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The Enigma of Japanese Power

By Karel van Wolferen

Here is a snap quiz. Who is the prime minister of Japan? Give up? He is Noda Yoshihiko, who is also the former finance minister of Japan. If the reader was unable to answer the question, it does not surprise me. I recently attended an import/export conference sponsored by CBS and the Wall Street Journal where I posed the same question to many people there and no one could answer. This despite the fact that they were in the news media and it is their job to know these things!

This is becoming a more serious matter since debate is intensifying over the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement to create a free trade zone among nine countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. This will eliminate trade barriers among those countries, but of course the most important ones are the United States and Japan. That means that in order to take advantage of this agreement effectively, it is incumbent upon Americans who are most closely affected that they understand their Japanese trading partner as far as possible. If the name of the Japanese prime minister is not even known, it does not bode well for that goal.

However, there is more to this than meets the eye. Japanese society is notoriously obscure to the West. There is a lack of transparency in almost every aspect of the culture that makes it difficult to understand. Some even believe that it is impossible for Japan to be truly known. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

Consequently, it is very helpful to come across a book that explains Japanese society and culture in such a way as to illuminate just these matters. One such book is “The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation,” by Karel van Wolferen. It is subtitled, “The First Full-Scale Examination of the Inner Workings of Japan’s Political/Industrial System.” Perhaps this might make some people’s eyes glaze over, but this is a fascinating work. The author’s point is that there is no central authority that directs Japan, either politically, economically or culturally. If the reader did not know who the prime minister of Japan is, perhaps it is because he is a figure of little importance in the country. That is, in a country of confounding paradoxes.

The Japanese prime minister is not expected to show much leadership; labour unions organize strikes to be held during lunch breaks; the legislature does not in fact legislate; stockholders never demand dividends; consumer interest groups advocate protectionism; laws are enforced only if they don’t conflict too much with the interests of the powerful; and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is, if anything, conservative and authoritarian, is not really a party and does not in fact rule.

Now, this excerpt from Chapter 2: The Elusive State, speaks of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when the Democratic Party is in power. So that is a clue that the book was not published recently. But little has changed. Prime Minister Noda just took over from Kan Naoto, who was prime minister for just over a year, and he succeeded Hatoyama Yukio who occupied that position for little more than six months. People are now becoming disillusioned with Noda and no doubt there will soon be demands that he be replaced. Why all this turmoil in the political system in Japan?

…there is the fiction that Japan is a sovereign state like any other, a state with central organs of government that can both recognize what is good for the country and bear ultimate responsibility for national decision-making. This is an illusion that is very hard to dispel. Diplomacy takes a government’s ability to make responsible decisions for granted; it would be extremely hard for foreign governments to proceed without the assumption of a Japanese government that can cope with the external world, as other governments do, simply by changing its policies.

Nevertheless, unless the relative lack of governmental responsibility in Japan, the fundamental cause of mutual frustration [due to trade friction with the US] is recognized, relations with Japan are bound to deteriorate further. Statecraft in Japan is quite different from in Europe, the Americas and most of contemporary Asia. For centuries it has entailed a balance between semi-autonomous groups that share in power. Today, the most powerful groups include certain ministry officials, some political cliques and clusters of bureaucrat-businessmen. There are many lesser ones, such as the agricultural cooperatives, the police, the press and the gangsters. All are components of what we may call the System in order to distinguish it, for reasons to be discussed later, from the state. No one is ultimately in charge. These semi-autonomous components, each endowed with discretionary powers that undermine the authority of the state, are not represented by any central body that rules the roost.

All of these entities that share in ruling Japan are examined in depth in “The Enigma of Japanese Power.” As might be expected, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Finance are featured prominently, and the roles of bureaucrats of those ministries (as well as those of Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, Construction, Education, Foreign Affairs, Health and Welfare, Home Affairs, Justice, Post and Telecommunications and others) in administering the operation of the country are detailed in depth. In addition, the political cliques, such as those organized by Tanaka Kakuei in the 1970s (who had close relations with Richard Nixon) and Nakasone Yasuhiro (who worked cooperatively with Ronald Reagan) in the 1980s, are covered extensively. But the parts played by the police, the media and even the underworld are given equal treatment. This extends to the various cultural aspects of Japanese life, such as Zen Buddhism, that contribute to social control.

The author also ventures to examine the sociological roots that have led to this state of affairs.

It is the near absence of any idea that there can be truths, rules, principles or morals that apply, no matter what the circumstances. Most Westerners as well as most Asians who have stayed for any length of time in Japan will be struck by this absence; and some Japanese thinkers also have seen it as the ultimate determinant of Japanese public behavior.

“The Enigma of Japanese Power” is filled with insights like this. There is much to learn about Japan on many levels. It is hard to do it justice in a short review like this.

One thing that should be pointed out, though, is that the book was published in 1989, just prior to the bursting of the inflationary bubble that has led to Japan becoming mired in repeated waves of stagnant development followed by recessions. It is just this economic morass that Japan is striving to escape from by becoming a participant in the TPP.

The most interesting thing to experience when reading this book is to relive the situation in Japan when the country appeared to the rest of the world like an economic giant that was threatening to dominate the globe. That can be compared to the world today, when Japan has been eclipsed by China on the world stage and is attempting to recover from a series of disaster that have left it hobbled.

“The Enigma of Japanese Power” is a comprehensive work covering politics and business in Japan from an intellectual standpoint. It contains 42 pages of meticulously researched notes, an extensive index and a glossary of specialized Japanese terms. For those who want to understand the Japanese culture in depth, this book is highly recommended.

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