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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (March 31, 2004)


Jacob Kovalio (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada)

2003-4 is the 150th anniversary of Japan's astounding modern national journey from feudal backwater on the remote northwestern edges of the Pacific Ocean to an impressive number of Asian firsts and global achievements: constitution-based monarchy, major industrial power, major military power, only colonial power, postwar global economic, technological, trading, foreign aid, cultural and longevity leader, etc. Japan practically rejoined the world in February 1854, with the signing of a friendship and trade treaty with the United States, ending 215 years of sakoku under the Tokugawa shogunate. What is impressive about Japan's national development since then, is not only its unprecedented speed, scale and success, but even more its capacity for superlative achievement with meager material assets.

Each nation is exceptional in its own right. Japan's exceptionalism is strikingly evident in the quality of its modern evolution: a nation the size of France, but with a population 50% larger, 85% mountains, almost 70% forests, whose only large natural resources are earthquakes and volcanoes, is nonetheless an entrenched global economic powerhouse. This reality illustrates the pivotal importance of the cultural element in development. The black-haired, clean-shaven American Commodore M.C. Perry - depicted by the then worried Japanese as a komojin (red haired barbarian) - who took his "Black Ships" to Japan in 1853-4, unintentionally became the nakodo between the world and Japan. One is impressed by the accuracy of Perry's assessment of the Japanese people as early as 1856: "Their curiosity to learn the results of the material progress of other peoples and their readiness to adapt them to their own uses, would soon, under the less exclusive policy of government which isolates them from the world raise them to a level with the most favored countries, (making them) powerful competitors in the race for mechanical success in the future."

In 1918, in his Fifty Years of New Japan, Okuma Shigenobu, democrat, nationalistic statesman and educator, confidently observed: "Japan's general progress during the short space of half a century (since 1868) has been so swift that it presents a spectacle rare in the history of the world." Nonetheless, and most importantly, "the susceptibility of the Japanese to the influences of foreign civilization (is coupled with) a strong retentive power which enables Japan to preserve and retain all that is good in and about herself. For twenty centuries the nation has drunk freely from the civilizations of Korea, China and India. The Japanese have then welcomed Occidental civilization while preserving their Oriental civilization." (italics added)

Indeed, Japan's exceptionalism also includes cultural open mindedness, adaptability (stemming from intellectual curiosity) mixed with strong appreciation for its own traditions. Whatever changes Japanese culture inevitably underwent since 1945, should not have driven Mishima Yukio into shinigurui, to protest what he misinterpreted as Japan losing its cultural identity, that not only ended his life, but prematurely robbed his nation and the human family of his genius.

The historical absence of dominant individual political leadership, the central role of the bureaucracy in state and society and the conservative nature of its mainstream politics are also core elements of Japan's exceptionalism. The Meiji revolution was as far reaching as those that resulted in the formation of modern Germany, Italy or China. And yet, no Bismarck - notwithstanding Okubo Toshimichi's nickname - Cavour or Mao Zedong, appeared in Japan. The writer, politician and bureaucrat Sakaiya Taichi, in his Twelve Men Who Made Japan (Nihon o tsukutta 12nin, 2001) proposes the following "team" of influential personalities for the early modern and post-kurofune era: Ishida Baigan, Okubo Toshimichi, Shibusawa Eiichi, Douglas MacArthur, Ikeda Hayato and Matsushta Konosuke (note). Ishida Baigan was the most prominent representative of sekimon shingaku ideology which, based on a synthesis of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism, aimed at counteracting the bushi-centered thinking of Ogyu Sorai and others, who had pushed anti-merchant views so relentlessly that quite a few of them literally destroyed their businesses - the uchi kowashi movement. Shingaku preached the idea of the well-educated and moral merchant class benefiting society at large. Sakaiya's other five personalities are much better known: Okubo - the father of Japan's modern bureaucratic system - Shibusawa - the founder of Nihonteki shihonshugi - MacArthur - for, in Sakaya's words, "trying to build an ideal America in Japan," Ikeda - for launching Japan's postwar economic take-off - and Matsushta - the founder of Japanese management philosophy.

In the past 150 years, Japan has reinvented itself with enormous success, at least twice: after 1868 and after 1945 .The traumatic haisen in the Pacific War left scars which have not healed completely. Yet, having become a beacon of peace and prosperity and a model to the world in many respects, should have helped Japanese society to fully come to terms with the Dark Valley when it enthusiastically pursued expansionism. But this has happened only partially, because the appropriate leadership - political and intellectual- has not come along. Among regrettable symptoms in this context is the tendency among ultranationalistic historians and writers to "divide" the Pacific War into the confrontation with the West - considered a 'defensive' war - and that with fellow Asians - seen as an unjust war.

Japan's postwar democracy has had its harsh critics; some have gone as far as stating that it actually does not exist, although its tradition goes back to the early 1920s. The main reason for this unfair judgment has been the dominant longevity of the Liberal Democratic Party in politics. Almost half a century since it came to power, it can be said, however, that the LDP, in the way it functions is the most "Japanese" of Japan's parties, which accounts for much of its success, at the ballot box and beyond. Japan's stellar postwar achievements (as well as scandals) have occurred during the LDP's watch. In foreign policy the American market and security "umbrella" have been vital to Japan and yet- unlike the opinions of some and as the frequent masatsu amply suggest- Tokyo is never Washington's meek ally. It supports American positions when it suits Japanese interests or when it finds it convenient to blame gaiatsu for unpleasant decisions.

In Asia Pacific the twentieth century may be seen as a Japanese century, politically and militarily until 1945, economically and technologically since 1960. What has Japan given Asia - and the world - in non-material terms? First, a very long tradition of coping successfully with foreign cultural challenges. Wakon kansai was followed by wakon yosai, the country maintaining its distinct identity in both cases. In retrospect, with the possible exceptions of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan is not an easy model to duplicate. As for leadership expectations, those were only partly answered, ideologically, in the form of Asianism between 1895-1931. For the subsequent 15 years, Japan declared itself the leader of East Asia, then of all of Asia and even alluded to global political ambitions through hakko ichiu. In the 1980s, phrases like Nipponka no jidai (the age of Japanization) or sekai no moderu toshte no Nippon (Japan as a model to the world) were quite pervasive without becoming an actual movement. Postwar Asianism and the Look East call by Mahathir bin Mohamad were the only allusions to Japanese political leadership, tainted by the bigotry and racism of Mahathirism. The Japan That Can Say No, The Voice of Asia are reminders of intellectual and political crudeness from which Japan's mainstream did not manage to distance itself .The only sensible proposition of that era came from sociologist and writer Yamazaki Masakazu who in 1983, in his Can Japan Become a Model for the World ? (Nippon ga sekai no moderu ni nareruka?) suggested a merger between "Japan's wa and that of the world."

The great postwar appeal of various forms of Japanese popular culture - from anime and karaoke to comics, films, music, martial arts, fashion and computer games - has given the nation top spot in GNC ( Gross National Cool) not only in Asia Pacific, but increasingly, in other regions of the world as well . Its cultural attractiveness, fascinating traditional arts and crafts, genuine postwar pacifism, dominant role in global ODA, consumer technology, and major development projects like TICAD, if reinforced by spiritual values (without the crass hatemongering of the Mahathir-Ishihara "team" or the ultranationalistic infantility of popular public opinion makers like Kobayashi Yoshinori), can enhance dramatically Japan's international clout. In straight political terms, the present sought-after permanent membership on the UN Security Council would enhance Japan's already very significant global relevance. Regional leadership in the postwar era, however, is a delicate proposition when considering the expected Chinese and Korean reactions due to historical reasons but also to Beijing's own ambitions. The very successful alliance with the US will probably undergo significant changes in the context of the full withdrawal of American troops from Japan, without ending ANPO.

Ezra Vogel's Japan as Number One was a runaway bestseller in Japan in 1979. Twenty-five years later, Japan is struggling to come out of its deepest economic crisis since the end of the Pacific War. Now, Japan is being written off by many of the same "experts" who not very long ago saw it as the embodiment of invincible industrial might and the world's first post-industrial society. Japan belongs in the category of great nations, which, like the United States, China, even France, do not collapse permanently, but recover after downturns. In fact, Japan's resiliency in coping with its recent unprecedented crisis is an indication of its fundamental strength.

A genuinely democratic society, by its very nature, constantly holds a mirror to its national face searching for ways and means to improve itself. In 1974, with his country struggling with the impact of the first oil shock, Matsushta Konosuke published How can collapsing Japan be saved? (Kuzurete yuku Nippon o doo sukuu ka?) in which he urged the social and intellectual reconstruction of the nation. He criticized scathingly Japan's intellectuals and educational system, particularly the lack of both substantive and spiritual relevance of institutions of higher learning, calling for nothing less than the closing down of half of Japan's universities, beginning with Tokyo University.

I am a professional Orientalist. 2003 was the 25th anniversary of the publication of Edward W. Said's Orientalism, a meisaku of sorts. Armed with blunt ethnocentrism reinforced by the ignorant arrogance of the effendi class in his ancestral society, from which he was unable to free himself and help it develop, even after 50 years of intellectual freedom in the West which he grossly abused - and cleverly taking advantage of the scourge of political correctness, Said mangled history shamelessly in his book : "Islam excepted, the Orient for Europe was until the 19th century a domain with a continuous history of unchallenged Western dominance. This is patently true of the British experience in India, the Portuguese experience in the East Indies, China and Japan. (except for) the occasional native intransigence to disturb the idyll, as when in 1638-39. Japanese Christians threw the Portuguese out of the area." (italics added) The late Columbia University English lit prof turned propagandist for Nasserite pan-Arabism aiming at the destruction of Western democracy, has had a large support base in Japan, particularly in universities, among fellow practitioners of "three anti" ism - anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism, anti-"Zionism"- which have now become one. Prominent saidists among the nationalistic left in Japan are Itagaki Yuzo, co-translator of Orientalism, retired Todai professor of Middle East studies, former president of JAMES (Japan Association of Middle East Studies) and advisor to Lower House Speaker Kono Yohei, Professor Usuki Akira of the National Demographic Museum and Area Studies Center in Osaka, Professor Nishitani Osamu of the Tokyo University of Foreign Languages, self-styled Middle East specialist Kurita Yoshiko, etc. On the nationalistic right the Said's "Orientalism" has been employed among others by Professor Ushimura Kei in his Beyond the 'Judgment of Civilization'." Said's hatefully ignorant definition of Orientalism as " a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient," is employed by Ushimura in order to delegitimize the postwar Tokyo trials as " the conviction of vanquished Japan by the victorious Allies." (italics added) Culturally, Japan, if anything, is the ultimate proof of the utter falseness of Said's "Orientalism." As are China, India, Thailand, Burma, Afghanistan, in the real world, the great success of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, in recent decades has come as a direct result of implementing versions of market economy and democracy, in that order, while maintaining their thriving identities. China and India, more recently, have encountered the same degree of success, the moment they abandoned the self-defeating fallacy of looking everywhere else except in their own backyard, for the reasons of their national decrepitude. Japan had shown the way for over a century.

Orientalism the book is an obscurantist tirade against area studies, an ode to ignorance. It is an inexcusable diatribe against the tradition of research on the Middle East and area studies in general (in the West and elsewhere) a piece of vulgar anti-Western propaganda, designed to make more palatable the understandably disturbing reality of modern Arab intellectual stagnation on its own turf (not in the diaspora) by blaming it on the West. Even the briefest look at the way the study of Japan - and that of other cultures - is pursued by the overwhelming majority of professional Orientalists, our assiduous, sincere, respectful, efforts to study and understand those traditions - places saidism in the corner of shame it deserves, as the crude anti-intellectual crusade (or jihad) devised to blame others for the self-induced ignorance of his ancestral culture, and others like it. Still, saidism or saidskyism - when adding the contributions of A. Noam Chomsky, Said's "three anti" ideological siamese twin - becomes potentially damaging guff when promoted by Japanese intellectual, academics and public opinion makers who should know better. Saidskyism's impact - regrettable in Japan and other developed nations- is downright egregious in most though not all Arab, Muslim and African societies, because it promotes the opposite of what they desperately need: self reflection as a precondition for self improvement. This situation brings to mind, Matsushta Konosuke's call of thirty years ago for serious educational and intellectual reform, in Japan (and beyond.)

(Note: the name Matsushta is spelled without an "i" since it is closest to the original Japanese.)

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