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Dealing With Japan

For leftists in particular, there are compelling reasons for learning from Japan.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #7, September 1993

Americans, with their scant few centuries of history, have never experienced the transition from one major historical period to another. They emerged as the premier world power only decades ago, toward the end of the modern era. That Japan, an Oriental country, is about to supplant them in some major fields is what annoys the Americans so much.
— from the Japanese bestseller The Japan That Can Say No, by Shintaro Ishihara
So that's how the Japanese see it?
They see billions and billions of their dollars, kohai. Invested in a country that's in deep trouble. That's filled with strange individualistic people who talk constantly. Who confront each other constantly. Who argue all the time. People who aren't well educated, who don't know much about the world, who get their information from television. People who don't work very hard, who tolerate violence and drug use, and who don't seem to object to it. The Japanese have billions of dollars in this peculiar land and they would like a decent return on their investment. And even though the American economy is collapsing — it will soon be third in the world after Japan and Europe — it's still important to try and hold it together. Which is all they're trying to do.
'That's it?' I said. 'They're just doing the good work of saving America?'
'Somebody needs to do it,' Connor said.
— from the American bestseller Rising Sun, by Michael Crichton

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me about the Japanese is the way they have historically responded to the realities of American economic, military and cultural power. When Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 with four warships, on a mission to open Japan to commercial and diplomatic relations with the United States, Japan had been completely closed to foreigners for some 200 years, and social change was almost unknown thanks to a willingness to put to death anyone who threatened the status quo. But when forced for the first time in so long to confront a superior military force, the Japanese ruling class said, in effect, 'Well, it's either commit national suicide by trying to stop them, or accept that they have the edge and learn everything we can about their advantages, so that we can copy them and do even better in our own way.' This was one of those rare moments — they do happen sometimes — when the interests of a ruling class were the same as those of the people they ruled. And at the end of World War II, forced into submission again by U.S. power, the Japanese took the same practical approach: the Americans beat us, so we must have something to learn from them, and thus the Japanese went along with the Occupation-imposed radical reorganization of their society's institutions. The success of their approach is now pretty obvious.

The Japanese have gone in little more than a century from being an isolated feudal enclave to becoming the world's second largest economy and winner of the prize for Nation Most Likely To Rule The World In The Twenty-first Century. Given America's own track record since World War II, it's no wonder that Americans are sullen and resentful toward the Japanese, as Shintaro Ishihara (an influential figure in Japan's long-ruling though now deposed Liberal Democratic Party) states in the quote that we began with. There has consequently been a steady stream of books, articles and TV-news experts telling Americans how we have lost our edge and become a lazy, unproductive society too interested in short-term gains at the expense of long-term growth and security (a view many Japanese share); and also how the Japanese have used 'unfair' trading practices and the advantages of a rigidly conformist and nationalist culture to steal the American economy away from us. As usual when there are such radically contradictory 'explanations' circulating in society, there is at least some degree of truth in both positions.

In accord with the sensationalist rhetoric that has surrounded the issue, let us call these positions 'America-bashing' versus 'Japan- bashing.' I opened this essay with a quote from Crichton's best- selling novel Rising Sun because the book has been widely received as an exercise in heavy-handed Japan-bashing, particularly among the Japanese and Japanese-Americans — which is no surprise — but also by leftists and other multiculturally-oriented progressive types. The controversy erupted anew this summer with the release of Philip Kaufman's movie version of Crichton's novel, which was greeted with scattered protests by Asian-American groups who feared that its 'negative and stereotypical' or even 'racist' depictions of the Japanese would spawn a wave of hate crimes against Asian- Americans. The anticipated violence has thus far failed to happen.

The irony of the fuss and bother made about Rising Sun, as the above quote from the novel should suggest, is that while it is certainly open to charges of 'Japan-bashing,' it would be just as fair, if not more so, to call both the novel and the film examples of 'America-bashing.' Indeed, my own reading of the novel is that it subjects both Japanese and Americans not so much to harsh criticism but to fair description, and that the Americans finally come off worse, simply because no matter what else one can say about the Japanese, fair or unfair, they are doing a lot better economically and socially than Americans are. As author Crichton writes in the novel's afterword, 'It is absurd to blame Japan for successful behavior, or to suggest that they slow down. The Japanese consider such American reactions childish whining, and they are right. It is more appropriate for the United States to wake up, see Japan clearly, and to act realistically.' That means big changes for Americans, Crichton points out, 'but it is inevitably the task of the weaker partner to adjust to the demands of a relationship. And the United States is now without question the weaker partner in any economic discussion with Japan.'

This is Japan-bashing? — to insist on the strength and superiority of the Japanese national economy? What's going on here? The Japanese themselves are widely acknowledged to be more than a little paranoid about how foreigners perceive them, a result of the peculiarities of their history and culture; some Japanese are almost eager for signs that Americans hate them. And we can understand why Japanese-Americans along with other Asian- Americans would be fearful that many of their fellow citizens would fail to distinguish them from Japanese nationals and misdirect their own frustration and fear because of racist attitudes: it has happened before. So that leaves us with one other group that has responded to Rising Sun as a Japan-bashing, racist, or otherwise 'politically incorrect' text, namely middle-class leftists and progressives.

Dealing with Japan poses particular problems for leftists because of the assumptions underlying the left's current investment in multiculturalism as its dominant ideology. Chief among these is the belief that non-white peoples, as a rule, are always to be seen as exploited and victimized in relation to white people (especially white men, whom leftists have come to see, in an almost knee-jerk way, as the source of all evil on the planet). There is also the related tendency of American leftists to regard every culture and identity which is not white and/or American as somehow better and more 'authentic' than their own, especially the cultures and identities of exploited and oppressed peoples, simply because they are different from their own. And I have often noticed that the zeal with which many American leftists (especially those from the middle and upper classes) righteously trash their own nation for its numerous and familiar failings is matched only by their equally righteous apologies for the failings of other nations and peoples, so dazzled are they by their exotic (and thus 'authentic') differences, especially those of non-Western cultures.

For multicultural leftists, then, Japan must be disturbing because it is simultaneously a non-white nation which was subjected to American imperialist domination, while at the same time it is a non-white nation with its own legacy of brutal colonial and imperialist expansions, and which has, despite its 'victimization' at the hands of U.S. imperialism, managed to become an economic as well as, increasingly, a political superpower.

Perhaps the most annoying and dangerous consequence of the multicultural left's celebration of diversity and difference is that it insists so much on the differences that it refuses to see the equally real similarities. In the case of the Japanese, as I shall now try quickly to demonstrate, the resemblances to Americans are so strong, politically speaking, as to trivialize the differences, which in any case usually boil down to matters of culture and sensibility, like sushi versus hamburgers, or the elegance of Japanese minimalism versus the crudeness of American spectacularism.

First there is the fact that both America and Japan have histories that include military and economic imperialist domination. The United States' record of atrocities, aggressions and dominations is well-known to leftists and progressives, since it is in a deep sense their reason for being. But while the Japanese became victims of that history after the U.S. dropped a couple of atomic bombs on their homeland, let's recall what they were doing before that: colonizing other nations, just like white Europeans and Americans. The new prime minister of Japan, Morihiro Hosokawa, made news recently with a speech to the Japanese Diet (i.e., parliament) in which he apologized to Japan's Asian neighbors 'for the fact that past Japanese actions, including aggression and colonial rule, caused unbearable suffering for so many people' (reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 1993). Japan has also recently begun to acknowledge its use of 'comfort women' from the occupied Asian countries, women enslaved into prostitution for the pleasure of the Japanese army. And according to news reports, evidence has been found to support allegations that the Japanese army used prisoners in China during World War II for biological warfare experiments. So much for fantasies (paranoid or utopian) of Asian solidarity.

Thus the Japanese, like Americans, have a shameful history of imperialist aggression which they promise will never happen again. Now let's consider that favorite charge made by multicultural leftists against white Americans: white people are racists. In his book The Japan That Can Say No, quoted at the beginning, Shintaro Ishihara labels one of his chapters 'Racial Prejudice: The Root Cause of Japan- Bashing.' Americans, he writes, are racially prejudiced against the Japanese, and this is why we criticize them — even if sometimes the criticisms are also valid. He admits to 'prejudice' on the part of many Japanese, though not 'racism' (a familiar move in American multicultural debates). However, Ishihara says that 'American racism stems from pride in cultural superiority.' Later in the book he says that, in contrast to underdeveloped China, 'Japan's superior cultural ethos enabled us to modernize successfully.' Now, if pride in cultural superiority leads to racism, then this last statement can only be taken as a confession of Japanese racism.

In fact, there is ample evidence that the Japanese as a people are both no more and no less racist than white Americans. It is still considered shameful and unacceptable among many Japanese to marry a Korean, for example. The point I wish to make is that while American leftists, of any race, are generally gleeful in their condemnation of the racism of white Americans, they are nervous and reluctant to admit and condemn the same attitudes among the Japanese, because the Japanese are not white, and conventional wisdom among leftists is that white folks are racists, and non-white folks victims of that racism. There is also fear particularly among white leftists that saying anything critical of non-white peoples, especially to charge them with racism, will make oneself appear racist.

One of the most salutory effects of Japanese global power is that it will put an end to the American multicultural left's tendency to associate the capacity for political, economic and cultural domination almost exclusively with white people. If humanity as a whole is lucky, leftists will begin to realize that it is the very idea of racial solidarity at all that produces racist attitudes, among people of any color. Of course, racial solidarity is a necessary survival strategy when people are being systematically victimized because of their race, but it stretches credibility to see Japan, the world's second-largest economy, with (as Crichton notes) the highest level of employment, the highest level of literacy, and the smallest gap between rich and poor, as a victimized people, even if they aren't white.

Indeed, as all the predictions about the coming Japanese Century would indicate, Japan is poised to become the next America in terms of global power and influence. One thing you notice pretty quickly when you read five or six books about Japan is that everyone says that 'everyone says' that, economically and politically, Japan resembles nothing so much as America in the 1950s. For example, in his book The Work of Nations, economist Robert Reich (Clinton's Secretary of Labor) notes that in the 1960s Europeans were 'bashing' America 'in almost the very words some American commentators would employ two decades later to describe the Japanese challenge.' The Europeans claimed that American economic practices were unfair because of strategic collusion between corporations and the national government — exactly the same charges being directed today against Japan.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that there are no differences between Japan and the United States. I merely wish to point out that they are both global capitalist superpowers with histories of colonialist aggression and a tendency to racist attitudes. And also that there is a lesson here for the American multicultural left, which is that, as Annalee Newitz pointed out in 'Alien Abductions and the End of White People' (Bad Subjects, May 1993), there is no necessary and essential link between imperialist power and race, only a historical one. And the historical connection between white people and the global ruling class appears, finally, to be coming to an end. The multicultural nature of the world's victims of oppression is increasingly being matched by the 'diversity' of its oppressors.

And this is potentially a great step forward on our way to becoming a single human race, as opposed to the collection of pre- human fragments we are now stuck with in the form of 'racial identities.' However, just as the success of Japan poses a challenge to the United States in economic terms, it also poses a challenge to the American left and the assumptions underlying its investment in multiculturalism and the politics of victimized non-white identities. And here I want to return to the point made earlier about the 'progressive' tendency to fetishize the exotic cultural differences of non-Western (that is, non-white) peoples.

The Japanese, like many non-white peoples, are often full participants in this fetishization of their special 'differences.' There is a whole body of Japanese thinking (nihonjinron) which insists on their uniqueness, that the Japanese digestive tract is more sensitive (so they can't digest foreign beef), that Japanese bees are more communal than non-Japanese bees, and that in all sorts of ways 'it's a Japanese thing, outsiders can't understand.' When white people start talking such nonsense, they are declaimed as racists by the multicultural left. However, when non-white peoples talk similarly, the response often seems to be an awkward dismissal, on the grounds that this is just another one of their quaint and forgivable cultural peculiarities. So, for example, the brutal misogyny of, say, Arab culture can be rationalized as our own misperceptions of their cultural differences: 'They don't see it as sexism and misogyny, not even the women; it's just their culture.' Or it becomes someone else's fault, as in the myth that all non-white peoples somehow lived together in peace and communal solidarity until white people colonized them and turned them into versions of their own nasty selves.

This is not to excuse the reality of white racism; rather, the point is to condemn racialized thinking in all its forms, perhaps especially among non-white peoples, who after all should know better, so many of them having been victims of it at the hands of white people. And the point here is also to show that the left cannot adequately deal with Japan as a global capitalist superpower until it first deals with its own habit of romantically fetishizing the fact of cultural difference. There is something rather patronizing in seeing other cultures as 'exotic' in any case: they are, after all, not exotic to themselves. As Jonathan Rauch writes in his book The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan, 'Mexico is different. Israel is different. Arkansas is different. Japan is different. And that's the whole story. Japan is, alas and thank God, just another ordinary different place, peopled with all the familiar types.'

So how should we be dealing with Japan? In exactly the same way that they have dealt with the United States. We should stop playing the role of victim, and start accepting that since they're obviously doing better than us, we have something to learn from them. And the multicultural left, with its various constituencies of oppressed and victimized identities, can particularly benefit from the Japanese lesson that selective assimilation to 'white' or 'Western' cultural values and practices does not have to mean selling out or betraying one's 'essential' identity. The Japanese realized that cultural purity assures a destiny of domination, exploitation and marginality; they took responsibility for their own weaknesses and, very practically and efficiently, set out to remedy them. The Japanese chose to adapt, to 'sell out,' in order to achieve autonomy; yet they do not see themselves as any less 'Japanese' for having done so.

It is in the interests of all people in the United States to restore health to our economy, since hard times and job scarcity turn muliticultural 'diversity' into violent competition between identity groups, each wishing to assure that 'its own people' are taken care of. And if American society, either in its capitalism or its multiculturalism, is incapable of learning the needed lessons from the Japanese, then I'm frankly all in favor of letting the Japanese buy up our country and dominate us economically. Given their own successes, they'll probably do a better job as a ruling class than the one we've got now. It may well be that the fortunes of Americans as human beings will be better served in the long run if we are forced into a submissive relation to the Japanese. There may well be reasons why a 'Japanization' of America along the lines of the 'Americanization' of Japan won't work, but we won't know unless we try, and Americans of any political orientation decline this challenge at the risk of themselves and their fellow Americans, as well as the future generations to come.

And for leftists in particular, there is one other compelling reason for learning from Japan. If Japan is the future of global capitalism (as Britain and the U.S. are its past and present), then so too must Japan be the future of whatever better system might be made from the conditions capitalism creates. In other words, the rising sun of Japan's capitalist hegemony might also be seen as the hopeful dawning, at long last, of a new day for the dream of socialism.

Joe Sartelle is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley, writing his dissertation on Stephen King. He is also Chief of Operations for Bad Subjects.

Copyright © Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.