The Enigma of Japanese Power

It rained a lot yesterday. I’ve been busy. Lying on the tatami reading for the day seemed like a good idea… at the time.

Karel Van Wolferen’s view of Japan is worth reading. It’s highly critical, well informed, and suitably cynical. His general thesis, that Japanese society is a extremely artificial and managed affair, is pretty close to the truth as i’ve seen and experienced it. There were many points during the book which caused me to flashback to situations that i found myself in while dealing with japanese companies… knowing what i know now, i probably would have given up much earlier, or had severely lower expectations about what was possible.

It seems to me that the critical period in modern japanese history, the post-war occupation, is still shaping a lot of what happens in government today. The similar period in Germany history, where after the Nürnburg Trials, which did not convict many Nazi officials, lead the German people to hold their own trials to bring to justice those who had perhaps not committed war crimes, but had committed crimes against the German people, has no analog in Japan. The SCAP did purge many of the leaders of the Kwangtung Army, but then released them back into society to fight their common enemy: communism. The experiences of these administrators in manchuria, building a new industrial base, were then applied to regeneration of Japan. Unsurprisingly they didn’t stray far from what they knew…

Obviously there is a difference there between the reactions of the German and Japanese people, which can only be explained by the historical differences in culture. I get the impression that the changes that lead to complex and well balanced democracies of mainland europe accumulated over a long period of time, however, in Japan, the Meiji Restoration attempted to achieve all this in less than a generation. Ambitious… but one would imagine impractical. Oligarchs have certain goals in mind that don’t necessarily leads to a society capable of balancing the needs of business with the people…

The above is not an attempt to place the blame squarely on the SCAP, but merely to point out that it was likely a pivotal point in modern japanese history. Had the SCAP known more about the existing structure of japanese society, and not assumed that it would behave as a western society would behave, perhaps they wouldn’t have been to gung-ho about encouraging the busting of the labour movement, and installing far right bulwarks against potentially progressive movements. The events of the following 50 years might well be described as ‘blow back’.

Many of the names that crop up in that era are still with us today, very few of them in person, but the political elite is very much a family affair. Fortunately the direct experience of the war period cannot be passed on as easily as a constituency seat, or a family fortune. This alone gives me some hope that a future generation of japanese will have different view of progress. Much is made of the ‘organisational memory’ of the various organs of the japanese body politic / bureaucracy, but the grand sweep of history doesn’t give it much chance against the relentless pull of entropy.

I’m rather interested in Karel Van Wolferen now… it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that despite the unrelenting barrage of criticism, much of it very pointed and on the mark, he lived here for something like 30 years, left, and has now returned. What does that say about him? Again, not in a critical way, but it seems hard to reconcile some of the criticism with a desire to live here!

From my own experience (much, much shorter, and more recent) living in Japan, but outside of The System can be rather pleasant. When The System does intrude it’s chillingly alien, and gives me pause for thought, to question if the risk i’m taking living here is acceptable.

Anyway, interesting book to read. It has provided much food for thought. I look forward to lending it to friends and hearing their take on it…

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6 thoughts on “The Enigma of Japanese Power

    • ha! unfortunately you are on my list of friends who needs to read this… so that’s not going to work for long.

  1. And if I remember I’m on the list that is NOT allowed to read it.
    Thats not cricket!
    hand it over.

    One line from your post made me stop in my tracks and a little shiver ran down my spine, by the way….

    “When The System does intrude it’s chillingly alien, and gives me pause for thought, to question if the risk i’m taking living here is acceptable.”

    Everyday I think the same thing.
    Thank god for the consiousness shrinking powers of alcohol or I’d be insane by now.

  2. You commonwealthers sound dim and doom at midnight on Sunday…but you still live here, drink here, shoot here, are married here…for all intensive purposes are as on (or off) the grid as you are in any country. It’s bad everywhere, so why complain? Chillingly alien is right, but that’s because “they” don’t know what your cracker ass is going to do when you get your alien registration card, slice the necks of some nice city workers or pack it in an IC scan-safe aluminum pouch…i.e. you don’t have the proper conditioning to be predictable. In other words, you are free radicals. So go and be free and writhe and create, make something beautiful and lay low on the denigration tip while you still have young and vital blood flowing through your veins.

    Van Wolferen’s POV is largely on point but he came back…and so Will YOU!

    • Don’t disagree with anything you’re saying here… and even hinted as much above.

      I’m not planning on going anywhere, and have no intention of surrendering to the easy out of hating everything around me… might not always manage to get that last bit across, but i am determined.

      It is, in my opinion, a mistake to blindly accept without understanding. And that is what i’m seeking: understanding. What Karel presents is one possible set of facts that help to decode the puzzle by which i find myself hosted.

Wise words...

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