Confucius Lives Next Door: book cover

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Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West
By T.R. Reid
Random House; 1999 pp. 276

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Confucian Virtue and Asian Reality
By: Paul J. Scalise

For 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 trends. 

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? 

"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...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 readership. 

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.

I 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 sure himself. 

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. 

Extreme Japanophilia: cultural stereotypes unmasked 

Which 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- caused pressures.
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.


1. Masao Maruyama, "Theory and Psychology of Ultra-Nationalism," in Thought and Behavior of Modern Japanese Politics (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 1-24. 

2. 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." 

3. 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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