The Japanese Are Different From You and Me
Our man in Japan admires the efficiency and social cohesion he sees everywhere around him. But he finds certain Japanese practices and beliefs less admirable
BY JAMES FALLOWS
JAPAN IS TURNING ME INTO MRS. TROLLOPE. She was the huffy Englishwoman who viewed the woolly Ameriean society of the 1820s and found it insufficiently refined. (“The total and universal want of good, or even pleasing, manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavoring to account for it,” and so forth.) Her mistake, as seems obvious in retrospect, was her failure to distinguish between things about America that were merely different from the ways of her beloved England and things that were truly wrong. The vulgar American diction that so offended her belongs in the first category, slavery in the second.
I will confess that this distinction—between different and wrong—sometimes eludes me in Japan. Much of the time I do keep it in mind. I observe aspects of Japanese life, note their difference from standard practice in the West, and serenely say to myself, who cares? Orthodontia has never caught on in Japan, despite seemingly enormous potential demand, because by the local canon of beauty overlapping and angled-out teeth look fetching, especially in young girls. It was barely a century ago that Japanese women deliberately blackened their teeth in the name of beauty. The delicate odor of decaying teeth was in those days a standard and alluring reference in romantic poetry. This is not how it’s done in Scarsdale, but so what? For their part, the Japanese can hardly conceal their distaste for the “butter smell” that they say wafts out of Westerners or for our brutish practice of wearing the same shoes in the dining room and the toilet.
Similarly, child psychologists and family therapists have told me that the Japanese parent’s way of persuading his children to stop doing something is not to say “It’s wrong” or “It’s unfair” but rather to tell the child, “People will laugh at you.”This is not my idea of a wholesome childrearing philosophy, but I’m not preparing my children for membership in a society that places such stress on harmonious social relations. Several American psychologists have recently claimed that the Japanese approach may in fact equip children for more happiness in life than American practices do. Americans are taught to try to control their destiny; when they can’t, they feel they’ve failed. Japanese children, so these psychologists contend, are taught to adjust themselves to an externally imposed social order, which gives them “secondary control”— that is, a happy resignation to fate.
Now that Japan has become so notoriously successful, American visitors often cannot help feeling, This is different—and better. Practically anything that has to do with manufacturing and economic organization falls into this category. Recently I toured a Nissan factory an hour outside Tokyo, escorted by a manager who seemed almost embarrassed by the comparisons I asked him to make between his company’s standards and GM’s or Ford’s. Yes, Nissan did insist on a higher grade of steel for its cars. No, the foreign companies had not matched its level of automation. Yes, the gap between managers’ earnings and those of assembly workers was tiny compared with that in Detroit. No, the company did not expect trouble surmounting the challenge of the higher yen.
From what I have seen, a tight-knit, almost tribal society like Japan is better set up for straightforward productive competition than is the West. It places less emphasis on profit than on ensuring that every company and even worker will retain a place in the economic order. (Apart from raw materials and American movies, most Japanese would be content, I think, if the country imported nothing at all. Who cares about high prices, as long as everyone is at work?) Its politics is ridden with factions—because of certain peculiarities of the electoral system, politicians can win seats in the Diet with only 10 or 12 percent of their district’s vote. (Each district elects several representatives to the Diet, but each voter has only one vote. In a fourmember district, for example, the leading candidate might get 35 percent of the total vote, and the next three might get 15, 12, and 8 percent. All four of them would be winners.) But there are few seriously divisive political issues, and the country has a shared sense of national purpose, as the United States last did between 1941 and 1945.
Even beyond the measurable signs of its productive success, Japan seems different and better in those details of daily life that reflect consideration and duty. During my first week here another American journalist told me that only when I had left would I realize how thoroughly Japan had had me. At the time, I was still reeling from exchangerate shock and thought she was crazy. But I am beginning to understand what she meant. A thousand times a day in modern society your life is made easier or harder, depending on the care with which someone else has done his job. Are the newspapers delivered on time? Are vending machines fixed when they break? Are the technocrats competent? Do the captains of industry really care about their companies, not just about feathering their own nests? In general, can you count on others to do their best? In Japan you can. Mussolini gave trains that ran on time a bad name. After seeing Japan, I think that on this one point Mussolini had the right idea.
From bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who, I am told, average six hours of overtime a day) to department-store package-wrappers, the Japanese seem immune against the idea that discharging their duty to others might be considered “just a job.” Tipping is virtually unknown in Japan; from the Japanese perspective it seems vulgar, because it implies that the recipient will not do his best unless he is bribed. The no-tipping custom is something you get used to very quickly, because it seems so much more dignified and honorable, not—at least in Japan—because it’s a way of gypping the working class. Japan is famous for the flatness of its income distribution. Year in and year out more than 90 percent of the Japanese tell pollsters that they think of themselves as “middle class”—and here the perception seems accurate, not a delusion as it might be in the United States. Indeed, from the Japanese perspective America seems fantastically wrapped up in and bound by class. American commercials are basically targeted along class lines: one kind of person drinks Miller beer, another buys Steuben glass. Japanese commercials are not—or so I am told by people who produce them. They may aim at different age groups—new mothers, teenage boys, and so forth—but otherwise they address the Japanese as one.
I can’t say exactly, but I would bet that 100,000 people live within half a mile of the apartment where I live with my family. Yet in the evening, when I walk home through the alleyways from the public baths, the neighborhoods are dead quiet—unless my own children are kicking a can along the pavement or noisily playing tag. The containedness and reserve of Japanese life can seem suffocating if you’re used to something different, but they are also admirable, and necessary, if so many people are to coexist so harmoniously in such close quarters. Because the Japanese have agreed not to get on one another’s nerves (and because so much of Tokyo is built only two or three stories high), the city, though intensely crowded, produces nothing like the chronic high-anxiety level of New York. The very low crime rate obviously has something to do with this too. “Is this not, truly, Japan’s golden age?" one American businessman exclaimed, spreading his arms in nonJapanese expansiveness and nearly knocking over the passersby, as we walked near the Imperial Palace on a brilliant sunny day recently. Everyone was working, Japan was taking a proud place in the world, there were no serious domestic divisions, and the drugs, dissoluteness, and similar disorders that blight the rest of the world barely existed here. Wasn’t it obvious that Japan had figured out what still puzzled everybody else?
On the whole, I had to agree. What most Americans fear about Japan is precisely that it works so well. Foreigners who have lived for years in Japan tell me that the legendary Japanese hospitality toward visitors suddenly disappears when you stop being an “honored guest” and slide into the “resident alien” category. In effect, the country is like an expensive, very well run hotel, making the guest comfortable without ever tempting him to think he’s found a home. But while it lasts, the hospitality is a delight. Those I interview at least feign more attention and courtesy than their counterparts in the United States have done. A few people have moved beyond the tit-for-tat ritualistic exchange of favors to displays of real generosity. Still, after making all appropriate allowances for the debts I owe them, and all disclaimers about the perils of generalizing after a few months on the scene, I find that two aspects of Japanese life bring out the Mrs. Trollope in me.
ONE IS THE PROMINENCE OF PORNOGRAPHY IN DAILY life. I realize that no one from the land that created Hustler and Deep Throat can sound pious about obscene material. The difference is the degree of choice. In the United States pornography did not enter my life unless I invited it in, and I had no trouble keeping it from my grade-school children. Here it enters unbidden all the time.
Like most other residents of Tokyo, I spend a lot of time on the trains—about three hours a day. There I am surrounded not just by people but also by printed matter— advertising placards all over the trains, and books, magazines, and newspapers in everyone’s hands. The dedicated literacy of Japan is yet another cause for admiration, but the content of the reading matter—especially on the trains, where no one knows his neighbor and in principle everyone is unobserved—is not. Some of the men are reading books, but more are reading either “sports papers” or thick volumes of comics, the size of telephone books, known as manga. What these two media have in common is the porno theme. Sports papers carry detailed coverage of baseball games or sumo tournaments on the outside pages and a few spreads of nearly nude women inside. (The only apparent restriction is that the papers must not display pubic hair.) The comic books, printed on multicolored paper and popular with every segment of the population, are issued weekly and sell in the millions. They run from innocent kids’ fare to hard-core pornography.
To some decree the sports papers and the more prurient manga exist to display female bodies, no more and no less, and they differ from their counterparts in other cultures only in the carefree spirit with which men read them in public. I don’t know whether Japanese men consume any more pornography than American ones, but in the United States men look guilty as they slink out of dirty movies, and they rarely read skin magazines in front of women. Japanese men are far less inhibited—perhaps because of the anonymity of the crowded train car, or perhaps because their society is, as often claimed, more matter-of-fact about sex. In any case, the trains and subways are awash in pornography, as are television shows starting as early as 8 P.M. My sons, ages nine and six, very quickly figured out this new aspect of Japanese culture. On train rides they stare goggle-eyed at the lurid fare now available to them.
In addition to its pervasiveness, Japanese subway pornography differs from the Playboys and Penthouses of the West in the graphic nastiness of its themes. Voyeurism plays a big part in the manga, and in a lot of advertisements too. One new publication recently launched a huge advertising campaign billing itself as “the magazine for watchers.” Its posters showed people peeping out from under manhole covers or through Venetian blinds. In the comics women—more often, teenage girls—are typically peeped up at, from ground level. A major weekly magazine recently published two pages of telephoto-lens shots of couples in advanced stages of love-making in a public park. Most of the teenage girls in Japan spend their days in severe, dark, sailor-style school uniforms, with long skirts. As in Victorian-era fantasies, in the comics the skirts are sure to go. But before the garments are ripped off, the girls are typically spied upon by ecstatic men.
The comics are also quite violent. Women are being accosted, surprised, tied up, beaten, knifed, tortured, and in general given a hard time. Many who are so treated are meant to be very young—the overall impression is as if the Brooke Shields of five years ago had been America’s exclusive female sexual icon, with no interference from Bo Derek or other full-grown specimens. One advertising man, who has been here for ten years and makes his living by understanding the Japanese psyche, says that everything suddenly fell into place for him when he thought of a half-conscious, low-grade pedophilia as the underlying social motif. It affects business, he said, where each year’s crop of fresh young things, straight out of high school, are assigned seats where the senior managers can look at them—until the next year, when a newer and younger crop are brought in. It affects TV shows and commercials, which feature girls with a teenage look. The most soughtafter description in Japan is kawaii, or “cute” (as opposed to “beautiful” or “sexy”), often pronounced in a way equivalent to “Cuu-uuuute!” The kawaii look is dominant on television and in advertising, giving the impression that Japanese masculinity consists primarily of yearning for a cute little thing about fifteen years old. “A director can shoot an act of sodomy or rape for a TV drama programmed for the dinner hour with impunity so long as he allows no pubic hair to be shown,” a recent article by Sarah Brickman in the Far Eastern Economic Review said. “He is, of course, particularly assured of immunity from legal repercussions if the female star of the scene is prepubescent.”
A few years ago Ian Buruma, a Dutch writer who had lived here for years and has a Japanese wife, published Behind the Mask, a wonderful book that closely analyzed the manga, soap operas, low-brow movies, and other aspects of Japanese popular culture. He richly illustrated how the Japanese, in many ways so buttoned tip and contained, sought outlandish fantasy releases. Buruma attempted to trace the oddities of manga-style fantasy to the deep bond between Japanese boys and their mothers, who typically raise their children with little help from the father. I don’t know enough to judge Buruma’s theory, or otherwise to make sense of Japan’s standards of pornographic display. My point is that they rest on theories and values at odds with the West’s. According to the Far Eastern Review article, the director-general of Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs once endorsed physical exercise this way: “When asked my reasons for jogging, I used to answer ‘although it is shameful for a gentleman to rape a woman, it is also shameful for a man not to have the physical strength necessary to rape a woman!'”
In the United States more and more people are claiming that pornography contributes to sex crimes. If you look at Japan—with its high level of violent stimulation but reportedly low incidence of rape and assault—you hav e your doubts. But even if it leads to few indictable offenses, and even if Japanese women themselves do not complain, the abundance of violent pornography creates an atmosphere that gives most Westerners the creeps.
THE OTHER OFF-PUTTING ASPECT OF JAPAN IS THE ethnic—well, racial—exclusion on which the society is built. I hesitated to say “racial” or “racist,” because the terms are so loaded and so irritating to the Japanese. I can understand why they are annoyed. In their dealings with the West the Japanese have traditionally seen themselves as the objects of racial discrimination— the little yellow men looked down on by the great white fathers. A new book by the historian John W. Dower, called War Without Mercy, provides hair-raising illustrations of the racism with which both Japanese and JapaneseAmericans were viewed during the war. For instance, Ernie Pyle explained to the readers of his famous battlefront column that the difference between the Germans and the Japanese was that the Germans “were still people.”
Rather than talking about race—as white Americans did when enslaving blacks and excluding “inferior” immigrants—the Japanese talk about “purity.” Their society is different from others in being purer; it consists of practically none but Japanese. What makes the subject so complicated is the overlap between two different kinds of purity, that of culture and that of blood.
That the Japanese have a distinct culture seems to me an open-and-shut case. Some economists here have giv en me little speeches about the primacy of economic forces in determining people’s behavior. Do the Japanese save more, stick with their companies longer, and pay more attention to quality? The explanations are all to be found in tax incentives, the “lifetime-employment" policy at big firms, and other identifiable economic causes. I’m sure there is something to this outlook, but I am also impressed by what it leaves out. We do not find it remarkable that the past 250 years of American history, which include revolution, settling the frontier, subjugating Indians, creating and then abolishing slavery, and absorbing immigrant groups, have given the Tnited States a distinctive set of values. Is it so implausible that 2,500 years of isolation on a few small islands might have given the Japanese some singular traits?
Japan is different from certain “old" Western cultures because it has been left to itself so much. In the same 2,500 years the British Isles were invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans—and after that the British themselves went invading and exploring. Blood was mixed, and culture was opened up. During all that time the Japanese sat at home, uninvaded and disinclined to sail off to see what the rest of the world might hold. The effect of this long isolation was a distinctive culture and the isolation of a “pure" racial group, which tempted people to think that race and culture were the same.
I’m sure that someone could prov e that the Japanese are not really mono-racial, or not clearly separate from the Koreans or the Chinese. The significant point is that as far as the Japanese are concerned, they are inherently different from other people, and are all bound together by birth and blood. The standard Japanese explanation for their horror of litigation and their esteem for consensus is that they are a homogenous people, who understand one another’s needs. When I’ve asked police officials and sociologists why there is so little crime, their explanations have all begun, “We are a homogenous race . . .”Most people I have interviewed have used the phrase “We Japanese ...”I have rarely heard an American say “We Americans ...”
The Japanese sense of separateness rises to the level of race because the Japanese system is closed. The United States is built on the principle of voluntary association; in theory anyone can become an American. A place in Japanese society is open only to those who are born Japanese.
When I say “born,”I mean with the right racial background, not merely on rocky Japanese soil. One of Japan’s touchiest problems is the secondor even third-generation Koreans, descended from people who were brought to Japan for forced labor in the fascist days. They are still known as Koreans even though they were born here, speak the language like natives, and in many cases are physically indistinguishable from everyone else. They have long-term “alien residence" permits but are not citizens—and in principle they and their descendants never will be. (Obtaining naturalized Japanese citizenship is not impossible but close to it.) They must register as aliens and be fingerprinted by the police. The same prospect awaits the handful of Vietnamese refugees whom the Japanese, under intense pressure from the United States, have now agreed to accept for resettlement.
The Japanese public has a voracious appetite for Nihonjinron—the study of traits that distinguish them from ev - eryone else. Hundreds of works of self-examination are published each year. This discipline involves perfectly reasonable questions about what makes Japan unique as a social system, but it easily slips into inquiries about w hat makes the Japanese people special as a race. Perhaps the most lunatic work in this field is The Japanese Brain, by a Dr. Tadanobu Tsunoda, which was published to wide acclaim and vast sales in the late 1970s. The book contends that the Japanese have brains that are organized differently from those of the rest of humanity, their internal wiring optimized for the requirements of the Japanese language. (Tsunoda claims that all non-Japanese—including “Chinese, Koreans, and almost all Southeast Asian peoples"— hear vowels in the right hemispheres of their brains, while the Japanese hear them in the left. Since the Japanese also handle consonants in the left hemisphere, they are able to attain a higher unity and coherence than other races.)
I haven’t heard anyone restate the theory in precisely this form. And in fairness, during the war British scientists advanced a parallel unique-Japanese-brain theory (as John Dower points out), asserting that Japanese thought was permanently impaired by the torture of memorizing Chinese characters at an early age. Bur British scientists don’t say this any longer, while Tsunoda is still a prominent, non-ridiculed figure in Japan. Whatever the Japanese may think of his unique-brain theory, large numbers of them seem comfortable with the belief that not just their language but also their thoughts and emotions are different from those of anyone else in the world.
The Japanese language is the main evidence for this claim. It is said to foster the understatement for which the Japanese are so famous, and to make them more carefully attuned to nuance, nature, unexpressed thoughts, and so forth, than other people could possibly be. Most of all, it is a convenient instrument of exclusion. Mastering it requires considerable memory work. Japanese businessmen posted to New York or London often fret about taking their children with them, for fear that three or four years out of the Japanese school system will leav e their children hopelessly behind. It’s not that the overall intellectual standards are so different but that in Japan children spend much of their time memorizing the Chinese characters, kanji, necessary for full literacy—and for success on the all-important university-entrance tests.
Until a few years ago only a handful of foreigners had bothered to become fully fluent in Japanese, and they could be written off as exceptions proving the general rule: that Japanese was too complicated and subtle for non-Japanese to learn. Now the situation is changing—many of the Americans I meet here are well into their Japanese-language training—but the idea of uniqueness remains. Four years ago an American linguist named Roy Andrew Miller published a splenetic book titled Japan’s Modern Myth, designed to explode the idea that Japanese was unique, any more than Urdu or German or other languages are. Edward Seidensticker, a renowned translator of Japanese literature, makes the point concisely: “‘But how do you manage the nuances of Japanese?’ the Japanese are fond of asking, as if other languages did not have nuances, and as if there were no significance in the fact that the word ‘nuance’ had to be borrowed from French.”
As Roy Miller pointed out, the concept of an unlearnable language offers a polite outlet for a more deeply held but somewhat embarrassing belief in racial uniqueness. In a passage that illustrated his book’s exasperated tone but also his instinct for the home truth, Miller wrote:
Japanese race consists in using the Japanese language. But how does one become a member of the Japanese race? By being born into it, of course, just as one becomes a member of any other race. . . . But what if someone not a Japanese by right of race . . . does manage to acquire some proficiency in the Japanese language? Well, in that case, the system literally makes no intellectual provision at all for his or her very existence. Such a person is a nonperson within the terms and definitions of Japanese social order. . . . The society’s assumption [is] that the Japanese-speaking foreigner is for some unknown reason involved in working out serious logical contradictions in his or her life. . . . He or she had better be watched pretty carefully; obviously something is seriously amiss somewhere, otherwise why would this foreigner be speaking Japanese?
As applied to most other races of the world—especially other Asians, with whom the Japanese have been in most frequent contact—the Japanese racial attitude is unambiguous: Southeast Asians and Koreans are inferior to Japanese. Koreans are more closely related to the Japanese than are any other Asians, but they are held in deep racial contempt by the Japanese. (A hilarious, long-running controversy surrounds excavations in central Honshu that seemed to indicate that the Imperial Family was originally . . . Korean! The digs were soon closed up, for reasons that are continually debated in the English-language but not, I am told, the Japanese-language press.) Recent opinion polls show that the nation the Japanese most fear is not the United States, on which they depend for their export market, nor the Soviet Union, which still occupies four of their northern islands, but Korea—which threatens to beat them at their own hard-work game and which fully reciprocates Japan’s ill will. China—the source of Japan’s written language and the model for much of its traditional culture—presents a more difficult case. The Australian journalist Murray Sayle offers the model of China as the “wastrel older brother,” who forfeited his natural right of prominence through his dissolute behavior, placing the family burden on the steadfast younger brother, Japan. This is one reason why stories of Chinese opium dens were so important in pre-war Japan: the older brother had gone to hell and needed the discipline of Japanese control.
For Westerners the racial question is more confusing than even for the Chinese. For a few weeks after arrival I seized on the idea that being in Japan might, for a white American, faintly resemble the experience of being black in America. That is, my racial identity was the most important thing about me, and it did not seem to be a plus.
I AM JUST BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND HOW COMPLIcated the racial attitude toward Westerners really is. Whereas Southeast Asians in Japan are objects of unrelieved disdain, Westerners are seen as both better and worse than the Japanese. One timeless argument in Japan is whether the Japanese feel inferior to Westerners, or superior to them, or some combination of the two. Feeling equal to them—different in culture, but equal as human beings—somehow does not emerge as a possibility, at least in the talks I have had so far.
There is evidence for both propositions—that the Japanese feel superior to Westerners, and that they feel inferior to them. On the one hand, Japanese culture is simply awash in Western—mainly American—artifacts. The movies and music are imported straight from America; the fashion and commercial models are disproportionately Caucasian; the culture seems to await its next signal from the other side of the Pacific. A hundred years ago, Japan began its Meiji-era drive to catch up with the West’s industrial achievements. Prominent figures urged Japanese to interbreed with Westerners, so as to improve the racial stock, and to dump the character-based Japanese language in favor of English, which was the mark of a more advanced race. To judge by the styles they affect and the movies and music they favor, today’s young Japanese seem to take Europe as the standard of refinement and America as the source of pop-cultural energy. Even when nothing earthshaking is happening in America, the TV news has extensive what’s-new-in-New-York segments.
Herbert Passin, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, who came to Japan during the Occupation and has been here off and on ever since, contends that the sense of inferiority is so deep-seated that a few years of economic victories cannot really have dislodged it. The longer I have been here, and the better I’ve gotten to know a few Japanese, the more frequently I’ve seen flashes of the old, nagging fear of inferiority. Americans often talk, with good reason, about the defects of their “system.” Many Japanese take pride in their economic and social system but still act as if something is wrong with them as a race. I talked with a group of teenage entrepreneurs, who had set up a mildly rebellious magazine. We talked about Japan’s economic success, and then one of them burst out: “We’re just like a bunch of ants. We all teem around a biscuit and carry it off. That’s the only way we succeed.” A famous scientist who has directed successful research projects for the Ministry of International Trade and Industry—precisely the kind of man American industrialists most fear—described Japan’s impressive scientific work-in-progress. Then he sighed and said, “Still, my real feeling is, Everything new comes from the States. We can refine it and improve it, but the firsts always come from outside.”
On the other hand, many Japanese can barely conceal their disdain for the West’s general loss of economic vigor. Many people I have interviewed have talked about the United States the way many Americans talk about England: it had its day, but now that’s done. One influential businessman in his early forties told me that members of his generation were not even daunted by the wartime defeat. Our fathers were beaten, he told me with a fierce look—not us. This is shaping up as the year of “economicadjustment” plans: every week a new ministry comes out with a scheme for reducing Japan’s trade surplus. I have yet to see the word fairness in the English versions of these documents. Instead they are all designed to promote “harmony.” The stated premise is that Japan has to give foreigners a break, so that it doesn’t make needless enemies overseas. The unstated but obvious corollary is that Japan could crush every indolent Western competitor if it tried. Even the things some Japanese still claim to admire about America suggest racial condescension. Among the American virtues that Japanese have mentioned to me are a big army, a sense of style and rhythm, artistic talent and energy, and raw animal (and supposedly sexual) strength. In their eyes we are big, potent, and hairy.
The Japanese have obviously profited, in purely practical terms, from their racial purity. Many of the things that are most admirable about the society—its shared moral values, its consideration for all its members’ interests, the attention people pay to the collective well-being as well as to their own—are easier to create when everyone is ethnically the same. Three years ago, at a commemoration for those killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Prime Minister Nakasone made this point as crudely as possible. He said, “The Japanese have been doing well for as long as 2,000 years because there are no foreign races.”
I have always thought that, simply in practical terms, the United States had a big edge because it tried so hard, albeit inconsistently and with limited success, to digest people from different backgrounds and parts of the world. Didn’t the resulting cultural collisions give us extra creativity and resilience? Didn’t the ethnic mixture help us at least slightly in our dealings with other countries? The Japanese, in contrast, have suffered grievously from their lack of any built-in understanding of foreign cultures. Sitting off on their own, it is easy for them to view the rest of the world as merely a market—an attitude harder to hold if your population contains a lot of refugees and immigrants. This perspective has as much to do with “trade frictions” as does their admirable management style. I am exaggerating for effect here—the most cosmopolitan Japanese I have met have a broader view than most people I know in America—but in general a homogeneous population with no emotional ties to the rest of the world acts even more narcissistically than do others. When the United States threatened to drown the world in its trade surpluses, it started the Marshall Plan. The Japanese, to put it mildly, have been less eager to share their wealth.
Practicalities aside, the United States, like the rest of Western society, has increasingly in the twentieth century considered it morally “right” to rise above differences of race, inconvenient and uncomfortable as that may sometimes be. Few Western societies, and few people, may succeed in so rising—but they feel guilty when they fail. The Japanese do not.
The integrationist dream has few supporters in this half of the globe. The Japanese are unusual in having so large a population with so little racial diversity, but their underlying belief that politics and culture should run on racial lines is held in many other parts of Asia. Directly or indirectly, the politics of most Asian countries revolve around racial or tribal divisions, especially those between the numerous Chinese expatriates and the Malays, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and others among whom the Chinese live. It’s hard to think of a really stable or happy multi-racial Asian state. Asians look at the Hindu-Moslem partition of India and see acquiescence to fate. Japanese look at America and see a mongrel race.
Edward Seidensticker, now a professor at Columbia, lived here for many years after the war—and then, in 1962, announced his intention to depart. “The Japanese are just like other people,” he wrote in a sayonara newspaper column. “But no. They are not like other people. They are infinitely more clannish, insular, parochial, and one owes it to one’s self-respect to preserve a feeling of outrage at the insularity. To have the sense of outrage go dull is to lose the will to communicate; and that, I think, is death. So I am going home.”
I’ve just gotten here, but I think I understand what Seidensticker was talking about. And it is connected with my only real reservation about the Japanese economic miracle. Even as Japan steadily rises in influence, the idea that it should be the new world model is hard for me to swallow. I know it is not logical to draw moral lessons from economics. But everyone does it—why else did Richard Nixon brag to Nikita Krushchev about our big refrigerators—and the Japanese are naturally now drawing lessons of their own. Their forty-year recovery represents the triumph of a system and a people, but I think many Japanese see it as the victory of a pure people, which by definition no inferior or mixed-blood race can match. The Japanese have their history and we have ours, so it would not be fair to argue that they “should” be a multi-racial, immigrant land. Most of the world. with greater or lesser frankness, subscribes to the Japanese view that people must be ethnically similar to get along. But to me, its ethic of exclusion is the least lovable thing about this society. And I hope, as the Japanese reflect upon their victories, that they congratulate themselves for diligence, sacrifice, and teamwork, not for remaining “pure.” □