Japan was not like this. By the time I arrived there in 1986, Ezra Vogel’s famed Japan as Number One had been on the market for several years. Vogel was arguing that many of Japan’s practices deserved to be examined as influential new world models. But because of the title, the book was easily misunderstood as suggesting that Japan had actually become the No. 1 power. That was certainly the preferred interpretation of many of the Japanese officials and intellectuals I interviewed. For them, Japan and its concepts had won, which explicitly meant that America and its ideas had lost.
This attitude showed up even when you weren’t looking for it. In Tokyo in 1989, I was summoned to meet Shintaro Ishihara, a bluff Pat Buchanan–like politician who was later elected governor of Tokyo. He was famous then for his book (written with Akio Morita) No! to Ieru Nippon, or The Japan That Can Say No!, which argued that Japan finally had the muscle to tell America to shut up. Behind it was the conceit that America had reached its crest—not just geostrategically, with its costly military commitments, nor just commercially, with the shoddy products it brought to market and its selfish refusal to save or conserve. Rather, America’s failure involved its very essence, its fitness as a culture to compete. His book contrasted the chaos, disorder, and preening individualism that characterized America with the unity, harmony, and unspoken communication that supposedly made the Japanese into one smoothly functioning productive team. (“Supposedly” because, as Karel van Wolferen and other foreign critics noted, the “naturally” cooperative nature of Japanese society generally resulted from a firm system of incentives and constraints.) As applied to those inherent traits, “America in decline” was not an accusation but an assumed fact.
At one level, the Japanese claim of superior fitness raised worthy analytic issues. Twice in its history, Japan has achieved something not even modern China can claim: full technological parity with the mighty nations of the West. (The first was in the decades after Commodore Perry’s arrival, when it modernized frantically to avoid the colonial humiliation that had befallen China; the second, of course, was after World War II.) But it was not Japan’s strategy of “developmental economics” that constituted its real challenge to the American idea—American strategists from Alexander Hamilton to Vannevar Bush would have felt perfectly at home with the idea of using state power to stimulate the growth of private industrial technologies. The racial and political elements of the Japanese model were something else again.
What did this mean for the American idea, or my understanding of it? From its start, America had been a rowdy place, the consequence of continually making room for new people, plans, and ideas. There was no sense in trying to be a second-rate Japan, though specific details in its economic and social approach (“patient capital,” improving K–12 education) deserved close study. America’s hope was to be more fully American—not more like them, our competitors, but More Like Us, as I called one book I wrote from Japan. That in turn meant more support for innovation, more embrace of immigration, more acceptance of the churn of dynamic disorder, more of the kind of public help—the GI Bill, public schools—that gave as many people as possible a fair chance. The American idea, as I saw it from Japan, was strength through radically opened opportunity. The good parts of the boom of the 1990s, the parts that preceded the bubble, were consistent with this approach: more room for immigrant talent, more public support for Americans seeking a second and third chance, balanced budgets to reduce the overhang of debt. The natural effect of globalization is to make all of these more difficult, as some people get richer (through an ever-larger market for their financial, corporate, professional, or entertainment skills) and others with less-specialized skills have to adapt more quickly to keep up. The inevitable rise of new barriers makes it all the more important to keep removing as many barriers as we can.
When I came to China, I naturally wondered if this might be the great challenger to the American idea. Certainly it has the scale to challenge almost anything it chooses. Barring catastrophe, sooner or later China will have the world’s largest economy. That won’t mean as much as it sounds: Since China has four times as many people as America, it need only reach one-fourth of America’s per capita income to be No. 1 in total output. (The ratio now is something like one-seventh or one-sixth, depending on how you calculate and whose Chinese statistics you believe.) I’ve never heard a Chinese authority assert that China could draw even, in per capita terms, in the foreseeable future.