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The Enigma of Japanese Power.

The Enigma of Japanese Power. Karel van Wolferen. Knopf, $24.95. One reason Westerners know so little about the way Japan works is that few of them can stand to live there for long. Witness the Bain & Co. consultant who opened an interview in Tokyo by telling me that American companies should send their best people to Japan and closed it by saying he couldn't wait to leave. That kind of thinking is fine with the locals. For all their talk about the need for greater outside "understanding" of Japan, most Japanese instinctively feel that the less we know about them, the better. In that respect Karel van Wolferen's book is likely to make any Japanese who reads it very uncomfortable. This is an excellent guide to the Japanese polity. You may wonder how van Wolferen, a Dutch journalist, could spend 15 years in a country that bothered him so much, but you won't regret that he did. His study of how power is exercised in Japan does more to explain the roots of the "Japan problem" than the work of legions of anthropologists, journalists, and political scientists before him.

What distinguishes van Wolferen's book from other broad-brush portraits of Japan Inc. is that it provides political rather than cultural explanations for Japanese behavior. The standard line, for example, about why Japan has so few lawyers - one for every 9,924 people, versus one for every 360 in the United States - and lawsuits is that the Japanese as a people are culturally disposed to avoid conflict and prize harmony. But as van Wolferen points out, "The judiciary and bar are kept artificially minuscule by strict controls over entry into the legal profession." Confirmation can be found in van Wolferen's observation that in a recent year only 1.7 percent of Japanese law school graduates passed their bar exam, compared to 74 percent of American ones. Clearly, the difference isn't the test-takers - Japanese students have typically excelled at rote learning in U.S. schools - it's the test.

Restricting access to legal recourse is just one of many ways in which "the System," as van Wolferen calls the powers that control Japan, keeps the people in line. Throughout Japanese history, any idea or force that threatened to disrupt the natural order of things was either crushed (like Christianity in the 17th century) or neutralized (like many American democratic reforms during the Occupation). Even today, expressions of dissent are tightly channeled and permitted only if they don't threaten the national interest. Labor unions notify management beforehand about when and where they will stage demonstrations. Gangsters call a truce when they realize turf wars are hurting their city's image. Presiding over all this is a network of government ministries, corporate conglomerates, elected politicians, and other groups that function as competing semiautonomous components, with no ultimate authority at their head. One thing the Japanese powers-that-be agree on is the need to preserve the status quo. Hence, van Wolferen asserts, they don't really believe in things like free markets and free trade, which introduce too many uncontrollable elements. The absence of a strong, accountable central authority enables the System to deflect not only internal calls for change but external ones as well. As van Wolferen says, "There is no place where, as Harry Truman would have said, the buck stops. In Japan, the buck keeps circulating."

A classic case of the circulating Japanese buck is the Recruit bribery scandal. Although it has triggered widespread popular outrage, caused the arrest of 16 influential politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen, and forced the resignation of 44 officeholders - including Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita - it's unlikely to change the way Japanese money politics works. In fact if past history is any guide, Takeshita - who has refused to give up his parliamentary seat - is likely to retain considerable political power. Fifteen years ago, when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was forced to resign in the wake of the Lockheed bribery scandal, he stayed in the Diet and went on to secure his status as the most powerful postwar Japanese politician, engineering the appointments of several of his successors.

Van Wolferen, who wrote his book before Recruit hit the news, argues that the staying power of Japanese politicians and their general unresponsiveness to voters (as opposed to interest groups) makes the Japanese political system antidemocratic. but it's not clear these features make the Japanese way of governing very different from ours. True, in the United States, politicians like Jim Wright and Tony Coelho have paid for their moneygrubbing with their political lives. But now that thy're gone, Congress (not unlike the Diet after Recruit), is already to put the issue of ethics behind it - and resume life with a 98 percent incumbency rate, honoraria, and PAC money.

In similar fashion, when van Wolferen describes Japan's main pork-barrel enterprise, the public works industry, he doesn't seem to register the strong parallels with American practices. "For a construction firm to be allowed to bid on a public works project," he observes, "it must first bribe a powerful politician. It will then meet with all the other nominated contractors for a negotiating session, called dango, at which it is decided which of them will get the job .... The dango system ensures that all participating contractors get to work on a government project at one time or another." What van Wolferen doesn't seem to get is that by changing just a few words, that passage could easily describe the birth of the B-1 bomber.

Another infamous Japanese practice van Wolferen deplores without picking up on the Western parallels is amakudari, or "descent from heaven," whereby senior bureaucrats retire to join firms they once helped to regulate. Sound familiar? Even the life of the sarariiman ("salary man"), Japan's typical, blue-suited executive, has its equivalent in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The days of the company man may be over in the United States, but they shouldn't seem entirely alien and conspiratorial. And although it may seem texture that a Japanese maternity hospital would run ads guaranteeing admittance to prestigious kindergartens as part of a delivery package, yuppie couples in the United States would probably leap at the offer.

Underlying van Wolferen's critique of modern Japan is his assertion that the Japanese, unlike Westerners, do not hold "concepts of independent, universal truths or immutable religious beliefs transcending the worldly reality of social dictates and the decrees of power-holders." There are enough differences between Western and Japanese behavior to make such an assertion credible. But implicit in that judgment, and throughout van Wolferen's book, is the idea that such overarching values are the be-all of Western civilization, playing far more of a part in the daily life, say, of an average American than an average Japanese. Sometimes I wonder. Several weeks ago, The Washington Post ran a story about a young boy being killed by a classmate who wanted his expensive basketball sneakers. A few days later, the Post ran a front-page story about a strict discipline in Japanese Schools that expressed veiled shock about a student being slapped for bringing a hair dryer to school. While we may rebel at the Japanese school's strictness, it's implausible to think that it doesn't represent a belief in some sort of transcendent value, one flagrantly absent in a society where you can get blown away for your Reeboks.

Similarly, van Wolferen seems to go overboard when he cites as protectionist fervor a former government agriculture official's claim that he would find it inconceivable to lobby against the policies of his former ministry. Would that some of Washington's ex-officials had such scruples.

Like not a few conspiracy theories, van Wolferen's book ultimately undermines itself. His assertion, for example, that there are no strong leaders in Japan is somewhat belied by what he says about the powers of Kakuei Tanaka. Almost 10 years after leaving office, Tanaka suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated, thereby threatening everything from the stability of the government then in power to various public works projects in rural prefectures. Moreover, for all van Wolferen's insistence on the primacy of politics over culture, his explanation still tend to make Japanese life seem inscrutable and unique - no less so than the cultural explanations he dismisses at the outset.

Ultimately, for all its strengths, what's disturbing about The Enigma of Japanese Power is that it presents important truths about Japan in way that appeals to our worst instincts. Politicians like Richard Gephardt will love this book: By casting Japan as national economic conspiracy, it makes the case for U.S. protectionism look good. But as van Wolferen himself makes clear, the United States can exert considerable pressure on Japan to change its ways without resorting to out-and-out protectionism. Not only do we absorb roughly 40 percent of Japan's exports but we guarantee its military security and, by setting the terms of Japan's foreign policy, frequently shield it from diplomatic difficulties. For too long, we've allowed the Japanese to hide behind former ambassador Mike Mansfield's statement that "the U.S.-Japanese relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none." The way to persuade Japan to play a more constructive economic role in the world, and to assume some of the burden of it's own defense, is to stop doing so much for them. With our markets and our military umbrella, we have considerable leverage over Japan, and van Wolferen's invaluable book shows us just how and where we should use it.
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Author:Gibney, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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