An Ax To Grind
Sour Grapes About Japan
Paul J. Scalise
Let's face it: In Japan
studies, sometimes a book is more memorable for the hype surrounding
it than for its actual content. Michael Crichton's 1992 bestseller
Rising Sun is one such example. Mike Millard's recent release,
Leaving Japan: Observations on the Dysfunctional U.S.-Japan Relationship
flirts with being another.
The book jacket hails it as "an incisive, accessible, keenly observed,
enlightening and enlightened account by an American journalist living
and working in Japan." Never mind that Mr. Millard left Japan out
of anger—hence the title—and now lives and works in
Singapore. The adulation builds anyway: The Japan Policy Research
Institute (JPRI) recommends it as "current and important" reading.
Financial reporter Eamonn Fingleton promises us "many practical
insights of great importance." Old Japan hand Donald Richie considers
it "honest and unbiased." And even revisionist-school Godfather
Chalmers Johnson joins the choir: "If Americans ever start to wake
up from their triumphalist dreams," he sings, "this is one of the
first books they should read."
Enlightening? Practical insights of great importance? One of the
first books they should read? With the Japanese economy now re-entering
recession, such a buildup elicits more than just a raised eyebrow.
It begs the question: Why isn't Mike Millard advising both governments?
Leaving Japan isn't boring, to be sure. The writing is fluid,
the personal observations poignant. But the hype notwithstanding,
this is a book about (in fact, a polemic against) the putative barriers
erected against foreigners in a prosaic range of business and social
circles. Thus, each of the 35 short vignettes remain repackaged
sound bites from other authors done in such a way as to rationalize
Mr. Millard 's growing indignation. Indeed, the book's defining
characteristic is also its Achilles' heel: By confusing the personal
with the political, Mr. Millard projects an uneven account of the
U.S.-Japan relationship and the measures needed to resolve conflicts—but
more on that later.
The central claim of this book is that Japan is not the country
America thinks it is. Not that the differences are synthesized byproducts
of postwar trade frictions, or that Japan is as different as, say,
any other European or Asian country. Mr. Millard argues that Japan's
homegrown "Japanism"—much like racism—is a process 400
years in the making: "Japan has not been profoundly altered," he
writes, "since it was organized in line with the feudalistic dynamics
that existed when Tokugawa consolidated power from the top cadre
of proud samurai down through the lowliest farmers."
This meta-historical reading of Japan (for example, attempting to
identify recurring patterns of thought and behavior through time
and place) is an old canard periodically trotted out by Japanese
industrial leaders, demagogues, cultural "experts" and a host of
Western pundits who usually take it all at face value.
What will interest most readers is how, even today, the perception
can still lead some to judge the relationship as "us" vs. "them."
In one corner stands Japan—a nation depicted as an authoritarian
society of "thwarted individualism" governed by a neo-mercantilist
trade policy of predatory exporting and domestic protectionism.
In the other stands America—a nation enamored by a free-trade
ideology, but whose government has already struck a Faustian bargain
of sorts with Tokyo behind its people's back. As long as Tokyo permits
Washington to station 100,000 or so troops in East Asia, he argues,
America's domestic markets are forever open to Japanese products.
The result is a $74-billion trade surplus with America in 1999 and
a largely exploited Okinawan population.
Mr. Millard might be on to something, as was Chalmers Johnson in
Blowback (2000) and James Fallows in Looking at the Sun
(1994) before him. But the essential unanswered question is always
the same: Where's the smoking gun? Conjecture and theory do not
translate into systematic data or corroborating evidence any more
than our political sympathies for the local Okinawan populace might
replace the geo-strategic vacuum a U.S. withdrawal would create.
Readers not only need a dispassionate methodology (not found here),
but also a scenario analysis. Cause and effect.
The same can be said of bilateral trade. Mr. Millard wants to stop
"Japan's one-sided torrent of exports . . . [through] a significant
and fair cutback." Fair enough, you might say. What he doesn't explain
is how stopping this "torrent" affects consumer prices, microeconomic
efficiencies, exchange and interest rates, wages and capital flows.
Is America's national interest best served by higher consumer prices?
Will US corporations be able to maintain wage stability should productivity
fall? And what about the trade surplus, anyway: Will cutting back
exports necessarily improve the gap should foreigners keep investing
Anticipating reviews of this sort, Mr. Millard rebuts his would-be
critics in advance: "If you happen to read a book or an article
that defends Japan's right to freely export what it wishes to America,
arguing that the exports are good for American consumers and that
those who criticize Japan (such as me) are unfair `Japan bashers,'
you might check the background of the writer, because often you
will find that Japanese money is involved."
Maybe. Lord knows lobbyists everywhere try to influence public-policy
discourse. But that some Americans partially receive funding from
Japanese sources and disagree with Mr. Millard does not necessarily
mean that everyone who disagrees with him is corrupt—anymore
than a case of rudeness to a Japanese-American at a U.S. restaurant
is a clear sign of racism.
And herein lies the rub: For all the talk of enlightenment and practical
insight, the perceptions in Leaving Japan aren't about public
policy. They're surprisingly about Mike Millard; his existential
angst and language barriers; his alienation from his coworkers;
his struggle to be accepted by his Japanese father-in-law; and his
subsequent flight from Japan to protect his son from bullying in
the "hope the boy would be free, never coming too much under the
influence of `Japanism' or any other dogma."
Perhaps Mr. Millard does see systematic evidence of "Japanism,"
whatever that might be. However, as reasonable readers, we must
entertain the possibility that we are only seeing a shade of that
evidence; and it isn't very convincing. In the past century alone,
personal obsessions have warped public-policy decisions that sometimes
led to the worst form of despotism. Unless there is something universal
in these grievances (which there isn't), personal anecdotes cannot
be the driving force behind U.S.-Japan relations. So read Leaving
Japan for the interesting stories; but remember the stories
are fueling a pet theory, and a remarkably dated one at that.