February 08, 2006

Dogs, demons, and construction companies

Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan is the latest in a series of polemics that began most prominently with Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power. Unabashedly iconoclastic, the revisionist themes common to these critiques hearken back to earlier academic criticisms of Ruth Benedict's landmark anthropological survey, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

Written during Second World War on behalf of the Office of War Information, Benedict's work continues to be one of the most influential, if not the most inaccurate, studies of Japanese society ever published.

Even if the Japanese immigrants Benedict interviewed during her field research did more or less represented the greater Japanese population at the time (the war foreclosed any access to the latter), lacking in the data she gathered was the context of Japanese political history since Meiji (or even Sekigahara). She limited the scope of her research to such narrow and predetermined objectives that in order to justify her conclusions she found it necessary to integrate the substance of a civilization reaching back two thousand years into the product of a man-made ideology less than a century old.

Benedict's work was undoubtedly a major reason why SCAP bought so completely into the emperor system that in fact had only existed since 1868. The whitewashing of imperial involvement in the war continues to this day to be at the root of diplomatic tensions between Japan and her Asian neighbors.

According to Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, Benedict's underlying error was that of recognizing among her Japanese subjects a set of publicly acknowledged and condoned behaviors and relationships, and then concluding, in a gross fallacy of generalization, that the repression endemic in Japan both before and during the Second World War was "voluntarily embraced." (1)

In Benedict's eyes, "to be totalitarian and to be Japanese [were] the same thing."

Machiavelli argued that the founder of a political state could create institutions that allowed the founder to instill fundamental changes in society while at the same time "mak[ing] [the] new prince seem ancient, and render[ing] him at one more secure and firmer in the state than if he had been established there of old." Likewise, the much heralded Meiji Restoration that thrust a 17th century agrarian society into the 20th century in less that fifty years did not occur without careful planning--few "restorations" or "revolutions" ever do. (2)

In this case, along with the resurrection of bushido and the imperial emperor was the introduction of the pseudo-theology of the kokutai, or the polity of a singular, unified, genetic "family-state" (an essentialist approach that came to typify the entire Nihonjinron school of thought). And where, asks Daikichi Irokawa, professor of Japanese history at Tokyo University, did it come from? "It appeared to have been created by the Meiji idealogues for the purpose of solidifying the Emperor system." (3) Agrees Gluck, "From the time Japan began its deliberate pursuit of civilization in the mid-nineteenth century, ideology appeared as a conscious enterprise, a perpetual civic concern, an affair, indeed, of state." (4)

Lummis puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it." (5)

The revisionist school of Japanese studies, exemplified most recently by Kerr and Patrick Smith (Japan: A Reinterpretation), similarly portrays the common man as the oppressed tool of a fascistic state. Except that the modern Japanese aren't oppressed and don't live in a fascistic state. The neo-Marxist indictments of the admittedly imperfect institutions of democratic capitalism as in some way analogous to 20th totalitarianism are as miguided and tired as Benedict's attempts to conflate a political behavior of the moment with the cultural heritage of the past.

But another striking, and forgiving, difference between Kerr and Benedict is the unapologetically subjective nature of the commentary. Kerr's less-than-academic tone often reminds you of a disappointed parent scolding a stubbornly misbehaving child that refuses to heed his wisdom and follow his advise. The hurt here is personally felt. And the corresponding absence of the typical set of academic imprimaturs allows to you take his rhetoric at face value, without the sense of having your arm intellectually twisted behind your back.

Besides, I can understand where the author is coming from. Kerr grew up in Japan, has lived there for three decades--in a suburb of Kyoto, not Tokyo--and is fluent enough in the language to have edited the translation of his book. A rare thing for a westerner. It's easy to imagine him perusing the work of popular "experts" such as James Fallows, who spend the entirety of their two or three-year tenure "inside the Yamanote" (the rail line that encircles Tokyo), and just seething.

Even T. R. Reid, a veteran of the Tokyo Press Corps, produced as his last book on the subject (before he up and transferred to London) an embarrassingly fawning account that spoke more to a comfortable life schmoozing among the internationalized upper middle-class than anything relevant to the lives of the average Japanese.

So Mr. Kerr feels it incumbent upon himself to set the record straight, and relates his account in the tone of taken insult. He's particularly pissed off at the destruction of "old" Kyoto, and devotes a chapter and copious anecdotes to the subject. But the bulk of the book concerns itself with corruption, á la Upton Sinclair (á la Junzo Itami). The first couple of chapters--about graft, corruption and Keynesian economics-gone-mad in the construction industry--pretty much sums it all up (it gets a little redundant after that). Another reason why van Wolferen's remains the more relevant analysis: it is a story of political institutions sinning against culture and society, not the other way around.

(And more relevant to China, as well. By blaming culture and not politics, Benedict's approach only confirms comforting ethnic stereotypes, and does not illuminate the true source of the current conflicts between China and Japan in the grubby, prosaic world of diplomatic gamesmanship and manipulation of public opinion.)

Working through an inbred and unaudited system of "government" and "public" corporations (with no open bidding), the Japanese construction industry, spending twice the percent of GDP as the U.S. in a country not much larger than California, manufacturing more raw tonnage of cement than the entire United States, and laying thirty times as much concrete per square foot, has locked sixty percent of the shoreline behind artificial breakwaters, built 2800 dams with five hundred in planning, completely diked all but three of Japan's rivers, and drained every costal wetland in the process. Along the way it replanted almost half of all native woodlands with industrial cedar and carved out 280,000 kilometers of mountain roads in order to access the lumber, most of which, it turns out, is not economical to even harvest.

This is make-work on a scale the administrators of the WPA never dreamed of: ten percent of the workforce directly employed by the construction industry, and another ten percent in supporting and peripheral industries; entire rural communities that do nothing but pour concrete.

This is all paid for by massive off-budget borrowing from Japan's Postal Savings Accounts, essentially a trillion-dollar national bank run by the postal service. It's a bad habit that has spread to the private sector, and now seventy percent of corporations can't cover their pension obligations; 800,000 companies have simply stopped paying the equivalent of social security taxes. Banks have resorted to an accounting trick called tobashi to write off bad debts: the non-performing asset is sold to a subsidiary; the bank then lends the subsidiary funds sufficient to cover the interest payments. The debt is thus considered "retired."

Combined with another trick, called "latent value"--a property is kept on the books at its purchase price, not at its market value--and this, combined with zero percent effective interest rates, means that banks have no incentive to write off their real debts. The total real debt could amount to as much as twenty-five percent of GDP. Brokerages play this game, too, listing a company's capitalization based on the stock's IPO value, rather than on its market value. (Not a few dot-coms would go for that kind of accounting.)

And Kerr is just getting warmed up. His account is grim, to be sure, but he not a nihilist. Japan is simply too big to fail, he admits, and at some point it will have to go through the equivalent of a massive S&L bailout. Indeed, Japan should provide an interesting test case of what happens when a country borrows past the limits of its ability to lend. He concludes, "Tobashi is a form of make-believe in which Japan's banks pretend to having hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have. But, after all, money is a sort of fiction. If the world banking community agrees to believe that Japan has these billions, then it essentially does."

A more dangerous experiment taking place on a national scale is the lack of enforcement of environmental protection directives. Japan provides for a test case of industry--almost without oversight--setting the agenda, from dioxin levels to zoning to logging on public lands. And as frightening as Kerr's account is--frightening even for an environmental agnostic such as myself--even taking into account such notable disasters such as the Minamata mercury poisoning incident and the occasional nuclear plant malfunction, the Japanese just keep living longer and longer.

I remain divided on Kerr's analysis of the why, that is, his analysis of the problem on a cultural/psychic level. I agree with his dismissal of the "occidental contamination" theory, that Japan was "true to itself" until the arrival of Perry's "black ships" in 1853. The problem, Kerr argues, is that Japan is being true to itself. He offers as a metaphor the bonsai tree, nature bound and manipulated so as to conform to the artist's sense of what nature should be, rather than what it is. He cleverly identifies the post-modern, post-apocalyptic world depicted in much of anime as an honest artistic rendering of the popularly perceived state of affairs.

But then he contradicts himself with a poetic conclusion embracing the "traditional" and what he terms jitsu, the Platonic ideal that a country represents, what it should be "true to." Mom, baseball, and apple pie, that sort of thing. The problem is, to identify a set of "traditional values" one must pick an equally artificial point in history from which those traditions are imagined to have sprung. Speaking of the "traditional" one more often communicates instead a sentimentality for a certain era, in the case of Japan the late 17th century "Genroku" period, during which all the unemployed samurai, with nothing else better to do, began busily inventing the modern image of the samurai--much in the way that modern conception of the medieval knight and the western cowboy have long been the products of Hollywood producers.

This is not to say that society should automatically yield to the modern and the new without caution and reflection. This is Kerr's biggest cultural complaint: Japanese simply are not sentimental enough for his tastes. And I suspect later generations will prove him right, just as so many city planners in the U.S. came to regret the destruction, in the name of "urban renewal," of their traditional and historic city centers during the 1960s and 1970s. True, being old is not a value in and of itself: great art and architecture should stand on their own merits; but I can empathize with Kerr's anguish at runaway urban planning doing to Kyoto exactly what the WWII didn't.

But Japan will come around. I've come to believe that all societies must go through the same stages of evolution, in periodic, sinusoidal iterations. Having arrived at the top of the post-industrial, navel-gazing, tree-hugging ladder first, Americans too impatiently fret that the rest of the developing world isn't scampering up into the branches with us. It's a lot like the notion that with cloning you'll be able to hatch a complete and socially acclimated adult out of the shell. None of that fussy toilet training and adolescence to struggle through.

Actually, the more worrisome topic Kerr covers is the rise of ethnocentrism in an almost ethnocentrically-pure country. It's reminiscent of know-nothing and isolationist attitudes the U.S. suffered during recent and historical recessions, and is no doubt spurred on by the same forces (and Japan's disturbingly Huxleyan government). But I believe it too shall pass, once people are given more appropriate targets for their frustrations--namely, politicians.

In terms of environmentalism, for example, you start out with the industrial revolution and the exploitations of nature, then people notice how ugly and unhealthy it is and you move into the subduing nature stage (the Colorado River and Tennessee Valley Authority being prime examples), and then you start to figure out that just leaving nature alone is not such a bad thing. Japan is still in the process of seeing every example of imperfect or threatening nature as a candidate for another TVA project. And unlike the U.S. during the 1930s, Japan has a whole lot more money to get carried away with.

But the process takes about a century, and Japan has been a functioning free-market democracy for only fifty years, while the United States, in 1776, had been hard at work at both capitalism and democracy for two centuries already, and had the legacy of the transcendentalists and naturalists and politicians like Teddy Roosevelt to draw on when the movement did get underway.

Similarly, it doesn't surprise me that the current generation in China is so much more nationalistic and less reactionary--life, for them and their parents, is better than they could have ever possibly imagined. (The same was said of the baby boom generation in Japan.) But let the alloy of capitalism and democracy slowly work its magic. Call it the Consumer Reports syndrome. Once you have come to expect a certain quality and satisfaction in the goods and services you consume on a regular basis, and to expect an inevitable increase in the standard of living, it's a small step to cast about and begin to expect the same of political and social institutions as well.

You eventually get to point we have reached in U.S. politics, when every generation is convinced that the environment is more polluted, the politics more corrupt, than the last. When, in fact, the truth is the opposite. The result, though, is an incessant pressure to "save the Earth" for each upcoming crop of children, which, while generating unappetizing streams of hand-wringing and angst in the process, does serve to motivate the society as a whole in the direction of constant improvement. So, paradoxically, the less we believe that things are getting better, the more likely they will. Japan, I believe, is proving itself no exception to this rule.

1. C. Douglas Lummis, A New Look at the Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Tokyo: Shohakusha, 1982), p. 76; Roger W. Bowen, Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 312: "The farmers of the 1880s had learned that imperial absolutism was absolute and that they were not going to change the political system by armed rebellion. But that does not mean they ceased rebelling." [return]

2. Carol Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths: Ideology in the late Meiji Period (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 39-41; Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 81-86. [return]

3. Daikichi Irokawa, The Culture of the Meiji Period, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 280. [return]

4. Gluck, p. 3. [return]

5. Lummis, p. 75; Gluck, p. 3. [return]

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