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Sunrise, sunset: Japan in the American imagination since World War II.

Twenty years or so ago, Japan experts in the United States were on top of the world. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Japanese economy flew high, Americans seemed fascinated with Japan: audiences were easy to find, college classes were always full, the media overflowed with reports from across the Pacific. Many Americans viewed Japan with great admiration, some with hostility and resentment, and a majority perhaps with a kind of yearning, an envy tinged with nostalgia. Japan of the late 1980s seemed an eerie reincarnation of 1950s America, a nation in its glory days, economically potent, respected internationally, rock solid socially and politically. Japan seemed to have everything that America had somehow lost: safe streets, stable families, great schools, plenty of jobs and ever increasing material wealth. Just twenty years ago, Japan was a model, a vision, a threat, even a rebuke, that a United States down on itself could not ignore.

But in recent years, things have seemed far, far different. In the U.S., patriotism and national self-confidence swelled with the new millennium while Japan stumbled (indeed, stumbled badly) in the years following 1990. Japan has been mired in a tenacious recession for most of the past two decades, and there is no end in sight. Japanese society, once the model of probity and order, has frayed and fractured: gassings on the subway, schoolboy murderers, schoolgirl prostitutes, even the unfolding soap opera in the Japanese imperial family have badly tarnished Western images of Japan's tightly knit social fabric. Amidst the ongoing crisis, the central institutions of Japanese society--the conservative political establishment, the once- esteemed government bureaucracy, the corporate elites--have appeared rudderless and impotent. From our perspective at the start of the twenty-first century, the very notion of a "Japanese economic miracle" seems like ancient history. And indeed, in some ways, it is: few Americans can remember when Japan was an impoverished developing nation, few remember the days when Japanese products were synonymous with "cheap and shoddy," and soon few will even remember when Nissans were called Datsuns or the days when VCRs were made in Osaka rather than Guangzhou or Tijuana. To Generation X, Generation Y and their successors, nothing about Japan likely seems that miraculous, and most certainly not its economy. Indeed, to most Americans today, Japan and Japan's economic prospects seem rather irrelevant, not only in light of the very immediate problem of America's own economic woes, but even in comparison to the challenge of China, the process of globalization or the endless threat of international terrorism. The Japanese economic miracle is long gone and, just perhaps, is not even worth remembering.

However appealing this option might be, I am a historian and thus I think it is important to look back and get some sense of Japan's economic and social history of the past 60 years, examining a narrative that was (until quite recently) framed as an unparalleled "success story," but which now may seem more like a roller-coaster ride of thrilling ascents and harrowing free falls. Rather than presenting endless charts of economic indicators, or a wearying overview of Japan's crabbed political system, or a depressing litany of Japan's failings over the past decade, I would like to examine the rise and fall of Japan's miracle economy from a somewhat more unconventional--and, hopefully, somewhat more interesting--angle.

In 1985, when America's fears of Japan's rising economic power were near their zenith, a New York Times/CBS News poll asked 1,500 Americans to name a famous Japanese person. The top three responses were Hirohito, the Hong Kong martial arts star Bruce Lee, and Godzilla. This is, needless to say, a stinging indictment of American public knowledge of Japan: even in the days of Japan's greatest economic successes, Americans had plenty of stereotypes about Japan but little solid knowledge of Japanese history, culture or political economy. At the same time, these survey results are also a testament to the impact of popular culture icons--from Japanese royalty to a Chinese movie idol to a man in a green latex suit--on American perceptions of East Asia and its place in the world. Japan's cultural influence on contemporary America, one might well argue, is even more profound, pervasive and enduring than its economic or political impact.

Thus, my aim in this essay is to provide a whirlwind tour of Japanese history since 1945 by focusing largely on American images of Japan over the past sixty years. How have Americans--from academic specialists to the proverbial man or woman in the street--viewed Japan, its culture and its economic prospects? How have our perceptions--our stereotypes of Japan--changed over time? How, if at all, have they stayed the same? What, in the end, does this tell us about Japan, about ourselves and about the future course of U.S.-Japanese relations?

Japan as Geisha

Let's go back, then, a full six decades, to 1950. Japan at this point was still occupied by the United States and was still struggling to recover from World War II. Social dislocation, political instability and economic trauma were the facts of life in the years immediately following defeat. The American military had done its best to bomb Japan back to the stone-age, and Japanese industry was crippled first by the physical destruction of war, then by the postwar hyperinflation. In the wake of the conflict, Japan suffered from massive unemployment, endemic shortages of raw materials, slumping agricultural production and the loss of overseas markets.

In 1950, few observers could even imagine Japanese economic self-sufficiency, let alone an economic miracle. At the time of Japan's surrender, some in the U.S. government at least briefly entertained the notion of stripping Japan entirely of industry and returning it to subsistence agriculture. Few in Douglas MacArthur's occupying army took such a draconian view, but many believed that Japan had little chance of reestablishing itself as a major industrial power. Although Japan seemed to have the fundamentals for economic prosperity--well-educated workers, experience with modern industrial production, a serviceable financial infrastructure--American commentators were often fixated on Japan's handicaps: no capital, no technology, no natural resources. Even in the rosiest scenarios, Japan could only hope to aspire to dignified impoverishment. Japan's great advantage was seen as its cheap labor and dextrous, docile workers: the future lay in agriculture and light industry (such as textiles), oriented to export markets largely in Asia. The idea that Japan should prioritize heavy industrial development, such as steel, automobiles, shipbuilding and so on, seemed like an overly ambitious pipe dream to most. The notion that the Japanese people would rise above subsistence levels, and that domestic demand for consumer goods would one day fuel economic growth, would have seemed the stuff of fantasy to almost every informed observer at the time.

American perceptions of Japan in 1950 were shaped not only by postwar prostration of the nation, but also by the experience of World War II and America's triumphant victory, as well as by a certain stock of longer-standing Western cultural stereotypes of Japan. As John Dower has documented, America's wartime propaganda machine generated a wealth of images of the enemy Japanese, depicting them sometimes as fearsome supermen and immoral fiends, more often as insects, rodents or simians (Dower). Wartime academic studies of Japanese "national character" also created enduring impressions of Japan: Ruth Benedict, in her famous work The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, stressed the paradoxical, even schizophrenic nature of Japanese culture: "The Japanese are, to the highest degree, both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hostile to new ways" (Benedict 3). Benedict's reading of the Japanese was, in the larger range of possibilities, a relatively sensitive and perceptive one. Another basic analysis proposed during the war suggested that harsh toilet training practices had produced in Japan a nation of individuals who were compulsively clean, polite and obsequious, but for whom (in the words of Geoffrey Gorer) "behind the rituals of the individual obsessive can always be discovered a deeply hidden, unconscious and extremely strong desire to be aggressive" (quoted in Johnson 6).

By the early 1950s, however, the dominant American impression of Japan was not that of a race of schizophrenic, repressed bullies whose potty training had gone terribly wrong. Instead, I would suggest, it was the image of the geisha that had come to define Japan. Considering Japan in this feminized, orientalized form does, of course, have a long history in the West: Madame Butterfly, the story of Townsend Harris and Okichi, and Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthemum were all from this mold and established a stereotype of Japan that would be vigorously revived following World War II. Loti's book, first published in the 1880s, makes remarkably unpalatable reading today: it is framed as the memoir of a French sailor in Japan who romances the fragile and beautiful geisha Madame Chrysanthemum. Loti's tale is outrageously condescending throughout, but reaches a real crescendo at the end, when the sailor takes leave of his lover and her country:

Well, little musume, let us part good friends; one last kiss even, if you like. I took you to amuse me; you have not perhaps succeeded very well, but after all you have done what you could; given me your little face, your little curtseys, your little music; in short, you have been pleasant enough in your Japanese way. And who knows, perchance I may yet think of you sometimes when I recall this glorious summer [and] these pretty quaint gardens. (Loti 323)

Loti's spiritual heir in the 1950s was none other than James Michener, whose deliciously awful novel Sayonara was on the New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks in 1954. This work, thankfully one of Michener's shorter efforts, is the story of two U.S. soldiers in MacArthur's occupation forces. One, a goodhearted but none too bright private, marries a Japanese woman but ends up committing suicide when the Army refuses him permission to take his wife back home to Oklahoma. The other is an ambitious major with a bright future, who almost torpedoes his promising career by taking up with the delicate and beautiful Hana-ogi, a member of the famed Takarazuka Review. The key word here is "almost," since at the end of the novel the aspiring major unceremoniously dumps Hana-ogi for a promotion state-side and a nice blond girl with pearls and good teeth. Michener's account of Hana-ogi's "Dear John" letter would have made Pierre Loti proud:

As I read it, I could hear her gentle voice groping its way through my language:


Pretty soon our rast night. I Tokyo go. You America go. I not think fire die. Frame not go out. I think you many times. (Then she added a passage from her phrase book ...) Ever your devoted and humble servant

And the letter was signed with the Chinese characters representing her name. How strange they were, those characters, how beautiful, how deeply hidden from me behind the wall of Asia! (Michener 207)

In the aftermath of Japan's defeat, with the nation shattered industrially and psychologically, dependent on the United States for economic aid and political guidance, it probably should come as no surprise that American attitudes toward Japan were patronizing and that Japanese culture was feminized and perceived as somehow passive, premodern, tradition-bound, timeless and (needless to say) inferior.

Miracles and Monsters

The 1950s was, on the whole, a very good decade for Japan economically. The Korean War was an important catalyst: U.S. military procurements pulled the Japanese economy out of its postwar funk and gave much-needed impetus to the manufacturing sector. Japan's reentry into international trade proceeded smoothly and many of the overseas markets lost during World War II were progressively regained. Investment in new productive capacity and the introduction of the latest industrial technology from the West (such as the now-infamous case of the transistor) proceeded briskly. By 1954, Japan had clawed it way back to prewar levels of GNP. In 1956, one government economic report boldly declared that "the postwar period is over." In the latter half of the 1950s, Japanese national income grew at an average rate of 9.1 percent a year; by the 1960s, the real heyday of the miracle economy, annual growth averaged well over 10 percent.

Many elements contributed to this phenomenal expansion: much attention has been given to the role of the government bureaucracy in Japan's economic successes; some commentators have stressed the importance of Japan's neo-mercantilism (closed markets at home and ruthless export drives abroad); others have pointed to Japan's human resources, its skilled workers, able managers and cooperative unionists; a few have also accused the Japanese of getting a "free ride" on the path to prosperity, milking America for the latest technology and sheltering (at low cost) under Uncle Sam's military umbrella during the hottest decades of the Cold War. In recent years, however, many scholars have begun to acknowledge what may actually have been the most important factor in Japan's economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s: while the Japanese are usually depicted as the world's greatest savers, they have also proven to be some of the world's foremost spenders. And this was never more true than in the decades after World War II, when Japan's consumers, apparently compensating for the hardships and deprivations of the war years, bought at unprecedented levels.

The Japanese love witty slogans, and during the miracle economy some of the catchiest and most compelling slogans revolved around consumer desire and the intense social pressure in middle-class Japan to "keep up with the Tanakas." In the late 1950s, the acquisitive dream of the average Japanese family was the "three S's": senpuki, sentaku, suihanki (electric fan, washing machine and electric rice cooker). By the mid-1960s, enough Japanese had realized these dreams of electric appliance ownership that expectations had to be redefined: hence the "three C's": kaa, kura, kara terebi (car, air conditioner and color television). By the 1970s, only the "three J's" would suffice for any self-respecting Japanese suburbanite: jueru, jetto, jutaku (jewelry, overseas vacations and a home of one's own). Japan's economy made great strides in the two decades following World War II, and domestic consumers were, in many respects, both the instigators and the beneficiaries of Japan's "miraculous" growth.

Japan's economic achievements during the 1950s had been largely lost on the West, where "Made in Japan" was still more of a joke (or an insult) than a threat. From the early 1960s, though, some Western observers had begun to take notice of a new economic competitor in East Asia. In the fall of 1962, The Economist of London published a series of articles on the Japanese economy, subsequently released as a book entitled Consider Japan. This thin but influential volume documented Japan's economic progress since World War II and opened with the controversial (but entirely apt) premise that "Obviously in these circumstances the British economy has lessons to learn from the Japanese, not the other way round" (Correspondents of The Economist 15). As The Economist's study began, "The growth of the Japanese economy in the past 10 years has been one of the most extraordinary economic stories of all times. Here is a case where the whole way of life and prospects of a people have been transformed within a decade, and with the aid of an economic policy that has been singularly little studied in the West" (Correspondents of The Economist ix). But while Consider Japan drew some American and European attention, few of its readers took too seriously its clarion call to apply Japanese lessons abroad. The Economist may have put Japan on the radar screens of policymakers in the West, but the vast majority continued to regard Japan as an economic anomaly, a cultural curiosity and, for the most part, an inconsequential distraction.

A similar perspective seems to have characterized American pop culture images of Japan in the early 1960s. The geisha stereotype remained, as did an exoticized, aesthetic view of Japanese culture much at odds with the reality of rapid economic growth and the commodity fetishism of electric fans and rice cookers. By the 1960s, however, America had also come to embrace a new cultural icon from Japan, one considerably larger than a bonsai, more lethal than a geisha and more radioactive than a Zen rock garden. This new Japanese export was, of course, Godzilla.

The original Godzilla film--Gojira in Japanese--was made in 1954 and was intended as serious fare for an adult audience. The story of a prehistoric survivor made monstrous by American H-bomb testing had a sober message: Gojira was essentially an anti-nuclear fable which drew effectively upon Japanese audiences' feelings of vulnerability, memories of destruction in World War II and lingering antipathy towards the United States. In the export version of this movie, titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters and released in 1956, such potentially provocative themes were excised; in their place was inserted Raymond Burr as the voyeuristic American journalist Steve Martin, who provides an apolitical play-by-play account of the destruction of Tokyo. The Godzilla films (there have now been 28 made) went on, of course, to become staples of American pop culture, the campy delights of Saturday double-features and late-night reruns (Tsutsui).

Conjecturing how Godzilla helped shape American images of Japan is no easy matter, yet it seems that the Godzilla films tended to reinforce (rather than recast) existing American stereotypes. The monster was portrayed as irrational, aggressive, randomly destructive and one might even say inscrutable, much as the Japanese soldier had been perceived by the American public during World War II. Moreover, the Godzilla films portrayed the Japanese people for the most part as helpless and hapless victims: the movies powerfully reinforced American impressions of the Japanese as weak, ineffective, physically small and temperamentally passive. The Japan of Godzilla was fragile and delicate, feminized in the eyes of an American audience. Thus, despite superficial differences, the figure of the geisha and the King of the Monsters could both promote the same enduring stereotypes of Japan's national character.

Learning from Japan

By 1980, Americans could no longer take the Japanese economic achievement for granted. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese products flooded the U.S. market and American consumers embraced Japanese imports that were no longer "cheap and shoddy," but increasingly appeared to be high quality and affordable, especially in comparison to domestically produced goods. Perhaps above all, it was the speed of Japan's economic advance that caught American businessmen and policymakers off guard. In 1959, no Japanese motorcycles were sold in the United States; by 1966, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki controlled almost 85 percent of the American market. Japanese automakers only started producing passenger cars in the 1950s; in 1964, Toyota shipped 50 Coronas to California to test consumer reactions (and the cars were pretty much a flop); just a decade later, however, Toyota was selling American drivers about 300,000 cars a year; and by 1984, the figure was almost half a million. When President Gerald Ford visited Japan in 1974, he presented a group of Japanese parliamentarians with the latest portable cassette recorders which, embarrassingly enough, under their American trade marks were discretely labeled "Made in Japan."

Many overseas observers smugly predicted that the 1970s would mark the end of the Japanese economic miracle. Some argued that Japan had closed the gap technologically with the West in the 1950s and 1960s, and that Japan's rapid "catch up" growth was sure to peter out soon. Others pointed to changes in the world political climate, arguing that rising protectionism would block Japan from the open foreign markets upon which it had come to depend. Certainly, the early 1970s did witness the first real kink in Japan's amazing postwar success story: the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-1974 brought the high-flying (but hydrocarbon poor) Japanese economy back to earth with a jolt. Thirty percent inflation and the abrupt end of positive economic growth led Edwin Reischauer to remark that "for [the Japanese] the world would never seem the same again" (quoted in Buckley 76).

Such sentiments, however, soon reeked of Western wishful thinking. In fact, Japan bounced back quickly from the shocks of the early 1970s. The engine of Japan's recovery was exports, and the destination of most of the cars, Walkmen and VCRs that revived the Japanese economy was, needless to say, the United States. In 1974, Japanese-U.S. trade was more-or-less in balance; by 1976, America's trade deficit with Japan was about $4 billion; by 1978, $10 billion; and by 1985, more than $40 billion. The annual growth rate of Japan's GNP slowed in the late 1970s from the heady heights of previous decades, yet hovered consistently around 5 percent, a figure that was more than just respectable in an era of American "stagflation" and pallid global growth.

By the latter half of the 1970s, increasing numbers of Americans had begun to realize that Japan was a force to be reckoned with and studied, not just economically (though the economic challenge was most pressing), but socially and culturally as well. In 1979, the Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel published the audaciously titled Japan as Number One, a book which sold far better in Japan than in the United States, but which had a profound impact on a generation of American policymakers. Vogel's argument was simple and startling to many:

When I first returned to the United States from Japan in 1960, I had not even questioned the general superiority of American society and American institutions. In almost every field we were substantially ahead of Japan, our capacity for research and creativity was unexcelled, and our natural and human resources seemed more than adequate. By 1975 I found myself, like my Japanese friends, wondering what had happened to America.

Japan has dealt more successfully with more of the basic problems of postindustrial society than any other country. It is in this sense, I have come to believe, that the Japanese are number one.... In America, our confidence in the superiority of Western civilization and our desire to see ourselves as number one make it difficult to acknowledge that we have practical things to learn from Orientals. I am convinced that it is a matter of urgent national interest for Americans to confront Japanese successes more directly and consider the issues they raise. (Vogel ix)

Vogel's clarion call was soon embraced by an army of aspiring Japan hands, each of whom promised to reveal the secrets of Japan's success for $12.95 in hardback or $3.95 in paper: Theory Z, The Japanese Mind, The Book of Five Rings, David Halberstam's The Reckoning, and dozens (if not hundreds) of now-forgotten titles competed to satiate the American public's desire to learn about and from Japan. This theme came to permeate American pop culture treatments of Japan as well. The image of an exotic, feminized Japan was tenacious, yet it was joined in the 1970s by a new emphasis on studying Japan as a potential model for American social and economic revitalization. The best example of this unlikely combination was James Clavell's Shogun, the book and mini-series which defined Japan in the American imagination in the 1970s, and which fused (in its 1200 pages of text and 12 hours of air-time) both an exoticizing perspective and a more earnest didactic message.

Shogun was the story, based rather loosely on an actual historical episode, of an English seaman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and ends up the trusted advisor of Japan's military hegemon, the Tokugawa shogun. The work was lambasted by some critics as a virtual "catalog of stereotypes of Japanese violence and barbarity from the Pacific War" (Smith 15) and, indeed, the book both begins and ends with incidents of tremendous savagery. Yet most scholars, both at the time and since, have been willing to overlook Shogun's gratuitous sex and violence, and to praise Clavell for seeking to educate his readers about Japan. As William LaFleur has written,

In reading Shogun I could not shake off the impression that it is the most didactic novel I had read in many years--as strange as this might seem in so swashbuckling a tale. I asked myself exactly what it was that the author, in addition to telling a good story, wanted to say or teach. My first answer was that Clavell in Shogun wanted to provide something of an induction into Japanese civilization, that he intended to convince his readers in the West that, when understood, Japan has been as civilized a culture as our own. But I later revised this opinion and concluded that the author's didactic program is even more ambitious, for he holds that certain aspects of Japanese civilization--basic attitudes about life and death, for instance--ought to be not only appreciated but also adopted by us in the West. (LaFleur 71)

In the end, it may not have been Ezra Vogel, but rather Richard Chamberlain--the mini-series superstar at the head of Shogun s television cast--who eventually convinced America that Japan could be a model as well as a menace, more inspiring than inscrutable.

Japan Rising

The late 1980s were heady times indeed in Japan. The nation seemed inexorably headed toward global economic dominance: the Japanese were the wealthiest, best educated and longest-lived people in the world; many commentators heralded of the end of the pax Americana and the start of the "Pacific Century"; pundits confidently declared that Japan had, in fact, won the Cold War. Enriched by an unprecedented stock market and real estate boom at home, Japan's corporations and financial titans went on a buying spree abroad: $80 million for a van Gogh, $850 million for Rockefeller Center, $3 billion for Columbia Pictures, a paltry $900 million for the Pebble Beach Golf Course. Japan's banks were the largest in the world; the few moated acres of Tokyo's imperial palace, it was said, were worth more than all the land in the state of California combined.

The wealth of this charmed time was, as we know now, built only on the shakiest of financial foundations. Beginning in 1985, the Bank of Japan pursued an expansionary monetary policy, which led to a speculative boom in real estate and equities, which gave rise to fierce competition in the banking sector and which, in turn, fueled reckless lending policies. The prosperity of the late 1980s was really little more than a financial house of cards, a false paradise of paper profits or, as it has since come to be known, the "bubble economy."

At the time, however, neither Japanese nor American observers gave much thought to the shallow roots of Japan's economic ascent. Instead, many Japanese public figures, apparently compensating for decades of perceived slights by arrogant Americans, wallowed in a self-satisfied triumphalism. Japan, they seemed to gloat, was more than just "number one"; it was the apex of modern civilization, a culture so unique and so perfect in its constitution that the discredited societies of the West would be forever vanquished. America should not learn from Japan, but just graciously accept Japan's lead.

Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this provocative viewpoint was the marvelously titled but atrociously written book, The Japan that Can Say No. Originally penned in Japanese by Sony founder Morita Akio and the unsavory politician Ishihara Shintaro, the volume was released in Japan in 1989 and published in the United States (under Ishihara's name only) in 1991. A rambling agglomeration of anecdotes and techno-babble, The Japan that Can Say No was a tirade against American racism and conceit, a condemnation of weak Japanese political leadership, and a paean to the transcendent power of Japan's cultural heritage. Ishihara chose some odd literary references but left no ambiguity about his main point:

The message is clear: we Japanese must think and act for ourselves and stop being a dutiful underling.

The first step in that direction is to get rid of our servile attitude toward the United States. We should no longer be at Washington's beck and call. The ending of The King and I suggests a great beginning for Japan. As the father is dying, the young son who will become king proclaims a new era for Siam: No longer will the subjects bow like toads. They will stand erect, "shoulders back and chin high," and look the king in the eye as a proud people were meant to do....

Today, the worldwide attention focused on Japan is due to our prosperity and wealth. Of course, money counts, but we also have tradition and culture, wellsprings of creativity, and high technology neither Moscow nor Washington can ignore. To be fully appreciated, we must, when matters of crucial national interest warrant, articulate our position and say no to the United States. (Ishihara 106)

Japan's economic strength in the late 1980s emboldened not only Japanese commentators like Ishihara. American politicians, businessmen, scholars and journalists also joined the fray: some chided Japan for unfair business practices; some criticized U.S. business for its inflexibility; some bemoaned American work culture; some laid the blame on Washington's doorstep. Not surprisingly, many of these debates and much of the handwringing about America's future came to inform the images of Japan being created in U.S. popular culture. Perhaps the best example of this is Michael Crichton's 1992 bestseller Rising Sun, subsequently made into a cinematic blockbuster starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Rising Sun was slammed by many Japanese commentators as blatant "Japan bashing," an inaccurate, hostile and racist account of predatory Japanese business practices in the high tech sector. And, to some extent, such criticisms were on target. Yet Rising Sun, like Shogun before it, was actually a very didactic novel, and its moral was far less bigoted and malicious than many alleged. Crichton made his agenda clear in an afterword to the novel:

Sooner or later, the United States must come to grips with the fact that Japan has become the leading industrial nation in the world.... But they haven't succeeded by doing things our way. The Japanese have invented a new kind of trade--adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out the competition--which America has failed to understand for several decades. The United States keeps insisting the Japanese do things our way. But increasingly, their response is to ask, why should we change? We're doing better than you are. And indeed they are.

It is absurd to blame Japan for successful behavior, or to suggest that they slow down. The Japanese consider such American reactions childish whining and they are right. It is more appropriate for the United States to wake up, to see Japan clearly, and to act realistically.

The Japanese are not our saviors. They are our competitors. We should not forget it. (Crichton 393-4)

The plot of Rising Sun is too convoluted to summarize, but one central metaphor is worth exploring. The novel revolves around the murder of a wholesome but misguided Los Angeles call-girl who represents America in Crichton's morality play. The call-girl is in the employ of an aggressive Japanese conglomerate, and she is offered as a sexual treat to a venal, self-serving U.S. senator. After she is symbolically raped by the senator (suggesting, of course, the betrayal of the American people by their political leadership), she is unceremoniously murdered by a flunky of corporate Japan. Crichton's imagery is unsubtle, but it is also quite interesting when viewed from a longer historical perspective: there are no geisha in Rising Sun, indeed just the opposite--it is America which is the feminized, passive, victimized character here. By 1990, then, the tables seemed to be turning, as even U.S. pop culture began to internalize Japan's dizzying economic ascent and America's disheartening cultural malaise.

The Return of the Geisha

Things have certainly changed over the past twenty years. The extent of Japan's problems (and the renaissance of American pride) were summarized nicely in an editorial by Mort Zuckerman which appeared in U.S. News and World Report in 1997:

The Japanese enjoyed a splendid sunrise in the Eighties. Is the sun now setting in the Nineties?

It seems that way. The Nineties have given them their deepest and longest recession since World War II, a collapse of their stock and real-estate markets, and a banking system overloaded with bad loans.

The result is a mood of startling pessimism among the people, made all the starker by the memory of the Eighties. Then, Japan was the economic juggernaut. It replaced America as the world's leading and largest creditor. ... How the world has changed! The Asian values that once were praised for fostering discipline now are criticized for stifling new ideas and the individual enterprise critical to the information age....

Can Japan change? (Zuckerman 80)

Japan's national story has been one of woe since the collapse of the "bubble economy" in the early 1990s. The Japanese economy has been in recession for well over a decade and continues to languish almost two decades later, despite laughably easy monetary policies and massive infusions of government spending. The Nikkei index, which stood at a robust 39,000 at the end of 1989 had withered to only 14,000 two years later (and dipped below 10,000 in mid 2010). Land prices plummeted no less precipitously. One author has described the 1990s as Japan's age of "vanishing wealth," when a decade's worth of capital creation could evaporate in a matter of weeks. Unemployment has hit record levels and domestic industry has been eviscerated as manufacturing has fled Japan for cheaper venues in China and Southeast Asia. The Japanese banking sector has teetered on the edge of oblivion since 1989, and only very imaginative accounting keeps it anywhere near solvent even today. The Japanese political elites have proven themselves thoroughly unable to cope with the nation's economic morass: just when Japan has needed a strong hand on the helm of state, the conservative ruling bloc has fragmented and the bureaucracy waivered. In the midst of economic and political uncertainty, even the bedrock institutions of Japanese society--the family, the schools, the imperial family--have appeared to fracture and fail.

Japan, in short, is yesterday's news in the United States. We Americans have moved on to new international villains and on to new heroes. Yet in American popular culture, at least, images of Japan and imports from Japan have continued to proliferate over the past decade. Phenomena like Japanese animation and Iron Chef, Nintendo video game consoles, and Japanese stars in Major League Baseball have all captivated the American public, but I would like to concentrate on yet another work of fiction, the latest bestseller on Japan to leave its mark on the American popular imagination. Indeed, this title can claim to be the most popular book on Japan published since World War II, having been on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year. It is, of course, Arthur Golden's 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Memoirs of a Geisha is the richly textured tale of the coming of age of Sayuri, a poor fisherman's daughter who eventually becomes the most desired geisha in Kyoto. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Memoirs bears far more resemblance to James Michener's or even Pierre Loti's work than to Shogun and Rising Sun. Memoirs of a Geisha is by no stretch of the imagination a didactic book: it makes no pretense that there are important things to be learned from Japan or even that Americans need to know more about Japan. Indeed, the basic tone of Memoirs seems consistent with the general American assumption of the late 1990s that we don't need to worry about Japan anymore, and that we certainly don't have anything useful to learn from the Japanese. Japan, the novel seems to tell us, is very distant, very alien, very exotic; it's a world unto itself, almost a fairytale world into which Golden affords us a voyeuristic peek; it's an unthreatening place, a world not of warriors or shrewd businessmen, but instead of cloistered women, arcane customs and men obsessed with pleasure (rather than economic domination). One might say that, with Memoirs of a Geisha, Japan is being reinscribed in the American popular imagination as an "Oriental" place: now that the Japanese economic challenge has apparently been turned back by American might, Japan can be comfortably relegated to its familiar spot in an exoticized, eroticized, orientalized and, needless to say, feminized corner of the American cultural map of the world.

With Memoirs of a Geisha, I would suggest, American images of Japan have come full circle since World War II. The economic miracle is over, Japan's threat to the American Way of Life has (apparently) passed. Japan has returned to a familiar and comfortable place in the collective American imagination, a longstanding default-setting only temporarily interrupted by a few incongruous decades of Japanese success and American self-doubt.

One final cultural icon that, along with the revived image of the geisha, may just encapsulate American perceptions of Japan at the start of the new millennium is also worth considering. This icon is diminutive, wondrous and alien, cute and cuddly yet also monstrous and aggressive, intellectually insipid and culturally pervasive, and a product of real marketing genius. Yes, it's Pikachu, the ring leader of Pokemon, the "pocket monsters" that have immeasurably enriched Nintendo and inexplicably entranced American youth after their release in 1998. Back in the mid-1980s, America's foremost thinkers would probably have demonized Pokemon as a wily Japanese plot, a clever scheme for undermining America's economic security and national self-confidence through addictive trading cards and crafty fast-food tie-ins. Such paranoia would, needless to say, be unwarranted in the twenty-first century. Pokemon, like Japan today, is at worst an annoyance and at best an amusing distraction.


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Author:Tsutsui, William M.
Publication:East-West Connections
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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