HistoryBits: Japan

HistoryBits: Japan

Bits and Pieces of History


Society

Society/AIDS

Sadly, I expect that the Japanese response to HIV/AIDS will be pretty much of a piece with their response to homelessness, bad debt, the war, and other such unpleasantness: denial.

society/aoyama cemetery

The whole Aoyama Cemetery business seems a masterpiece of Japanese bureaucratic obstructionism… though when you think of it, why should the Japanese be expected to treat dead foreigners any different from live ones? The welter of complications that attend the conundrum of foreign citizenship and residency (dead or alive) in Japan are of a piece with the premium that the Japanese place on racial purity and hidebound social homogeneity.

Society/Baseball

Japan’s embrace of baseball began in the Meiji era, probably out of its expedient motive of modernizing as fast as possible by copying Western recreational norms along with locomotives and parliamentary democracy and Prussian uniforms (think of it: ballroom dancing!). It all makes me wonder about why Japan has repudiated its own exquisite culture; perhaps it’s a reflection of underlying insecurity, and if so, that helps explain its horrific aggression in China. As the old saying would has it: ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds hatred, and hatred breeds violence–specifically with respect to the Japanese ignorance of the worth of and extent to which their own culture is appreciated by the global community.

Society/Class

Social class in Japan is much more than knowing one’s station in life, although for most eta, Korean-Japanese, Okinawans, and Ainu, there has never been much question of that. Japan, being that most relationship-driven of societies, exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts and stalwart souls who upset society’s harmonious balance. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality; this again points up the fact that for the Japanese, democracy is merely an expedient.

Society/Conformity

Equality of civil rights may rank as one of the biggest accomplishments of Western democracies. It defines a melting pot society such as America whose greatest challenge will continue to be its ability to embrace its members’ most conspicuous differences—and become enriched by them in so doing—without regarding such differences (as do the Japanese) as a threat to the cultural values that unify a society.

Society/Crime/Capital Punishment

Since the Japanese have been long renowned for their genius for exquisite cruelty, I imagine that their justification for random executions as being “kinder” is just as spurious as their denial of AIDS, homelessness, unemployment, bad debt, war crimes, and other such unpleasantness.

Society/Crime/Criminal Justice

Japan has long had an exaggerated sense of criminal justice, from the times when the only redress that a commoner had was to take his grievance to his lord and master, on the understanding that justice would be done but that the plaintiff would forfeit his own life as well in the bargain. Similarly, capital punishment is viewed as merciful, even these days; given the Japanese genius for exquisite cruelty, I imagine that their justification for executions as being “kinder” is just as spurious as their denial of AIDS, homelessness, unemployment, bad debt, war crimes, and other such unpleasantness. It’s encouraging, though, to see some leavening of the loaf with the proposed introduction of fines, which will hopefully mitigate the Japanese propensity to see things in terms of absolutes.

Society/Soka Gakkai

One wonders whether the spirit of Nichiren listens to endless appeals for largesse and prosperity… much as the proverbial plastic dashboard Jesus endures constant entreaties for a Mercedes Benz. With the Japanese, what endures is what works, whether democracy, capitalism, or Nichiren… but only so long as it works.

Society/Suicide

With the Japanese, it’s not hard to see suicide and terrorism as cohabiting the same futon. Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and it exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts like the Japanese Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo who upset society’s harmonious balance and bring shame upon the group. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality. But without fundamental change in the constraints imposed by their social straightjacket, the Japanese may increasingly lash out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in China and in the Pacific War, and join ranks with the most conspicuous terrorists of the 21st century.

Society/Crime/Terrorism

Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and it exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts like the Japanese Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo who upset society’s harmonious balance and bring shame upon the group. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality. But without fundamental change in the constraints imposed by their social straightjacket, the Japanese may increasingly lash out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in China and in the Pacific War, and join ranks with the most conspicuous terrorists of the 21st century.

Society/Crime/Response to Terrorism

What intrigues me about the planned Japanese response to terrorism is the extent to which they have come to anticipate terrorist attacks–remarkable, given the bland, inoffensive, geo-political nullity that Japan has become these days. But if it’s true that the things one fears and hates most about others are the things that one fears and hates about oneself, then upstarts like the Japanese Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo may have awakened a historical memory of past spasms of Japan’s own state terrorism of the 20th century. That’s just a theory. But without fundamental change in the constraints imposed by their social straightjacket, the Japanese may increasingly lash out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in China and in the Pacific War, and join ranks with the most conspicuous terrorists of the 21st century.

Society/Crime/Yakuza

Many years ago, I worked with the Customs Service at Honolulu airport, and we apprehended a number of yakuza who were trying to enter the country. We accomplished this by fingering their pinkies in order to suss out prosthetic fingertips… which yakuza use to replace the fingertips they customarily sever as a gesture of fealty to their crime bosses.

Society/Cults

If it’s true that the things one fears and hates most about others are the things that one fears and hates about oneself, then modern-day cults and upstarts like the Japanese Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo may have awakened a historical memory of past spasms of Japan’s own state terrorism of the 20th century. That’s just a theory. But without fundamental change in the constraints imposed by their social straightjacket, the Japanese may increasingly lash out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in China and in the Pacific War, and join ranks with the most conspicuous terrorists of the 21st century.

Society/Demographic Time Bomb

It’s getting hard to find a young woman in Japan who wants to get married… and it’s not hard to understand why. The Japanese are some of the world’s most long-lived people, and the prospect of a daughter-in-law having to spend the next 20, 30 years or more caring for her husband’s aging parents must be a daunting one indeed.

Society/Denial

The Japanese obsession with form and their propensity to sweep unpleasantness under the carpet holds true whether with respect to the war, their mountain of bad debt, or anything else at odds with the ideal.

Society/Education/Imitation

Japanese culture and technology has an underlying sense of playful inventiveness, despite their straitjacket mentality. While some things seem impractical, their value lies in their quality and aesthetic appeal. The Japanese obsession with quality has added value beyond what has been deemed functional and essential by Western manufacturers. Therein lies the genius of Japanese industry. Japan’s educational system is a product of Japan’s Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning–beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote). The bonds that are formed in college make Japan the most relationship-driven society on earth, and the values inculcated by its educational system ensure that Japan will forever remain a follower, not a leader.

Society/Education/Creativity

Japan’s educational system is a product of Japan’s Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote). The bonds that are formed in college make Japan the most relationship-driven society on earth, and one wonders if the values inculcated by its educational system will ensure that Japan will forever remain a follower, and not the world-class leader that it could be.

Society/Education/Examination Hell

Japan’s single-minded pursuit of competitive excellence and obsession with social standing has resulted in a society that has the highest rate of suicide among students who despair of their “examination hell.” But now that Japan has sunk into an intractable economic downturn, many Japanese are dropping out and chilling out, questioning the values of their parents. Therein lies the silver lining.

Society/Family

The fact that Japan is possibly the most relationship-driven society on earth derives from the concept of the individual as part of both the biological and national family headed by the emperor, with the traditional Confucian ethos ordering the whole business from top to bottom. Everything is conceived in terms of the group, and in a nation as crowded as Japan, there just isn’t any room for the individual.

Society/Godzilla

With their invention of Godzilla, the Japanese seem to have embraced the Western science fiction genre and lent to it their traditional genius for adding value and a new level of creativity. Horror fantasy, anime, and manga all provide a refractory lens through which the Japanese regard and reinvent themselves, both historically and futuristically.

Society/Education/Schoolyard Shootings

The fabric of the Japanese social straitjacket is such that, when the strings of the straightjacket come undone, the reaction to their obsession with conformity produces pathologies like schoolyard shootings and epidemics of exam-hell suicide… to say nothing of the atrocities committed in China.

Society/Entertaining

The Japanese are compelled to wear a social straightjacket that serves the purpose of enabling everyone to get along in close quarters, but which tolerates little individuality or dissent from the consensus of the group. Japan places constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual. Small wonder they drink to excess.

Society/Fashion Change

For the Japanese to engineer a break from the corporate fashion mold of blue suit and necktie would be tantamount to sundering the bonds of the proverbial straitjacket. The uproar from the necktie industry gives us a glimpse of why Japan’s consensus-driven society finds it so difficult to accomplish change; with the need to take everyone’s interests into consideration, one can only marvel at the endless complications that attend the committee approach of running Japan, Inc.

Society/Foreign Citizenship

Not surprisingly, the welter of complications that attend the conundrum of foreign citizenship in Japan are of a piece with the premium that the Japanese place on racial purity and hidebound social homogeneity.

Society/Geisha

Everything means something. The fact that geisha figure so prominently in the Japanese psyche would seem to cement the stereotype in Japan of women as wallpaper–an adornment that dresses up the background of alpha-male events like after-hours summits… much as the modern Japanese woman seems to count for little more than Mistress of the Master’s Keep.

Society/Golf

In most instances, suppression indeed leads to obsession—in this case, suppression of individuality and obsession with the group. Golf, like the after-hours carouse, is part and parcel of what makes Japan the most relationship-driven society on earth.

Society/Group

Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and relationships seem to proceed from the emperor on down. It exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts and stalwart souls who upset society’s harmonious balance, and as such, one could be forgiven for wondering why Hirohito wasn’t brought to account (indicted at the very least) for his complicity in the war. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality. This again points up the fact that for the Japanese, democracy is merely an expedient, one that enables Japan to participate in the global economy and the give-and-take of cultural exchange. While Japan may not seem as conservative and hidebound as it once was, it still seems incapable of assuming the initiative that Post-American Empire will someday demand of it. Without fundamental change in the constraints on creativity imposed by Japan’s social straight-jacket, Japan may again find that itself unable to flexibly and creatively engage the geo-political challenges of the Brave New World without lashing out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in the 20th century.

Society/Group and Democracy

There is a growing propensity in Japan to chart new lifestyles and define new values, but Japan’s tradition and history still weigh heavily against it. Japan’s emperor remains symbolic of the national family and its loyalties (and a whole host of conservative values and practices), while the American tradition demands that obedience to conscience is the highest loyalty of all (hence our individualism).

Society/Health Care

Japan’s universal health care system has perhaps helped the Japanese become some of the longest-lived people on earth, as well as its most aged society. It operates inefficiently, with the usual complaints common to a single-payor system–excessive paperwork, long waits, assembly-line care, overmedication, and overuse because of low out-of-pocket costs to patients—and it’s hugely expensive. But as costly as it is, it isn’t half as expensive as the burden of supporting a huge elderly population (one out of three Japanese is over 60), whose retirees customarily get the corporate boot at age 50-something. It also takes its toll in Japan’s declining birth rate; perhaps it’s because of the dismal prospect that awaits most Japanese women in even the best of marriages–expected as they are to resign from their jobs upon marriage and go home and raise a family and take care of her husband’s aging parents–that so many of them resist marriage these days. And partly as a result, Japan is developing a demographic crisis that will see its population plummet to about 100 million by 2050. The problem with throwing people away when they get old is that they don’t just go away.

Society/Hierarchy

Hierarchy in Japan is much more than knowing one’s station in life, although for most Japanese women, there has never been much question of that. There are no laws on the status of women—much as the Occupation tried to legislate gender equality—but fear of being ostracized carries much greater weight with women than any law. Japan, being that most relationship-driven of societies, exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts and stalwart souls who upset society’s harmonious balance. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality; this again points up the fact that for the Japanese, democracy is merely an expedient.

Society/Homelessness

Sadly, I expect that the Japanese response to homelessness will be pretty much of a piece with their response to AIDS, bad debt, the war, and other such unpleasantness: denial.

Society/Hygiene/Toilets

By the 17th-century, the Japanese–in terms of personal hygiene and public sanitation–were light-years ahead of Westerners, who still threw buckets of waste into the street, lived with their livestock, believed that bathing caused illness, and resorted to liberal dousings of perfume to cover their stench. And while the gap has since closed in public sanitation, the thought of supposedly sophisticated people still smearing their backsides with paper, blowing their noses at the dinner table, and hoarding their filthy facial tissues as if they were precious treasures reminds me that Westerners still have some very peculiar notions of personal hygiene.

Society/Koseki

Not surprisingly, the welter of complications that attend the koseki conundrum are of a piece with the premium that the Japanese place on racial purity and hidebound social homogeneity.

Society/Law

The paucity of lawyers in Japan reflects the customary preference of the Japanese to resolve matters consensually—to the satisfaction of the group–rather than by fiat. I suspect that it also has something to do with their traditional aversion to officialdom. We Americans have an entirely different concept of government than that which most Asians subscribe to. We assume that civil service means what it says–a government in service to the people. The Japanese, on the other hand, see government as a separate strata and caste of entitlement, populated by a race of superior beings who, by dint of having survived the rigors of the examination hell and gained admission to Japan’s most prestigious universities, have ascended to the sublime realm of the ministries. In its more benign form, government service in Asian societies is merely a sinecure; more often, it takes the form of a predator to be bought off with bribes and avoided if at all possible. Either way, venturing a toe into the quicksand of officialdom seldom proves to be the most expeditious way to get anywhere.

Society/Longevity

You might recall the Okinawa Diet, a recent craze that made the rounds (here in Hawaii anyway). Its devotees sang the praises of the Okinawans, who were reputed to regularly attain triple-digit lifespans on the strength of their traditional low-fat dietary staples. That was just a few years ago, and since then, we’ve been hearing from a new generation of Okinawans singing the praises of Big Macs, pizza, and KFC (I recall one such testimonial: “I never imagined that anything could taste so delicious.”) The results are depressingly familiar: burgeoning waistlines and a soaring incidence of all the usual coronary ailments. Affluence, recreational eating, and fast food are the new plague from the West, no less lethal in its own way than the smallpox that the conquistadors brought to the New World and the common cold that Captain Cook and his crew brought to Hawaii.

Society/Longevity Crisis

It’s getting hard to find a young woman in Japan who wants to get married… and it’s not hard to understand why. The Japanese are some of the world’s most long-lived people, and the prospect of a daughter-in-law having to spend the next 20, 30 years or more caring for her husband’s aging parents must be a daunting one indeed. However, there is hope for a turnaround in Japan’s longevity crisis! You might recall the Okinawa Diet, a recent craze that made the rounds (here in Hawaii anyway). Its devotees sang the praises of the Okinawans, who were reputed to regularly attain triple-digit lifespans on the strength of their traditional low-fat dietary staples. That was just a few years ago, and since then, we’ve been hearing from a new generation of Okinawans singing the praises of Big Macs, pizza, and KFC (I recall one such testimonial: “I never imagined that anything could taste so delicious.”) The results are depressingly familiar: burgeoning waistlines and a soaring incidence of all the usual coronary ailments. Affluence, recreational eating, and fast food are the new plague from the West, no less lethal in its own way than the smallpox that the conquistadors brought to the New World and the common cold that Captain Cook and his crew brought to Hawaii.

Society/Nihilism

The sense of catastrophe and apocalyptic doom in much of Japanese Neo Pop imagery, echoing the popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters, is regarded by some as a reflection of Japan’s ill-digested wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, smothered in silence during the US occupation, have left a kind of unresolved, largely repressed rage. Japan’s own atrocities have not been forthrightly faced either. It could be argued that the US has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist nation of irresponsible spendthrifts, encouraged to get richer and richer while leaving matters of war and peace to the Americans. It is said that the Japanese were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Their society and hierarchies were dismantled. They were forced into a system that does not produce “adults.” Part of this state of permanent childhood is a sense of impotence, fostered by the US-written pacifist constitution, which robs Japan of its right to wage war. Some say that this explains the images of tied-up little girls, exploding galaxies, atom bomb clouds, Pacific War battles, and angry prepubescent children with tiny bodies and enormous heads—the overheated fantasies of frustrated Peter Pans, dreaming of national and sexual omnipotence, while playing the keyboards of their personal computers in their cramped quarters of suburban apartments, the millions of nerdish fantasizers living inside their own heads, filled with the mental detritus of comic strips and computer games. Not responsible for the real world, the Japanese have retreated into a virtual one, which can be blown to smithereens with the click of a mouse. It is all about the war, the bomb, General MacArthur’s emasculation of the Japan, and American capitalism.

Society/Nihilism/Earthquakes

The sense of catastrophe and apocalyptic doom in much of Japanese Neo Pop imagery, echoing the popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters, could be regarded as a reflection of Japan’s helplessness in the face of constantly recurring calamity. The Great Kanto Earthquake, the annihilation of the Pacific War, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and much more seem to have left the Japanese with a sense of impotence against the next outrage of Mother Nature. Some say that this explains the images of tied-up little girls, exploding galaxies, atom bomb clouds, Pacific War battles, and angry prepubescent children with tiny bodies and enormous heads—the overheated fantasies of those who dream of national empowerment, while playing the keyboards of their personal computers in their cramped quarters of suburban apartments. Not responsible for the real world, many Japanese seem to have retreated into a virtual one, which can be blown to smithereens with the click of a mouse.

Society/Olympics

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were intended to mark Japan’s re-entry into the community of nations after its devastation in the Pacific War. To the Japanese, it seems that prestige, form, and appearances count for considerably more than substance and sincerity. While the Japanese may have hoped to put a whole new face on things with the Tokyo Olympics, the fact is that until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in China, the outrage will continue to echo and reverberate, not only in China, but in Korea and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Society/Overcrowding

I wonder how much Japan’s overcrowding has affected its social philosophy, to the effect that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The Japanese are compelled to wear a social straightjacket that serves the purpose of enabling everyone to get along in close quarters, but which tolerates little individuality or dissent from the consensus of the group. Japan places constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual. The Japanese place little stock in such things as contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships—far more so than the individual-minded United States.

Society/Pachinko

The evolution of Japanese gamesmanship has gone from the pachinko parlor to the overheated fantasies of video warriors wielding their joysticks in the cramped quarters of their suburban warrens; no longer responsible for the real world, many Japanese seem to have retreated into a virtual one. Pachinko parlors–dazzlingly lit, their front counters piled high with prizes, and cacophonous with their clattering cascades and the ringing of jackpot bells, always struck me as the most sociable of places, innocent of the sort of dark, nihilist fantasies that seem to have consumed Japan’s X-Box generation.

Society/Prostitution

The epidemic of teenage prostitution is yet one more fault line that has opened up in response to the titanic pressures that Japan’s social straightjacket impose on young people. The obsession with conformity—-and the consequences of not making the cut—-produces an array of pathologies that include (in the instant case) the depraved debasement of children, along with epidemic suicide, existentialist despair, and a psychotic preoccupation with brand-name merchandise. The consequences are all over the board—from the grotesque distortions in the creative process that favor rote memorization and punish originality, to the yawning chasm between the overwrought sense of social protocol at home and the opportunity to behave badly abroad–which has led to astonishing presumptuousness and epic greed (as we saw in the Japanese real estate binge here in Hawaii in the late 1980s) to the spasms of bloodthirsty horror enacted in China in the 1930s.

Society/Sudoku

We’ve been captivated by pachinko, manga, video games, martial arts, sushi, bonsai, Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami, and now sudoku. And the Japanese in turn have been captivated by everything Western ever since the Meiji era. How is it we ever came to blows?

Society/Samurai/Homosexuality

The historic Japanese taste for the male idyll parallels that of the ancient Greeks, and would seem to emulate the Greek tradition of the patron taking a young man under wing for purposes both sordid and sublime. In a traditional society such as Japan that affords women little opportunity for public participation, it seems inevitable that the collegiality and camaraderie of samurai and their young consorts would find expression in the artistic venues of drama and literature.

Society/Social Rigor

The inability of most Japanese to freely express themselves is part of the fabric of their social straitjacket that accounts for their obsession with conformity, which in turn produces such pathologies as epidemic suicide, rote memorization in lieu of creative thinking, and the disparity between their overwrought sense of social protocol at home and their behavior abroad–which has ranged from astonishing presumptuousness to epic greed to bloodthirsty horror.

Society/Social Rigor

Perhaps the reason why “the guided life” doesn’t hold much appeal is that the Japanese do such a splendid job of guiding themselves through social pressure. Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and it exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts who upset society’s harmonious balance. Japanese society does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality.

Society/Social System

The Japanese system has a lot going for it. Regrettably, it would probably take a top-to-bottom revision of our tradition of placing the interests of the individual ahead of the group to make much of anything Japanese-style work in America.

Society/Sport/Golf

In most instances, suppression leads to obsession—in this case, suppression of individuality and obsession with the group. Golf, like the after-hours carouse, is part and parcel of what makes Japan the most relationship-driven society on earth. And as usual, it seems that the Japanese have little concern for the consequences of their behavior–whether by way of taking down rainforests in Southeast Asia or taking heads in China–outside of the group.

Society/Sumo

I sense an allegory in sumo—with its struggle of irresistible forces against unyielding constraints—that speaks to the modern dilemma posed by the voracious appetites of industrial societies for diminishing global resources. Must geopolitical supremacy always come down to who’s bigger, and who can shove the hardest?

Society/Uniqueness

Japan’s cultural persona no longer exists in the state of rigor mortis it had in earlier generations. This may not necessarily suggest lack of respect for tradition, but the inevitability of cultural dilution in the day and age of globalization. Japan cannot afford to distance itself from the global market that it is now embedded in; the Japanese are more eager than ever to integrate themselves with the world, while still maintaining their cultural integrity and sense of uniqueness. Cultural identity is the wellsprings of a nation’s own legacy, but it must now allow for hybridization with imported culture as well. The Japanese may on the surface be the most westernized of all Asian societies, but it is also most reluctant to admit that their core culture has been compromised by foreign values.

Society/Uniqueness

Without any resources of its own to speak of, Japan developed an amazing talent for adding value. One of Japan’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to improve upon originals—and therein may lie the greatest addition of value. The goal of the Meiji Restoration was to catch up with the West, and to quickly overcome the restraints that Tokugawa Japan had imposed on foreign influence that were so detrimental to Japan’s learning curve. Coming from behind as it did, it was pointless to reinvent the wheel.

Society/Video Games

I can’t help but wonder whether the millions of nerdish fantasizers living inside their own heads–filled with the mental detritus of comic strips and computer games—and playing the keyboards of their personal computers in their cramped quarters of suburban apartments haven’t retreated into a virtual world. But video games may one day become as great a revolution as the printing press: imagine video games as virtual domains; strap on your virtual reality helmet, and experience whatever you like: sex, Singapore, or a ’63 Puligny-Montrachet. It’s just a matter of bandwidth and processing speed before we’ll be able to replicate anything that the physical senses can experience. What will it do to relationships and marriage, for example, when we can keep the company of a virtual companion who never says no? Or have virtual children that don’t need to have their diapers changed? What will become of travel when you can (virtually) go anywhere, anytime, without visas, jet lag, shots, or Delhi Belly? What about work and the quest for material rewards when, with the click of a mouse, one can change one’s shabby little dive into a sumptuous abode replete with kid glove leather sofas, rare Persian carpets, designer kitchen filled with virtual delicacies, and an 84-inch LCD TV for viewing all of your virtual favorites? Imagination has always been the matrix upon which the stuff of physical reality is formed… but in this case, virtuality will have taken all the work out of it!

Society/Wabi Sabi

The Japanese craze for paving and encasing everything in cement makes a mockery of its purported love for nature and the “patina of age” (except where it applies to humans). This recalls another of their recent crazes: “nouveau-pauvre”–fashionable poverty! Trivializing poverty in this way suggests that the lessons of the devastation of their society in the wake of World War II have been happily swept under the rug, like certain other ugliness, such as Japan’s $1.5 trillion bad debt and its horrendous behavior in China in the 1930s. The Japanese almost seem to be manic-depressive, swinging from one mania to another, and regrettably, the response of the Japanese to these various eggs they are hatching–the debt, demographic, and environmental time-bombs–has been pretty much the same: sweep it under the carpet! What’s more, when these things are swept under the rug rather than dealt with, it offers a near-certain guarantee that the problems will re-emerge, just as ugly as ever.

Society/Westernization

Cultural characteristics are an interesting concept because they best stand out when considered outside of the context of their society. As traditions change, it is always for the better even if change is not seen as being detrimental to social values. While Japan’s cultural persona no longer exists in the state of rigor mortis it had in earlier generations, this may not necessarily suggest lack of respect for tradition, but the inevitability of cultural dilution in the day and age of globalization.

Society/Westernization

After World War II, the U.S. enjoyed a free hand in remaking the Japanese civic and commercial institutions, underpinning them with the canons of free trade and anti-communism. But the revolution wrought by the Occupation was in many ways as superficial as the Meiji Revolution: its managed economy remains the most relationship-drive in the world; its embrace of democracy is expedient and its byzantine politics are corrupt; its social order and educational system remains stolidly Confucian; and its women have little prospect in the workforce. Japan will always remain an Asian society in Western dress.

Society/Westernization

The Japanese believed that only by adopting wholesale the technology and institutions of the West could it emerge from its self-imposed isolation and catch up with the world. But the Japanese stopped short of embracing Western values; democracy has proved to be a mere expedient, and Confucianism (with the emperor the head of the national family) still governs education, corporate life, and social behavior. Japan is far from being a Western nation after all.

Society/Whaling

The ongoing kafuffle over whaling seems pretty much in keeping with the Japanese propensity for denial, delusion, weasel-speak, and sweeping things under the carpet. I note that the latest twist has taken the whole business into the realm of “scientific whaling,” presumably undertaken to cull certain species of cetacean in the interest of maintaining ecological harmony (ah yes, there’s that word again). Never mind saving the whales—who will save the Japanese… from themselves?!

Society/Women

I think this makes the point that societies need to evolve their social and political systems at their own pace, in accordance with the evolution of their cultural beliefs. As with the Meiji leaders of Japan, and the American Occupation authorities in postwar Japan tried to graft Western institutions (in this case, with reference to enfranchising women) onto a native ethos that wasn’t ready for it. Women in history were not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. But that’s pretty old-fashioned, isn’t it? Women must have every measure of the same opportunity that men do, and be able to exert their influence as forthrightly as men do, but how soon this will come about in Japan is even more speculative than it is in most other parts of the world.

Society/Women

Japanese women have made strides, but relative to the wealth and sophistication of their society, not very large ones. Perhaps it’s because they’re still expected to resign from their jobs upon marriage and go home and raise a family and take care of her husband’s aging parents that they resist marriage these days; partly as a result, Japan is developing a demographic crisis that will see its population plummet to about 100 million by 2050.

Society/Women/Divorce

The hidden tragedy of divorce in Japan (and its attendant destitution for the woman) calls to mind the consequences that await the serpent that devours its own tail. Perhaps it’s because of the dismal prospect that await most Japanese women in even the best of marriages–expected as they are to resign from their jobs upon marriage and go home and raise a family and take care of her husband’s aging parents–that so many of them resist marriage these days. And partly as a result, Japan is developing a demographic crisis that will see its population plummet to about 100 million by 2050.

Society/Women/Equality

Japan is becoming more aware of how its values compare to those of the world community, but does that impel them to change? Traditional obstacles still obtain in women’s rights, despite the passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Law. Women are expected to be subservient to their husbands, but as the rate of divorce indicates, women seem increasingly compelled to speak out against their husbands and their expectations of them. In the Information Age, it is proving impossible for even the most hidebound conservatism to persist in the face of the inroads of the outside world, and it begs the question of whether even a society’s core values can resist conforming to “global standards.” Surely the Japanese will offer the acid test of that.

Society/Women/Mixed Marriages

I’ve been happily married to a Korean girl for many years, and I can say that we treasure our differences: there’s no richer vein of humor in a relationship. By the same token, I’m well aware of the casualty rate for mixed marriages, which is very high, and I can only surmise that if you don’t have a sense of humor about it, you’re going to find that those differences can be quite corrosive, especially with the mutual expectations as to cultural stereotypes and proclivities being as misguided as they usually are.

Society/Women/Sex

The propensity that Japanese men have for underage girls is well known. In fact, there used to be vending machines in Japan that sold little packets that contained undergarments said to have been worn by girls of a certain tender age.

Culture

Culture/Anime

Japan embraced the Western cartoon medium and lent to it its traditional genius for adding value and a new level of creativity. For the Japanese, who seem mired in malaise and decay, anime affords an imaginative diversion and a wonderfully refractory lens through which to regard and reinvent themselves, both historically and futuristically.

Culture/Bonsai

The bonsai is the epitome of the Zen aesthetic. What may be even more classically Japanese, however, is the grotesque disparity between Japan’s exquisite tradition of bonsai and its present-day brutalization of nature. The Japanese seem quite at home with a schizophrenic worldview that ignores the ugly realities of their past and present in favor of prettified delusion, and what better retreat from such unpleasantness than contemplating bonsai?

Culture/Calligraphy and Painting

They say that in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand their language. Certain canons of Japanese culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar or the artist, and mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar/artist from the commoner. The Chinese characters employed in calligraphy, however, are supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. The Japanese recognized early on, however, that a phonetic alphabet would be necessary for them to measure up in their encounter with the West, and katakana—Japan’s system of phonetics for transliterating foreign words–came to the rescue.

Culture/Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossoms are a paramount icon in the Japanese sense of the mystical—a cosmogony that populates the Japanese spiritual and natural environment with spirits of countless varieties (much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000 gods). The ritual of toasting the annual profusion reflects the Japanese reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in the skein of spirits that populate the home-island habitat of the Japanese. The mystical framework of the Japanese cosmology shows in the sense of ritual implicit in their daily behavior, and it shows the Japanese to be an extraordinarily imaginative people who will continue to be fascinated—Japan’s pervasive urbanization notwithstanding–by their primal connections to nature.

Culture/Demons

Much as Shintoism populates the Japanese spiritual and natural environment with spirits of countless varieties, and much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000, the pantheon of demons in Japanese mythology reflects the Japanese reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in the skein of spirits that populate the home-island habitat of the Japanese. The mystical framework of the Japanese cosmology shows in the sense of ritual implicit in their daily behavior, and it shows the Japanese to be an extraordinarily imaginative people who will continue to be fascinated by that which is novel and foreign. But the flip side of fascination is fear, and the more the Japanese are constrained by ritual, the more extreme their behavior becomes when liberated from the social straightjacket. I’m not sure where superstition blends into mythology and religion, but I would submit that it’s all cut from the same bolt of cloth—namely, the fabric of belief systems. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the Sun God may have signified the congruence of the Egyptians’ desert environment with the otherworldly Realm of Light.

Culture/Food

The incredible genius that the Japanese have long demonstrated in the culinary arts must have something to do with their long history of recurrent famine. As they say, the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Culture/Gardens

The Japanese garden is the epitome of the Zen aesthetic. What may be even more classically Japanese, however, is the grotesque disparity between Japan’s exquisite tradition of the garden and its present-day brutalization of nature. The Japanese seem quite at home with a schizophrenic worldview that ignores the ugly realities of their past and present in favor of prettified delusion, and what better retreat from such unpleasantness than a Zen garden?

Culture/Geisha

The geisha—like the Zen garden—is a paragon of the classic aesthetic that shows that the Japanese straitjacket can be quite a stylish affair!

Culture/Good Luck Cat

The upraised paw of the golden good luck cat strikes me as an affirmation that business in Japan isn’t, after all, all business.

Culture/Literature/Haiku

Haiku—those ingenious studies in economy of expression—remind us that the lion’s share of what is communicated to a reader lies not in the words, but in what is imagined… and with that, the less said, the better.

Culture/Hip-Hop

The hip-hop phenom points up the fact that Japan’s cultural persona no longer exists in the state of rigor mortis that it had in earlier generations. This may not necessarily suggest lack of respect for tradition, but the inevitability of cultural dilution in the day and age of globalization. The Japanese are more eager than ever to integrate themselves with the world while still maintaining their cultural integrity and sense of uniqueness, and while the hip-hop/gangsta rage may seem a bit of stretch for them, imagine what a leap Commodore Perry’s Black Ships portended! The Japanese may on the surface be the most westernized of all Asian societies, but it is also most reluctant to admit that their core culture has been compromised by foreign values.

Culture/Ikebana

The grotesque disparity between Japan’s exquisite tradition of ikebana and its brutalization of nature is classically Japanese, who seem quite at home with their schizophrenic worldview that routinely ignores the ugly realities of their past and present in favor of prettified delusion.

Culture/Drama/Kabuki

The last time the Japanese tried to break free of the mold, their creative liberation found a wonderfully irreverent and expressive venue in kabuki, which in turn fostered the enchantment of the Floating World. The historic Japanese taste for the male idyll that dominated kabuki paralleled that of the ancient Greeks, and would seem to have emulated the Greek tradition of the patron taking a young man under wing for purposes both sordid and sublime. In a traditional society such as Japan that afforded women little opportunity for public participation, it was perhaps inevitable that the collegiality and camaraderie of samurai and their young consorts would find expression in the artistic venues of drama and literature. But sadly, it all seems to have been a one-off phenomenon, and the continuing inability of most Japanese to freely express themselves is part of the fabric of their social straitjacket accounts for their obsession with conformity, which in turn produces such pathologies as epidemic suicide, rote memorization in lieu of creative thinking, and the disparity between their overwrought sense of social protocol at home and their behavior abroad–which has ranged from astonishing presumptuousness to epic greed to bloodthirsty horror.

Culture/Jomon Culture

The early beginnings of a culture do seem to establish lasting patterns: rice culture, for example, demanded an extraordinary degree of cooperative endeavor that many suspect that it formed the basis for Japanese society’s obsession with doing things by consensus.

Culture/Kites

Telling a Japanese to go fly a kite carries a very different connotation, given their passion for these things that makes for one of Japan’s most fabled festivals.

Culture/Fujiyama

Shintoism populates the Japanese spiritual and natural environment with spirits of countless varieties, much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000 gods, and Mt. Fuji stands at the very pinnacle of this pantheon. Shintoism reflects the Japanese reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in the skein of spirits that populate the home-island habitat of the Japanese. The mystical framework of the Japanese cosmology shows in the sense of ritual implicit in their daily behavior, and it shows the Japanese to be an extraordinarily imaginative people who will continue to be fascinated by that which is novel and foreign. But the flip side of fascination is fear, and the more the Japanese are constrained by ritual, the more extreme their behavior becomes when liberated from the social straightjacket.

Culture/Language

The Japanese are absolutely convinced that Westerners cannot acquire an understanding of their language. No surprise, given their belief that they are unique and utterly different from the rest of the human race.

Culture/Language

They say that in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand their language. The Chinese calligraphy that formed the basis of much of Japan’s written language and its artistic and philosophical canon could only be mastered by the scholar-artist. But such calligraphy, though well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind, was supremely ill suited to science and technology. The introduction of katakana for the purpose of alphabetizing foreign words helped immensely to bridge the gulf that the introduction of Western technology itself could not.

Culture/Literature

We’re so used to thinking of Japanese literature in terms of the Floating World genre of The Tale of Genji that depicts classical Japanese romanticism that it’s a bit of a surprise to encounter fiction that’s accessible to Westerners in familiar terms, yet which compellingly portrays the Japanese psyche. To that end, I would enthusiastically recommend the writings of Yukio Mishima: his cycle of novels called The Sea of Fertility makes for a fascinating read that provides unparalleled insight into the modern Japanese character.

Culture/Loss of Traditional Arts

I think many if not most Westerners would be greatly surprised–and perhaps appalled–by the reality of what passes for cultural forms in Japan today: a dreary and depressing cemented-over landscape of pointless monuments and brutalized nature. Whatever happened to the sense of harmony with nature that once graced Japan’s artistic tradition, and transformed it into something ugly beyond words? The traditional aesthetic began to disappear after the Second World War, and has since been replaced with a consuming passion for post-modern industrial squalor and gigantism that seems to renounce the classic aesthetic. If it can be said that art reflects the popular mood, then something has happened in modern Japan to make the Japanese feel very badly about themselves. Is it the futility of wealth that endows the Japanese with hitherto unimaginable creature comforts, yet denies them the opportunity for self-expression and individual value fulfillment? Are the Japanese lost in a twilight zone, without an identity that fits either the Western or traditional Asian model? Why do they make themselves so ugly if they do not believe themselves to be ugly?

Culture/Martial Arts/Judo

I sense an allegory in judo—with its emphasis on conforming body, mind, and soul to an iron-bound discipline—that speaks to the modern dilemma posed by the Japanese tradition of conforming their behavior and thinking to a rigid social straitjacket, which serves the purpose of enabling everyone to get along in close quarters, but which tolerates little individuality or dissent from the consensus of the group. Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and it exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts who upset society’s harmonious balance. Japanese society—like judo–does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality.

Culture/Modern Style

I’m glad that Japan is at least developing a style of its own that’s distinct from the hackneyed cliché of classical Japanese Floating World romanticism, In truth, I think many if not most Westerners would be greatly surprised–and perhaps appalled–by the reality of what passes for cultural forms in Japan today: a dreary and depressing cemented-over landscape of pointless monuments and brutalized nature.

Culture/Movies

If it’s true that art reflects life, then the turn that Japanese cinema has taken from samurai epics to themes of social despair seems to convey a sense of catastrophe and apocalyptic doom implicit in much of Japanese Neo Pop imagery. The popularity of Japanese animation films and computer games about world-destroying wars and Godzilla-type monsters is regarded by some as a reflection of Japan’s ill-digested wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, smothered in silence during the US occupation, have left a kind of unresolved, largely repressed rage. Japan’s own atrocities have not been forthrightly faced either. It could be argued that the US has successfully turned Japan into a pacifist nation of irresponsible spendthrifts, encouraged to get richer and richer while leaving matters of war and peace to the Americans. It is said that the Japanese were shown that the true meaning of life is meaninglessness, and were taught to live without thought. Their society and hierarchies were dismantled. They were forced into a system that does not produce “adults.” Part of this state of permanent childhood is a sense of impotence, fostered by the US-written pacifist constitution, which robs Japan of its right to wage war. Some say that this explains the images of tied-up little girls, exploding galaxies, atom bomb clouds, Pacific War battles, and angry prepubescent children with tiny bodies and enormous heads—the overheated fantasies of frustrated Peter Pans, dreaming of national and sexual omnipotence, while playing the keyboards of their personal computers in their cramped quarters of suburban apartments, the millions of nerdish fantasizers living inside their own heads, filled with the mental detritus of comic strips and computer games. Not responsible for the real world, the Japanese have retreated into a virtual one, which can be blown to smithereens with the click of a mouse. It is all about the war, the bomb, General MacArthur’s emasculation of the Japan, and American capitalism.

Culture/New Year’s

The New Year rites of making all things right with one’s home, neighbors, and colleagues reflect the pre-occupation of the Japanese with how best to keep society carefully regulated and in proper working order. The rigorous Japanese observance of customs that keep society’s precision Clockwork Mechanism ticking along and enables everyone to get along in close quarters, but it tolerates little individuality or dissent from the consensus of the group. Japan places constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual.

Culture/Funerary Customs

I’ve long believed that the best way to understand life is to understand death, and the Buddhist belief in the evolution of souls would go a long ways to explain our purpose in coming back repeatedly to our earthly School of Hard Knocks to learn through experience how to become better excuses for human beings. The commonly held Western view that death ends everything absolves a lot of unsavory behavior and lets a lot of crooks off the hook… too easily. But the transmigration of souls makes perfect sense to the Japanese, who would maintain that accountability to society holds as strongly after death as it does in life. And perhaps in some roundabout way this explains why the Japanese prefer to sweep their misdeeds under the carpet, where they can be left to karma.

Culture/Kimono

I’m probably going off the deep end with this, but the rigid and complex construction of Japanese traditional formal dress seems to speak to the inability of most Japanese to freely express themselves–along with their obsession with the rigor of form that is so well exemplified by their tea ceremony–is part of the fabric of their social straitjacket. Might this explain such pathologies as epidemic suicide, rote memorization in lieu of creative thinking, and the disparity between their overwrought sense of social protocol at home and their behavior abroad–which has ranged from astonishing presumptuousness to epic greed to bloodthirsty horror?

Culture/Origami

The grotesque disparity between Japan’s tradition of origami and its brutalization of nature is classically Japanese, who seem quite at home with the remarkable mental facility that enables them to circumvent their drab and dreary urban environment in favor of an exquisite landscape within.

Culture/Philosophy/Neo-Confucianism

It’s no surprise that Neo-Confucianism, with its emphasis on articulating the pecking order and status of the group, went over big in Japan. Japan is the most relationship-driven society on earth, where everything proceeds on the basis on who knows whom.

Culture/Samurai Swords

The fanatical discipline of the samurai was as sharply honed as their swords. Japanese steel–even though Japan’s deposits of iron ore are quite sparse–made the finest, sharpest swords in the world; I think you’d be fascinated if you delved into the subject of Japanese sword making. Some of them were said to slice through a neck by simply resting the blade on the nape.

Culture/Taiko Drums

Perhaps I’m imagining things, but there seems to be something about the atavistic thudding of a taiko drum that takes one straight to the heart of the Japanese soul. Then again, so much of Japanese culture beckons one to wet one’s imagination in the mystical and primeval  framework of the Japanese cosmology.

Culture/Tatami

I fondly recall the tatami mats that I hired an old-Japanese-trained craftsman to install many years ago in my apartment in Korea, which suffered from a severe deficit of heating in that country’s bitter winters, and from a complete absence of cooling in its insufferably sticky summers. Nothing could have done a better job in moderating those excesses, and I can’t imagine that the amenities of modern living will ever surpass the comfort of the ancient creature comfort of tatami.

Culture/Tattoos

There’s an old saying to the effect that, while the chicken merely participates in your breakfast, the pig is committed to it. So it is with tattooing, a traditional Japanese art form that–like hara-kiri as a form of self-expression–separates true commitment from frivolous display.

Culture/Tea Ceremony

Japan’s tea ceremony fascinates with its commemoration of its most iconic beverage, according it highest honors and tortured ritual and social protocol to match. Very Japanese indeed. But is there, I wonder, a sinister dark side to the tea ceremony?! The inability of most Japanese to freely express themselves (this is not Starbucks coffeehouse palaver we’re talking about here)–along with their obsession with the rigor of form that is so well exemplified by their tea ceremony–is part of the fabric of their social straitjacket. Might this explain such pathologies as epidemic suicide, rote memorization in lieu of creative thinking, and the disparity between their overwrought sense of social protocol at home and their behavior abroad–which has ranged from astonishing presumptuousness to epic greed to bloodthirsty horror?

Culture/Music/Westernization

For better or for worse, Japan’s cultural persona no longer exists in the state of rigor mortis that it had in earlier generations. This may not necessarily suggest lack of respect for tradition, but the inevitability of cultural dilution in the day and age of globalization. The Japanese are more eager than ever to integrate themselves with the world while still maintaining their cultural integrity and sense of uniqueness, and while their preoccupation with Western musical instruments and forms may seem a bit of stretch, imagine what a leap Commodore Perry’s Black Ships portended! The Japanese may on the surface be the most westernized of all Asian societies, but it is also most reluctant to admit that their core culture has been compromised by foreign values.

Religion

Religion/Christianity

I think the shoguns instinctively realized that whenever missionaries meddle in affairs of state, the results are often disastrous. When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the official creed of the Roman Empire, it left Rome without the unifying spiritual values it needed to either maintain control of the provinces the spiritual fortitude needed to fend off external threats. The same thing happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Roman and Hawaiian gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion. No wonder it all came to grief in Japan, and led to one of history’s most notorious (and ultimately calamitous) episodes of self-seclusion.

Religion/Shinto

Shintoism populates the Japanese spiritual and natural environment with spirits of countless varieties, much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000 gods. The Japanese believe they are directly descended from the gods, via their first emperor Jimmu’s connection with the Sun God, Amaterasu. During the war, the Japanese said of the Americans (in reference to our fascination with the theories of Charles Darwin), “We know where we come from… and we understand that your have your own theories of where you came from.” Shintoism reflects the Japanese reverence for nature and the sense of man’s place in the skein of spirits that populate the home-island habitat of the Japanese. The mystical framework of the Japanese cosmology shows in the sense of ritual implicit in their daily behavior, and it shows the Japanese to be an extraordinarily imaginative people who will continue to be fascinated by that which is novel and foreign. But the flip side of fascination is fear, and the more the Japanese are constrained by ritual, the more extreme their behavior becomes when liberated from the social straightjacket.

Religion/Shinto and Buddhism

Shintoism populates the Japanese cosmogony with spirits and rituals of countless varieties, much as the Hawaiians did with their 400,000 deities. The Japanese believe they are directly descended, via their first emperor Jimmu’s divine patrimony, from the sun goddess Amaterasu. During the war, the Japanese said to the Americans, “We know where we come from… and we understand that you have your own theories of where you came from.” Buddhism came about as an intellectual revolt against the emptiness of all this ritual and the oppressiveness of India’s caste system, and offered a path to release from earthly travails and complications without all the bells and whistles of ritual. Its approach was in a sense the diametrical opposite of Shintoism’s embrace of ritual, and decreed that the ultimate reward of nirvana lay in the extinguishment of desire for illusory power and happiness. With that, one can begin to appreciate its appeal, in light of man’s constant frustration in trying to gratify his endless cravings for this, that, and the other thing. But then again, what’s the point of coming here to Planet Earth, if not to fulfill those values that are near and dear to us, and to improve ourselves in the process of overcoming the endless challenges that lie in the way?

Power

Power/Meiji/Reforms

While it is true that although many of the institutions (as well as much of the popular culture) that Japan modeled the Meiji revolution on were Western, it cannot be said that they were adopted indiscriminately. Rather, the Meiji leaders picked and chose with considerable deliberation from models worldwide those which would best suit its purpose of modernization, making their selections in purely pragmatic and objective terms. Their choice to retain the Confucian social mores and educational values of the ancient Chinese civilization was hardly in keeping with any craze for wholesale Westernization, but again was regarded as the most pragmatic choice for the development of Japan’s unique “modern Asian” model. The combination of ancient and modern models was deemed to constitute the polity that would be most compatible with kokutai and the most successful in enabling Japan to compete with and participate in the family of modern nations. It is this spirit of stark practicality and adaptability that would seem to make both Meiji and modern Japan, with its gift for synthesis, neither Western nor traditionally Asian, but uniquely Japanese.

Power/Meiji/Reaction to Western Ideas

The larger picture has it that Japan decided to restore the Meiji emperor and form a central government in response to the West, whose intrusions led many Japanese to anticipate a fate similar to that of China, which was then suffering the most mortifying humiliation at the hands of the West. All of this led the Japanese to resolve to take what it could learn from Western technology and institutions and catch up to the rest of the world. But Japan was always coming from behind, it seems, and its determination to overcome its perceived inferiority led it to embark on the course of aggression and empire building that culminated in the horrors of World War II.

Power/Meiji/Real Revolution?

While it is true that although many of the institutions (as well as much of the popular culture) that Japan modeled the Meiji revolution on were Western, it cannot be said that they were adopted indiscriminately. Rather, the Meiji leaders picked and chose with considerable deliberation from models worldwide those which would best suit its purpose of modernization, making their selections in purely pragmatic and objective terms. Their choice to retain the Confucian social mores and educational values of the ancient Chinese civilization was hardly in keeping with any craze for wholesale Westernization, but again was regarded as the most pragmatic choice for the development of Japan’s unique “modern Asian” model. The combination of ancient and modern models was deemed to constitute the polity that would be most compatible with kokutai and the most successful in enabling Japan to compete with and participate in the family of modern nations. It is this spirit of stark practicality and adaptability that would seem to make both Meiji and modern Japan, with its gift for synthesis, neither Western nor traditionally Asian, but uniquely Japanese.

Power/Meiji/transformation

Japan had long suffered from its perceived inferiority relative to the Western powers–a legacy of its humiliation from the time it was opened up by Commodore Perry. Once it realized where it stood in the global scheme of things, it undertook a frenzied effort to adopt Western institutions and window dressing wholesale during the Meiji era, in its drive to catch up with the West and ensure that the fate that befell China at the hands of the West would not befall Japan. Ultimately, only becoming a Great Power would do, and give Japan the prestige and security it craved; it knew from the game that was played by the Great Powers that one could only become a Great Power by knocking off a Great Power, and with its victory over Russia in 1904, Japan became a Great Power–and that opened the door for building an empire. Korea became its first colonial prize shortly thereafter, then Manchuria, then China, where Japan’s unspeakably brutal behavior virtually guaranteed a confrontation with the West sooner or later. In a sense, the Japanese saw Pearl Harbor coming from the day they clapped eyes on Perry’s Black Ships.

Power/Mongol Invasions

Only the wrath of Mother Nature could stand up to Khubilai’s Mongol hordes, and it was the lesson that the Japanese took to heart. In their estimation, the Mongols of the olden days had become the Westerners of the modern day. It was because Japan looked at China and experienced revulsion at the humiliation the Chinese were forced to endure at the hands of the British, the Germans, and the Americans that it resolved to accommodate and embrace the West before it suffered the same fate. Knowing that not even the kamikaze could save them from being overrun by the modern world, the Japanese realized that a good offense was the best defense, and they set out to learn all they could from their enemy in order to become a Great Power—which could only be accomplished, it was believed) by defeating another Great Power (which it did, with Russia, in 1904-05).

Power/Nara and Heian Periods

The Nara and Heian periods saw Japanese civilization emerge from beneath the Chinese cultural aura and begin to come into its own. But alas, civilization is a luxury, and business comes first. The business in question was land and tax reform, which became such a muddle that the only ones left standing after the fray were the samurai, brandishing their swords on behalf of the daimyo whose feuding ensured that any sense of Japanese nationhood remained illusory until Commodore Perry’s Black Ships awakened them to a far more serious threat.

Power/Tokugawa/Battle of Sekigahara

So much seems to turn on battles like Sekigahara, yet they’re really just straws that broke the camel’s back, the final crumbling into an earthquake of massive and long-accumulating tectonic forces of history. The force in this case was the unification of feuding daimyo under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the establishment of an order that would fund its stability in seclusion from the outside world.

Power/Tokugawa/Edo

he system of holding the daimyo hostage at Edo served to keep the fractious rascals in line well enough, but nothing could withstand the shock of the political earthquake brought on by the arrival– after nearly three centuries of seclusion–of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships; Japan suddenly realized it had a lot of catching up to do… which it needed to do in a big hurry. The arrival of the Americans seemed to presage the same fate for Japan that had befallen China; it was because Japan looked at China and experienced revulsion at the humiliation the Chinese were forced to endure at the hands of the British, the Germans, and the Americans that Japan resolved to accommodate and embrace the West before it suffered the same fate. And cleverly, it resolved to learn all it could from its enemy in order to become a Great Power—which could only be accomplished, it was believed) by defeating another Great Power (which it did, with Russia, in 1904-05).

Power/Tokugawa/Mitsuhide

So much seems to turn on dust-ups like these, yet they’re really just straws that broke the camel’s back, the final crumbling into an earthquake of massive and long-accumulating tectonic forces of history. The force in this case was the unification of feuding daimyo under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the establishment of an order that would fund its stability in seclusion from the outside world.

Power/Tokugawa/Guns

The guns that the Dutch traded at Deshima proved, not surprisingly, to be the deciding factor in the balance of feudal power in Tokugawa Japan. The Portuguese might have enjoyed a very different outcome in Japan had they parlayed the military prowess and technology that they used to capture the spice trade into greater leverage with the shoguns, instead of proselytizing the Japanese and bringing down the curtain on the Western presence in Japan for the next 300 years.

Power/Tokugawa/isolation

After nearly three centuries of seclusion, Japan suddenly realized that it had a lot of catching up to do, which it needed to do in a big hurry. It was because Japan looked at China and experienced revulsion at the humiliation the Chinese were forced to endure at the hands of the British, the Germans, and the Americans that Japan resolved to accommodate and embrace the West before it suffered the same fate. And cleverly, it resolved to learn all it could from its enemy in order to become a Great Power—which could only be accomplished, it was believed) by defeating another Great Power (which it did, with Russia, in 1904-05).

Power/Tokugawa/Isolation

Missionaries, it seems, have never been satisfied with saving souls; meddling in politics is an irresistible game. The meddling of Christian missionaries in the politics of the shoguns earned them a swift kick in the pants, and brought a wrathful and bloody persecution down upon the heads of Japan’s Christians. But the Japanese are nothing if not zealous, and the persecution of Christianity was followed by a self-imposed isolation—sakoku–that ended Japan’s trade and other contact with China—from whence it had derived so much cultural sustenance—that endured for more than 250 years. Sakoku served the political purposes of the despots admirably, and in fact so stimulated internal production and trade to an extent that thrust Japan’s merchants into hitherto unknown prosperity and prominence. Along with their rising importance as moneylenders to impoverished samurai, all this helped give rise to a money economy that would replace the popular reliance on barter. At the same time, it set Japan up for a rude awakening at the hands of the West, that it could only respond to with a wholesale revamping of its political, military, economic, and cultural institutions that made for the Meiji Revolution. Japan’s appetite for empire would re-awaken, and China, Korea, and ultimately America would be made to suffer the consequences. Somehow the Japanese seem to careen from one extreme to the other—whether from seclusion and empire building, tolerance of Christianity to the most brutal suppression of it, and in many respects of national character—with an almost manic-depressive compulsion. The leopard does not change its spots, and you’d have to wonder whether Japan’s postwar avowal of peaceable intentions could give way once again to a spasm of imperialism in the next generation if our war on terrorism continues to widen into a global war between the Haves and the Have-Nots, and if globalization proves to be as disruptive to the world economy as they’re shaping up to be. Japan is seldom what it seems to be.

Power/Tokugawa/Perry’s Arrival

After nearly three centuries of seclusion, the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships caused Japan to suddenly realize that it had a lot of catching up to do… which it needed to do in a big hurry. The arrival of the Americans seemed to presage the same fate for Japan that had befallen China; it was because Japan looked at China and experienced revulsion at the humiliation the Chinese were forced to endure at the hands of the British, the Germans, and the Americans that Japan resolved to accommodate and embrace the West before it suffered the same fate. And cleverly, it resolved to learn all it could from its enemy in order to become a Great Power—which could only be accomplished, it was believed) by defeating another Great Power (which it did, with Russia, in 1904-05).

Power/Tokugawa/Response to the West

Hideyoshi was the Grand Old Man of Japanese Empire, who in one fell swoop of the axe on Korea set the regrettable precedent of opening the rest of the world to Japan. After the nearly three centuries of Tokugawa seclusion that followed, Japan’s historical memory would reawaken its appetite for empire, and Korea once again became the prize. Somehow the Japanese seem to careen from one extreme to the other—whether from seclusion and empire building, tolerance of Christianity to the most brutal suppression of it, and in many respects of national character—with an almost manic-depressive compulsion. The leopard does not change its spots, and you’d have to wonder whether Japan’s postwar avowal of peaceable intentions could give way once again to a spasm of imperialism in the next generation if our war on terrorism continues to widen into a global war between the Haves and the Have-Nots, and if globalization proves to be as disruptive to the world economy as they’re shaping up to be. Japan is seldom what it seems to be.

Power/Tokugawa/Seclusion

It seems to me that we’re seeing the same self-imposed seclusion today that we saw Tokugawa Japan retreat into after the botched Hideyoshi invasions. Although we’re seeing a certain amount of engagement with the world with Japan’s presence in Iraq, Japan has–under the cover of its Peace Constitution–opted to be a geopolitical nullity ever since its botched adventurism in China and in the Pacific War. Makes me wonder when the next cycle of botched adventurism is going to hit.

Power/Corruption

It’s tempting to conclude that much of the unsavory coziness between business and government (from MITI on down through the Lockheed and Recruit Corp. scandals and more) owes itself to the pattern of corruption that was established with the gangs and black-marketeering that became so endemic in the post-war years. The lawlessness of the post-war society seems to have gelled a pattern that has since insinuated itself into Japanese politics. Japan has always been the most relationship-driven society on earth, with money being the usual solvent of relationships.

Power/Defense Dilemma

Some would say that after World War II, Japan sublimated its drive for global military and political domination and redirected it into a passion for economic conquest. It may be the best thing that ever happened to Japan; becoming a value-adding export economy has made excellent use of Japan’s passion for quality. Nobody, it seems, can add value quite like the Japanese.

Power/Emperor

The Japanese believe they are directly descended, via their first emperor Jimmu’s divine patrimony, from the sun goddess Amaterasu. During the war, the Japanese said of the Americans (with Darwinism in mind), “We know where we come from… and we understand that you have your own theories of where you came from.” 🙂

Power/Foreign Policy

Japan justified its aggression in World War II partly by its need for natural resources, which the United States and the British had conspired to deny it. War is usually waged when a country fears the worst to happen. Oil is even more essential to Japan today, since it doesn’t produce a drop of the stuff and its economy (now the world’s second-largest) is completely dependent upon it. It’s entirely possible that if Japan’s oil supply is jeopardized by war in the Middle East and unrest in Indonesia, it may need to once again consider how it might secure its own supply—the oil fields of Siberia are close at hand, and Japan’s relationship with Russia has unresolved issues (ownership of the Kurile Islands) that could offer a useful pretext for asserting itself once again. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Power/Foreign Policy/China

As we see with the present-day Chinese demonstrations against the Japanese, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in China, the outrage will continue to echo and reverberate, not only in China, but in Korea and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Power/Foreign Policy/China/Chinese Fossils

As we see with the present-day Chinese demonstrations against the Japanese, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in China, the outrage will continue to echo and reverberate, not only in China, but in Korea and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet. And with all the skeletons that Japan has left rattling away in the China closet, it doesn’t need to add more bones to the whole business through its misappropriation of Chinese fossils.

Power/Foreign Policy/Geopolitical Nonentity

The Japanese tell us that in order to understand Japan’s economy, think of California cut loose from its moorings to drift in the middle of the Pacific. Japan, more than most nations, needs world trade world market in order to survive. It has virtually no natural resources, and must import all the raw materials that it turns into manufactured goods. Perhaps this is why Japan is a diplomatic “non-entity” in world geo-politics, realizing as it must that it cannot afford to take sides.

Power/Foreign Policy/Global Profile

The Japanese global profile today reminds evokes a sense of deja vu. It seems to me that we’re seeing the same self-imposed seclusion today that we saw Tokugawa Japan retreat into after Hideyoshi botched his invasions of Korea. Although we’re seeing a certain amount of engagement with the world with Japan’s presence in Iraq, Japan has–under the cover of its Peace Constitution–opted to be a geopolitical nullity ever since its botched adventurism in China and in the Pacific War. Makes me wonder when the next cycle of botched adventurism is going to hit.

Power/Foreign Policy/Imperialism

Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations may have reflected the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Japan justified its aggression in World War II partly by its need for natural resources, which the United States and the British had conspired to deny it. War is usually waged when a country fears the worst to happen. Oil is even more essential to Japan today, since it doesn’t produce a drop of the stuff and its economy (now the world’s second-largest) is completely dependent upon it. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Power/Foreign Policy/Integration with the World

The Japanese are more eager than ever to integrate themselves with the world, while still keeping themselves in balance with tradition. Japan, with its economy and technology, cannot afford to distance itself from the global market that it is now embedded in. Cultural identity is a concept that not only accounts for the wellsprings of a nation’s own legacy, but must now allow for its hybridization with imported culture as well. The Japanese may on the surface be the most westernized of all Asian societies, but it is also most reluctant to admit that their core culture has been compromised by foreign values.

Power/Foreign Policy/Kuriles

The controversy over the Kuriles could prove to be a valuable bargaining chip in Japan’s negotiations with Russia over the planned pipeline for Siberian natural gas… and whether it leads to China or Japan. Siberia’s treasure trove of natural resources requires Western and Japanese expertise for their development, and depending on how astutely the Japanese play their diplomatic hand, the implications are staggering.

Power/Foreign Policy/North Korea

The Japanese, who so prize the virtues of harmony and consensus, seem at a loss as to how to deal with the Mad Hatter of North Korea. Perhaps Mr. Kim’s bizarre behavior—with abductions, missile firings, currency counterfeiting, and trafficking in narcotics and nuclear materiel—will provide the Japanese with a useful reminder of the consequences of rogue statesmanship; it’s a lesson from the 1930s that many Japanese seem determined to forget.

Power/Foreign Policy/Oil

It’s entirely possible that if Japan’s oil supply is jeopardized by war in the Middle East and unrest in Indonesia, it may need to once again consider how it might secure its own supply—the oil fields of Siberia are close at hand, and Japan’s relationship with Russia has unresolved issues (ownership of the Kurile Islands) that could offer a useful pretext for asserting itself once again. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Power/Foreign Policy/Relations with US

Priorities change. When the United States needed a bulwark against Soviet saber rattling, Japan served that purpose, even though it meant rearming a nation that we had gone to such lengths to not just disarm, but pulverize into powder. Later, America rejoiced in the prosperity of Asia’s tiger economies, led by Japan’s example. Taiwan, Singapore, and Korea became showcases of what freedom paired with the talent and energy of their people could accomplish. But what will happen in the years ahead, as the emergence of the middle class in China and India ratchet up the competition for oil and other increasingly scarce global resources? Will Japan and other Asian nations return to nationalism—and perhaps militarism—in their bid to secure access to these resources? China’s bid for Unocal and Japan’s rising assertiveness are evidence that these nations—along with India–are becoming increasingly aggressive in their efforts to secure oil and other global resources. The United States—with 6% of the world’s population—presently accounts for 40% of the world’s resources. Will our dependency on China and Japan to finance US deficits give them leverage in competing for such resources, and could it lead to blackmail? How might our economy (and way of life) become hostage to competition for scarce resources? Will American assets increasingly be made to substitute for American debt? How might the scramble for resources shape the foreign policies of its main players? What are the implications… for global economic and political relations, for the dollar, for American jobs, for the housing bubble, and much, much more?

Power/Foreign Policy/Resurgent Militarism

Perhaps we should bring Japan into the Security Council, since it might forestall that creeping sense of deja vu that I’m getting from the resurgent nationalism and militarism that seems to be rearing its ugly head in Japan. With the end of the war, Japan adopted the same self-imposed seclusion that we saw Tokugawa Japan retreat into after Hideyoshi botched his invasions of Korea; under the cover of its Peace Constitution, Japan opted to become a geopolitical nullity in the wake of its botched adventurism in China and the Pacific War. But with Japan’s renewed engagement with the world in the occupation of Iraq, it makes me wonder when the next cycle of botched adventurism is going to hit.

Power/Foreign Policy/Takeshima

The problem is that everything means something, and even Takeshima/Tokdo—a guano-spattered rock in the Sea of Japan—is pregnant with implications, both historical and geopolitical. As we see with the present-day Korean demonstrations against the Japanese, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in Korea and China, the outrage—whether over Takeshima/Tokdo, Japan’s history texts, Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, or offshore drilling rights–will continue to echo and reverberate, both in Korea and China and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Power/Globalization

Japan may well have been one of the original players in modern globalization. Its success lies in improving and adding value to goods developed elsewhere and adapting them to consumer tastes the world over, so that nowadays, the Japanese set the standard in automobiles, consumer electronics, and much else. Globalization exerts it pull on economies in a couple of different ways: one on hand, as a nation’s skill set matures and its workforce becomes more sophisticated, it farms out its basic industries to lower-wage, less sophisticated workforces elsewhere in the world. One the other hand, it loses some of its more advanced industries to countries like Japan that do make those products better. Japan has benefited both ways.

Power/Imperial Family/Succession Rights

For the Imperial family to let on that it’s reconsidering its hoary tradition of excluding women from succession rights is something that carries profound consequences for the role of women in Japanese society. With Japan facing a demographic crisis in which all comers—including immigrants, seniors, and even women–are now being considered to staff the dwindling ranks of corporate management and the bureaucracy, a nod from the highest mucks of all in the direction of gender equality would set an irresistible precedent.

Power/Junichiro Koizumi

Koizumi certainly gave Japan’s brittle political establishment a good shakeup, but at the same time, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in Korea and China, the outrage over Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine will continue to echo and reverberate, both in Korea and China and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Power/Militarism

Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations may have reflected the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Japan’s defeat in World War II caused it to no longer view the world as a conspiracy against it, but to see its markets as an opportunity. Without any resources of its own to speak of, Japan developed an amazing talent for adding value. One of Japan’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to improve upon originals—and therein may lie the greatest addition of value. The goal of the Meiji Restoration was to catch up with the West, and to quickly overcome the restraints that Tokugawa Japan had imposed on foreign influence that were so detrimental to Japan’s learning curve. Coming from behind as it did, it was pointless to reinvent the wheel.

Power/Ministries

We Americans have an entirely different concept of government than that which most Asians subscribe to. We assume that civil service means what it says–a government in service to the people. The Japanese, on the other hand, see government as a separate strata and caste of entitlement, populated by a race of superior beings who, by dint of having survived the rigors of the examination hell and gained admission to Japan’s most prestigious universities, have ascended to the sublime realm of the ministries. In its more benign form, government service in Asian societies is merely a sinecure; more often, it takes the form of a predator to be bought off with bribes and avoided if at all possible.

Power/Ninja

The warrior-poet idyll of the ninja has proved even more enduring (and endearing) than that of the scholar-gentleman, which the petty poison politics of academe has long since exposed as a largely untenable proposition. J

Power/Okinawa Bases

I can’t imagine why the United States continues to maintain its bases in Okinawa—the rationale having long been that they serve as a deterrent to the expansionist designs of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that argument no longer obtains. For that matter, what could we have done with a fraction of the money that we expended on “defense” in the 15 years that have elapsed since the fall of the Soviet Union? How many millions of lives could have been saved (and friends earned… and at such modest cost) by assisting the world’s poorest people in achieving basic sanitation and disease prevention? When are we going to learn that everything in this world is intimately inter-related, and that the well being of the most wretched people in the farthest-flung parts of the earth has as much bearing on our own well being as that of our fellow American?

Power/Japan Bases

I can’t imagine why the United States continues to maintain its bases in Japan—the rationale having long been that they serve as a deterrent to the expansionist designs of the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet Union crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that argument no longer obtains. For that matter, what could we have done with a fraction of the money that we expended on “defense” in the 15 years that have elapsed since the fall of the Soviet Union? How many millions of lives could have been saved (and friends earned… and at such modest cost) by assisting the world’s poorest people in achieving basic sanitation and disease prevention? When are we going to learn that everything in this world is intimately inter-related, and that the well being of the most wretched people in the farthest-flung parts of the earth has as much bearing on our own well being as that of our fellow American?

Power/Rearmament

The whole controversy over Japan’s rearmament evokes a sense of deja vu. It seems to me that we’re seeing the same self-imposed seclusion today that we saw Tokugawa Japan retreat into after Hideyoshi botched his invasions of Korea. Although we’re seeing a certain amount of engagement with the world with Japan’s presence in Iraq, Japan has–under the cover of its Peace Constitution–opted to be a geopolitical nullity ever since its botched adventurism in China and in the Pacific War. Makes me wonder when the next cycle of botched adventurism is going to hit.

Power/Samurai

Condemning the samurai to become bureaucrats had the same effect as forcing the American Indian to become farmers–it heralded the death of an entire way of life. The samurai had outlived their usefulness once there emerged a semblance of state unity in Japan, much as the knights of medieval Europe faded away with the disappearance of feudal estates in favor of nation-states. There were few things as pathetic as the knight-errant or the masterless samurai… but it made for great Hollywood!

Power/Samurai

The samurai outlived their usefulness once there emerged a semblance of state unity in Japan, much as the knights of medieval Europe faded away with the disappearance of feudal estates in favor of nation-states. There were few things as pathetic as the knight-errant or the masterless samurai… but it made for great Hollywood!

Power/Samurai/Seppuku

The samurai tradition of suicide lies at the root of the Japanese sense of honor and shame. It almost seems that we and the Japanese look at the same things through opposite ends of the telescope: we Westerners seem to adore and reward with untold riches the robber barons and rascals that the Japanese would commit suicide over. The Japanese have a surfeit of social shame that Westerners have a paucity of; in the global arena, we Americans regard ourselves as saviors of the world, while the Japanese take no shame at behaving as its pestilence.

Power/Samurai

The samurai were the hired guns of the highest warlords of the land. Their strict code of honor, bushido (the Way of the Warrior) reflected the Japanese preoccupation with social obligation and group identity. While Japan was divided among a number of warring domains, it proved impossible to build a nation with the samurai so beholden to their liege lords. It was only when Japan found a common threat that the principalities agreed to lay down their arms and de-commission their samurai in the interest of uniting against the threat from the West.

Power/Samurai

The samurai were casualties of the end of the traditional order in which they served as servants to the lords of their respective domains. When these domains were handed over to the new central government in Edo, the samurai were left without a job. The larger picture has it that Japan decided to form a central government in response to the West, whose intrusions led many Japanese to anticipate a fate similar to that of China, which was then suffering the most mortifying humiliation at the hands of the West. All of this led the Japanese to resolve to take what it could learn from Western technology and institutions and catch up to the rest of the world. But Japan was always coming from behind, it seems, and its determination to overcome its perceived inferiority led it to embark on the course of aggression and empire building that culminated in the horrors of World War II.

Power/Samurai/Decline

The Age of the Samurai came to an end with the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Extreme Samurai himself, Hideyoshi–the Grand Old Man of Japanese Empire, who in one fell swoop of the axe on Korea set the regrettable precedent of opening the rest of the world to Japan. After the nearly three centuries of Tokugawa seclusion that followed, Japan’s historical memory would reawaken its appetite for empire, and Korea once again became the prize. Somehow the Japanese seem to careen from one extreme to the other—whether from seclusion and empire building, tolerance of Christianity to the most brutal suppression of it, and in many respects of national character—with an almost manic-depressive compulsion. The leopard does not change its spots, and you’d have to wonder whether Japan’s postwar avowal of peaceable intentions could give way once again to a spasm of imperialism in the next generation if our war on terrorism continues to widen into a global war between the Haves and the Have-Nots, and if globalization proves to be as disruptive to the world economy as they’re shaping up to be. Japan is seldom what it seems to be.

Power/Samurai/Women

The tradition of the woman warrior went over well enough in ancient Japan, but eventually things changed and the status of women eroded and gave way to the male samurai idyll. Ever since, Japan’s male-dominated society has afforded women little opportunity for public participation, and looking back on it, it seems inevitable that the collegiality and camaraderie of samurai and their young consorts would come to parallel the ancient Greek tradition of the patron taking a young man under wing for purposes both sordid and sublime.

Power/Samurai/Miyamoto Musashi

Had it not been for the emperor’s call for his subjects to give up the doomed cause of the Pacific War, the Japanese nation would have been summoned to its last stand on the beaches of Kyushu… ready to take on the Mighty Mo with little more than sharpened bamboo staves and the indomitable Japanese spirit. Absurd as that prospect might seem, only the atomic bomb spared us from expending an additional two million casualties to extinguish the ghosts of Miyamoto Musashi and his kindred samurai.

Power/War/Annexation of Korea

Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations may have reflected the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Funny how what went around in Korea a hundred years ago has come around: the Japanese, who so prize the virtues of harmony and consensus, seem at a loss as to how to deal with the Mad Hatter of North Korea. Perhaps Mr. Kim’s bizarre behavior—with abductions, missile firings, currency counterfeiting, and trafficking in narcotics and nuclear materiel—will provide the Japanese with a useful reminder of the consequences of rogue statesmanship; it’s a lesson that many Japanese seem determined to forget.

Power/War/Pacific War/Atomic Bombings

Horrific though they were, the atomic bombings of Japan resulted in far less loss of life than would have been incurred with an invasion of the home islands. Incredibly, the Japanese people had been prepared by their government to fight on the beaches, armed with only bamboo spears and the “indomitable Japanese spirit.” I don’t know how much of a match bamboo spears would have made for the guns of the Mighty Mo, but this does give us some idea of how utterly deluded the Japanese government had become in its assessment of the war. Of course, you can’t tell anybody anything, and nothing short of the atomic bomb would have convinced the Japanese government to give it up.

Power/War/Pacific War/Atomic Bombings

Reflecting on the atomic bombings should cause us to realize that it’s been a while since we’ve seen true and total war, being an event in which both sides stop at absolutely nothing to behave as badly as possible. However, with terrorism on the rise, such things as atomic, biological, and chemical scourges will no doubt raise their hideous heads once again, and when they do, I expect that we’ll will pull out all stops in responding (although to what, I’m not sure). But insofar as the Japanese are concerned, I’m concerned that another lethal animus is very much at large–in the form of denial: the propensity of the Japanese to deny their role in visiting untold horror and misery upon humanity in the first half of the 20th century, and to sweep such other unpleasantness as their trillion dollars of bad debt under the carpet, hoping it will all go away. This does not bode well.

Power/War/Pacific War/Comfort Women

The rigorous standards of honor and self-discipline which the Japanese impose upon themselves are not necessarily deemed to apply in their dealings with foreigners; their behavior in China and with respect to the comfort women speaks amply to that. The Japanese forced some 200,000 women from Korea and all across Asia into sex slavery for the benefit of its troops during World War II. Without fundamental change in the constraints on creativity imposed by Japan’s social straightjacket, Japan may again find that itself unable to flexibly and creatively engage the geo-political challenges of the 21st century without lashing out in the sort of behavior that was so catastrophic in the 20th century.

Power/War/Pacific War/Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations may have reflected the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Japan’s defeat in World War II caused it to no longer view the world as a conspiracy against it, but to see its markets as an opportunity. Japan justified its aggression in World War II partly by its need for natural resources, which the United States and the British had conspired to deny it. War is usually waged when a country fears the worst to happen. Oil is even more essential to Japan today, since it doesn’t produce a drop of the stuff and its economy (now the world’s second-largest) is completely dependent upon it. It’s entirely possible that if Japan’s oil supply is jeopardized by war in the Middle East and unrest in Indonesia, it may need to once again consider how it might secure its own supply—the oil fields of Siberia are close at hand, and Japan’s relationship with Russia has unresolved issues (ownership of the Kurile Islands) that could offer a useful pretext for asserting itself once again. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Power/War/Pacific War/Hirohito

There’s more and more evidence coming to light these days that Hirohito was very interested indeed in the planning, conduct, and outcome of the war, though I would agree that it was largely by way of fait accompli. That’s the way so many things are done in Japan, as a result of decisions made amongst an old boy network that preserves the pretense–with little substance–of consensus. Japan remains the most relationship-driven society on earth.

Power/War/Pacific War/Internment of Japanese-Americans

The internment and abuse of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was one of the worst transgressions of civil liberties in American history. The abuse of Japanese-Americans was certainly not as egregious as the systemic abuse of America’s black population; after all, the Japanese-Americans were conspicuous only because they resembled a temporary enemy, and not because they evoked the far more enduring demon of the shame of slavery and the near-genocidal oppression of the black race. What we hate about others is what we hate about ourselves, and it may well be that the spleen we vented on our Japanese-American community during the war reflected the shame of our legacy of racial intolerance. America has become the world’s country, a melting pot of the world’s best, brightest, and boldest, and either we embrace our most conspicuous differences—and enrich ourselves in the bargain—or we will be overcome by them.

Power/Pacific War/Iwo Jima

The ferocious battle for Iwo Jima was but a premonition of what awaited the Americans had it not been for the emperor’s call for his subjects to give up the doomed cause of the Pacific War. The Japanese nation would have been summoned to its last stand on the beaches of Kyushu much as they had been at Iwo Jima… ready to take on the Mighty Mo with little more than sharpened bamboo staves and the indomitable Japanese spirit. Absurd as that prospect might seem, only the atomic bomb spared us from expending an additional two million casualties to extinguish the ghosts of the indomitable samurai spirit.

Power/Pacific War/Kamikaze

Had it not been for the intervention of the Divine Wind, the Japanese nation would have been summoned to its last stand on the beaches of Kyushu… ready to take on the U.S. fleet with little more than sharpened bamboo staves and the indomitable Japanese spirit. Absurd as that prospect might seem, only the atomic bomb spared us from expending an additional two million casualties to at last extinguish the ghosts of the samurai.

Power/War/Pacific War/Motives

Japan maintains that its wartime aggression was forced upon it by the conspiracy of the West to embargo its oil supply and hamstring its trade. Japan’s postwar policy of “go along to get along” has worked well so long as it has enjoyed unrestricted access to world markets and free-flowing oil. But if a new world order arises in which the United States is able to offer neither a market for its exports, nor a guarantee of its oil supply, will Japan once again sound the tocsin of war on behalf of the oil and trade upon which it has always depended?

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Cold War Ally

The U.S. had good reason to restore Japan after the war: it needed Japan as a bulwark against what it perceived as the Soviet menace to American hegemony in the Pacific. The answer to Japan’s prayers for economic revival came with the outbreak of the Korean War, which fattened the purses of countless entrepreneurs and business. The Cold War and its Korean conflagration set the pattern for a security relationship with the United States that allowed Japan to invest the money it might otherwise have expended on its own defense.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Indicting the Emperor

The Japanese would like to hold Hirohito blameless as to the war. But it’s especially true with the Japanese that everything means something, and the absence of Hirohito’s explicit opposition to the war meant that it had generally proceeded with his blessing. Hirohito was no closet emperor, in the manner of the imperial institution during the shogunates, but an active and avid participant in the planning of the war and its implementation. One might think that this is adequate reason to have at least indicted him as a war criminal, if not string him up by the neck. But again, everything means something with the Japanese, and in re-making the emperor into the nation’s most conspicuous symbol of pacifism, the Americans wisely appreciated and made excellent use of Hirohito’s symbolic weight as emperor.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Political Unrest

If it is true that people deserve the government they get, then tyranny comes about only because it has been allowed to. The Germans found Hitler’s call to arms and a settling of old historical scores immensely appealing against the background of worldwide depression, and of Germany’s humiliation and the crippling indemnities exacted by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. In Japan, the general strike during the Occupation represented a mass empowerment of the unions that the U.S. feared would eventually take over industry and foster radical politics. But even if the general strike had continued, the Japanese would most likely have opted for capitalism and the free market in the end, since the Japanese are nothing if not expedient. They go with what works for as long as it works, and radical politics, as we know, do not work for long—they offer but a temporary palliative.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Reforms

The U.S. had good reason to restore Japan after the war: it needed Japan as a bulwark against what it perceived as the Soviet menace to American hegemony in the Pacific. The answer to Japan’s prayers for economic revival came with the outbreak of the Korean War, which fattened the purses of countless entrepreneurs and business. The Cold War and its Korean conflagration set the pattern for a security relationship with the United States that allowed Japan to invest the money it might otherwise have expended on its own defense.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Reforms

When I think of the various reforms that were accomplished by the Occupation, I wonder how well any of them really stuck to the wall. Its Peace Constitution was virtually dictated by the Americans and forced on the Japanese at gunpoint; women still enjoy few opportunities in the workforce, other than to serve tea and be married off to their colleagues, and then go home and have children; the zaibatsu may have been disbanded, but they’re back, and business is still as relationship-driven as ever; the educational system is still consecrated to rote memorization; and the Japanese embrace democracy only as an expedient, and would probably ditch it the moment it ceased to work for them. I wonder, did the Americans exert any lasting influence that the Japanese would not have eventually adopted all by themselves?

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Reforms

Japan is the most relationship-driven of societies, and relationships seem to proceed from the emperor on down. It exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts and stalwart souls who upset society’s harmonious balance, and as such, one could be forgiven for wondering why Hirohito wasn’t brought to account (indicted at the very least) for his complicity in the war. Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations may have reflected the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Japan’s defeat in World War II caused it to no longer view the world as a conspiracy against it, but to see its markets as an opportunity. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation/Reforms

After World War II, the U.S. enjoyed a free hand in remaking the Japanese civic and commercial institutions, underpinning them with the canons of free trade and anti-communism. But the revolution wrought by the Occupation was in many ways as superficial as the Meiji Revolution: its managed economy remains the most relationship-drive in the world; its embrace of democracy is expedient and its byzantine politics are corrupt; its social order and educational system remains stolidly Confucian; and its women have little prospect in the workforce. In this sense, Japan will always remain an Asian society in Western dress.

Power/War/Pacific War/Occupation Reforms

When I think of the various reforms that were accomplished by the Occupation, I wonder how well any of them really stuck to the wall. Its Peace Constitution was virtually dictated by the Americans and forced on the Japanese at gunpoint; women still enjoy few opportunities in the workforce, other than to serve tea and be married off to their colleagues, and then go home and have children; the zaibatsu may have been disbanded, but they’re back, and business is still as relationship-driven as ever; the educational system is still consecrated to rote memorization; and the Japanese embrace democracy only as an expedient, and would probably ditch it the moment it ceased to work for them.

Power/War/Pacific War/Unit 731

The activities of Japan’s Unit 731 in China in the 1930s gave us a new take on China’s ancient experience with the plague. Unit 731’s facility in the outback of Manchuria produced a veritable Pandora’s Box of contagions for use in bacteriological warfare, including gallons of plague bacillus cultured from the fleas of thousands of rats they raised for this purpose. When Gen. Jimmy Doolittle raided Japan in 1942 (exacting nine casualties in the bargain), his flyers were forced to bail out over China for lack of sufficient fuel to return to their carrier bases in mid-Pacific. The Japanese regarded the Chinese as complicitors in this whole business, and responded by launching the modern world’s first bacteriological campaign, poisoning the populace and terrain of Chekiang province with plague and inflicting more than two million casualties.

Power/War/Russo-Japanese War

The opening of Japan was less disruptive than the opening of China. It was because Japan looked at China and experienced revulsion at the humiliation the Chinese were forced to endure at the hands of the British, the Germans, and the Americans that Japan resolved to accommodate and embrace the West before it suffered the same fate. And cleverly, it resolved to learn all it could from its enemy in order to become a Great Power—which could only be accomplished, it was believed) by defeating another Great Power (which it did, with Russia, in 1904-05).

Power/War/Sino-Japanese War

Japan had long suffered from its perceived inferiority relative to the Western powers, and once it realized where it stood in the global scheme of things, it undertook a frenzied effort to adopt Western institutions and window dressing wholesale during the Meiji era, in its drive to catch up with the West and ensure that the fate that befell China at the hands of the West would not befall Japan. Ultimately, only becoming a Great Power would do, and give Japan the prestige and security it craved; it knew from the game that was played by the Great Powers that one could only become a Great Power by knocking off a Great Power. China, dying of humiliation at the hands of the West, proved an easy mark for the Japanese in their determination to beat Russia to the Chinese corpse, and Japan’s triumph in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 whetted its appetite for a prize that would confirm its rank in the first order of nations. With its victory over Russia in 1904, Japan became a Great Power–and that opened the door for building an empire. Korea became its first colonial prize shortly thereafter, and then Manchuria and China again, where Japan’s unspeakably brutal behavior virtually guaranteed a confrontation with the West sooner or later. In a sense, the Japanese saw Pearl Harbor coming from the day they clapped eyes on Perry’s Black Ships.

Power/War/Sino-Japanese War/Treaty of Shimonoseki

The Treaty of Shimonoseki put paid to Japan’s long-perceived inferiority relative to the Western powers, and once it realized where it stood in the global scheme of things, it undertook a frenzied effort to adopt Western institutions and window dressing wholesale during the Meiji era, in its drive to catch up with the West and ensure that the fate that befell China at the hands of the West would not befall Japan. Ultimately, only becoming a Great Power would do, and give Japan the prestige and security it craved; it knew from the game that was played by the Great Powers that one could only become a Great Power by knocking off a Great Power. Korea, the traditional ward of a China that was dying of humiliation at the hands of the West–proved an easy mark for the Japanese in their determination to beat Russia to the Chinese corpse, and Japan’s triumph in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 whetted its appetite for a prize that would confirm its rank in the first order of nations. With its victory over Russia in 1904, Japan became a Great Power–and that opened the door for building an empire. Korea became its first colonial prize shortly thereafter, and then Manchuria and China again, where Japan’s unspeakably brutal behavior virtually guaranteed a confrontation with the West sooner or later. In a sense, the Japanese saw Pearl Harbor coming from the day they clapped eyes on Perry’s Black Ships.

Economy

Economy/Automobiles

Without any resources of its own to speak of, Japan developed an amazing talent for adding value. What the Japanese have done with automobiles in this case speaks amply to that ability to improve upon originals—and therein may lie the greatest value of all.

Economy/Electronics

Without any resources of its own to speak of, Japan developed an amazing talent for adding value. What the Japanese are doing with consumer electronics in this case speaks amply to that ability to improve upon originals—and therein may lie the greatest value of all.

Economy/Asbestosis

Sadly, I expect that the Japanese response to asbestos-caused disease will be pretty much of a piece with their response to homelessness, bad debt, the war, and other such unpleasantness: denial. Perhaps it’s the traditional Japanese obsession with form over substance that accounts for their propensity to sweep unpleasantness under the carpet, but in the day and age of accountability, that can be an expensive habit.

Economy/Bid-Rigging

What we perceive as bid rigging, Japan has generally seen as business as usual. Until recently, the Japanese have not questioned nor seen any great conflict of interest in their practice of political corruption in business. Japan’s is the most relationship-drive economy on earth, with rules that are entirely different from the dictates of the bottom line that order business relationships in the West. On the other hand, those Western companies that have taken the time and made the effort to build relationships in Japan often find that the system works as much for them and it would have worked against them otherwise. Bid rigging and other trade barriers are, of course, anathema to the global economy. Japan has been successful with its trade despite its obduracy in limiting its domestic market for foreign competition, but like will always attract like. As the U.S. has added trade barriers of its own with the steel industry, the interconnected nature of the world market has become more apparent.

Economy/Bubble

The Japanese almost seem to be manic-depressive, swinging from one mania to another; the trend recently was “nouveau-pauvre”–fashionable poverty! Trivializing poverty in this way suggests that the lessons of the devastation of their society in the wake of World War II have been happily swept under the rug, like certain other ugliness, such as Japan’s $1.5 trillion bad debt and its horrendous behavior in China in the 1930s. Regrettably, the response of the Japanese to these various eggs they are hatching–the debt, demographic, and environmental time-bombs–has been pretty much the same: sweep it under the carpet! What’s more, when these things are swept under the rug rather than dealt with, it offers a near-certain guarantee that the problems will re-emerge, just as ugly as ever.

Economy/Capital Flows

We live in a global economy, and I can assure you that the cycles of the Japanese economy have very real effects in economies elsewhere. Consider the real estate bubble (and the bursting of that bubble) that transpired here in Hawaii in the late 1980s: property values in certain neighborhoods here sank some 40% when the bubble burst–though ultimately, values of commercial real estate in some cities in Japan dropped by more than 80%. Of greater concern, however, is the $400 billion in U.S. Treasury debt owned by the Japanese. If the dollar continues to slide, at what point will the Japanese decide that the loss of principal far outweighs the benefits of financing U.S. debt? Can you imagine what it would do to our bond market (and interest rates) if the Japanese decide to sell their holdings? Into the tank, and through the roof, respectively.

Economy/Corporate Fraud

The sad and sorry ending of 71-year old Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, former chair of Seibu Railway and once the world’s richest man, is a moral story of what has become of Japan’s economy writ large. His conviction on various counts of insider trading and filing false financial statements parallels the monkey business that pumped Japan’s stock market up to stratospheric heights in the late 1980s, and the sweeping under the carpet of a trillion or two of bad loans piled up by Japan’s banks during the Bubble years. Whereas the United States promptly dealt with the $150 billion in bad loans rung up in the Savings & Loans scandal of the early 1980s (and that was back when $150 billion wasn’t chump change!), the Japanese have made but token progress in clearing out the skeletons from their financial closet, leaving them to disconcertingly rattle away to the detriment of any possibility of mustering the national resolve to put Japan Inc. back on track.

Economy/Domestic Market

The commitment to a socially harmonious society inspires the slogans of most Japanese companies. It’s no surprise that the consumer is anything but king in a society that puts the group before the individual. Many regard the professed concern of companies for the welfare of their country to be a ruse to conceal their zeal for profit, but to the Japanese, it reflects the priorities they hold dear—most of all, the genuine desire for stability through consensus and harmony.

Economy/Economic Imperialism

Japan’s desire to establish itself as leader of the Asian family of nations once echoed the colonial hegemony that the West once saw as its rightful prerogative, and the just due of a Great Power such as Japan wanted to become. Japan justified its aggression in World War II partly by its need for natural resources, which the United States and the British had conspired to deny it. War is usually waged when a country fears the worst to happen. Oil is even more essential to Japan today, since it doesn’t produce a drop of the stuff and its economy (now the world’s second-largest) is completely dependent upon access to global markets and resources of many kinds. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil once again appear to conspire against it, the old paranoia may return, and Japan may one day return to the paranoia and predatory behavior of the 1920s and 30s.

Economy/Exclusion

What we perceive as exclusionism and obstructionism, Japan has generally seen as business as usual. Until recently, the Japanese have not questioned nor seen any great conflict of interest in their practice of political corruption in business. Japan’s is the most relationship-drive economy on earth, with rules that are entirely different from the dictates of the bottom line that order business relationships in the West. On the other hand, those Western companies that have taken the time and made the effort to build relationships in Japan often find that the system works as much for them and it would have worked against them otherwise. Bid rigging and other trade barriers are, of course, anathema to the global economy. Japan has been successful with its trade despite its obduracy in limiting its domestic market for foreign competition, but like will always attract like. As the U.S. has added trade barriers of its own with the steel industry, the interconnected nature of the world market has become more apparent.

Economy/Expo

The Expo would seem to be of a piece with Japan’s passion for monument building, building roads to nowhere, and for paving and encasing everything in cement. Having pushed the envelope with exports, and with its consumer economy swept under the carpet along with its trillion or so in bad debt, there’s little to spend money on apart from construction.

Economy/Farming

With Japan completely dependent upon the outside world for virtually everything, it’s hard to accept the reasoning that we often hear as to the need to protect Japan’s rice in order to maintain self-sufficiency. However, the communal nature of early Japanese rice-farming and water-sharing makes a great deal of sense in the context of the Japanese group mentality; as such, the protection of rice honors the most quintessential aspects of Japanese community and social behavior.

Economy/Farming/Hemp

The farmers of Japan in the olden days would look at our present-day phobia over hemp and surely frown, thinking to themselves of us moderns, “so much knowledge, so little sense.”

Economy/Hostile Takeovers

In Japan—that most hidebound of business cultures—the notion of hostile takeovers seems antithetical to the Japanese passion for consensus. On the other hand, it seems that for all the iron discipline of the consensus model of the Japanese way of doing things, the discipline of market forces is even more ironbound. If, for example, the Japanese can’t make lifetime employment work, who can?

Economy/Immigrant Labor

I suspect that the Japanese horror of their society being tainted by impure elements is of a piece with their uneasiness over the developing demographic crisis that is expected to cause their population to plummet to 100 million by around 2050. Ultimately, they’ll have to come to accept and depend upon migrant labor to sustain their economy.

Economy/Labor and Management

The Japanese labor union has become part of the company, and its disputes merely differences of opinion within the family. Thanks to their trade-offs to Japan’s traditional lifetime employment system, unions do not hold as much leverage as they used to in the Occupation era. The tradition of harmony within the work family keeps many employees from expressing their individualism and dissent. The harmonious balance of society is perceived as more important than the resolution of grievances.

Economy/Lifetime Employment

It does seem that for all the iron discipline of the consensus model of the Japanese way of doing things, the discipline of market forces is even more ironbound. If the Japanese can’t make lifetime employment work, who can?

Economy/Lifetime Employment

Loyalty toward the employee demonstrates Japan’s concept of its own strength residing in the group rather than the individual. And the reciprocal loyalty of the employee to the group is what makes Japan’s entire corporate society as successful as it has been. Without any resources of its own to speak of, Japan developed an amazing talent for adding value. One of Japan’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to improve upon originals—and therein may lie the greatest addition of value. The goal of the Meiji Restoration was to catch up with the West, and to quickly overcome the restraints that Tokugawa Japan had imposed on foreign influence that were so detrimental to Japan’s learning curve. Coming from behind as it did, it was pointless to reinvent the wheel.

Economy/Lifetime Employment

The viability of the lifetime employment model is the acid test for the whole extended family ideal that is Japan. That ideal is crumbling not only with the lifetime employment model, but on the very home front itself. Perhaps it’s because Japanese women are still expected to resign from their jobs upon marriage and go home and raise a family and take care of her husband’s aging parents that they resist marriage these days; partly as a result, Japan is developing a demographic crisis that will see its population plummet to about 100 million by 2050.

Economy/Malaise

A society’s worldview is the creature of its economy, and as economic conditions improve, the desires of people change as well. For a very long time after World War II, survival and stabilization were Priority One, and the values of Japanese society were conditioned by the terrible privations incurred by keeping body and soul together in a devastated land. As the economic vitality was restored and people became wealthy during the 1980s, the old hubris seemed to return in the form of an orgiastic spending spree on trophy real estate icons in America and Europe that reaffirmed for many Japanese their rightful place in the First Rank of nations. As a result of the inevitable deflation of its hyper-inflated asset values, Japan now wallows in intractable recession… and one can only wonder whether the Japanese will ever overcome whatever impels them to imperial overreach.

Economy/Manufacturing

While their educational system continues to hobble creativity, and their trillion-dollar bad debt albatross continues to weigh heavily on their economy, the Japanese compensate with their incredible ingenuity for adding value and improving upon existing systems. With their recent breakthroughs in manufacturing systems (pok-a-yoke, 5S, and kaizen), we need to remind ourselves that whenever we’ve failed to take the Japanese seriously—whether with respect to their military capabilities or industrial resourcefulness–we’ve been surprised.

Economy/Non-Tariff Barriers

Trade barriers are anathema to the global economy. While tariffs are useful in protecting a county’s domestic economy, trade relations suffer from them. Japan has been successful with its trade despite its obduracy in limiting its domestic market for foreign competition, but like will always attract like. As the U.S. has added trade barriers of its own with the steel industry, the interconnected nature of the world market has become more apparent.

Economy/Pollution

I think many if not most Westerners would be greatly surprised–and perhaps appalled—at how Japan’s environment and classical culture have been sacrificed to Japan Inc.’s economic imperative—resulting in what is increasingly a polluted and dreary cemented-over landscape of pointless monuments and brutalized nature. Whatever happened to the sense of harmony with nature that once graced Japan’s artistic tradition, and transformed it into something ugly beyond words? The traditional aesthetic began to disappear after the Second World War, and has since been replaced with a consuming passion for post-modern industrial squalor and gigantism that seems to renounce the classic aesthetic. If it can be said that art reflects the popular mood, then something has happened in modern Japan to make the Japanese feel very badly about themselves. Is it the futility of wealth that endows the Japanese with hitherto unimaginable creature comforts, yet denies them the opportunity for self-expression and individual value fulfillment? Are the Japanese lost in a twilight zone, without an identity that fits either the Western or traditional Asian model? Why do they make themselves so ugly if they do not believe themselves to be ugly?

Economy/Postal Service Reform

The postal privatization plan reminds me of the Big Bang that was supposed to happen about five years ago, whereby Japan’s banks would be forced to conform to Western accounting standards, and basically fess up to a mess of bad debt. Somehow, nothing much seems to have come of it, and I wonder how much of the reforms that had been mandated got swept under the rug or into the closet (with all the other skeletons).

Economy/Ramen

The Japanese genius for taking a consumer mainstay (like dried pasta) to an altogether different level in the form of ramen reminds us that reinvention can be as revolutionary as invention itself.

Economy/Recovery

A society’s economy is the creature of its worldview and the extent to which it embraces free trade and participation in global alliances. In the wake of the Pacific War, the values of Japanese society were conditioned by the terrible privations incurred by keeping body and soul together in a devastated land. Then, as Japan was largely forgiven its sins of war and re-accepted into the global community, economic vitality was restored and people became wealthy during the 1980s; soon, the old hubris seemed to return in the form of an orgiastic spending spree on trophy real estate icons in America and Europe that reaffirmed for many Japanese their rightful place in the First Rank of nations. As a result of the inevitable deflation of its hyper-inflated asset values that followed, Japan has wallowed in intractable economic malaise for the past 20 years, and I sense that the prospects for Japan’s economy returning to lasting prosperity may depend upon its willingness to conduct itself as a global leader, rather than as a geopolitical nullity.

Economy/Resource Usage

America and Japan, whose populations consume more than half the world’s resources, have super-sized themselves at the expense of public health, the environment, and the equity of global economic relations. The Suez Canal, like the Panama Canal, is in danger of being made obsolete by the new generation of supertankers that can no longer squeeze through its narrow strictures; same thing with the new generation of mega-jumbo jets on the drawing board that will require much longer runways. With developments like these, one can sense that we’re at the end of our tether: diminishing resources of oil and other commodities coupled with the burgeoning potential of Internet virtuality and nanotechnology would suggest that the mindset of “more and bigger are better” will give way to making better use of “fewer and smaller.” The breakthroughs in nanotechnology show that the domain of the infinitely small is no less capacious (and pregnant with potential) than the domain of the infinitely large. When one reads, for example, of a new generation of semiconductors based on bacteria, and of the potential of internet virtuality to dispense with the need for travel (and its attendant energy drain), it seems clear that with an ever-burgeoning population making ever greater demands on ever-dwindling resources, it’s high time that we changed our thinking. With technology, the less intrusive, the better, and I imagine that future civilizations may well come to de-emphasize technology to the point where life again resembles the simplicity of certain ancient (and long forgotten) civilizations that, for all we know, may have gone through all of this before.

Economy/Retailing

Japan’s economy is perhaps the most relationship-driven in the world, and the pervasive skein of consensus, relationships, and mutual interests that govern its wholesale distribution and retail industries has long enabled it to resist the intrusion of big-box retailers. It hardly seems possible that an elephant like Wal-Mart could ingratiate itself into this china shop without occasioning enormous disruption to the Old Boy Network. But where there’s a mystery, the answer is usually to be found lurking on the bottom line—the one with the dollar (or yen) sign next to it.

Economy/Robots

I’m certain that the Japanese will positively exceed themselves and become the world standard bearer in robotics—the perfect marriage of their passions for consumer electronics and social rigor mortis!

Economy/Telecommunications

While their educational system continues to hobble creativity, and their trillion-dollar bad debt albatross continues to weigh heavily on their economy, the Japanese compensate with their incredible ingenuity for adding value and improving upon existing systems. With their ongoing breakthroughs in mobile telephony, we need to remind ourselves that whenever the world has failed to take the Japanese seriously—whether with respect to their military capabilities or industrial resourcefulness—it’s been surprised.

Economy/Tokyo

Tokyo shows us both the limits—in terms of massive congestion and hyper-pricey lifestyle–and the possibilities—a gigantic city that runs as well as it does–of 21st-century urban habitation. Someday most of us inhabit a similarly congested world, and I expect that the Japanese will have long since pioneered solutions to the challenges of modern urban living that will offer alternatives to the American mindset that more of everything is better.

Economy/Trade War

What the U.S. views as unfair trade relations, Japan sees as business as usual. The Japanese do not question or see any conflict of interest in their practice of corporate corruption in politics. Japan’s is the most relationship-drive economy on earth, with rules that are entirely different from the dictates of the bottom line that order business relationships in the West. On the other hand, those Western companies that have taken the time and made the effort to build relationships in Japan often find that the system works as much for them and it would have worked against them otherwise.

Economy/Transportation

Japan shows us both the limits—massive traffic congestion and hyper-pricey gasoline–and the possibilities—bullet trains that run quietly, quickly, and on time–of 21st-century transport. Someday we’ll all inhabit a similarly congested world, and I expect that the Japanese will have long since pioneered solutions to the challenges of modern urban living that will offer alternatives to the American mindset that more of everything is better.

Economy/Yakuza

The Japanese mafia is deeply rooted in the business and political communities. Japan remains the most relationship-driven society on earth, where statute and ordinance count for little against the dicta of the old boy network, and where personal relationships remain so susceptible to the solvent of money, power, privilege, and prestige.

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