The Nancho Consultations

Dr. Gavan McCormack

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Sri Gavan

Dr. Gavan McCormack is one of the most distinguished and passionate historians to tackle the "Japan problem" in contemporary terms. His scholarly expose "Japanese Imperialism Today" revealed the deep authoritarian forces still ruling the country and gave notice to the West that Japan was a very different sort of "democracy" than Reischauer and other apologists were advertising abroad. This prophetic interview was conducted in 1987 at the height of the "Bubble Economy" - too bad more people weren't listening...

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: In your forward to Democracy in Contemporary Japan, you note that this is one of the few books ever written on democracy in Japan. Why the great absence of work?

Gavan McCormack: Well, I think the reason is that in the early postwar years it was assumed that there had been no democracy in Japan, or very little democracy in Japan, that Japan had been fascist or militarist, and that it had to become democratic. So in that time when Japan was becoming democratic it was too early to write a book about democracy. But then once Japan entered into the high growth period in the '60's all attention focused on Japan's economic success, economic achievements. And since then, particularly in the '70's and until now, there have been any number of books - all attempting to analyze the reasons for and the path that Japan took economically. And it's assumed of course that Japan is a Western-style democracy, but there has been little interest in it, although there have been studies, very detailed studies, of aspects of the minute sort of workings of the system in terms of the electoral support systems of candidates. And there have been studies of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Socialist Party. But there havn't been any studies of the system as whole and raising the question as to whether Japan is or is not democratic.

Would you care to distill the conclusion of the book?

GM: Well, yes. I mean, our conclusion is that the framework of parliamentary democracy exists. But that the spirit of democracy, in the sense of democracy as the aspiration towards a system in which people control their own lives and make the key decisions concerning the nature of their society themselves, that ideal is not only far from being realized, but the directions of contemporary Japanese society are in the opposite direction - in the sense that peoples' lives are more and more controlled by forces beyond their control.

Given the education system and the general direction the government seems to want to steer it, do you see any potential area of change in this scenario?

GM: Well, I'm basically a historian by profession and the times when Japanese society has changed - it's capable of drastic change. That's one thing that's clear from the experience of the past. But the two greatest changes that Japanese society has experienced in historic times were, first of all, the Meiji Restoration and the opening of the country, the abandonment of feudalism, the adoption of capitalism, the opening of the country to the West, and so on. And that change and then the subsequent change in 1945 when Japan was defeated in war with the rest of the world, and moved from militarist fascism to a Western-style of capitalist democracy. Those two changes were brought about by a conjunction of inner crisis, internal crisis and severe external pressures.

Japan now of course is subject to severe external pressures - the so-called trade wars being only one manifestation of the sorts of external pressures which Japan is faced with. Those are pressures of course towards bringing about change in Japanese society. But internally, the fabric of the Japanese internal system is still pretty strong, I would assess. The Japanese economy has been continuing to grow, and lots of people are making their fortunes by learning the tricks of speculation. There's a great spiralling boom which is sucking in more and more people who would make their fortunes - in Tokyo in the last twelve months land prices have more than doubled. Here in Kyoto it's somewhat less. But this kind of economic boom, the fact that unemployment is concentrated in the socially inconspicuous areas of middle age, rather than in the Western sense of the social 'problem areas' of youth - all of these things mean that the social tensions and problems of, of contemporary Japanese society are fairly well contained. But my impression is that a very unnatural spiral of overheated growth has been going on, that something's going to give. The Japanese stock exchange, the tremendous spiral of the value of the NTT shares since that company was privatized last year - the country is awash with money. And this is beyond the actual value of the assets that these companies and so on represent. Something's going to give.

Whereas in 1929 the explosion in the U.S. stock market was the occasion for the world depression that broke then, this time clearly it's Japan which - in terms both of the huge, escalating price of land and the huge, escalating price of stocks - it's Japan which is the scene of the most extraordinary and the most unrealistic and fantastic ballooning growth. And that balloon can't go on expanding forever. When it bursts a lot of people are going to get hurt. Precisely, how this will happen, I'm not able to forecast. But then Japan's internal social fabric will be then subject to internal pressures for change.

My fear, of course, is that since the forces for change in Japan on the left have been reduced to miniscule proportions since, well, really in the last 15 years, the forces of the right are mobilized and are more powerful than perhaps ever before. So my fear is that when this conjunction of internal and external pressures for change occurs, that the kinds of change that we see will be more likely to be toward some kind of neo-fascist form, rather than towards a leftist, libertarian, democratic form.

The government, though, for the last couple of years has been giving out very mixed signals. On the one hand, it makes these international gestures and policy statements. On the other hand, internally, it's manifesting the very rashest kind of nationalism. How do you read the interplay of these two forces today?

GM: Well, the government is clearly attempting to represent itself within the country as being nationalist. Mr. Nakasone's own ideological heritage is the heritage of an ardent patriot and nationalist, right from his days in the Imperial Japanese Navy. He's been passionately opposed to the present constitution through the whole of his political career and in favor of Japanese rearmament, in favor of a much stronger Japanese nationalist kind of profile in the world. But, at the same time, he has also been completely in contradiction with those positions. He has been a passionate supporter of Japanese dependence on the United States in the form of the U.S./Japan Security Treaty. So while he talks about the resurgence of Japan's pride and nationalism and patriotism and so on, and while he gives great stress to the symbols of nationalism - Yasukuni Shrine, the compulsory flying of the flag in schools and the compulsory singing of the hymn to the Emperor in schools - while he does all of these things, he's obviously striving for recognition as a great national leader of national resurgence. But at the same time he's entrenching Japan's military dependence and subordination on the United States. And strategically he is locking Japan into an extremely vulnerable position of dependence - in terms of nuclear strategy - on the United States. So I suspect that he's playing a very complicated game. And he's trying to represent to the outside world that Japan is prepared to cooperate and to, if I may say in quotes: "bear its share of the responsibility for defense of the Western world". Internally he's trying to represent himself to the Japanese people as a spokesman for resurgent Japanese nationalism. Now the two really are in contradiction.

His key slogan, "the liquidation of the post-war syndrome in Japan," is at odds with his insistence that Japan continue to be occupied by American forces and nuclear weapons. A nationalist political leader in Japan would demand the winding down of the quite humiliating presence of American occupation forces. But Mr. Nakasone, I think, is unlikely to do that. So he'll continue to insist on the symbols of nationalism, while continuing to entrench the substance of dependence.

Do you see the seeds of any effective opposition within the next five to ten years - either coming out of established parties or other movements or networks?

GM:Among the people at large the most hopeful sign I see in the direction of, of greater democracy in the sense that I've described it at the beginning - that is, of people taking control over their own lives - is in the form of the so-called citizens' groups throughout the country organizing, however, basically on single issues. The farmers and fishermen organizing to oppose the introduction of nuclear powerplants into their areas. Or organizing to protect their local environment in some way. Housewives organizing to try to ensure that their food is decent food and is decently priced. Consumers trying to see that the middlemen are not ripping them off in the case of their purchase of imported foods. There are all sorts of ways in which people are organizing at local levels.

Unfortunately, however, this local resistance is not exactly blossoming. There's little common front between these people. They tend to be isolated in local areas. And there tends to be little sense of the overall structure within which the problems that they're facing has developed. I suspect that some kind of general worsening of conditions in Japan - perhaps through the sort of the bursting of the bubble, the great fiscal bubble that I mentioned earlier; perhaps through trade wars and international depression; perhaps in some way that's yet unforeseen - that Japan is going to be wrapped up in the world crisis. And the number of discontented people will then drastically increase. And precisely what form their discontent will take, again I'm reluctant to say. But I would hope that the kinds of movements that are now known as the "citizens movements" will be able to respond to that deepening and widening of the social crisis. And that they will be able to provide the organizational form and the ideas around which this discontent could coalesce. Rather than have the reactionary rightist movement lead the organizing and mobilizing.

In the so-called drive for internationalization and to generate more understanding of the Japanese culture, the government is setting up a center in Kyoto, an International Center for Japanese Studies. What do you know of this center and what do you expect from it?

GM: Well, the center is a very unusual academic center in that it's origins lie in a group of scholars in this city of Kyoto, scholars that are sometimes described loosely as a sort of neo-nationalist school. These 5 or 6 prominent scholars had a metting with the Prime Minister in October, 1984 at which they outlined their idea that Japanese culture was now a significant force in the world that deserved a large-scale national institute devoted to researching and studying it. And Mr. Nakasone was delighted and, and immediately allocated the preliminary budget for the organization of the center. And the first staff of the center were appointed in April of this year, 1987.

So it's at astonishing speed that this whole thing has been carried out. And, ironically, for those that regard - in "nihonjinron" terms, in terms of conventional Japanology - the "Japanese way" as being a way which makes sure that all the groundwork is carefully laid before a decision is made, that consesus is reached before a decision is made - this is a case where no consensus was in existence. Where five scholars representing nobody got together with the Prime MInister and the decision was made at the highest political level to set up a major institute which will have a research staff of two hundred scholars. In other words, it's like a large university with a large building, a large budget, very strong political backing, devoted to the study of Japanese culture.

It has been attacked by, by some quite influential bodies in Japan, the Association of Japanese Historians, for example, attacked it severely, and it's been attacked by other scholars. Some scholars have said to me, quite distinguished scholars have said to me privately that it resembles very closely the pre-war Institute for Japanese Thought which existed under the fascists. So clearly the preparation work was not done in the sense of developing a consensus around this institute. It's clearly a highly political initiative. It is controversial in Japan. And it will, I think, be controversial internationally. And finally, what is it to do? What is the Japanology or the Japanese culture which it is to promote?

Now, generally, the scholars associated with it believe that Japanese culture is unique. If Japanese culture is unique, then one might well ask, "What does it have to offer to the rest of the world, except as sort of a study in uniqueness?" And if it's unique, then the rest of the world has got nothing much to learn from it. So I wonder how successful it's going to be as an international venture. Although I have little doubt that as a domestic Japanese venture it will provide further focus for the neo-nationalist kinds of ideology with which the right-wing scholars and opinion leaders have associated themselves.

So you see it as the institutional apotheosis of "nihonjinron"?

GM: Yes. But, but perhaps I should add finally that, that the design and the working out of the design may not necessarily coincide. It may be that, that even though Mr. Nakasone and his academic advisors believe that this is what it should do, that in fact it may function differently. So I think it's a fait accompli that this institute will be established. And I will watch with very close attention how it develops. I hope that it will be criticized severely - and through that criticism it may be that it can be turned into something of relevence and importance for Japan's understanding, and being understood, in an increasingly complex world.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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