Politics and Culture In Japan and Asia

New historical studies and encyclopedias explore the many dimensions of the region

By , a New York-based business consultant and journalist, frequently reviews books on international policy.

JAPAN'S PSEUDO-DEMOCRACY By Peter J. Herzog. New York University Press 279 pp., $40.

MAKING COMMON SENSE OF JAPAN By Steven R. Reed. University of Pittsburgh Press, 188 pp., $49.95 cloth $15.95 paper.

CONTROLLING THE WAVES: DEAN ACHESON AND US FOREIGN POLICY IN ASIA By Ronald L. McGlothlen. W.W. Norton & Co., 320 pp., $27.95.

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DISPATCHES FROM THE PACIFIC CENTURY By Frank Viviano. Addison-Wesley, 252 pp., $21.95.

THE recent and unprecedented electoral shift in Japan and the planned Pacific summit on which the Clinton administration has placed so much emphasis offer the United States new strategic opportunities in Asia.

Nevertheless, as long as Washington's relations with the region's dominant power, Japan, remain bedeviled by distrust, America's influence in this vast, rapidly evolving arena will be restricted. Is Tokyo ultimately a rival or an ally? A partner in the quest for global and democratic markets or a bastion of economic and political chauvinism the US must strive to contain?

Those who believe that the current Japanese order is fundamentally irreconcilable with basic Western political standards will find a large store of ammunition in ``Japan's Pseudo-Democracy,'' by Peter Herzog. Herzog writes from an unusually close vantage point; three decades ago this former Roman Catholic priest obtained Japanese citizenship and went on to become a researcher for Fuji Bank. Now he regards Japanese society with a Jesuit's sense of order and a businessman's insistence that the figures add up.

Herzog bases his critique on the assumption that the Japanese Constitution of 1946, a democratic framework imposed by the victorious Americans, has never been truly assimilated into the Japanese political consciousness. The Japanese government, Herzog argues, has continually subverted its own explicit constitutional order by tolerating cultural reactionaries and institutional corruption.

Herzog analyzes Tokyo's record on various constitutional subjects, including the judiciary, civil rights, and separation of church and state. He applies, in effect, the standards of the American Civil Liberties Union to Japanese society. Along the way, he discusses everything from the systematic suppression of the Ainu (the indigenous people that once populated the Japanese islands) to the heavy censorship imposed on textbooks. One particularly valuable chapter recounts with precision the major scandals that have disgraced a succession of Japan's prime ministers.

Out of numerous examples and citations Herzog has crafted a powerful indictment; he makes a compelling case that graft, influence peddling, and contempt for civil liberties have tainted the Japanese postwar legacy.

Unfortunately, Herzog has little to say about the other significant forces within Japanese society - including journalists, political opposition parties, and the Westernized intelligentsia - that have constantly fought the policies of the Japanese power elite. In fact, the once-dominant Liberal-Democratic Party seems to have methodically squandered the allegiance of ordinary Japanese, who increasingly insist that their leaders obey Western standards of political behavior.

As an antidote to Herzog's analysis, readers may turn to Steven R. Reed's ``Making Common Sense of Japan.'' Attacking what he derides as the ``mystical concepts of culture''- the notion that culture is irrational and untouched by political and economic change - Reed argues that the Japanese respond to the same basic forces that shape all societies. He emphasizes that while Japanese culture is different - even radically different - from American culture, the Japanese react in commonsensical ways to their environment and history.

Reed rejects the theory of human behavior that says people are at the mercy of deep, often subliminal, cultural forces. Most mainstream Western attacks on Japan (Michael Crichton's ``Rising Sun,'' for example) depict Japan as a ``strange and wondrous country'' where people are driven by cultural imperatives that Westerners cannot understand.

On the contrary, Reed argues that the Japanese, like everyone else, are ``commonsense scientists'' who ``learn from their own experience.'' While never denying that individuals are shaped and even directed by their traditions, Reed insists that no one, especially the Japanese, accepts tradition or culture uncritically.

Reed proceeds to examine two major factors defining Japanese society - the extension of lifetime employment to almost all workers, and the close cooperation between corporations and government. These practices violate basic strictures of American social organization, but Reed shows that they stem from deep-rooted patterns in Japanese history that were successfully adapted to meet the demands of modern industrialized capitalism.

Indeed, Reed notes that many of the features that critics denounce as peculiar to Japan's ``anti-Western'' society - such as institutional ruling parties or close cooperation between executives and politicians - are just as pronounced in Western Europe. If any contemporary capitalist society is culturally isolated, Reed claims, it is the US.

The US historical impulse to ``go its own way'' is portrayed in an intriguing new study of America's postwar relations with the Pacific states. ``Controlling the Waves: Dean Acheson and US Foreign Policy in Asia,'' by Ronald McGlothlen, gives a detailed engaging analysis of how the most influential secretary of state (1949-1953) in this century, Dean Acheson, reformulated America's Asia policies after World War II.

Acheson, who had an exceptional understanding of economics, recognized that Japan could eventually return to the ranks of the major industrial powers; he therefore favored a policy for the postwar reconstruction of Japan that was as ambitious as the Marshall Plan was for Europe.

Moreover, Acheson believed that a dynamic partnership with a rebuilt and democratized Japan would become the crux of US Asian strategy.

While much of this material has surfaced before, notably in Acheson's monumental autobiography, ``Present at the Creation: My years in the State Department,'' McGlothen does a fine job of organizing it, showing how Acheson's approach to particular ``hot spots'' in the region had effects that we are still seeing. For instance, McGlothen persuasively shows that Acheson's interest in Korea (a country his administration colleagues considered marginal) laid the groundwork for America's subsequent engagement in the Korean War. That conflict - a successful but bloody implementation of the Truman doctrine of containment - in turn became a precedent for the loss of American lives and influence in Indochina.

In any case, Acheson's commitment to Asia was deep, a fact not always recognized by his political adversaries, who claimed he ``lost'' China to the Communists. In the years following the war, at the same time that he was successfully pressing Congress to come to the aid of Mediterranean states opposing Soviet-sponsored communism, Acheson was also arguing to include Japan and Korea under the umbrella of US protection and patronage. From the first, the leading architect of the America's postwar foreign policy regarded Asia as so strategically important that he felt, an aide later remarked, the US must ``control every wave'' in the Pacific. It was a panoramic (if futile) vision, which McGlothlen lucidly re-creates.

Readers wanting to scan the current vistas of what 19th-century expansionists used to call ``an American lake'' should have a look at ``Dispatches from the Pacific Century.'' The least scholarly of the books under review, it is also the most enjoyable, a zesty collection of political reportage masquerading as a travelogue. In the spring of 1990, Frank Viviano, having never been west of Hawaii, was dispatched by the Pacific News Service to Asia with $1,000 and a return ticket good for one year. As he notes in his introduction: ``A dozen years and roughly a million miles later, I was still on the road.''

Viviano provides informative vignettes of the new Asian ``tigers:'' Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and the political bosses and high-rolling entrepreneurs who lord over them. He also delves into the troubled world of the Marcos-ruled Philippines. These episodes lead to a long account, filled with the tension of a good thriller, of the mood and developments in China in the days preceding the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen square.

A concluding portrait of Vietnamese and Hmong refugees in the US is especially moving. Consider the Hmong, the legendary people of the Laotian-Vietnamese border area, who, with CIA backing, fought off the lowland Vietnamese Communists for years, only to have to flee their homeland for working-class poverty in rural California (``an Asian Grapes of Wrath'' Viviano calls it). Consider the Vietnamese gangs, street-toughened from years of black-marketing in Saigon, now running rackets out of the Bay Area and Virginia. This melancholy epilogue suggests some of the dire human consequences that follow in the wake of a great power's intervention. Given the United States' troubled record in the Pacific, Viviano's book carries plenty of reminders of how uncertain the American role there remains.

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