and Asian Reality
Paul J. Scalise
over thirty years now, Japan has been billed as the epitome of social
engineering. Not a few experts debated the basic clichés of an island
nation whose only natural resource was its people. We were told,
for example, that Japanese culture was relatively homogenous, with
a high sense of community values, family life, and concern for its
children. These experts went on to point out, again and again, that
Japan was a nation free from single parenthood, reconstituted families,
and poverty. Divorce was practically a nonissue. And when it came
to crime and violence, the police could only boast of declining
In explaining the roots of such exemplary behavior, writers in both
Japan and the West floated several competing theories—each
more sweeping than the last. Masao Maruyama, arguably Japan's most
important postwar philosopher, attributed outward manifestations
of morality to strategic national purpose and power.1
Psychoanalyst Masao Miyamoto, in turn, diagnosed Japanese mannerisms
as pathological in nature, the reflections of narcissism, sadomasochism,
and bizarre "castration complexes." Then came Francis Fukuyama,
who equated socioeconomic efficiency with varying degrees of "trust"
outside the immediate family domain, only to be supplanted by journalist
James Fallows, who recently hinted that most Japanese behave the
way they do simply because they are, well, "weird."2
Today, after almost a decade of stagnant growth that threatens to
deteriorate into a deflationary spiral, Japan's political apathy
and lack of consumer indignation are more intriguing than ever.
What is happening across the Pacific? Can the West still learn anything
from the people of the East?
would be nice to think, as Reid does, that Japanese society
thrives on an immutable culture built on loyalty, civility,
and the value of a stable, hardworking community...But whatever
consensus the Japanese public exhibited to build itself up
from the emotional and physical defeat in war is slowly entering
a new stage."
T.R. Reid, former Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post
and NPR commentator, takes a lighthearted and well-meaning stab
at this popular genre in Confucius Lives Next Door. His main
emphasis is what he calls "the social miracle—how the Asians
have built modern industrial societies characterized by the safest
streets, the best schools, and the most stable families in the world."
Drawing on five years of living with his family in Japan, Reid credits
this social phenomenon to the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479
b.c.), whose ethics taught that "the superior man thinks of virtue;
the small man thinks of comfort ..." Thankfully, Reid argues, few
Asians are currently "small" in the Confucian sense.
In Japan, character molding almost ensures the predictable. Individual
desires take a backseat to social cohesion. Reid demonstrates this
novel interpretation of virtue with a well-known Japanese kotowaza,
or catchphrase: Deru kui wa utarareru. English translation: The
protruding nail shall be hammered in. "Nobody in Japan," Reid emphasizes,
"likes a deru kui, a protruding nail." From birth, society teaches
its inductees the three essentials of successful "groupthink": regimentation,
regulation, and rote memorization. "The Japanese are people who
love rules," he adds. Private and public endeavors—classroom
participation, ads, banners, rituals, public service announcements,
and so forth—only assure that the "Confucian way" is benevolently
and systematically infused into a malleable audience.
To be sure, this is not a new argument. Asian autocrats from Singapore'
s Lee Kwan Yew to Malaysia's Mohammad Mahathir have argued along
similar lines for years, with political posturing and power consolidation
being the primary incentives. But Reid is different. He speaks from
the heart. Politics, culture, and economics blend to form an impressive
social safety net that any tourist can witness but few appreciate.
Asia works. And with the help of his would-be cultural guides and
next-door neighbors, Makiko Yoshida and Tadao Matsuda, he sets out
to construct a paean to "Confucian values," not as an academic trying
to assess the validity of the stereotype but as a journalist eager
to promote it.
The book is well worth reading just for that. He has assembled an
entertaining and readable compendium of history, economics, personal
anecdotes, newspaper synopses, mentalités, and introductory lessons
in East Asian Philosophy 101. They may not always accord, sometimes
betraying the veneer of objectivity he hopes to convey, but that
doesn't deter Reid from stoking the adulatory fires. Emphasizing
the social achievements of Asia's apparently harmonious societies
underlines a feat, says Reid, "that is certainly more instructive
than anything the Asians have achieved in the economic sphere."
Japan: A bona
fide role model?
Of course, books trying to lay bare "the secrets of the Orient"
usually have their work cut out for them. The number of publications
indicates the extent of the problem: No one book ever seems to
realistically capture the mechanics of Japan.3
Consider that in the 1980s approximately 3,917 Japan-related books
were published in the English-speaking world alone. That record
would nearly double in the 1990s, exceeding some 7,323 publications.
Despite the telltale signs of Asian economic decline, studies
about things Japanese still manage to pique interest in a growing
Part of the allure, it seems, lies in America's own renewed, nationwide
preoccupation with the "social issues": abortion, pornography,
school prayer, drug use, crime, and sexual deviancy, to name a
few. Convinced that American society is in a state of vertiginous
moral decline and that secular humanism—or, in other words,
postmodern liberalism—is the main culprit, the Religious
Right, in conjunction with other neoconservative movements, consistently
defends traditional moral values in the political arena. Best-sellers
such as Rush Limbaugh' s The Way Things Ought to Be (1993),
William Bennett's Book of Virtues (1994), and Robert
Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American
Decline (1996) top the list of such reactionary nostalgia.
Reid's personal tribute to Confucian East Asia capitalizes on
this reawakening but in a slightly different vein. It is possible
that he longs for the iron hand of some Asian societies to clamp
down on America's own inner cities. About the concern for his
family's own safety, there's little doubt.
know feel that we have a basic right as human beings to
live without fear: to walk down a street or jog through
a park at night without a cautious glance over the shoulder,
to leave a mountain bike—or a car, for that matter—on
the street outside the house and know for sure that it
will still be there the next morning.
He marvels at
the fact his own daughters could travel to Tokyo Disney unescorted
and could ride public transportation without fear of being accosted.
All well and good for a traveler's tale, but what exactly are we
supposed to be learning from the Asians? Reid doesn't seem entirely
He correctly notes the underlying moral and ethical similarities
between the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West and the Confucian
tradition in the East. When carefully examined, both philosophies
teach a selfless, philanthropic, outward-oriented approach to life,
love, and happiness. In stressing differences between "us" and "them,"
Asian autocrats and too many of their de facto press secretaries
in the West forget that point. Reid doesn't.
There are, to be sure, qualitative nuances. As Reid also explains,
Judeo-Christian morality is overridingly universal; individual ethics
predominantly stem from transcendental issues regarding sin and
redemption. Any short-term behavioral lapse in judgment also considers
its long- term impact, or reward in the afterlife. Conversely, the
"Confucian way" does not involve spiritual affairs. It is not billed
as religion, rather as philosophy. Good behavior is sought in and
of itself. When the masses are educated to the virtues of group-oriented
conformity, individual rights (and the litigious conflicts associated
therein) become irrelevant. Only when each group member performs
his designated role can the hierarchical machine function.
Comparative philosophy aside, however, Reid is too shy to spell
out exactly "what living in the East teaches us about living in
the West," his subtitle. Beyond some vague reappreciation of our
own cultural heritage, his recommendations seem halfhearted: Should
we implement the kind of public service announcements offered throughout
Japan? No, not really. They may be useful, but they're also mind-numbingly
polite and tedious. Should we copy their educational methods? Perhaps
have national standards of educational assessment? Again, a muddled
answer. Japanese-style classrooms are also plagued by corporal punishment
(taibatsu), bullying (ijime), and teenage suicide,
the predictable response, says Reid, to a high-pressure environment
where outsiders can easily disturb the Japanese wa, or group harmony.
Well then, how about incorporating pride-engendering ceremonies
into our own national holidays? Reid strongly favors this step but
adds a caveat. "It would be romantic to the point of naïveté," he
laments, "to suggest that all nineteen-year-olds in Japan come storming
out of the local Seijin- shiki [coming-of-age ceremony]
armed with a new determination to work hard, obey the law, and devote
themselves selflessly to the overall society."
Indeed, when Reid isn't second-guessing his own thesis, he directs
his concerns toward wrongheaded Japanese reactions to Western culture.
Without a doubt, he's right to do so. (Any Japanese who honestly
believes that the United States is a drug-infested haven for gun-toting,
TV-addled couch potatoes hasn't experienced life in my hometown.)
This diplomatic approach works well, for the most part, to preserve
Reid' s reputation as one of the more balanced Western reporters.
The downside begs a question: If some Asians also project negative
stereotypes onto the Western world that "can be traced to politics,
or jealousy, or anti-Western sentiments," as Reid contends, what
can we now conclude about Confucius' hold over sober Asian sensibilities?
Perhaps there are cracks in the vaunted social miracle, after all.
Japanophilia: cultural stereotypes unmasked
brings us to the most problematic aspect of Reid's thesis. Japan
may be the second-largest economy, the biggest creditor, and the
envy of several competing exporters worldwide, but its successes
are equally fraught with domestic problems. The so-called social
miracle is a glossy caricature—psychologically, culturally,
and statistically—of the very people he hopes to defend.
It would be nice to think, as Reid does, that Japanese society thrives
on an immutable culture built on loyalty, civility, and the value
of a stable, hardworking community. He points to Japan's relatively
low unemployment rate in the face of hard times as tacit proof that
"Confucian executives who run East Asian businesses ... know that
they are part of a larger society—and that membership brings
with it responsibility."
For Reid, this is aptly called "Japan's secret weapon." There is
some truth in this, of course. Matsushita Electric's managing director
in charge of personnel, Atsushi Murayama, is one of the most outspoken
proponents of lifetime employment. But whatever consensus the Japanese
public exhibited to build itself up from the emotional and physical
defeat in war is slowly entering a new stage.
Take, for example, the state of the national psyche. Since the Meiji
Restoration (1868), modernization has always clashed with Westernization.
A true sense of "Japanese" identity is forever at arm's length:
Are Japanese intestines longer, giving rise to their special diets?
Do Japanese support vertical rather than horizontal bonds? Is the
Japanese language so unique that it can only be processed on the
artistic, creative, audiovisual right side rather than the cold,
analytical, logical left side of the human brain? The fact that
the country increasingly supports institutes, magazines, and even
a pseudo-science (Nihonjinron) devoted to studying what it
means to be Japanese suggests that many suspect that it no longer
means much at all.
If the 1995 poison gas attack in the Tokyo subways taught the West
anything, it was that not a few Japanese remain spiritually unsatisfied
with their lot. Apocalyptic cults (Aum Shinrikyo), new age religions
(Soka Gakkai), and organized crime (the Yakuza) are equal opportunity
cancers on society, not just affecting insecure Westerners but Japanese
as well. In the words of Masao Miyamoto, a psychoanalyst formerly
with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, quoted in USA Today:
"Japan has gone downhill in the last few years and young people
just don't know what to believe ... at school they feel alone and
unprotected. ... When they leave school, they join cults because
the cults give them a sense of belonging and offer a kind of protection."
As I write this, malaise in Tokyo is the cachet du jour. Prime Minister
Keizo Obuchi and his cabinet, anticipating a further rise in the
unemployment rate from 4.8 to at least 5 percent, are preparing
a 542.9 billion yen ($4.5 billion) spending plan to create more
than 700,000 temporary jobs. Why? Because cost-cutting corporations
such as NEC, Sony, and Mitsubishi Chemical are beginning to lay
off more than 20 percent of their domestic staffs. Declared bankruptcies
(some nineteen thousand) are at a postwar high, and rest assured
that women, the last hired during the prosperous 1980s, will be
the first to be fired in these stagnant times.
But even if we were to take the social statistics at face value—and
that's a big if, judging from Japan's distinct compiling methods—divorce,
crime, disgruntled salarymen, and prostitution are still on the
rise. There is a connection between economic prosperity and social
stability, despite Reid's contention. The most shocking indication
that the "social miracle" is not so miraculous comes from Japan's
own suicide rate. According to the National Policy Agency, suicides
are at a postwar high this year: 19.3 percent per 100,000 people
as compared to 11.1 percent in the United States. Add to this the
fact that there was an astounding 44.6 percent increase in the suicide
rate among middle-aged men (40-59), and one is left with the inevitable
conclusion that the social safety net is collapsing beneath recession-
To his credit, Reid acknowledges the weaknesses of his argument,
but he stands behind his thesis just the same, guided by the apparently
pleasant memories of living in Japan. Should the country then embrace
sweeping economic reform of its financial, industrial, and bureaucratic
institutions? Reid has an answer: "Efficiency can't be the only
measure of success, for a business or a society. If a company enjoys
big profits while the community around it grows desperate, neither
company nor community really comes out ahead."
Perhaps, but judging from the current state of the Japanese economy,
embracing structural reform seems the lesser of two looming evils.
"Theory and Psychology of Ultra-Nationalism," in Thought and
Behavior of Modern Japanese Politics (London: Oxford University
Press, 1963), pp. 1-24.
For an excellent review of Fallows' main thesis, see Ian Buruma,
"Trading Places," in New Republic, 18 Apr. 1994, pp. 32-38.
In Fallows' view, post-Meiji Japan is built upon a national "system"
in which systematic, meticulous learning of all things Western is
the norm. This system, Fallows argues, "leads to excesses," as illustrated
by a barbershop traveler's tale in which "'individual strands of
[Fallows'] hair were measured, and the lengths recorded, before
and after the cut.' ... leav[ing] the reader with the impression
that Japanese are seriously weird."
Some examples in this genre might include, inter alia,
Ralph Hewins, The Japanese Miracle Men (1967), Robert Guillain,
The Japanese Challenge (1970), Herman Kahn, The Emerging
Japanese Superstate (1970), Hakan Hedberg, Japan's Revenge
(1972), Ezra Vogel, Japan as Number One: Lessons for America
(1979), James Fallows, Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New
East Asian Economic and Political System (1993), and Eamonn
Fingleton, Blindside: Why Japan Is Still on Track to Overtake
the U.S. by the Year 2000 (1995).
Paul J. Scalise. "Confucian Virtue and Asian Reality". Vol. 14,
The World & I. December 1, 1999. Pg. 261.
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