So This Is Where Japan Is Headed


The Rise and Fall of Japan's Postwar

Political Machine

By Jacob M. Schlesinger

Simon & Schuster 366pp $25


A Reinterpretation

By Patrick Smith

Pantheon 385pp $27.50

To Western eyes, Japan has always been something of a house of mirrors. Its social cohesion, world-class multinationals, and unique brand of bureaucratic capitalism seemed an unbeatable combination during the 1980s. Then, this decade, its economic slide and backward diplomacy highlighted some glaring weaknesses: occasional ethnic snobbery, enduring insularity, and a money-bag political system, all of which often defied understanding and invited ridicule.

Sorting through these paradoxes isn't easy. Perhaps that's why published works on Japan often get trapped in one of two conceptual cul-de-sacs. Numerous tomes since the 1980s have either exaggerated the country's strengths or, more recently, smugly dispatched the Japanese model to history's scrap heap. Two new books, while saddled with some contradictions, are refreshingly cant-free about what ails Japan and where it might be heading.

Wall Street Journal reporter and former Tokyo correspondent Jacob M. Schlesinger, author of Shadow Shoguns, thinks Japan's stunning economic rise and fall owe much to its money-driven politics. Japan: A Reinterpretation by former International Herald Tribune Tokyo bureau chief Patrick Smith also sees a dysfunctional political system as a root cause of the country's woes, but Smith's analysis is broader, drawing on literary and sociological sources as well as on personal observations.

Shadow Shoguns is a lively and anecdote-rich account of the eerie parallels between Tokyo's now-battered political machine and that of New York's Tammany Hall. Both were systems driven by "blatant favoritism, monumental amounts of pork, and gold-plated corruption," Schlesinger writes. And in a sense, Japan's was the natural outgrowth of U.S. cold-war diplomatic priorities that freed the country of national-security concerns and helped create a postwar political culture focused almost exclusively on economic advancement.

Schlesinger's strongest chapters trace the emergence of Japan's most colorful postwar political fixer: Kakuei Tanaka. The antithesis of the polished Tokyo University elite who ran the country before World War II, Tanaka was the son of a compulsive gambler and hailed from snow country, a blizzard-prone region in Northwest Japan long ignored by the central government.

Although poor, Tanaka quickly amassed a personal fortune in construction, as Japanese cities required rebuilding after the war. By parlaying his wealth--buying the loyalty of fellow pols often with envelopes stuffed with yen--and by promising and delivering new train lines, bridges, and highway extensions to his constituents, Tanaka's political career took off in the late 1940s. He built a powerful following within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. By 1972, Tanaka, then 54, had become the youngest Prime Minister in postwar history.

Schlesinger masterfully demonstrates why Tanaka personified the collusive ties between Japanese politicians and Big Business. With the economy growing at double-digit rates, Tanaka oversaw a multibillion dollar public-works bonanza. Nobody seemed to mind that his business interests, and those of his cronies, were enriched along the way. And even after being convicted for his role in the Lockheed bribes-for-contract scandal in the mid-'70s, Tanaka still called the shots and handpicked a series of premiers.

Yet over time, as one outrage followed another, it became clear that "Tanaka was not a monstrous aberration, as many Japanese had liked to believe," says Schlesinger. In the late '80s, 17 pols were indicted for engaging in illicit stock deals or bribery with an outplacement company called Recruit. In 1992, evidence surfaced that another LDP "shadow shogun," Shin Kanemaru, had introduced yakuza leaders to Sagawa Kyubin, a parcel-delivery company that was interested in expanding its real estate lending to underworld borrowers.

By 1993, as Japanese felt the sting of the bust in stock and property prices, the LDP's decades-long run of political dominance finally crashed. At the time, the rise to power of an anti-LDP coalition was heralded by some as the end of an era. And, ironically, the LDP collapse resulted from the actions of a Tanaka protege: Ichiro Ozawa, who led a defection from the party and eventually created the opposition New Frontier Party. Schlesinger, whose wife served as an aid to Ozawa, ably covers Ozawa's conversion from party hack to radical reformer.

Yet he's far from persuasive in arguing that Ozawa "may go down in history as a kind of Japanese Gorbachev" and that the nation's political culture likely will become more responsive. After all, two reform coalition governments orchestrated by Ozawa have come and gone, and the LDP under Ryutaro Hashimoto is in firm control of the current one. There's now even talk that a chunk of Ozawa's New Frontier group will bolt back to the LDP, returning it to uncontested power. If so, the LDP might be tempted to continue the sordid money politics of old.

Japan: A Reinterpretation also sees a country in the midst of a profound transformation, one as historic as the late-19th century Meiji Restoration that began building an industrial state or the wartime collapse that brought the trappings of U.S.-style democracy. "The Japanese stand poised to rid themselves of the psychology of dependence" and a self-image as a virtual military protectorate of the U.S., says the author. What's more, Smith notes, Japanese are now seeking to alter the very thing that most people think sets them apart: the relationship between the individual and society.

Smith argues convincingly that, for centuries, the West's views of Japan have been skewed by cultural arrogance. He also delivers a scathing critique of America's Chrysanthemum Club intellectuals, led by Harvard University's Edwin O. Reishchauer, that "presided over the formal marriage of American scholarship to cold-war ideology."

These scholars portrayed Japan as an essentially conformist society that, though temporarily hijacked by militarists, would ultimately embrace Western ways, including democratic politics and market economics. In Washington, such views justified enlisting a former enemy to fight communist expansion in Asia. In Tokyo, they provided a handy way of dodging tough questions about Japan's wartime rampage in Asia. The author credits a later generation of thinkers such as Chalmers Johnson for pointing out that Japan never really altered its political economy--or even intended to do so. However, he faults some of these so-called revisionists for fueling Western paranoia with images of a Japan hell-bent on global economic domination.


Unfortunately, Smith doesn't deliver the kind of breakthrough analysis one would expect from the book's title, at least not convincingly. Smith has a discerning eye for the conflicted nature of ordinary Japanese, demonstrating that many desire to break free of mass conformity and express their individuality. He offers plausible evidence that a new, or previously submerged, Japanese national identity is starting to take shape. However, there's less guidance on how this might change Japan's political or economic model or affect its relationship with the rest of the world.

In the end, both Smith's and Schlesinger's books are worth a read. They demonstrate that no single theory can adequately explain the complexities of modern Japan. It's a far too interesting place for that.