Number One Passport

Julian Loose

  • Rising Sun by Michael Crichton
    Century, 364 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7126 5320 1
  • Off Centre: Power and Culture Relations between Japan and the United States by Masao Miyoshi
    Harvard, 289 pp, £22.95, December 1992, ISBN 0 674 63175 7
  • Underground in Japan by Rey Ventura
    Cape, 204 pp, £7.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 224 03550 9

The Japanese language seems designed for the speaker who wants to deceive. In Japanese, the verb is always placed at the end of a sentence, a syntax that can be artfully manipulated. It permits the speaker to monitor the reactions of others present and, at the very last moment, insert the verb ... The Japanese language, in effect, allows him to speak from both sides of ‘his mouth at the same time. On learning Japanese, St Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit, called it “The devil’s tongue”.’

The Japanese Conspiracy: Their Plot to Dominate Industry World-Wide, and How to Deal with It

Marvin Wolf, 1983

If you don’t want Japan to buy it, don’t sell it.

Akio Morita, Sony Chairman

For all its awesome success in the world market, Japan remains somehow stubbornly Other. Yet few can afford to ignore its looming presence. Certainly not in America, where the annual trade imbalance stands at 50 billion dollars in Japan’s favour, where nearly a third of the budget deficit is shouldered by Japanese investors, and where many now recognise Japan as employer, banker and landlord. When Sony bought up Columbia Pictures in 1989, a Newsweek cartoon replaced the Statue of Liberty in the Columbia logo with a geisha; other icons now under Japanese management include the Rockefeller Center, Universal Studios and Michael Jackson. Such high-profile acquisitions are seized upon by opportunistic commentators, all too keen to foster suspicions of Japanese duplicity, racism and greed. Writing about Japan, its society and its foreign affairs has to an overwhelming degree become the preserve of alarmist political economists. Yet who is served by the perpetuation of the simplistic image of Japan Inc? We turn from such commentators to other voices and different genres, in the hope of moving beyond such stereotypes.

The American novelist Michael Crichton, whose best-selling thrillers are usually based on less divisive topics – great train robberies, genetically re-animated dinosaurs, messages from other planets – has in Rising Sun chosen to dramatise the troubled relationship between Japan and the United States. According to Crichton, Japanese influence now extends to all spheres of American life, and anyone who attempts to speak out against it is ruthlessly suppressed. Presumably Crichton had a hard time explaining to himself how it is that his own book has seen the light of day – why his publishers have not yet been bought up by Japanese money, or Crichton himself discredited in some fabricated scandal.

Crichton’s insipid hero, Detective Peter Smith, is an officer in the diplomatic section of the Los Angeles Police Department. His task is to investigate a murder committed during the glitzy opening party for the American headquarters of the Nakamoto Corporation. The narrative proceeds on a twin track: as Smith unravels the events which culminate in the murder (a tale involving computer chips, video trickery and blackmail), so he also receives an education in the predatory methods of the dastardly Japanese.

Everyone Smith meets has things to say on the Nippon question, and we soon realise that this is less a novel than yet another remorseless tract. Arriving at the scene of the crime, he overhears real estate agents discussing how the Japanese own at least 70 per cent of downtown Los Angeles; a press secretary at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory complains that the Japanese are hiring the best American researchers; two farmers discuss selling a sizeable chunk of rural Montana to the Japanese, raising the enticing prospect of Japanese cowboys out on the range; and a cable news producer reflects that the Japanese cleaned up during Reagan’s Presidency (‘In the name of free trade, he spread our legs real wide’). This unnerving barrage continues even on the freeway, as Smith surveys enormous billboards advertising the likes of Canon (AMERICA’S COPY LEADER) and Honda (NUMBER ONE RATED CAR IN AMERICA!).

Smith’s senior partner on this case is John Connor, the most knowledgeable of Special Services officers on matters Japanese. Some of his fellow policemen suspect that Connor went native during his years in Japan. His apartment is decorated in Japanese style, with tatami mats and shoji screens, he converses through silences and indirection, and his method of investigation relics heavily on dai rokkan, or intuition. In Connor’s view, Americans compare unfavourably to the Japanese in almost every respect: in Japan (as in Mussolini’s Italy), ‘trains are on time. Bags are not lost. Connections are not missed. Deadlines are met.’ In Japan you can safely walk in the parks at night, companies are more interested in fixing the problem than the blame and at times of trouble, executives are the first to take a pay cut.

But in spite of his respect for Japanese efficiency, Connor remains a true blue patriot who ‘always keeps his balance’. If he dismisses the conventional ‘prejudices and media fantasies’ which lead people to dislike the Japanese, it is only to outline the real reasons for fearing them: ‘Our problem in this country is that we don’t deal with the Japanese the way they really are.’ And so he sets about explaining to Smith (and the reader) how the Japanese retain their edge: get a bribe in ahead of time, to ensure good will when it is needed; create a scandal to eliminate powerful business or political opponents; above all always remember that, as the saying goes, ‘business is war’.

During the course of the novel Crichton delivers a few critical swipes at America, whose terminal decline is best illustrated, as one typically well-informed character explains, by the fact that it now has 4 per cent of the world population, but 50 per cent of its lawyers. America must wake up to the true danger of allowing foreign investment in its high technology. But Crichton’s central proposition is that ‘Japan doesn’t and won’t do things our way’: the Japanese have invented a new kind of trade, ‘adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out the competition’. As his extensive bibliography and note of thanks to the likes of Karel van Wolferen and Senator Albert Gore make clear. Crichton follows ‘a well-established body of expert opinion’. Like most of his fellow Japan-bashers, he singularly fails to recognise that nominating Japan as America’s bogeyman is symptomatic of America’s problem, and has little to do with its solution.

Crichton gives full scope to a rather paranoid sense of Japanese control over American institutions. A police officer, whose uncle happens to have been killed during the war in ‘terminal medical experiments in Japan’, declares that a number of his fellow citizens are siding with the enemy: ‘Just like in World War Two, some people were paid by Germany to promote Nazi propaganda.’ Detective Smith is sceptical, until he realises that he, too, has been bought, the extra stipend of several thousand dollars he receives from ‘the Japan-America Amity Foundation’ being patently designed to ensure his good will. Crichton develops this theme to a ludicrous pitch: but no one can deny that Japanese manna rains down on the academic world, particularly on university technical departments. Noting that Japanese companies now endow 25 professorships at MIT, Crichton pithily identifies the academic experts who deliver the Japanese propaganda line as ‘the Chrysanthemum Kissers’: trapped by the need for access to Japan, they know that if they start to sound critical, ‘their contacts in Japan dry up. Doors are closed to them ... Anybody who criticises Japan is a racist.’

Masao Miyoshi, Professor of Japanese, English, and Comparative Literature at the University of California, is certainly no Chrysanthemum Kisser. In an ambitious and expansive series of cross-cultural essays, he offers a much more considered assessment of this topic. He points out that Japanologists have a vested interest in both exaggerating the exoticism of Japan, and in muting any criticism – especially ‘in these days when the academic disciplines are increasingly unembarrassed in their affiliation with funding sources’. Business Week reports that about 80 per cent of the money for US academic research on Japan comes from Japanese sources. Declaring himself singularly untouched by such inducements, Miyoshi is highly critical of those more susceptible:

I have received, and ignored, a few dubious proposals to organise a conference for the purpose of establishing ‘a closer friendship’ between Japan and the United States. To take just one example, [a certain Japanese businessman’s] several organisations are offering millions of dollars to various scholarly institutions ... the acceptance of his munificence is at least unsavoury, if not outright irresponsible. And yet the list of the recipient institutions include numerous leading academies of the world.

But identifying the complicity of certain ‘friends of Japan’ is not at all to side with the Japan bashers. Miyoshi shows that relentlessly negative writers on Japanese society, like Wolferen in his The Enigma of Japanese Power (‘the most massive, best researched, but no less wrongheaded of all the bashing exercises’), fail to recognise that their disaffection is as much with the modern world as with Japan. More importantly, Western critics exhibit a significant historical blind spot when they complain that the Japanese have invented a grossly unfair kind of trade: ‘They are uninterested in recalling that the West’s domination lasted for more than two centuries, and during that time, trade imbalance – exploitation and expropriation, to be more accurate – was also taken for granted ... Only when a non-Western nation dared to copy the practice and use it against the mightiest Western country, and indeed caught up with it, did economic “colonisation” become an unfair and immoral transgression.’

Unerringly acute on how the West legitimates its own history of economic expansionism, Miyoshi is at the same time an uncompromising critic of the new Japan, and ridicules cultural theorist Ihab Hassan for celebrating it as ‘a society with so few visible dysfunctions, so many visible achievements’. By contrast, Miyoshi describes the Japanese as little more than well-adapted functionaries in the country’s corporate program, claiming that pervasive consumerism has defeated almost all internal opposition: high-tech Japan is leading the world into ‘a fantastic dystopia of self-emptied, idea-vacated, and purpose-lost production, consumption, and daydreaming’. Miyoshi has a distinct advantage when it comes to making such sweeping statements because, as a former Japanese subject, now a naturalised US citizen, he really is both an insider and an outsider. Edward Said, general editor of the series in which Off Centre is published, praises Miyoshi’s unusual familiarity with both the discourse of critical theory and Japanese culture: ‘What he accomplishes is a synthesis that to my knowledge has never been achieved, much less attempted.’

If Miyoshi can be said to be in thrall to anything, it would have to be to the rhetoric of contemporary cultural theory. His declared aim, rather alarmingly, is ‘the decomposition of “literature” as a historically constructed discourse.’ Yet he also displays a fondness for no-nonsense plain speaking: The Tempest is branded a ‘powerful celebration’ of European adventurism, and less reductive readings of the play are scorned as mere attempts to defend the Bard from complicity in colonialism. A chapter on the modern Japanese novel becomes an atomising examination of the terms ‘modern’, ‘Japanese’ and ‘novel’, and his deconstruction of our Eurocentric perception of Japanese fiction is undermined by reliance on too many vacuous generalisations (‘by 1700 Europe had completed the task of shedding most of the medieval paradigm of thought’). He also argues that Japanese literature, which he characterises as episodic, anecdotal and self-referential, should be considered essentially oral. Like his semi-serious contention that Japan is a Third World culture, this seems more provocative than convincing. Such redefinitions do not really hold, for they ignore the radically and irredeemably international nature of much contemporary Japanese life and culture. They owe much to political wishful thinking, to his forlorn hope that Japanese critics might ‘embrace Third World oppositionism to First World “universalism", rather than coveting an honorary membership in the West’.

Miyoshi is more persuasive when he turns to the cultural assumptions underlying recent trade negotiations. Although he employs the familiar term of ‘combat’ to describe Japan-US relations, he is more precise than most commentators in pinpointing how combat arises ‘because no agreement can be reached on rules’. Both sides need to develop a more informed sense of what is at stake. For example, charges of Japanese protectionism may be justified, but the complex network of small shops which so frustrates Western exporters ‘has served social purposes such as stability, security and community preservation’. Trade negotiations, Miyoshi demonstrates, will only succeed if they are ‘deeply inscribed with historical understanding’.

Miyoshi also directs his severe yet insightful gaze at developments in post-war literature and film. He argues brilliantly that Junichiro Tanizaki’s apparent deference to the West, and his sense of Japan as a place of restriction and shadowy stagnation, is just one more example of his masochistic sensibility: ‘as he enjoys sexual humiliation, so he savours cultural inferiority.’ Tanizaki emerges as a kind of contradiction-embracing hero, but Yukio Mishima fares less well. A ‘middle-class prig’ fatally attracted to the West, his books are ‘shapeless and incoherent, taxing the reader’s patience, which might be better expended on other writers’. The only interesting thing about Mishima is the fact that, for once, the Japanese haven’t bought him at the West’s assessment. Also found wanting are film director Oshima Nagisa, whose work Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence shows him to be ‘inescapably encased in the Eurocentric frame of mind’; the novelist Haruki Murakami, who is as guilty as Mishima of exhibiting an exotic, export-oriented Japan; and the critic Ian Buruma, whose quick wit and knowledge of Japanese ‘cannot compensate for his glibness and prejudgment, which barely conceal his fundamental ignorance and contempt’.

Miyoshi’s own judgment is sometimes as suspect as it is severe. It seems extraordinarily perverse to complain about Tanizaki’s powers of narrative construction, and he also entirely overlooks the post-Sixties political disenchantment that saturates Murakami’s writing. Off Centre is dedicated to Kenzaburo Oe, and Miyoshi clearly admires this senior writer’s consistently radical stance: ‘There are moments when it looks as though Japan’s critical consciousness lives in Oe’s work alone.’ However, it is hard not to feel that Miyoshi’s identification with Oe’s perspective of disenchantment rather limits his sense of current developments in Japanese literature, which are surely more divergent and oppositional than he allows. Nonetheless, Miyoshi’s contribution to Japan studies is considerable, and deserves to reach an audience wider than the academic – as do Japan in the World and Post-Modernism and Japan, two useful collections of essays he has edited. Off Centre itself is unquestionably one of the most suggestive and defiantly original books on Japan published in recent years.

Rey Ventura’s Underground in Japan is an elegant and fascinating memoir of a year spent as an illegal Filipino migrant in Yokohama. According to Ventura, there are roughly a quarter of a million illegal workers in Japan, enticed by the rising value of the yen. Male Filipinos, Pakistanis and Koreans work as construction labourers and dock hands, while women join the mizu shobai or water trade, finding employment as bar hostesses. In Off Centre Miyoshi recalls a Japanese academic, a professor of modern French literature, reading the works of Julia Kristeva on the Algerian minorities in France, and exclaiming at his sudden recognition that Japan too has an Other in its midst. Miyoshi’s point is that intellectuals and politicians alike have been unwilling to face the issue raised by the ever-increasing numbers of illegal Asian workers. In Ventura, this community has at last found a voice.

With his student visa about to run out, Ventura decided to stay on, to become ‘like tens of thousands of Filipinos who live by the system we call TNT – tago-ng-tago, “always in hiding” ’. Going underground means keeping a constant look-out for police cars, and avoiding any provocation that could lead to exposure and deportation, such as owning a bicycle or playing a hi-fi too loud. Ventura moved to Kotobuki, a Filipino enclave in Yokohama, and joined the ‘Standing Men’, an early-morning parade of hands for hire: ‘the sachos [bosses] look us up and down, and we greet them as politely as we know how. Their method of rejection is not to return our greetings. Every day begins with this little humiliation.’ The Filipinos resist with the invention of ‘Japalog’, a language which turns loan words into a humorous, subversive slang. But as Ventura’s diary entries make clear, living a hidden life breeds a nagging fear: ‘Sometimes I wish I didn’t know any Japanese at all. The more I understand, the more apprehensive I become. The Japanese day-labourers are beginning to realise that foreigners, especially the Filipinos, are their potential enemies or competitors.’ Obeying the axiom of all travel writing, Ventura’s book is as much about home as about Japan, more particularly about the way the values of home are maintained and transformed when abroad. He describes how the various factions within the Filipino community are organised by place of origin, and how on Sundays, as at home, everyone goes to church at the Sacred Heart Cathedral, conveniently situated near to McDonald’s: ‘a raid on the church and on that McDonald’s any Sunday morning would be guaranteed to yield a good catch.’ Writing in the plain, unemotive style of the best reportage, Ventura records the stripping away of his own preconceptions. Having assumed that life underground would be a lonely one driven by the constant need to remit money home, he discovered that many lead a life of unusual liberty: migrants soon get used to ‘a live-in companion, no family, no relatives, none of the restrictions of barrio life. They had become addicted to their exile. Unfree by the rules of Japan, they had nevertheless found freedom from their own morality and culture.’ Ventura comes to realise that those who migrate are from the lower middle class, rather than the poor, who couldn’t afford the money for documentation, air tickets and bribes. It is not necessity that leads to the underground: ‘They had gone there not to make money but to make more money, not for their daily bread but for the finer things in life.’ Although forming an impoverished underclass by the standards of the Japanese, the migrants know that, viewed from home, from the perspective of the barrio, they are privileged. And when a migrant returns home, he will not speak of moments of humiliation and fear, but rather of the Japan of popular imagination: ‘the wonders of the push-button world, of the Bullet Train, the skyscrapers and Tokyo Disneyland’.

As an illegal alien, viewing Japanese society from the very bottom, Ventura records striking instances of generosity, friendship and prejudice. He has an early confrontation with an unprepossessing pair of neo-nationalists who mourn the loss of the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and object when he compares the dying dictator Marcos to the dying Emperor Hirohito. Such anti-Asian attitudes, argues Miyoshi in Off Centre, have their origins in a sense of inferiority developed earlier this century: ‘Looking askance at the rest of the Third World, the Japanese considered themselves civilised and advanced. When they faced the West, they knew they did not quite belong.’ In Ventura’s account, however, the dynamics of racism seem to be changing in step with Japan’s evolving position in the world. The neo-nationalists revel in Japan’s growing sense of superiority over the US: ‘The Japanese passport is the number one passport in the world, the yen the most powerful currency, and we have reached the stage where GI wives around the bases are selling their bodies to Japanese salarymen!’ But what draws Ventura’s attention to these two nationalists is precisely the fact that they are not typical of the Japanese most migrants encounter. Crichton, with no sense of self-irony, called the Japanese the most racist people on earth, but as Miyoshi and Ventura remind us, no one has the monopoly on racism, and every manifestation of it has a specific historical cause. In a sense, Ventura’s dispassionate portrait of Japan reveals Crichton’s novel for what it is, a cry of frustration at the loss of power and influence. Even if there is no Japanese Dream, Japan has already become, for millions of people, the new America.