Challenging the Views Of Who Runs Japan


By Chalmers Johnson

W.W. Norton

384 pp., $25

Like many academic disciplines, American scholarship of Japan is rent by theoretical discord and wordy disputation. Sharp-tongued intellectuals enthusiastically hone their polemics - and then use them to skewer one another. This brainy wordplay proves the old axiom about faculty politics being so vicious because so little is at stake, but it also can make outwardly dry books fun to read.

Chalmers Johnson - a professor at the University of California at San Diego who runs his own think tank called the Japan Policy Research Institute - has published a new volume of essays called "Japan: Who Governs?" The book is subtitled "The Rise of the Developmental State," but don't let that put you off.

Prof. Johnson is the dean of a school of Japan watchers intriguingly labeled "revisionists." What they have tried to revise is a mainstream academic view of Japan as America's little brother, a nation that is gradually but inevitably becoming a liberal democracy, with an economy that operates more or less on free-market principles. Johnson and others argue that Japan is something quite different.

Because "Japan: Who Governs?" includes work published over a 20-year period, the reader encounters Johnson's central thesis in various stages of evolution. "[T]he Japanese," he writes in one recent explanation, "pursue economic activities primarily in order to achieve independence from and leverage over potential adversaries rather than to achieve consumer utility, private wealth, ... or any other objective posited by economic determinists."

Johnson wields his most scornful pen against economists who think that Japan is just another industrially developed state, where companies act primarily in their own interest. "In talking about economic issues in the Asia-Pacific region," he dryly cautions, "one must begin by largely discounting or ignoring the opinions of economics professors in English-speaking countries."

Johnson's ideas may be controversial, but his writing is well-organized and at times wickedly, delightfully clever. Unless American policymakers begin ignoring or, better, firing these economists, Johnson warns, America risks going "the way of the USSR."

He urges a radical re-analysis of Japan, the adoption of an American "industrial policy'' (wherein government and business join forces to economic advantage in the international commercial arena), and results-oriented trade practices. In Johnson's view the Japanese state - in which bureaucrats marshal businesses and workers toward a national goal - is so entrenched and formidable that the US must compete on Japanese terms rather than wait for Japan to change.

While Johnson may be correct in arguing that the Japanese state will never change of its own volition, that there will be no top-down transformation of what he calls the "developmental state," he does not address some important realities.

There are increasingly vocal and powerful constituencies in Japan pushing for an end to the post-war order. One is women. In order to maintain near total employment for men, Japanese women have been forced into the home or into menial jobs, but increasingly they are rebelling. More equality in Japan's workplace seems inevitable, a process that will change the old order.

Johnson also neglects what could be termed Japan's post-prosperity malaise. For decades the bureaucracy, as Johnson's work has chronicled, has led Japan toward economic reconstruction. A decade ago, many Japanese began to realize that they had arrived. Then they started to wonder what to do next. The problem is that no one has provided a new goal. This national identity crisis may make Japan less of a threat than Johnson imagines.

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