Looking to Game Boy

R.T. Murphy

  • The Making of Modern Japan by Marius Jansen
    Harvard, 871 pp, £23.95, November 2000, ISBN 0 674 00334 9

Thirty years ago as a Harvard freshman, I was taught how to think about Japanese history. Japan had just re-emerged after a quarter-century hiatus as a country to be taken seriously. It had pushed aside West Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy and there was talk of its economy surpassing that of the USSR (actually, it already had). Japanese radios, motorcycles, ships and steel had conquered global markets; Toyota, Nissan and Honda had begun to grab sales from an uncomprehending Detroit; the flood of Japanese textile exports had been mentioned again and again during the 1968 Presidential election campaign.

Japan’s economic prowess was already more than a little annoying to Washington: that year saw the first major postwar US-Japan trade confrontation, one that would culminate in the imposition of a temporary surcharge on Japanese imports. Nevertheless, the US regarded Japan with satisfaction. In American eyes, the country had been reborn two decades earlier as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; the credit was attributed to a far-sighted and benevolent American occupation. The transformation the US had supposedly carried out in Japan became increasingly important as an example of what awaited countries that took the capitalist road, rather than following the siren songs emanating from Beijing and Moscow. The Vietnam War was at its height, and the architects of America’s Cold War could take comfort from their ability to contrast a prosperous, peaceful, capitalist Japan with the oppression and poverty of Asian nations under Communism. Hadn’t the American occupation replaced a murderous, xenophobic regime with a government deriving its legitimacy from the consent of the governed as stipulated in a Constitution America had devised?

Those who knew Japan well, however, found it awkward to hold the country up as an example of doing things Washington’s way. It’s true that the Americans had written the Japanese Constitution, but on closer inspection the importance of that document derived from its status as an icon, not as a blueprint for the functioning of the Japanese Government. Power in Tokyo was held by great bureaucracies whose lineage long predated the 1945 unthinkingly held to mark a clean break in Japan’s modern history. And if Japan was a capitalist country, it was a very peculiar one, since, despite the existence of nominally private corporations and stock markets, ownership of the means of production couldn’t be traded, valued or even ascertained. Major companies and banks were not owned in any meaningful sense of the word by their shareholders; if anything, the companies ‘owned’ each other. They acted in accordance with bureaucratic rather than market-driven imperatives, and were subject to endless informal – i.e. unwritten and extra-legal – direction from the Government. In such a system, it was impossible to draw the line that defines capitalism: the line separating ‘public’ from ‘private’.

To be sure Japan had all the trappings of an advanced liberal democracy: elections, political parties, parliaments, courts, corporations, newspapers, unions, shareholders, universities. They gave it the appearance of a country that had metamorphosed into a normal industrialised nation. On closer inspection, however, it became obvious that these institutions functioned in ways that differed – sometimes radically – from their Western counterparts.

This created a difficulty for American scholars of Japanese history, particularly for those in sympathy with the professed aims of the Cold War. They knew far too much to acquiesce in the view that Japan had been transformed into an unproblematic island of American-style capitalism with charming Oriental characteristics. They could not, for example, ignore the prewar roots of Tokyo’s shifting political coalitions or the origins of the country’s immensely powerful bureaucracies. Yet they also understood how important it was that Japan be seen as a trustworthy ally by the US – which meant somehow persuading Americans that Japan was a liberal capitalist democracy even if, strictly speaking, it wasn’t.

Their solution to the dilemma lay in what came to be known as ‘modernisation theory’, which was not so much a theory as a way of approaching Japan’s modern history. What made Japan modern? What was it that had enabled Japan uniquely in the non-Western world to become a fully industrialised nation, capable of waging and winning wars against Western powers? How had it come to assume membership in that elite group of countries that shaped the global economy? These were the questions that principally concerned the proponents of ‘modernisation theory’.

However much its champions insisted that the theory was simply descriptive – ‘I use it to denote what is happening, good or bad, without making any value judgments,’ Edwin O. Reischauer, its most famous exponent, said in 1964 – they were being more than a little disingenuous. Implicit in ‘modernisation’ was the notion that since the 1850s Japan had – in fits and starts and with one very bad turn along the way – been moving towards the liberal capitalism that could be found in its most advanced form in the US.

The theory implied that Japanese oddities would simply melt away as it continued its century-long process of modernisation. And it also served to rebuke another intellectual tradition, one that particul-arly exercised the modernisation theorists because it, too, incorporated the notion of history moving in a linear direction but with a wholly different destination: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Japan’s Marxist scholars were seeking to understand what in Japan’s modern history had gone wrong, not what had gone right. They were more interested, for example, in the light shed by the events of the late 19th century on the horrors of the 1930s than on the income doubling of the 1960s. They were more concerned with the continued concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a small elite than they were with the postwar economic ‘miracle’; with the emasculation of the Japanese labour movement than with the proliferation of consumer durables; with the subordination of Japan’s foreign policy to American Cold War aims than with Japan’s membership in the club of advanced nations.

American modernisation theorists therefore had a second job to perform, and they were quite open about it. They set about counteracting the overwhelming Marxist dominance of Japanese historical scholarship by ‘offering modernisation theory as a more correct analysis for the Japanese to use in interpreting their own experience’, as John Dower put it. One job flowed from the other: Americans were unlikely to take kindly to the notion that their Asian protégé was in the grip of an intellectual establishment obsessed with the labour theory of value.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in