Japan: getting to know a world - and role - beyond its shores

The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity, by Edwin O. Reischauer. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University. 412 pp. $25. Winston Churchill called Russia ``a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.''

Many is the Westerner who has felt a similar frustration when dealing with Japan.

Here is an island nation of 120 million people that is more dependent on world trade than any other country on earth. Yet the Japanese seem to know less, and care less, about the world beyond their shores than any other people. In form, they are a parliamentary democracy. Yet a single party, the Liberal-Democrats, has been in power for almost all the 40 years since World War II.

Again, in form, they are a capitalist, free enterprise society. Yet bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians seem to collude with one another for the greater glory of Japan. Is this a real democracy? A real free enterprise society?

Opinions divide, not only among Westerners, but also among Japanese. ``Internationalization'' has become a buzzword in Japan, but so has that old series of questions all people ask themselves in moments of bewilderment and doubt: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going?

No one is more qualified than Edwin O. Reischauer to lead both the layman and the serious student through the intricacies of Japan's social, economic, and political structure. Yes, he says, Japan is a real democracy. Yes, its economy is indubitably capitalist, and there is real competition among businesses. Then he adds the shadings and the explanations that clarify much of what seems so contradictory about Japan and the Japanese.

Harvard professor and former ambassador to Japan, Reischauer was born in Japan of missionary parents and grew up swimming in two cultures, rooted in the West, yet appreciating the East. He has devoted a lifetime to the exploration of Japanese history and civilization, seeking and finding parallels and differences between Japan and China, or Japan and Europe, for instance in the development of feudalism.

Ten years ago, Reischauer wrote a book entitled ``The Japanese,'' which was hailed as the best one-volume introduction to Japanese history and society ever written. Now he has revised and largely rewritten the book, renaming it ``The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity.''

Reischauer avoids pretense and academic gobbledygook. He shows how change within continuity has been the most enduring characteristic of the Japa-nese experience - throughout the nation's history. He analyzes and explains in detail the government, education, business, and social structure of the country in modern times. Miracles were achieved because the Japanese so eagerly reached out for and adapted the techniques, the institutions, the organizations of the West.

But Reischauer also shows how slowly fundamental aspects of the Japanese mind-set have changed over the years. A nation that has made trade with the world its very lifeblood remains today, as in the days of feudal isolation, a cosy, closed, groupish society. ``To the Japanese,'' writes Reischauer, ``the world seemed quite obviously divided between Japan and the rest of the world. Other categories were not important, such as the lands of East Asian culture, Christendom, or even the human race. The important thing was that one was either Japanese or one was not.''

Is there a solution? Will the Japanese manage some day to join the human race? Reischauer sees hope in the fact that most Japanese are ``intellectually aware'' of the need to be more international, even though they may not be emotionally prepared for it. Furthermore, the psychological distance between the prewar and successive postwar generations is growing, with young people more and more likely to think like their Western counterparts.

Reischauer does not say so, but the most compelling reason for hope is that the Japanese really have no choice. The alternative to becoming an active, participating, initiative-taking member of the global community is not isolation, splendid or miserable: It is self-destruction. After all, everyone prefers to live.

Takashi Oka is on the Monitor staff.

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