes, I suppose.

I also got a look at two of the famous cultural oddities, geishas and sumo wrestlers. Geisha are now found only in Kyoto, which was the capital before the Meiji Restoration and is still a major centre. There was a theatre showing several cultural forms including geisha dancing and the famous Tea Ceremony, but also some less familiar stuff. In that quarter of town you might pass them in the street, dressed traditionally while almost everyone else wears Western-style cloths. A Geisha is literally an ‘art person’, and could maybe be called a ‘living artwork’ or ‘human artwork’, training for years in elegant ritual patterns of behaviour. As our guide explained to us, they are not sex workers, though a lot of them become mistresses to rich men.

As for Sumo, I’d seen it years back on television and it wasn’t much different ‘in the flesh’, although obviously there was a lot of flesh. In Sumo as in Rugby, fat acts as a useful pad for muscular clashes and sheer bulk has its advantages. The sport has its own peculiarities, including advertising sponsors sending in banners just before a bout. Most of the brands meant little to me, but McDonald Hamburgers were there, most appropriately. [K]

Japan built a functional right-wing system in the 1950s and 1960s and has hung onto it. They have risen a long way from a very low base. Almost all of the old people were very short, the young are bigger but still short by Western standards. I’m just under six foot tall: in Japanese terms I was gigantic and the only larger people I met were also westerners.

Dogs and Demons says “Japan’s ways of doing things – running a stock market, designing highways, making movies – essentially froze in about 1965. For thirty years, these systems worked very smoothly, at least on the surface.” I don’t see what’s so bad about that: useful new ideas are included, but there is much less discontent and much less inequality. Maybe Britain would be happier if it had done something similar. A lot of the developments in Britain since the 1980s have made it a worse place to live and a less fair place:

“Only Singapore, the US and Portugal have more income inequality [than Britain], according to UN figures. It says the richest 20% in the UK are seven times better off than the poorest 20%, while in Japan the richest 20% are only 3.5 times richer.” [G]

Dogs and Demons also criticises Japan for sticking to conventional finance, saying “But traders at Nomura and other brokerage houses did not learn the mathematical tools that Wall Street brokers developed in the 1980s, and that led to the complex computer trading and new financial instruments that dominate the market today.” [H]. ‘Today’ for the book was 2001: from 2008 onwards it became obvious that the ‘ new financial instruments’ were poison, delivering fat bonuses to their creators and successful traders, but very nearly bringing down the West’s banking system and requiring a huge bail-out with public money.

Japan should probably have stuck more strictly to traditional models and not allowed as much fancy accounting and financial bubbles as occurred under Anglo influence. In 2001 Dogs and Demons could say “The interesting lesson to be learned from Japan is that the effects of an economy’s defying ‘laws of economics’ will not necessarily show themselves as classical theorists would predict. Instead, they go underground, re-emerging in surprising forms elsewhere.” [J] But looking back from 2010, it looks very much as if fancy finance poisoned Japan’s superior model of production, and has now poisoned the West instead. Meantime China has made the fewest concessions, has a vastly more state-dominated economy than the West had at the height of Keynesianism, and still does very nicely. There are still voices predicting disaster soon for China: there always are. One could write a useful book called China‘s Immanent Disasters: 1949 to 2009, just listing all of the doom-laded and false predictions made about People’s China across the years from all sorts of highly reputable authorities.

From my brief visits, the impression I got was that China has energy and bustle, and you see signs of production on a truly massive scale. Meantime Japan seems to be more about achievement. Japan has no real wish to get closer to China – China is enormously bigger in area and population and has now overtaken Japan in overall wealth. Really, though, the various nations of Asia are broadly content with their existing borders, allowing for numerous small disputes over islands. The dispute between China and Japan over some uninhabited rocks is currently in the news, but Japan is also arguing with South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks and with Russia over the Kuril Islands. It is all normal politics.

Japan goes one way, China another, the Republic of India a third and many other nations do something different. It is all part of modernising, which Europe and then the USA has imposed on the rest of the world, but which generally fails without local initiative and a national determination to assert one’s own traditions. It might be very nice to do a grand quadruple study of India, China, Turkey and Japan: the different ways in which they adjusted. One sees common elements: India and Japan both tapped into their home-grown religious traditions, Japan, Turkey and China all had authoritarian rule for the key transitions, still continuing in China. Turkey, China and India each had a charismatic leader – properly speaking India had two, Mahatma Ghandi and then Nehru. Japan has its Emperors, with a tradition claiming to go back to 660 BC and definitely at least 2000 years old. Japan since the Meiji Restoration has had Emperors whose power was minimal and politicians who kept a low profile and ruled by consensus. It has worked quite well: the biggest disaster was their venture into imperialism from the 1920s to 1940s, following the bad example set by Europe in the era that Japan was learning the lessons of the modern world.

In both Turkey and India, a multi-party system has allowed old-style religion to revive itself as a modern political party. Oddly, the very same Western liberals who are shocked by such development also complain loudly about China’s dominant Communist Party and Japan’s successful Consensus Politics. Really, I think they have a lot to learn, or rather those Western liberals will probably fail to learn and the world will pass them by. And I see no obvious reason why Japan should not carry on much as it has for decades to come.



[A] Kerr, Alex. Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan. Penguin Books 2001

[B] [http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2001/09/09/belarus.htm]

[C] [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097694/]

[D] [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Microsoft-Staff-1978.jpg], also [http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/exec/billg/bio.mspx]

[E] [http://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/sets/72157624242831025/]

[F] Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, page 9.

[G] [http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/25/labour-tax-benefits-closed-income-gap]

[H] Dogs and Demons, page 90.

[J] Ibid., page 279.

[K] I’ve got a photo of this at [http://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/4656408924/in/set-72157624049121545/]


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2010

You can see more of my photos of Japan via my Holiday Photos page.

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