Why Japan Can't Get Its Groove Back

By Brian Bremner


By Ian Buruma

Modern Library -- 194pp -- $19.95

Japan is in a cultural funk. Its economic dynamism is long gone, and no imaginative political leadership has emerged to end its decline. The country needs to hit the restart button, redefine itself, and break free of insularity and conformity. But what are the origins of its problems? For answers, a good place to start is the brief and engaging Inventing Japan by longtime Japan-watcher Ian Buruma.

Proving that less can be more, Buruma takes fewer than 200 pages to artfully condense a century of modern Japanese history, from the Meiji Restoration of the late 1800s to the 1964 Olympics. This isn't a work of earth-shattering scholarship, nor does it pretend to be. Serious students of Japan will recognize the influence of such works as Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix, and John W. Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.

What makes Buruma's book valuable is its lively prose and synthesis of numerous theories regarding the making of modern Japan. The country has repeatedly failed to develop a functioning democracy, he says, leaving key decisions in the hands of a remote and unaccountable elite. The author also considers Japan's long identity crisis, marked by frequent outbursts of violent xenophobia. Its habit of inventing itself via ideas borrowed from other cultures has often left the country floundering for national direction. Since World War II, in particular, Japan has failed to discover its place in the world, instead wallowing in "an infantile dependency on the United States."

Buruma starts his tale in 1853, with the arrival in Edo Bay of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry's heavily armed "black ships," which had come to open up Japanese ports. That marked the beginning of Japan's confrontation with a technologically superior West and of its gradual separation from its longtime cultural mentor, China. The culture clash that followed gave rise to social upheaval and a civil war that brought down the Tokugawa Shogunate's military dictatorship, established the Emperor Meiji as the divine ruler, and produced a new constitution based on Prussia's authoritarian model.

The system had several shortcomings: Its architects were "steeped in the samurai ethos of loyalty, obedience, and military discipline." But the mortal flaw, in the author's view, was the setup's sheer vagueness and inherent contradiction. The Emperor, though divine, was to leave policymaking to the bureaucrats. But the military owed their allegiance to the August One and not to the civilian government. The politics of smoke and mirrors, still characteristic of Japan, owes much to the Meiji era.

The period did produce some gifted intellectuals. Buruma is a fan of Yukichi Fukuzawa, an educator, advocate of Western-style learning, and founder of the academy that later became Keio University. Yet it was a dangerous time to question the culture's reflexive conformism and nativism: There were numerous assassinations of writers and others expressing liberal political views. Buruma asserts that the country's political evolution never kept pace with its rapid industrialization and the military advances that led to its surprising victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

That would become appallingly clear as, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea and, after World War I, grabbed Germany's colonies in China. The lack of civilian control over Japan's increasingly radicalized military set the stage for the Manchurian Incident of 1931, in which Japanese officers faked an attack by Chinese warlords to justify a brutal land grab in China. That, in turn, would end in confrontation with the U.S.

The forces that led to Pearl Harbor are complex, and Buruma's take on the Pacific War is evenhanded. Yet it is clear to him that wartime Japan, led by the nervous and impressionable Emperor Hirohito, was badly mismanaged. Hirohito was accountable to nobody and made disastrous decisions. Not least, he waited far too long to surrender.

It turns out that, despite some worthwhile economic and political reforms, postwar master General Douglas MacArthur and his band of reformers didn't serve the country much better. The Emperor repudiated his divinity and faded in importance. But he wasn't forced to abdicate or take any responsibility for Japan's wartime policies. And once the Cold War commanded Washington's attention, the reform drive stalled in Japan. Eventually, a powerful alliance emerged among political conservatives, Big Business, the ministries, and even the criminal underworld.

By the mid-1960s, when Buruma's narrative ends, Japan was fixated on little other than high-speed economic growth. And by following the lead of the U.S., it neglected to develop a foreign policy of its own. What's more, the Japanese people never worked through the implications of the country's World War II aggression: Amid such prosperity, what was the point? Then, Japan's speculative economic bubble burst. The country is still prosperous, but its future is uncertain.

Buruma finds that, as in the Meiji period, Japan today seems to be waiting for some outside force to compel it to change. He looks forward to the day "when Japanese free themselves and can finally bid the black ships farewell."

Bremner is Tokyo bureau chief.

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