Japan: A Patient Predator?

By Brian Bremner


How America Loses the Intellectual Game

with Japan and Its Implications

for Our Future in Asia

By Ivan P. Hall

M.E. Sharpe -- 324pp -- $68.95 cloth, $26.95 paper

Three years ago, Ivan P. Hall turned out a gem of a book, Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop, which detailed how Japan systematically shuts out foreign scholars, lawyers, and scientific researchers from positions of influence. That volume went a long way toward explaining Japan's intellectual insularity. Hall's new book, Bamboozled! How America Loses the Intellectual Game with Japan and Its Implications for Our Future in Asia, considers the distorted images, faulty analysis, and naivete that, the author believes, too often shape U.S. policy toward Japan. Hall thinks that Japan has outfoxed Washington with empty promises on economic reform while keeping its predatory and mercantilist economic model pretty much in place. Bamboozled! offers stimulating if somewhat exaggerated analysis.

During the 1990s, Japan fell into a decade of stagnation as the U.S. basked in a sense of economic triumph. This has led American policymakers, academics, and journalists to feel complacent about a Japan that is becoming less democratic and more nationalistic, says Hall. What's more, he feels Japan may lead other Asian societies away from U.S. economic values as it attempts to win back its influence in Asia. Warns Hall: "Japan is the only country in the world capable of mounting a real challenge to America's universalistic gospel of liberal capitalistic democracy."

This may strike some as a little overwrought. Yet Hall has spent most of his adult life thinking about the puzzle that is Japan. He earned a PhD in Japanese history from Harvard University in the 1960s and has since spent three decades working and living in Japan. He is fluent in the language and in the inner workings of Japan's society, government, and academies.

As Hall sees it, Japan doesn't receive the critical scrutiny that the U.S. gives other allies. Part of this is just plain inattention. But he also believes that Washington's fixation on maintaining security ties leads the U.S. to gloss over the reality of Japan's full, unreciprocated access to the massive U.S. market. He also thinks Tokyo officialdom is masterful at manipulation--labeling any criticism as "Japan bashing" while pumping millions of dollars into its Washington lobbying networks and into friendly academic research.

Those who follow the so-called revisionist school of commentary on Japan will find many of Hall's points familiar. In this view, Japan's largely closed, bureaucratic, export-driven economy represents a separate kind of capitalism, and the country has no intention of adopting the more open, Anglo-American system. To imagine otherwise, they say, is dangerous.

During the late 1980s, as Japanese companies took leadership roles in one industry after another, such analysis carried plenty of weight. But if Japan is no longer the economic juggernaut it once was--or if it is becoming more, not less, dependent on U.S. markets and military protection--one must ask: Which country really has the upper hand? Hall too easily buys into the notion that Japan's economic problems are a passing squall rather than deep-rooted and structural. He feels that its position as a net creditor, with more than $1 trillion in net external assets--everything from U.S. Treasury bonds to Toyota truck plants in Indiana--bestows undisputed power over America. If the U.S. pushes too hard, Japan can threaten to repatriate the assets, leaving the U.S. economy in dire straits.

Given that the U.S. is a vital market for its exports and investments, that's far-fetched. All the same, Hall is spot-on in his analysis of a deep resistance to U.S.-style business practices. Once Japan recovers fully, he suspects Tokyo officialdom will become even more reluctant to change. Hence, the need for the U.S. to smarten up and cast a gimlet eye on Japanese trade practices.

Hall also thinks the U.S. has failed to appreciate a huge rightward shift in Japanese politics. It is true that the pacifist doves of the Japanese left are a much-diminished force. Hall sees a tug-of-war on the right. On the one hand there are conservative moderates, who want Japan to play a more constructive role in the world. On the other is an ultraconservative group that "still nurses the shame of defeat, views Japan's postwar democratic dispensation as an American imposition, remains rooted in a prewar-style nationalistic psychology, and hankers after some device or development that will settle old scores and wipe the emotional state clean."

He worries, too, about how a pan-Asian ideology might spread from Japan across the region. If the U.S. is not vigilant, it could find itself unwelcome both as an economic model and as a regional security czar. Hall acknowledges that Japan's war history blocks it from being too assertive in the region, but its sheer economic clout in South Asia and greater China could offset that problem.

The author is at his best when he surveys the fitful U.S. attempts over the years to marry free-market ideology with scholarship and when he describes Americans' conflicting and naive images of Japan. Hall also rages against the dearth of Japanese-language skills and the lack of intellectual rigor among U.S. diplomats and other professionals.

Although Bamboozled! has its weak points, it nonetheless represents a provocative call to cut through "the cobwebs of the mind" involving Japan. In the post-September 11 era, a consistent, well-reasoned, and sometimes hard-edged U.S. foreign policy matters more than ever. In the case of Japan, Hall says tough love is the best approach.

Bremner is Tokyo bureau chief.

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