Japan: The enigma of American power
“The Japanese can neither love the Americans
nor endure being loved by them.”
—Ambassador Sir Oliver Morland
to the British Foreign Office, 1963(1)
The air station at Kadena is not merely the largest of the 39 U.S.
military bases in Okinawa; it is the largest that the Pentagon maintains anywhere
outside of the United States. Including its munitions zone, it takes up
nearly 12,000 acres, which is 83 percent of Kadena. Kadena is a community
of 30,000 people. They are among the local folk who will occasionally tell
you, with some justification, that “Okinawa doesn’t just host American
bases. Okinawa is an American base.”
The entrance to Kadena is worth describing. Around it is a congested,
tumbledown city of bars, crumbling shophouses, and badly built apartment
blocks. Step inside the main gate and the first thing you see is an 18-hole
golf course lined with graceful pines. Then there is the gate itself. A guard
waves cars through, saluting each one. Next to him is a sign that reads, “10
days since the last Kadena Team DWI Unit.” The count changes by way of
numbered plaques. In civilian English, it says that it was 10 days at the time
of my visit since anyone had earned the base another hash mark by driving
The city, the golf links, the gate between: this is a provocative arrangement,
surely. It raises uncomfortable questions. Although Americans seldom
ask these questions, the Japanese more or less live with them. So let’s pose
them here, for they are not without import. How and why have Americans
become so oblivious to the conditions they cause for others—in this case, as
so often elsewhere, in the name of protecting them? Why do Americans so
often claim privileges for themselves that they are unable to understand as
such? Finally, why are Americans so unaware of how they look and sound to
others as we converse among ourselves?
Even for those lacking all distance, caught up in the business of the base
or the city around it, these matters must sometimes creep into consciousness.
Some may dismiss them as questions of morality or of the liberal conscience,
but that would be well wide of the mark. They are essentially
questions of vision, which is something quite different. And when we talk
about vision, we mean not just our ability to
see others, but our ability to see ourselves—
and finally, ourselves among others.
There are many startling contrasts in
Okinawa, a chain of small, remote islands tailing
off southward from Japan toward Taiwan.
Though its per capita income, at $25,000, is
higher than that of Britain or France, it is
nonetheless the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Unemployment, at 9.2 percent, is more than twice the national average;
in the cities it is 12 percent, and more than three-quarters of those
without work are under 35. A great deal of Okinawa’s income derives from
subsidies, and Tokyo awards a sizable proportion of them to the cities and
towns that live with U.S. bases. The prefecture has a lively tourist industry,
but its dependence on subsidies means that Okinawa is in many respects a
ward of the national government. The third most important source of income
is the bases—rents paid to local landlords, the salaries of base employees,
money that soldiers spend in the off-base bars and shops.
It makes for unexpected scenes, as at Kadena. Along the coast in the
north, the town of Kin is 60 percent given over to Camp Hansen, which has
shelled the surrounding hills into a moonscape that now erodes into a once
pristine sea. To the south, Futenma Air Station takes up a third of central
Ginowan, a city of 84,000. It is a little as if one had carved runways into,
say, downtown Baltimore. Ginowan lives with noise levels that routinely disrupt
sleep, classroom instruction, and ordinary conversation. Meet the mayors
in any of these communities, and they can reel off a list of base-related
calamities half a century long—everything from assault and battery to toxic
spills, aircraft accidents, and stray artillery shells. All around the prefecture
you find suggestions of the wealth-and-poverty polarities ordinarily observed
in developing countries—and more or less absent from respectable, egalitarian
Japan. You see some of that tatty, contingent, not-quite-coherent living
that tends to get done around military garrisons in foreign lands—which is a
faded, emphatically bitter memory on the main islands.
One needn’t go on. But to see Okinawa is to understand immediately why
three-quarters of the U.S. facilities in Japan are crammed into the prefecture,
taking up a fifth of its usable land. These facilities, contentious since
they were established after World War II, are the reality of the U.S.-Japan
relationship. So the question is simple: What does it mean that the reality of
the relationship is best kept far from view?
Many strategic arguments are advanced to explain the U.S. presence in
Okinawa. None holds up—not when judged on its military merits and not
when considered in a broader context. They all seem to suffer one or the
other of two problems: either a time warp—that is, they’re outdated—or a
concern with notions such as “credibility” and “perception” as opposed to
simple operational logic. Take one look at Okinawa, and you must certainly
conclude that credibility and perception are at issue—but not in the way
that the Pentagon claims. The point here is to consider what the U.S. presence
costs Americans in a currency of far greater value than dollars. What
does the scene at Kadena’s gate cost the United States in terms of prestige?
The question is never asked; there is little sign that Washington intends to
ask it. But it needs to be asked on both sides of the Pacific if the price is not
to rise precipitously.
I have thought for 10 years that the chief impediment to change in the
U.S.-Japan relationship is an especially burdensome form of inertia. So
much needs to be rethought and renewed between Washington and Tokyo—
between Americans and Japanese—that nothing can change because no one
knows where to begin. This inertia is on full display in Okinawa—as is its
cost. A decade ago, the price paid for our trans-Pacific inertia was low. The
post-Cold War world was barely emergent, and the Japanese were only dimly
aware of what it would mean to them. Now, though, the price has begun to
climb. What is the source of a nation’s prestige abroad? In the post-Cold
War world, this question is urgent. Americans used to understand that prestige
derived from principles, a way of acting among others that suggested a
national character worthy of respect. But the Cold War changed Americans.
Now we no longer show much interest in the matter of prestige—not on the
ground, in any case. The emphasis has shifted toward a concern with power
alone, and power falls short in the post-Cold War world; it can purchase
only its own continuation.
In early October, when I was last in Okinawa, an 18-year-old girl died in
a coma after a hit-and-run collision with an allegedly drunk U.S. Marine
corporal. That incident threatened to bring the Okinawan question to the
fore much as the rape of a 12-year-old by three U.S. servicemen had done
three years earlier. The rape, as is well known, sparked widespread protests
throughout Japan and prompted Okinawa’s impassioned governor, Masahide
Ota, to launch a rigorous campaign for the removal of all U.S. facilities by
the year 2015.
Not long after this latest fatality, however, Ota was voted out of office.
He had long enjoyed broad support for his stand against the U.S. presence.
But after eight years of recession in Japan, Okinawans have become nervous
about their economy. Ota’s principles had begun to threaten those muchneeded
funds from Tokyo. The new governor, a local business executive
named Keiichi Inamine, also professes to oppose the bases—no candidate
who favored them could possibly win an election in Okinawa—but to him
the bases are not a front-burner issue. Inamine enjoys the support of the
governing Liberal Democrats and promises to use his Tokyo connections to
secure Okinawa’s economic future. His election, in effect, was a measure of
anxiety as much as anything else.
U.S. officers stationed in Okinawa expect Inamine’s victory to ease animosities
over the U.S. presence. “Most of this is just political,” one officer
said when I asked about the renewed stirring of local emotions. “With the
elections over, the bases issue will die down.” It might, in the current economic
environment. And there is no telling yet what Inamine will do as
governor. But this is short-term thinking. Neither recession nor a prefectural
governor prone to compromise can do more than obscure a challenge that
extends far beyond the Okinawan shoreline.
After a half-century of an intimacy that has often suffocated the Japanese,
almost a decade after the Berlin Wall came down, a great divide has
begun to appear in U.S. relations with Japan—and indeed, across the Pacific
region. Viewed with disinterest, this is healthy. And it is inevitable, in any
case. Okinawa is oddly a kind of epicenter in this seismic shift. Here one
sees fully the anachronism of the old relationships. Here in miniature one
also sees the potential damage—in antagonism, alienation, even confrontation—
that can come of improvising the extension of the past into the future.
“As Okinawa goes, so goes Japan,” U.S. Ambassador Armin Meyer
wrote in a State Department dispatch from Tokyo in 1969.l The context
was very different. But the observation seems as true now as then.
An Alliance Without Troops
Nine years ago, while running the International Herald Tribune’s Tokyo bureau,
I wrote a piece noting the thirtieth anniversary of the revised U.S.-Japan
security treaty. Changes in East-West relations, the story observed, were
prompting a rethink among scholars, analysts, and political figures—or at
least thoughts of a rethink. Beyond the geopolitical considerations, I recorded
“a growing restlessness” with security ties first established seven
years after the war and reaffirmed amid great national controversy eight
years later. “Even those who defend the agreement—and they are in the majority—
do not question that the U.S.-Japan relationship has changed as
much since 1960 as it had when negotiators agreed to replace the arrangement
embodied in the San Francisco Treaty of 1952.” 3
According to my 1990 agenda, the piece elicited a dinner invitation from
the Foreign Ministry within two days of publication. There were many taboos
in Japan’s public discourse then, and I had transgressed one. We had a
private room in one of those expense-account
restaurants in the Ginza. The scolding was
delivered in friendly terms and came with
sumptuous accompaniment—a measure of
the severity of the ministry’s concern.
“Smith-san,” I recall one of my hosts saying,
“no one in Japan, apart from our small, ultraconservative
element, ever questions our relations
with the United States.”
It is a recent and distant memory all at
once—less than a decade old, but an era
away nonetheless. Changing the U.S. relationship,
and therefore the treaty it rests on, is now a matter that Japanese
politicians and officials will as often as not raise themselves. Last December,
there were reports from Tokyo that the governing Liberal Democrats were
also beginning to debate Japan’s “peace” constitution—a development that
is both startling and perfectly logical. Altering the constitution, especially
its “no war” Article 9, has long ranked high among Japan’s postwar taboos.
Yet constitutional revision has been a plank in the Liberal Democrat official
platform since the party was formed in 1955. Any fundamental change in
the security relationship, in any case, would more or less force Tokyo to recast
a constitution that requires the nation to remain officially disarmed.
Few Japanese, if any, want to alter the essentially amicable tone of
Tokyo’s ties with Washington—only the substance. Since thelegislative
elections of 1998, in which opposition parties made big gains against the
Liberal Democrats, even the Japan Communist Party has softened its longestablished
critique of the U.S.-Japan relationship. But the phrase one frequently
hears among public figures and policy intellectuals of many
persuasions these days sounds like something concocted in Okinawa: “an alliance
without troops by 2010.” Last summer former prime minister
Morihiro Hosokawa went still further. “The gulf separating American and
Japanese perceptions of the U.S. troops stationed in Japan could jeopardize
the alliance between these two important countries,” Hosokawa asserted in
an essay published prominently on both sides of the Pacific. “The U.S. military
presence in Japan should fade with this century’s end.”4
It is astonishing what ground the Japanese have covered since my Foreign
Ministry reprimand. One may reasonably put this psychic sea change down
to the rape incident in 1995. It was after the rape, after all, that an Asahi
Shimbun poll found that two out of every Japanese wanted the Yanks to go
home.5 But more is at issue than the deployment of 47,000 troops on Japanese
earth. At issue is sovereignty and the equal partnership the Japanese
have demanded at intervals since the early
1950s. Liberals and conservatives, leftists,
rightists, moderates—they have all articulated
these issues differently over the past 50 years.
But the different perspectives obscure common
concerns about the unhealthy closeness
of the U.S.-Japan relationship. And now this
subterranean dimension of things is becoming
more evident: beneath the practical political
matters flows a process of self-reappraisal at every level, from the individual
to the national.
None of what is now beginning to take shape among the Japanese—a renewed
self-confidence, a revalued ethos, even a reinvented nation—would
be of any surprise had Americans not purposefully ignored the extent to
which the Japanese have always chafed under the postwar order. Of course,
the better histories of the relationship are dense with diplomats and State
Department officials fretting over a neutral Japan—”neutrality is immoral,”
as John Foster Dulles put it—or an assertive Japan, or even a genuinely independent
Japan.6 This is not what we remember of the Japanese—or ourselves—
during the Cold War era. In memory, we never had much to worry
about so far as our Japanese friends were concerned. Who would not wish to
host our soldiers? Who would not want pride of place at the table Washington
lays for its clients? And so we are surprised now and clearly cannot cope
as a distance between the two nations reappears. Isn’t there something not
quite imaginable about a Japan that concerns itself with territorial sovereignty—
or a Japan that claims possession of an alternative economic model?
This sort of assertiveness is simply “un-Japanese.” It is something one expects
of third-world hotheads—the Nassers and Sukarnos and Mahathirs,
men of yesterday, not of our globalized tomorrow.
It may also be hard to imagine that Americans could obscure Japan’s true
view of things for so long—rather the way U.S. troops have been obscured
in Okinawa—except that we are now doing the same thing again. More
than six million Japanese struck to protest the security treaty’s renewal in
1960—an event of which most Americans have no recollection whatsoever.
The Japanese have been complicit in this—and still are—to the extent that
Tokyo has grown accustomed to misrepresenting Japan to Americans (and
to the outside world in general). Yet this is precisely what Japan and the
Japanese are now outgrowing: they are learning to speak their minds. And
that is precisely what we fail to understand (or choose to ignore).
Inertia on Display
In late November, the Pentagon issued a document called East Asian Strategy
Report 1998. It is the fourth such report to appear since 1990.7 Note the
time span of this series: the reports are essentially progress reports on post-
Cold War thinking among American defense planners. And indeed, there
were clear signs in the first two reports that the Pentagon would take an
imaginative, flexible approach to the Pacific region in acknowledgment of
the vast changes sweeping across the East Asian security landscape. Then in
1995 came the third report. It is commonly known as the Nye Report after
its principal thinker, Harvard scholar Joseph S. Nye. In effect, the Nye Report
announced to East Asians that they would enjoy no peace dividend at
the Cold War’s close. Again, note the date: the Nye Report coincided with
the Pentagon’s development of its “two-war” preparedness strategy and the
grim announcement by Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, that Americans weren’t going to see a peace dividend either.
The Nye Report was greeted with disappointment in many quarters on
both sides of the Pacific. Among its most controversial features was its position
on U.S. troops in East Asia. It committed the United States to maintaining
troop strength at the long-established level of 100,000 (of which
roughly half are in Japan) “for the foreseeable future.”8 This was an especially
hard blow to Okinawans. For half a decade they had looked forward to
a basic shift in U.S. security strategy that would at last return their land and
their cities to them. In addition, six months after the report appeared came
the Okinawa rape incident—thus throwing fuel on the flames. But you do
not have to be Okinawan to understand the report’s fundamental flaw on
this question: it was a profound error, surely, to attach a number to U.S.
The Pentagon appears to have learned at least one lesson over the past
three years: its new East Asian Strategy Report was evidently withheld until
after Okinawans chose their next governor on November 15. While that
could hardly be taken as a sign of bold initiatives to come, one still hoped
for some sign of innovation in response to circumstances and perspectives in
the region that have been changing as fast as one can register them. In par-
ticular, wouldn’t the new report have to take into account the evolution of
Japanese attitudes that we have briefly reviewed above?
No chance. The presence of U.S. troops in Asian countries is “of fundamental
strategic importance,” the new report states. The 100,000 figure is
noted five times in the first 10 pages—and is reaffirmed in the strongest possible
terms. The most prominent examples of U.S. activity in the region
since the previous report are the 1996 deployment of the carriers Nimitz and
Independence in the Taiwan Strait and the dispatch
of the latter vessel to the Persian Gulf
in early 1998. Never mind that both missions
demonstrate the increasing irrelevance of
troops and the increasing primacy of some-
^^g far Simpler: access to naval and air facilities
when needed. Over the past year,
Washington has struck two agreements allowing
the military the kind of access that is the
key to its future in the region—with Singapore and the Philippines. But
never mind that, either.
Why do we need 100,000 troops in Okinawa and elsewhere in East Asia?
Let’s look at the latest report. They “provide U.S. commanders great flexibility
in tailoring forces to meet national objectives.” They are part of a
“strategic mix” that is essential “because it presents an enemy with an overwhelming
array of capabilities.” They can play a “mitigating role”—one
must read this to believe it—in the East Asian financial crisis. None of these
assertions, in my view, stands up to scrutiny. There is also the still vaguer
matter of “reassurance.” Having soldiers in the region “multiplies our diplomatic
impact.” It “demonstrates professional military ethics.” It “encourages
pursuit of policies in U.S. and regional interests.” Can U.S. troops in Asia
credibly claim to do any of these things? Logic this flaccid suggests something
disturbing: it suggests that the Pentagon has gone too long without
rigorous, detached civilian review.
One is hard-pressed to accept the East Asian Strategy Report 1998 as anything
more than a display of the inertia I have already noted. But this is not
to imply that security policy in the region is benignly static, for to stand still
in the past is to move in the wrong direction. Consider the Asahi Shimbun
poll or a decision last year by Japanese Supreme Court to deny several thousand
Okinawan landlords the right to repossess acreage leased to the Pentagon:
hasn’t the military become reliant on Japan’s attenuated democracy at
the very moment that the Japanese are trying to reconstruct it? The airlift
and fighter wings at Kadena are now evolving into “expeditionary forces,”
one is told: those units are on call to project U.S. power throughout the
Western Pacific—and, indeed, vastly beyond the Pacific region. While this
has been a discernible thread in Pentagon thinking since the early 1960s, it
is now being implemented as a new, post-Cold War mission. But has anyone
considered the implications of using Japanese territory to fulfill “rapid response”
objectives Tokyo may not support—this while Japan is attempting
an independent redefinition of its interests?
This is where policy leads when it is formed in the absence of vision: it
leads to risks. One risk is the obvious potential for renewed unrest should
there be another serious accident involving a base in Okinawa or (far worse)
on the main islands. There is nothing far-fetched about this. In view of the
record, it is far-fetched to anticipate a future without damaging mishaps.
There is also the danger of rising antagonism born of the realization that the
security treaty operates ever more exclusively to Washington’s benefit and
has ever less to do with protecting Japan. Japan may have been a strategic
platform for the U.S. military since the treaty was signed, but what happens
when the nation discovers that it has evolved into that and no more? What
happens, more specifically, to what the Japanese call the “sympathy budget”—
the $5 billion Tokyo now spends yearly on host-nation support?
A third risk is more complicated. It has to do with larger questions of history,
nationalism, and changing attitudes toward the nation that defeated
Japan half a century ago. The national reinvention I have already noted is
inevitable. Within that process, however, many matters remain unsettled.
And what the United States does (or fails to do) in coming years will have
much to do with how these unsettled issues are resolved. American conduct,
quite simply, will influence the kind of nation Japan makes of itself.
Since the death of Hirohito a decade ago and the passing of the baton
from one generation to the next, the Japanese are gradually finding’their
way back through the past. This is partly a matter of expedience. Japan’s
neighbors have been drumming their fingers on the table for years; obstinacy
on Tokyo’s part is not a match with the region’s growing interdependence.
Nonetheless, younger Japanese will reach their own understanding of
history in coming years. And when they look back, it is with detachment.
What will they see, these Japanese whose schooling in history has (to put it
mildly) left them wanting? Many Japanese outside the ruling elite are quite
prepared to accept their nation’s responsibility for the past as it was. But it is
not a foregone conclusion that Japan will reconcile itself to history as it urgently
needs to do. These same Japanese are far less reticent than their parents
in the matter of national pride. This is not unhealthy—not necessarily,
at least. But what kind of nationalism will take root in Japan today? It is a
mistake not to recognize the role the United States will play—actively or
passively, whether it wants to or not—in how these questions are answered.
The point is well illustrated in a recently published manga, the ubiquitous
comics that feature prominently in Japanese popular culture. This manga is
called Senso-ron (“War Discourse,” roughly) and is part of a running series
by Yoshinori Kobayashi, a young, vigorously opinionated member of Japan’s
emerging generation.9 Kobayashi makes a virtue of what he calls
goumanizumu, a kind of plainspoken arrogance. He writes and draws for his
own cohort, the generation inclined to say “it wasn’t my war”—but not entirely.
There are many adults among Senso-ron’s hundreds of thousands of
readers. And what do they read? They read that those who would apologize
for the war “are announcing the success of America’s War Guilt Information
Program.”10 They read that the Japanese have been “brainwashed” by a
victor’s version of history. “‘War’ isn’t just battles where there is gunfire,”
one of Kobayashi’s commentaries reads. “There are also the wars called ‘information
war’ and ‘propaganda war.’ Even in the present day, which we call
peaceful, these wars continue relentlessly.”11
So runs Senso-ron, for 381 pages. As any close reader of the book must
conclude, war and history are as much Kobayashi’s conceits as his subject.
They are his artifice, if you like. Senso’Ton (along with its multiplying companion
volumes by various manga artists) is about ressentiment and the confinements
of Japan’s postwar arrangements with the United States. It is
about restlessness and the alienation one feels in a society directed by forces
beyond one’s control. And it is about inequality. It is important to identify
these themes, because in expressing them Kobayashi also suggests the simple
yet powerful antidote Washington could apply: fresh thinking—an approach
to Japan that is at once imaginative in the face of new challenges and respectful
of a nation struggling to assume its rightful place. But there is no
fresh thinking—not in security matters, certainly, and not in economic affairs
‘The Warfare of Peacetime’
Over the past year and a half of currency and economic crises in East Asia,
the United States has offered Japan a steady stream of policy prescriptions.
Chiefly through the Treasury Department, it has advised Tokyo to close the
worst of the nation’s debt-burdened banks, deregulate the economy at an
accelerated pace, reduce taxes, and open up the financial sector, in particular,
to free foreign competition. This is the menu of medicines we all know
as globalism. I say “offered” and “advised,” but “demanded” would in many
instances do, for when globalists speak across the Pacific, they tend to speak
in imperative sentences. At one point last spring, Washington went so far as
to specify its preference for tax cuts and public spending equal to 2 percent
of Japan’s national output.
The effect of this approach could hardly have been intended—though
anyone following events may easily have predicted it. It has been evident for
at least a year that the Americans have radically overplayed their hand. Far
from bringing Tokyo in its direction as to how it ought to manage Japan’s recession,
Washington has succeeded only in making economics, not security,
the arena in which fissures in the relationship
are now closest to the surface. Fair to say,
U.S.-Japan relations are now at their lowest
ebb of the last decade—since Tokyo’s hesitant
response to President Bush’s recruitment
drive in 1990 for Operation Desert Storm in
the Persian Gulf. It is no wonder that officials
from the State Department and the National
Security Council now sit in on strategy sessions
Let us look at these events from both
ends of the Pacific. Since the Cold War’s end, Washington has asserted
with mounting vehemence that globalism is an ineluctable force that allows
for only one alternative: those who do not embrace it will fail. Recent
history has made it especially easy for Americans to advance this idea to
the Japanese. As everyone by now understands and acknowledges, “globalization”
is really another term for “Americanization.”12 And Americans
have assumed the power to Americanize Japan since the autumn of 1945.
To modernize is to Westernize: that has long been the prevailing assumption
in the Atlantic community. In our time Washington has come to insist
instead that to modernize is to Americanize: that is globalism’s most fundamental
But this produces a profound irony across the Pacific. For whatever else
the Japanese have had to show us over the past 130 years, they began with
the lesson that modernizing does not require Westernizing. And they have
now started us on lesson number two: it doesn’t mean Americanizing either.
From Japan’s perspective, the Americans brought very little news when
they arrived with the gospel of globalism. Fundamental reform—economic,
social, political—has been on the agenda in Tokyo at least since the “bubble
economy” of the 1980s burst, with perfect symmetry, in the first weeks of
this decade. Japan Inc., at least in the form it took during the “miracle”
years, was a spent asset. To enter the next century the nation would have to
open its economy and compete without the protection it long enjoyed. That
would mean renovating institutions across the board. Schools would have to
produce more creative thinkers and fewer foot soldiers. Corporations would
have to be lighter on their feet. The banking system would have to accommodate
what banking professionals call “disintermediation”: instead of simply
recycling household savings as loans to industry, they would have to
survive in a world of sophisticated alternatives for both savers and borrowers.
The nation’s dysfunctional political system—which I count as the largest
instance of institutionalized corruption in the advanced world—could
no longer be sustained. The times demanded a more responsible leadership;
gradually, the Japanese are coming to demand it, too.
This is the institutional side of the fundamental change in ethos that I
touched upon earlier. But what form would all this change take? Would the
new, emergent Japan resemble the United States because that is what
Americans told the Japanese to do? Or would it be a renovated, revalued
version of itself—reflecting it own deep, extensive roots in its own past? It is
slightly bizarre that such a question even has to be asked—except that
Americans have been making the same “just like us” error since Commodore
Perry’s time. There was simply never a chance that Japan would adopt
the neoliberal capitalism urged upon it by Adam Smith’s most fervent
apostles. So the American stance has not been a cause of the friction now
evident between Washington and Tokyo so much as a catalyst to an inevitable
departure—for whatever this distinction is worth.
Eisuke Sakakibara, formerly head of the Finance Ministry’s international
bureau, once considered the American campaign to reform Japan and
termed it “nothing less than an act of barbarism against our own cultural
values.”13 It may sound like something worthy of Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir bin Mohamad, and Sakakibara, it is true, was something of a hothead
during the period of his global visibility. But this is not enough to dismiss
the thought out of hand. Sakakibara made his observation in 1995.
What did he mean?
Something quite defensible, in my view. The Japanese—along with the
rest of East Asia—are fully cognizant of a simple fact that the Treasury ignores
in its approach to the Asian crisis: that economic systems tend to reflect
the cultures within which they exist. This is not a new idea: Karl
Polyani, the political economist, articulated it in The Great Transformation,
which he published in 1945. Washington understands it well enough when it
looks across the Atlantic: when was the last time it told Bonn or Paris to relegate
their long social democratic traditions to history and embrace the
Anglo-American model? But when it looks across the Pacific, it fails to see
any traditions worthy of respect—again, a problem of vision. No, the Japanese
have not resisted the West’s harsh medicine simply because they are
too weak-willed to face the social and political consequences—Washington’s
self-serving analysis. Nor do they balk at swallowing the prescription only
because it has proven inappropriate.14 They think they are engaged in a
kind of civilizational clash instigated by the United States.
And they are right. Banks and corporations are no more independent of
the societies in which they function than poets or politicians. To deny this is
to take one’s place in the long line of those who have charged across the Pacific
to insist that Asia “open its door.” One cannot talk about regulatory reform,
to take one simple example, without asking whose standards are to
apply. Let’s look briefly at the banking question to demonstrate the point.
Japanese bankers, borrowers, and bureaucratic
regulators have long maintained close
ties—and with good reason. Personal contacts
and institutional familiarity enabled
banks to carry the high debt-to-equity ratios
necessary to recycle the pools of capital fed by
Japan’s assiduous, risk-averse savers. (Why do
the Japanese save so much? In part because
the culture of cultivators is near in their history;
so is the culture of poverty.) During the
“miracle” years this practice was called “relationship banking,” and one
never heard criticism of it. Now it’s branded as “crony capitalism” and
ranked among the worst of Japan’s evils.15
Labels such as these often obscure more than they reveal. In this case,
they signal a kind of narcissism—which, of course, is a form of blindness.
And since Americans concocted the label and then satisfied themselves
with it, we can consider this malady self-induced. Paste-on phrases such as
“crony capitalism” may add a note of righteousness to the globalists’ cause;
they also, more significantly, excuse the exponents of neoliberal capitalism
from acknowledging that there is any other tradition in modern economic
Not quite 130 years ago, when Japan began sending missions abroad to
inspect all things foreign, a diplomat named Kunitake Kume took one look
at Anglo-American capitalism and pronounced it “the warfare of peacetime.”
16 All that furious competition, that unbounded power, the gnashing
of so many teeth: thus did the Japanese recoil from Adam Smith’s legacy in
the last century—and thus are they likely to seek another way forward once
again. Those first impressions launched Japan upon a long fascination with
the methods of continental Europe—in particular the systems cultivated in
Bismarck’s new Germany. Like Japan, Germany was a “late developer,” in
scholarly parlance. And in Japan as in Germany, national development
would take precedence over free exchange. Adam Smith never got to name
the game when Japan began its modernization project; the Anglo-American
way was judged inappropriate technology. Friedrich List, the German-born
economist, helped the Japanese name the game in the 1870s. Today we call
it developmental capitalism.
Is Tokyo once again looking to Germany? There are some strong indications.
While Washington assumes that the Finance Ministry is simply sitting
on its hands, it actually appears to be quietly urging the nation’s financial
institutions toward a system of universal banking—modeled on the German
Allfinanz structure and adapted to Japan’s circumstances. Tokyo has long
promised to restructure its tax system as the United States did after the
Reagan era, but the reality is probably otherwise. In the long term, Japan’s
demographics suggest it will have to implement a substantial value-added
tax and set total tax revenue at roughly half
of gross national income. That points to the
German (and continental) model once
again. Over the next year or so, Tokyo may
well oblige Washington on this issue. But as
a friend in Tokyo puts it, if it does we will
witness the world’s first temporarily permanent
Some Japanists assert that the Japanese
can make no substantial advances without
an external model—and that the model this time, insofar as one can identify
a single source of inspiration, is likely to be Germany. I accept the conclusion
but not the premise. What distinguishes the emerging era in Japan, in
my view, is precisely the desire among the Japanese to leave their long habit
of imitation behind in favor of their own way forward. But this is not to say
the bureaucrats in Tokyo are not doing their share of looking around, as the
technocrats of any ordinary nation do. And it is interesting to note that the
place and time of concern in some administrative quarters is the Germany of
the late-1940s and 1950s—the Germany of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig
It is a revealing choice of priorities. As Adenauer’s minister of economics
during the 1950s, Erhard was the architect of Germany’s postwar “miracle.”
One of his first acts, in 1948, was to do away with food rationing and lift all
wage and price controls. The Times of London afterward lauded him as “the
irrepressible reincarnation of Adam Smith.” But that was sheer idiocy, because
Erhard’s full accomplishment lay in his creation of what he called the
soziale Marktwirtschaft, the social market system. Erhard did introduce postwar
Germans to the competitive principle—but not at the expense of social
coherence. Another term for the social market system today is “the third
way.” And that is what Japan’s reforms, in their own way, are likely to add
up to. Japan, too, wants to learn how to compete. But it still sees no benefit
in waging the warfare of peacetime.18
The Seamless Web
In the summer of 1961, President John F. Kennedy invited Hayato Ikeda to
the White House and there lectured the new Japanese prime minister on
the need for Japan to play a larger role on the global stage. Ikeda’s reply was
startling: this would be possible, he told Kennedy, except that the Japanese
first had to bring their English up to speed. If disingenuousness were the
point of that summit session, it would be hard to say who came out ahead.
Ikeda offered the classic duck-the-issue response of a postwar conservative
determined to milk the U.S.-Japan relationship for the maximum economic
gain. But Kennedy did no better. “Do more”: it has been a constant refrain
since this old encounter. But the Americans have never meant it.
Washington’s concerns back in the 1950s and 1960s were Japanese trade
with China and its developing relationships in Southeast Asia (where the
French had been defeated and where America saw not nations so much as
teetering dominoes). And it is remarkable how faithfully these same concerns
have been transliterated into the language of America’s post-Cold
War orthodoxy. A few months after the Thai devaluation touched off the
Asian economic crisis, Tokyo proposed a $100 billion bailout fund to which
it would contribute half. Washington scotched that proposition as quickly as
you can say “hegemony”—though the idea survives yet in Tokyo and other
East Asian capitals. Last autumn, the Japanese came forward again, this
time with a package of grants and trade credits worth $73 billion—vastly
more than anything the United States has put on the table. In response,
Special Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky accused Tokyo of trying
to buy influence in the region.19
If attitudes in Washington have changed little over the decades, they are
shifting discernibly at the other end of the Pacific. Japan has no need to buy
influence; it is doing more—and winning recognition for it. While correspondents
in the region offer dire predictions of instability, ethnic suspicion,
and overheated rivalry as a result of the economic crisis, just the opposite is
taking place.20 However long it takes the East Asians to dig themselves out
of their current predicaments, they are likely to emerge as a more interdependent
group of nations whose leaders know that they have more to share
than they have to fear. This can only enhance Japan’s standing among its
neighbors, who clearly (and authentically) want a more active Japan. History
has long kept Japan from a leadership role in the region. Impressively,
neighbors are beginning to address this problem, too.
For sheer dramatic effect, it would be hard to match the visit to Tokyo
last fall of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. Kim listened attentively
to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s ritual apology for Japan’s wartime conduct—
as all visiting Koreans must. But he was clearly ready to make the
most of it. He began his talks by proposing a new era in Korean-Japanese relations
and ended with a call for a seven-nation security dialogue in which
Japan would figure prominently. The evident point here was to begin developing
a form of stability that springs from dynamic intra-regional relationships—
and not merely from the projection of power from the far side of the
Pacific. History must be squared, Kim told his hosts, but in the meantime
let’s move forward. From a ringside seat in Tokyo, Kim’s performance was
startling to watch—the more so when put against the U.S. approach to the
very same questions.
True, Chinese President Jiang Zemin failed to elicit a matching apology
when he visited Tokyo a month later. Tokyo offered a variety of explanations
afterward, each one landing it deeper in the familiar swamps of historical revisionism.
This was foolish and an immense disappointment all around. But
this very disappointment suggested the extent to which Beijing wants seriously
to engage the question. In consequence, it looks as if Beijing may finally
prefer to solve the problem of history rather than continue making
cynical diplomatic use of it. It is perfectly plausible that Japan and China
will eventually find the kind of equilibrium that Seoul and Tokyo seem at
last destined for—an equilibrium that the Sino-Japanese relationship needs
if the region is to achieve a stability of its own.
“Asia is a seamless web,” the columnist Joseph Alsop wrote in 1955. “If
the web is too badly torn anywhere, it will unravel everywhere.”21 Alsop’s
remark, singular for its crudity, was no more than the domino theory recast
as punditry. But let’s turn the thought this way and that; let’s put it to work
from another perspective. The United States now risks damage in its relations
with Japan. And whether it occurs first as a matter of security or of
economics, any such damage is unlikely to stop at Japan’s frontiers. To one
degree or another, the tear will run across the region. That is the reality—
unseen for lack of vision. From Alsop’s day to ours, Washington has cast Japan
as a sort of “other”: as potentially neutral in the Cold War, as an
industrial rival, now as an alternative economic model. And in this, it must
be said, Washington has been right all along. Japan never enlisted in the
West’s Cold War army—it was a draftee. It does stand now for an alternative
path forward. This faces the United States with a choice: it can dwell upon
these differences, as it does now, or it can acknowledge difference so as to
begin the worthy business of transcending it.
1. Cited in LaFeber, Walter, The Clash: A History of U.S.-Japan Relations (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1997), 314; Morland to Foreign Office, January 7, 1963, FO 371
2. LaFeber, 326. LaFeber’s work is a masterful account of its subject—and the first to
trace the relationship from Commodore Perry’s voyage in 1853 to the present.
3. Patrick Smith, “U.S.-Japan Security Pact: Time of Doubt,” International Herald Tribune,
June 21, 1990, 1.
4. Morihiro Hosokawa, “Are U.S. Troops in Japan Needed? Reforming the Alliance,”
Foreign Affairs (July/August 1998), 2-5. A longer version of the same essay appeared
in Japan Times, July 6, 1998, 20 and July 25, 1998, 18.
5. The Asahi poll was conducted in May 1996 and published in the newspapers of May
15, 17, 26.
6. The Dulles quotation is from LaFeber, The Clash, 291, note 7. In addition to
LaFeber’s work, I wish to note Michael Schaller’s excellent Altered States: The
United States and Japan Since the Occupation (New York: Oxford University Press,
7. The other East Asian Strategy Reports appeared in 1992 and 1995.
8. This phrase, and those quoted in the following paragraphs, are from East Asian Security
Report 1998 (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 1998).
9. Yoshinori Kobayashi, Senso-ron (Tokyo: Getosha, 1998).
10. Kobayashi, 51. (The translations were done for this article, courtesy of Emily Cook
of La Jolla, Calif.)
11. Kobayashi, A171.
12. See, for example, Thomas L. Friedman, “Those Funny Russians,” New York Times,
February 14, 1996, 21 and “Facing the Threat of Super-Empowered Angry Men,”
Internationa/ Herald Tribune, August 24, 1998, 8.
13. Washington Post, February 6, 1994, C1; New York Times, September 16, 1995, 31,
cited in LaFeber, The Clash, 375.
14. See the World Bank’s report on the crisis, “U.S. and I.M.F. Made Asia Crisis Worse,
World Bank Finds,” New York Times, December 3, 1998, A1.
15. For two excellent explorations of this question, see Robert Wade, “From ‘Miracle’
to ‘Cronyism’: Explaining the Great Asian Slump,” Cambridge Journal of Economics
22, no. 6 (November 1998): 693-706; and Frank Veneroso, The 1998 Gold Book
Annual (Jefferson, La.: Jefferson Financial Inc. and Veneroso Associates, 1998, 186-
16. Tokumei zenken taishi Bei-O kairan jikki (“The Journal of the Envoy Extraordinary
Ambassador Plenipotentiary’s Travels Through America and Europe”) was published
in Tokyo in 1878. This translated fragment is cited in Eugene Sloviak’s essay,
“On the Nature of Western Progress: The Journal of the Iwakura Embassy,” in Tradition
and Modernisation in Japanese Culture, Donald H. Shively, ed. (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 15.
17. See the important research and analysis done in these areas by Stephen Church of
the Tokyo consultancy Analytica Japan (available on the internet at
18. Erhard’s economic policy is well documented. I drew from Edwin Hartrich, The
Fourth and Richest Reich: How the Germans Conquered the Postwar World (New York:
Macmillan, 1980), a journalistic account of Erhard’s era. The quotation from the
Times is cited on p. 150.
19. The Barshefsky reaction occurred during the disastrous American presentation at
the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, held in
Kuala Lumpur last November. Evelyn Iritani, “Trade Meeting Opens With a Spat,”
Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1998, C1.
20. See, for instance, Michael Richardson, “Asian Turmoil Raises Fears of Civil Violence,”
International Herald Tribune, October 16, 1998, 1.
21. Joseph Alsop, Washington Post, May 4, 1955, cited in LaFeber, The Clash, 292.