Japan Is: A) Adrift, B) Funny, C) Scary?

INVENTING JAPAN By William Chapman Prentice Hall -- 307pp -- $22

PACIFIC RIFT By Michael Lewis Norton -- 144pp -- $14.95

ZAIBATSU AMERICA By Robert L. Kearns Free Press -- 256pp -- $22.95

The U. S. debate about Japan is exploding. Americans are groping to understand this key ally and fierce competitor. Three new books attempt to unravel who the Japanese really are--and what they're up to.

It is a peculiar paradox: A seasoned Japan hand is confused; a neophyte sees the Japanese clearly.

Inventing Japan, by William Chapman, former Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, impresses at first with its detailed grasp of Japan's postwar history, including the U. S. occupation. His thesis: The nation underwent a "fundamental change" in the cultural and economic model that many blamed for Japan's aggression. Thus, Japan's "earlier history and culture," he claims, "had little to do" with its postwar success.

His assertion goes to the heart of the decades-old debate about whether Japan is becoming more like "us," or whether it remains culturally and economically distinct.

Chapman says the former is true, but he constantly undermines himself. After stating that the occupation created a new Japan, he shows how the American plan was undone. Yes, labor demands blossomed. But, as he concedes, they were later squelched. Yes, the Americans tried to break up zaibatsu, the business groups that fueled prewar expansion. But, he notes, they were reconstituted in slightly altered form as keiretsu. There was change: The emperor's role was reduced, and military power curbed. But it is preposterous to argue, as does Chapman, that Japan has forgotten its culture of 2,000 years or its century-old desire to catch up with and surpass the West.

Chapman's conclusion is especially unsatisfying. Japan is "adrift," he says. Some Japanese want to challenge the all-consuming business culture, but lack a vision for how to do it. Gripped "with a peculiar paralysis of political will," Japan cannot define a geopolitical role commensurate with its economic power.

But there's another explanation. The Japanese don't seek the geopolitical role Chapman would prescribe. They define their power as economic, and that power they have in abundance. Having spent $3 trillion on plant and equipment in the past five years, they will likely sustain their economic prowess well into the next century. As they are increasingly candid in saying, their values and systems are triumphing.

This book represents a misguided school of thought that has fed deep confusion about Japan. As the Post's man in Tokyo for 14 years, Chapman influenced not only other journalists but official Washington as well.

Michael Lewis, by contrast, is no Japan expert. Indeed, in Pacific Rift, Lewis (of Liar's Poker fame) says he set out to answer some "stupid questions." If so, they are questions millions of Americans ask: Why does Japan persist in piling up huge surpluses? Why such misunderstanding between the two peoples?

This slim volume (which was sent to executives and other "opinion makers" as a Whittle "direct book" last year and will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in April) depends on a simple device: Lewis spends time with American insurance executives in Japan, then travels with a Japanese real estate executive in Manhattan. In his customary wry style, he stumbles on many truths.

Executives at American International Group Inc., for example, find Japan's omnipotent bureaucrats more interested in maintaining stability than in fostering even internal competition. When the Americans develop and register a product, the bureaucrats tell Japanese rivals about it, so everyone's market share is preserved. " The barriers don't exist specifically to exclude foreigners," Lewis writes, "but to preserve the status quo."

Lewis' best material concerns the Japanese in America. We see Shuji Tomikawa, a Mitsui executive, peer through his sunroof at the skyscrapers he wants to buy. He's the sort of young, affluent Japanese that Chapman might expect to rebel against the Japanese system. Yet he is a player in a "zaibatsu turf war"--fought in New York. In 1986, Mitsui bought the Exxon building, and soon after, Sumitomo bought 666 Fifth Ave. To save face, Mitsubishi had to make a major purchase. With Mitsui circling Rockefeller Center, Mitsubishi offered $846 million, overpaying dearly.

Why? Maintaining prestige is key, Lewis explains, to attracting top talent from Japanese universities. These grads have buddies who will go on to run the Japanese bureaucracy, and such connections will let them make killings in Japanese real estate. Mitsubishi's purchase reflects this distinctly Japanese rivalry.

Lewis' take on all this is often comic, but his message is serious. He sees Japan as it is and sums up the challenge:~~ "How can our capitalism beat their capitalism?" By keeping his eyes open and asking the right questions, this newcomer comes up with penetrating insights.

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