IDEAS

Superiority complex

A new book about Japan stirs up controversy

HOLGER JENSEN December 11 1989
IDEAS

Superiority complex

A new book about Japan stirs up controversy

HOLGER JENSEN December 11 1989

Superiority complex

IDEAS

A new book about Japan stirs up controversy

Many foreigners who have studied Japan’s culture claim that many Japanese view themselves as racially unique and culturally superior to people of other nations. In fact, at times, Japanese politicians openly cater to a superiority complex because, they say, it wins votes. Still, they add that they have learned, somewhat to their surprise, that when those views pass beyond the closed confines of Japanese society, it is often an ayamachi—a grave diplomatic error. Now, a serious ayamachi has been triggered by a book entitled The Japan that Can Say NO, written jointly by a distinguished Japanese industrialist and a popular right-wing politician. The book, which has caused a storm of controversy in American political circles, flatly asserts that, because of its people’s intellectual superiority, Japan will dominate the coming new technological age.

The book, in which six chapters were written by Akio Morita, chairman of the powerful

Sony Corp., and five by writer and politician Shintaro Ishihara, says that Japan, which is now one of the world’s richest industrial powers, should stop deferring to the United States. Tokyo, the authors insist, should simply say no to United States’ demands that Japan voluntarily curtail its exports and open up its markets to American goods to help reverse the $60-billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

Published in Japan last January, the book was never intended to be translated into English or distributed abroad. Sales in Japan were initially slow, until copies of an unauthorized 74-page English-language version of the book reached the United States and stirred an outcry in Congress in August. The book subsequently jumped onto Japan’s best-seller list.

The most provocative sections of the book were written by Ishihara, a 57-year-old writer, film-maker, yachtsman and politician who served as transport minister from 1987 until late last year in the government of former

prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. In his chapters, Ishihara appears to have been influenced by another best-selling Japanese book, The Japanese Brain, published in 1978. In that work, Tadanobu Tsunoda, an ear, nose and throat doctor, maintained that the intricate Japanese language reflected the unique character of Japanese brains. The Japanese, according to Tsunoda, are unlike all other races in hearing both vowels and consonants in the left hemisphere of their brains. As a result, argued Tsunoda, Japanese thought is more coherent and superior to that of the rest of humanity. Taking up a similar theme, Ishihara writes that the Japanese are a “chosen people.” He adds that they may eventually develop into creatures resembling the extraterrestrial movie character E.T., “with pronounced eyes and noses and a big head.”

Ishihara dismisses Americans as racists and argues that the United States is a waning military power with an inferior education system. Americans demonstrated their “racist attitude,” says Ishihara, by dropping newly developed atomic bombs on Japanese—rather than German—cities at the end of the Second World War. Ishihara derides U.S. missile technology for being dependent on Japanese semiconductors and claims that Japan could “upset the entire military balance” if it decided to sell computer chips to the Soviet Union.

The chapters contributed to The Japan that Can Say NO by Morita are much milder. Morita’s criticism of the United States is confined to comments about the education system,

the quality of American goods and business practices, which he says are geared to short-term profits rather than long-range planning. The government of Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu expressed some of the same sentiments earlier this fall when it sent the Bush administration a detailed critique of the U.S. economy together with seven conditions that it said would have to be met with a positive response before there could be freer trade between Japan and the United States.

The book has stirred bitter resentment in Washington. “I’ve never seen any book that has caused as much consternation on the Hill as this document,” said Senator James Exon, a Nebraska Democrat. For his part,

Representative Mel Levine, a California Republican, said that Congress was particularly disturbed by statements that Japan might start sharing key military technology with the Soviets. Said Levine: “We cannot afford to be hostages to anybody.”

Anxious to ease the criticism, Kaifu’s government has sought to depict

Ishihara—who is an influential figure

in Kaifu’s own Liberal Democratic party—as a right-wing radical whose views are not widely shared. Morita reacted to the controversy by saying that he does not agree with some of Ishihara’s “nationalistic” ideas.

The controversy over The Japan that Can Say NO resembles other incidents in recent years in which nationalistic or apparently racist statements by prominent Japanese have aggravated U.S.-Japanese relations. In 1986, then-

Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone outraged Americans by declaring that the presence of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the U.S. school system had led to a lowering of American educational standards. In 1987, the relatively unknown Masami Uno became a best-selling author and offended Israel and American Jews with a book that accused Jewish business interests of trying to engineer a recession in Japan.

Still, Ishihara cannot be dismissed simply as a xenophobic extremist. Political observers in Japan noted that his views have been widely published in Japan since the mid-1950s and they have struck a responsive chord in many Japanese. Although Ishihara lost a bid to become leader of the Liberal Democrats earlier this year, a recent opinion poll ranked him second in popularity behind Takako Doi, the charismatic leader of the Japanese Socialist Party. Ishihara has even been touted as a future prime minister. But first, g. he will have to extricate himself from the ayamachi that he has created. While many of his compatriots may

secretly agree with his opinion of the

Americans, they still regard good relations with the United States as vitally important.

HOLGER JENSEN

KEVIN SULLIVAN