Japan, The Bewildered Giant


A Volatile Nation's Quest

for Pride and Purpose

By John Nathan

Houghton Mifflin -- 271 pp -- $25

How could a nation that soared so high sink so low? This is the central question tackled in John Nathan's valuable Japan Unbound. Offering gripping detail, Nathan recounts how the seemingly invincible Japan of the go-go 1980s faltered and is now suffering from an identity crisis of epic proportions. It's a topic some other authors have addressed -- but few in such a comprehensive and colorful way. Nathan, whose previous work was 1999's Sony: The Private Life, makes a persuasive case that the institutions devised to propel Japan to the top of the economic heap have gone haywire. But he cautions readers not to write off Japan, which retains considerable "resoluteness...creativity, and vitality."

Nathan has long experience in the country: He arrived in Tokyo in 1961, just before Japan began to take off economically. Today, though, he says economic doldrums have undone the educational and corporate cultures that had become the envy of the world by the 1980s. In a recessionary environment, students are no longer guaranteed jobs after graduation, and the result can be seen in rising violence, absenteeism, and low test scores. Then there's the fabled company man. Employees used to toil six days a week and sacrifice family time in exchange for promotions and job security. These days, layoffs have led employees to be less company-identified.

Nathan eloquently describes the strains that have resulted: soaring rates of divorce, alcoholism, and domestic violence. Since 1997, suicides have increased, to double the per capita rate in the U.S. Some of these points may seem familiar. But Nathan backs them up with compelling interview material. For instance, a father, Kazuya Yano, tells him that "everyone feels confused. There are no more guarantees. We've lost our confidence and so have our children."

Nathan also masterfully captures the tension and uncertainty that exist in the upper echelons of corporate management. Yoshikazu Hanawa, the honorary chairman of Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ), justifies his decision to sell Japan's second-largest auto maker to France's Renault (RNO ) and to permit "cost killer" Carlos Ghosn to shake up the company, running everything strictly by the numbers. Admitting his own personal failings and those of Japanese management in general, Hanawa says: "We were stuck in our old habits and we needed a violent shock to set us back on course." Minoru Makihara, honorary chairman of Mitsubishi Corp. (MSBHY ), on the other hand, expresses doubts about Ghosn's ways. And Tadahiro Sekimoto, NEC Corp.'s (NIPNY ) former chairman emeritus, dismisses Nissan's turnaround as a result of "copycat management" that simply apes foreign slash-and-burn methods. "If every Japanese company took the Nissan approach to solving its problems, Japan would fall apart," says Sekimoto.

A longstanding nationalistic pride remains undiminished, Nathan asserts. One of the country's most powerful chauvinists is Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who, with Sony Corp.'s (SNE ) Akio Morita, in 1989 published the infamous The Japan That Can Say No, which urged Japan to resist U.S. pressure in trade and security matters. In the chapter devoted to Ishihara, he sounds as bombastic as ever. Moreover, among the younger generation, ultranationalistic comic books are all the rage. But, says the author, the nation's quest for an identity is also giving rise to new leaders who are the antithesis of the conservative Japanese politician. Nathan describes the rise of Yasuo Tanaka, the governor of Nagano Prefecture, who has launched reforms considered revolutionary in Japan, such as pulling the plug on pork-barrel public-works projects. In the process, he has angered his local assembly, business interests, and bureaucrats. Yet he has become a hero to many young people and a "champion of the grass-roots citizen movement," says Nathan.

This book isn't flawless. One bad choice comes right at the beginning, when the author slides into sensationalism. To illustrate that Japanese youth have lost their sense of purpose, Nathan tells how, in 1997, a 14-year-old boy known to the Japanese public only as "Youth A" assaulted, stabbed, hammered, and beheaded five children. Statistics show that such ghoulish crime is hardly common, but Nathan suggests that the killer may not be that abnormal. In general, he claims, Japanese teens have become "monsters" who have turned classrooms into war zones. Japan's once-respected teachers, or sensei, live in fear of their taunting, bellicose students, says the author. Juvenile crime may indeed be rising, but the events described hardly seem typical.

On the whole, Japan comes across as a bewildered giant. Yet Japan Unbound leaves one feeling that it won't remain that way. As Nathan observes, "the country has a long history of discovering in the darkest days...a source of renewal." A different, and perhaps much more independent-minded, nation may emerge from the current instability.

By Emily Thornton

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