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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 26, 2002)

The Global Age Requires New Japan Comparisons

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the strong economic ties between Japan and the United States naturally generated a great deal of mutual interest between the two peoples. The desire to know something about the mysterious other spawned a vast quantity of comparative research. This was a predictable consequence of the various cultural, economic and scientific exchanges between the two countries. As the decades ebbed away, a U.S.-Japan comparison gradually became the standard benchmark around which studies of Japan were framed. Today this formula is still dominant in both countries, but in the new global age it is looking decidedly antiquated.

As Japan's economic strength grew in the sixties, the rest of the world also became curious about the land and its people. When non-American scholars started to research Japan, most accepted the already established parameters of the U.S.-Japan paradigm. At the time, it provided a useful basis for beginning an analysis of Japan. Thus, the rest of the industrialized world became familiar with Japan largely through a looking-glass which had been crafted by postwar American researchers and journalists.

A consequence of this rather rigid bipolar conceptual framework was to create the impression that the country was atypical in many fundamental areas, ranging from company structures to social welfare policy. Considering the great fundamental differences between the two countries, such conclusions were unavoidable. Japan itself seemed to relish its status as a unique and mysterious society, developing an entire literary genre devoted to uniqueness theories about itself.

For a time, this rather cozy arrangement worked relatively well, but during the eighties the two-pronged configuration started to become an increasingly cumbersome mechanism for comprehending Japan. By the nineties, most industrially advanced countries outside the America-Japan axis were finding it increasingly obsolete. Nevertheless, despite all the drawbacks, the strong bonds between the two nations provided the necessary cohesive force to hold the old framework in place. Meanwhile, there were a growing number of European iconoclasts looking at Japan with new perspectives.

Japan was also beginning to feel disenchanted with the simplistic two-nation model. Some Japanese researchers saw the shared historical and strong cultural affinities between China, Korea and other Asian countries as the basis for creating more a balanced comparison with Japan. Convincing arguments were put forward for constructing an entirely new East Asian socio-economic theory. However, Japan's status as one of the most industrially advanced nations in the world makes meaningful social, economic and political comparisons difficult with other less developed Asian states. This has taken some Japanese thinkers back full-circle to the still popular idea that Japan is a unique society in the modern world. However, as research becomes ever more global, increasingly meaningful economic, political and social comparisons are being made between Japan and European countries.

Comparative research projects within the European Union are now reaching new heights of excellence, offering a new rich source for constructing comprehensive comparisons with Japan. While Europe has none of the underlying Confucian undercurrents of neighbouring Asian countries, it does offer an extremely wide variety of countries from which to draw enlightening comparisons. In recent years, quite a fair amount of attention has been focused on Southern European nations, especially Italy and Spain. These countries offer a wide range of socio-economic similarities with Japan. For example, a number of recent books and research papers have been published comparing Japanese and Italian political institutions. These comparisons can be extremely insightful, helping observers to better understand the dynamics of Japanese politics. They certainly prove that Japanese political structures are not unique as the old U.S.-Japan paradigm indicates.*

The Japanese family provides another illustration of the similarities with Southern Europe, fitting in very well with family structures found in many of those countries. Since the family is the basic unit of society, its structure strongly influences broader socio-economic trends. Like Japanese families, Italian and Spanish ones are often characterized as being traditional with close kinship ties. Furthermore, social welfare policy as well as the legal obligations of Japanese family members to each other are strikingly similar to those found in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece.

Comparisons with EU countries from either a societal or economic perspective can offer valuable new insights into understanding the dynamics of how Japan functions as a modern state. Since all countries are unique unto themselves, no Japan comparisons can ever be a perfect match. However, the exceptionally wide range of EU data offers a refreshing new basis for re-evaluating Japan in the new global era. While the U.S.-Japan relationship will probably remain strong in the future, now is the time to retire the inadequate two-country comparative model. The gravitational attraction of the old paradigm remains powerful, but with some effort escape velocity is attainable. If a meaningful and healthy bilateral understanding is to be maintained, both countries must cast out the old icons. Americans will have to accept that Japan is not such an unfathomable nation and the Japanese that they are not such a unique people. This will be a difficult, but an ultimately rewarding, challenge to both countries. In the global economic age, we need to see Japan with global economic eyes.


* NBR'S JAPAN FORUM (POL) Japan and Italy
Richard J. Samuels, Thursday 22 August 2002

Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum (NBR'S Japan Forum)

Economic, political and social comparisons between Japan and European countries formed a major topic of discussion on the Japan-US Discussion Forum at the end of August 2002. To read the many insightful contributions use the forum search engine below inputting the following keywords and phrases:
Japanese and European Economies
Japanese and Western Societies: family structure
Japanese Politics: comparative

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