BOOKS

Samurai economy

THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER By Karel van Wolferen

September 11 1989
BOOKS

Samurai economy

THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER By Karel van Wolferen

September 11 1989

Samurai economy

BOOKS

A new text examines Japan’s trade supremacy

THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER By Karel van Wolferen

(Collier Macmillan, 496 pages, $26.95)

In the early 1980s, as Japanese industry marched from triumph to triumph in global markets, a series of books emerged to explain that economic miracle—and to recommend ways for Westerners to emulate it. Japan’s cleanliness, efficiency and crime-free streets were looked upon with envy—especially in North America. Its highly educated schoolchildren and fiercely productive, qualityconscious workers were fawned over as mod-

els. Some authors claimed that Confucian cultural patterns of loyalty and deference were behind Japan’s successes—and that the West had better find ways to adapt to them. In The Enigma of Japanese Power, Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen draws on his quartercentury as a reporter in Japan to assault those views at their roots. Admirable as Japan’s economic achievements are, he says, they are the product of a near-totalitarian system that suppresses its citizens subtly but relentlessly. Predictably, the book has ignited a fire storm of condemnation, both in Japan and from Japanophiles in the West.

The democracy imposed on Japan after its defeat in 1945 is, in van Wolferen’s view, little more than a facade behind which the system’s real power brokers—what the author calls “the administrators”—dominate and exploit their fellow Japanese. While the nation’s eco-

nomic clout has grown, Japanese corporations and banks, not consumers, have reaped the benefits. “One can understand the Japanese wanting to make money,” he writes, “but their conquest of ever greater foreign market shares does not translate into noticeably more rewarding or comfortable lives. Urban housing is cramped, confined and extraordinarily costly. Only about one-third of Japanese homes are connected with sewers.”

Even more disturbing to the author is that the Japanese elite he excoriates is a headless juggernaut, a squabbling oligarchy of businessmen and bureaucrats with no clear centre of power and no

common strategy other than limitless economic expansion. The fractured nature of that power elite helps to explain the long-running pattern of Western demands for more reciprocity—and Japanese promises to comply—that leave trade surpluses stubbornly high. The Japanese system, van Wolferen writes, has no clear boss or bosses to force changes against the will of powerful domestic constituencies.

No Japanese prime minister, he convincingly argues, has enjoyed anything like the power wielded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or France’s former president Charles de Gaulle. Van Wolferen claims that the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a set of bitterly competitive conservative factions floating on a vast stream of business “donations” and united only in excluding ordinary Japanese from any influence over elite decision-making. Ordinary Japanese, he insists,

face a lifetime of indoctrination to become docile and submissive.

The author disparages most efforts to interpret Japan through a merely cultural perspective. The real issue, he maintains, is power. Digging back to the 13th century, the book traces the ways by which an ancient power elite has imposed an attitude of deference upon the Japanese people. That finely woven web of conformity, van Wolferen says, not only explains the relative absence of social turmoil in Japan, but it also legitimizes the dominant role of “the administrators,” both to the public and in their own eyes.

Meanwhile, the symbols of Japan’s democracy—parliament (or Diet), a free press, an ostensibly independent judiciary—are, the author contends, empty shells. Real power is exercised, informally, by a clique of businessmen and bureaucrats dominated by graduates of the University of Tokyo and its law school— a far more powerful and tightly knit Old Boys’ network than even the Oxbridge elite in England. Van Wolferen writes that while Japan’s Diet initiates little critical legislation, its press speaks with unanimity on most issues—including the frequent money-and-politics scandal exposés, which help purge the system’s worst excesses. Japanese courts rarely defy the power-holders of business or the permanent bureaucracy. The country’s vaunted ability to get along with barely one lawyer for every 9,000 people does not prove any cultural consensus in favor of amicable dispute settlement, van Wolferen says. Instead, it reflects the system’s refusal to submit itself to serious legal redress. Ordinary citizens, he writes, are almost helpless in any suit against business or government.

Van Wolferen maintains that, in the international sphere, the Japanese’s chief advantage lies in Western misconceptions about them. While Japan conducts a state-directed industrial policy—using the home market as a testing ground for global industrial conquest—many Western economists, blinded by laissez-faire ideology, refuse to recognize what amounts to a new and menacing economic system. Similarly, few political scientists have detected the real powers that lie behind the country’s veneer of democracy. “Defending Japan,” van Wolferen notes caustically, “is the bread and butter of many real and supposed specialists who hold forth at highly publicized seminars, panel discussions and conferences organized to improve ‘mutual understanding.’ ”

But now, van Wolferen’s critical book and others like it are helping to initiate a shift in Western attitudes toward Japan—and a willingness, especially in the United States, to demand the opening of Japanese markets to more reciprocal trading arrangements. No mere exercise in Japan-bashing, The Enigma of Japanese Power is an exhaustive and brilliant effort to peel back layer upon layer of misconceptions. Van Wolferen’s study is likely to strengthen the argument that frank confrontation now over trade issues might lead to reforms that would in turn enable Japan to become a partner of the West—and less of an adversary.

LENNY GLYNN