The Nancho Consultations

Karel van Wolferen

Nancho Lite

NANCHO ADVISORY: First published in Kyoto Journal (#24) as "JAPANESE ENIGMA BASHING: The System Strikes Back." this consultation features van Wolferen's views on his blacklisting, Japan's educative bullying and bureaucracy rampant.

Karel van Wolferen's journalistic career began with an acclaimed critical study of '60s student activism in the West, and eventually led him to prize-winning coverage of conflicts, corruption and political intrigue throughout East and West Asia. As roving correspondent for NRC Handeisblad, a leading daily in his native Holland, he vividly dissected the fractious bodies politic of Thailand. India and Korea; the collapse of American power in Vietnam; and the explosive denouement of people's power in the Philippines.

Since 1972, Japan has remained his primary base, home and enduring investigative passion. For years, however, the fervor was unrequited. While van Wolferen's trenchant reporting on Japan's economy, power relations and insidious influence on neighboring Asian societies stoked ardent debate abroad, it left his official hosts quite cold. When, however, he took oft-debunked local claims of Japan's societal "uniqueness" at face value, and exposed their System as truly unique, unaccountable and out of control, reactions heated up immensely. Especially after The Enigma of Japanese Power, his definitive blockbuster on malignant corporate growth and democratic dysfunction, began to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in ten languages, Japan, Inc,'s local spokesmen and foreign lobbyists responded with the warmest fulminations.

Currently the "Black Knight of Revisionism" divides his time between Holland and Japan and is busy writing a systemic analysis of institutional degeneration, as well as founding a new institute on political pathology for the University of Amsterdam. .

-- Verbatim Excerpts --

Nancho: You spend a lot of time traveling, speaking, teaching. How much of your dark new vision of Japan communicates?

van Wolferen: Ultimately it's very difficult for Westerners, in general, but Americans in particular, to conceive of a country where things happen that do not in the very long run ultimately have the consent of the population. There's this common saying that "people get the government that they deserve" and I think, if ever, there was a clear Western bias, political bias, expressed anywhere, this is it. Because, I mean, think of it yourself, do the people of Iraq have the government they deserve? Do the people of Burma have the government they deserve? Do the people of China deserve the criminal government that has been running them since when?

Obviously they do not deserve any of that. And obviously there is nothing that they can do about it. Well, it's quite clear that the Japanese live under vastly more comfortable circumstances than the Iraqis or the Burmese or the Chinese, but still I would say that the Japanese do not deserve the government that they have. They have no way to gain any kind of purchase over their own government; there's no way in which they can bring about elementary changes because Japan is run by clusters of bureaucrats, administrators, I call them, not to have to distinguish between the government bureaucracy and the business bureaucracy of say, outfits like the Keidanren who are under industrial associations, or at large, keiretsu conglomerations.

These people that are running these organizations and they're running the government agencies are bureaucrats. Since there is no accountability, no center of accountability, nobody who is ultimately responsible for what all these bodies do, there is also no way to...if you cannot call into account there's also no way to bring about elementary changes. Hence, I say that the form of government in Japan is bureaucratic authoritarianism.

In the wake of the success of your book, in the West particularly, you were invited for many speaking engagements, and I understand that many were withdrawn under pressure, under heavy Japanese government pressure...
KVW: Only in the beginning and mainly in the United States the first year, the first year and a half, perhaps two years after the appearance of my book. The pressure came from, of course, the diplomatic centers - the embassies, the consuls general, etc., but also from the Keidanren who went through the American trade associations. It's very subtle's the kind of thing that, you know, "perhaps people will misunderstand if you invite Mr. van Wolferen because maybe they will think that you are anti-Japanese" or...something along those lines is often enough to have people drop me from their programs at that time. I don't think this is happening today. I haven't felt this. I do not know of any instances recently but then I have not done all that much speaking recently.

Actually I'm rather flattered, you know. Somebody in Washington has been monitoring the efforts that Japanese representatives put into discrediting people such as Jim Fallows and Pat Choates and myself. And I'm told that they spend very large amounts of money and certainly they have expended a great deal of energy in trying to discredit me. So, I'm flattered because never before I believe has any book or any journalist upset them so much as I have.

You've been loosely lumped with Fallows, Chalmers and I guess Choates as one of the lead horsemen of the revisionist Apocalypse. Where did revisionism come from and why are you its reviled Black Knight??
KVW: Well, this was a partly accidental thing. It began with "Business Week" wanting to do a cover story on the new views on Japan. And this was at the time when my book appeared and actually that was what triggered that cover story. Clyde Prestowitz had published his book, "Trading Places" just a year before then and that book caused a deserved wave of interest in the United States because he was after all a former negotiator, he knew...he had been part of what he described and what he described was how very systematically the United States was putting itself at a disadvantage vis a vis Japan in its negotiations and in its dealings generally by the misunderstandings and also by the corruption on the American end - not legally corruption, not corruption because what these people do were against the law, but corruption as a way in not considering the American national interest rather considering your own interests, your future clients in the law firms that you were going to end up in and perhaps even your employment or sinecures.

And Clyde's book was very important. Then came mine and simultaneously an article in the "Atlantic Monthly" written by Fallows based to a large extent on my book as Fallows says in the article. And those three things were the reason for the editors of "business Week" to write a cover story that was mainly done by Bob Neff who is sympathetic and Jim Fallows as well as Clyde as well as myself said to Bob that he certainly would have to include Chalmers Johnson in this list also because Chalmers had done pioneering work in establishing what you might call trans-war continuity of bureaucratic power. Because after all he describes an economic bureaucracy that later became known as MITI but had been during the war, the Ministry of Munitions and the cabinet planning board and had in effect existed before the war coordinating civilian and military economic planning. And that, of course, is a masterful book which very systematically shows the continuity of bureaucratic thinking in all this. And it effectively undermined the still then popular notion that Japan had been well on its way to becoming a democracy and that this effort was derailed by a bunch of militarists. And after l945 Japan was put back on the rails by the United States and it has been developing towards a greater, more wonderful democracy. This interpretation, of course, is , you might call Reischauer's Japan or MacArther's Reischauer, to the two of them, Japan. Reischauer did more than other person to influence journalists, students, other scholars, diplomats and an assortment of commentators with views on Japan, and these views were inaccurate.

Now, today, of course, we can see all this more clearly but when this "Business Week" cover story came out on rethinking Japan, it was new for many people. And the term coined, of course, it's not a new term but the term used by Bob Neff to describe us was revisionists as we were presenting a revised view of Japan, Japanese politics and Japanese history. I would have preferred the term realist because that would have been closer to the mark. I mean, there are so many revisionists in different areas in the world. Now, of course, there are more realists, too, but I would have preferred realist as it was so easy to, especially on the Japanese end to make the term revisionism synonymous to Japan-bashing.

At one point I was considered the number one Japan basher. And obviously I get more than irritated when I hear such a thing because if you look it up in a dictionary, what does "bash" mean? To bash means to strike out irrationally with an intent to pulverize, with an intent to destroy and metaphorically it has strong connotations of hatred, hostility, racism or whatever. Obviously anybody who is familiar with my writing knows that I do not strike out irrationally with an intent to destroy, quite the opposite. I feel great compassion for the Japanese people and I believe that they have a raw deal in that there is no way in which they can stop their own nation thundering forward in this world with a de facto, never formulated, but de facto national policy of unlimited economic expansion. It obviously has to come to a stop somewhere because the rest of the world cannot possibly absorb it. But there's nobody in this entire system, because there is no center of accountability as I mentioned earlier, to stop it. This machinery does not have brakes. And I'm very concerned about this as I know are many other Japanese as I also know are quite a few senior bureaucrats, retired bureaucrats who are part of the governing system and who know very well the limitations of their own organizations. So to call what I say about this "Japan-bashing" is, I would say, obscene. That people who do this either have not thought very hard about the meaning of the term or they're vicious and of course, many of them serve purposes of propaganda.

You spoke before of Japan-bashing as a way to systematically suppress inquiry into the country.
KVW: Yes, the term originated in the United States and then was quickly taken up by numerous Japanese spokesmen - officials, but also the buffers, the intellectuals, the academics - who go over to normally explain the bureaucratic point of view about Japan and they would label anything, any comment, any suggestion, any idea, any proposal that deviated what Japanese bureaucrats considered proper, considered desirable, anything that deviated from that was labeled Japan-bashing. Well, it has effectively closed debate for several years because there are quite a few Americans who were intimidated, who did not want to speak their minds for fear of being labelled Japan-bashers.

It also has another very pernicious effect that it has appeared to vindicate deep-seated, latent feelings amongst Japanese people that the world is against Japan; that the world is out to get Japan; that there is no room in the world for Japan; that Japan is always victimized. This is a pathological condition and it is very bad for Japan as a nation to have its people believing this. It has led to emotional fervor in the past supporting military adventurism and it could in future again serve very irrational purposes.

These are things to be very concerned about. It's highly irresponsible to use the term Japan-bashing but then we are talking about a system of governance where responsibility is not factual, actual, real responsibility and is impossible to pinpoint as distinct from ritual responsibility as distinct from all manner of symbolic behavior that has to substitute for it.

Is it invisible because it's cloaked or is it invisible because it's just a very vague, shifting center. I mean, where decisions are made within this system has always been a subject of some intrigue.
KVW: Well, decisions are made in many places, in many clusters of bureaucratic powerholders who have tremendous discretionary powers. If make it a little bit simple, let's take the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestries and Fisheries, the Ministry of Education, any ministry...the bureaucrats belonging to these organizations are not accountable to anyone outside these organizations. Although the Ministry of Finance has to determine the budgets of the other ministries so to some extent the Ministry of Finance is in a position where it can apply a little bit of leverage over the others, over the other groups. But the Ministry of Finance itself is not accountable to anyone. It's not accountable to Minister of Finance who doesn't really belong to the organization. He is somebody delegated by the LDP to serve for a year if he's lucky and he never gets close to genuine decision-making power in the Ministry.

The Ministry of Finance is not accountable to Japan's elected representatives, to the Diet. The Prime Minister can only function to the extent that he cooperates with its officials. It's not accountable, not held accountable by critical press. In fact, the "Nihon Keizai Shimbun", which, of course, is the most important economic paper, serves essentially as an amplifier for the views that officials of the finance ministry want amplified. And if you want to function...if you are attached to an organization in Japan and you are an economist, there are not so many, but if you are an economist and you want to function as an economist in this society, in this whole system, then essentially you prattle nonsense or you serve as a loudspeaker attached to this amplifier. There is no consistent analysis in Japan, economic analysis in Japan that runs counter to the wishes of the officials of the Ministry of Finance.

But many scholars here say the people are totally trained and conditioned for this kind of governance, and would actually feel quite uncomfortable with democracy. I mean, this political listlessness in Japan is blamed on a lot of factors - lack of political maturity or...
KVW: Well, to tell you the truth, what does that mean if you say lack of political maturity? Does that mean that the people aren't mature or that the institutions that would have to give them democracy are not mature? They obviously are not. The institutions in Japan that are supposed to support Japanese democracy do not function properly. If you don't function properly you can't be mature. Shikata ga nai, the term shikata ga nai - "it can't be helped," is the most significant term in the Japanese political vocabulary. It's too bad that it exists because people continue to use it and that, of course, has a very self-defeating effect. It's very understandable that this term is used because social reality for practically all Japanese is something that one can not do anything about and if you have no experience at all in affecting political change then how can you be comforted in the thought that what you're doing in a political way, what you're doing, expending your efforts for the sake of democracy are ultimately meaningful.

I think that it is important for Japanese activists, activists on behalf of democracy, to think in terms not of what they will get out of it, aside from satisfaction of knowing that they do something, they're not just frozen in their places. But aside from that they should find meaning in an understanding in what they're doing might make a difference for their children and their grandchildren. The immediate result is not going to be sufficiently dramatic to be noticeable.

But talking about the children's generation, the one thing people seem to have an interest in now, if no power over, is the quality and the content of their children's education, not just the knowledge content but the types of socialization they are receiving. That is, that they are essentially being conditioned for obedience to authoritarian corporate environments.
KVW: Yeah, I agree. And that's also a reason why efforts for the sake of Japan's democracy could be directed at diminishing the power of the Ministry of Education. It's an area where people could become much more active.

Most parents have strong emotional ties with their children, ties of some kind. And responsible parents obviously want a positive environment for their children, want their children to be educated in the sense that these children will be able to cope better with the world and also will be able to live richer lives. And so parents have a stake in monitoring, controlling, criticizing and perhaps changing the school system. Now the Japanese school system, especially since the demise of the Nikyoso, the Teacher's Union, is not in very good shape. And that partly is because the Ministry of Education doesn't really know what it's doing. It thinks that its main task is to keep order in society, as of course, all the other government bureaucrats think, too.

And the Monbusho believes that order is best kept if there are a lot of rules. And rules in schools are purposely arbitrary, they do not have a clear purpose. They're just silly rules as to give pupils sense not of reasonableness but of the fact that there are stronger people placed above them that they have to obey. It's like in the military; in the military you also tend to have military training, you tend to be confronted with silly rules just to give the recruits an idea of who is in charge, who's the boss. If you do this in schools you will ultimately get rebelliousness because the growing human being seeks meaning and the growing Japanese child is a human being and obviously also tries to find meaning. He or she wants to know what's good in behavior and what's not good and if the child has a sense of responsibility, some children have more of it than others, they perhaps want to be good children. They want to find meaning in a sense of understanding why things are the way they are in their environment but they also want to find meaning in the way they interact with their environment, moral meaning which you can't really separate from intellectual meaning.

And so if you have silly rules surrounding the child you are depriving the child an opportunity to 1)make sense of the world and 2) you're depriving the child of a possibility to be good, to be moral. It's the most cynical approach to education that you can imagine. And the officials of the Ministry of Education take this approach not because they are bad, not because they are evil but because they do not have imagination; is because they are products of a system themselves that is very cynical; because they are obsessed with the idea of order and most importantly they sense that things are slipping out of their fingers and they are panicky about it.

Of course, you could talk much longer about it., but all of this together makes for a highly irresponsible bunch of bureaucrats running the Japanese school system. They should be attacked. They should be reminded of what education should be for. They should certainly be reminded of the fact that education is not for the purpose of shaping cogs to fit into an industrial machinery; that there are other purposes in life and there are other possibilities for human development that should not be canceled out right at the beginning.

Now in some schools in Japan the situation is not so bad. There are even some pretty good schools. But in areas of Japan, especially the areas where the Nikyoso used to be strong but where it has now disappeared and there's nothing to take its place, there's no sense of balance against these disciplinarian maniacs. There is a virtual war situation in the schools and there's a lot of disorder, and rebelliousness and disorder is met with stricter, crazier and more arbitrary rules. And this other solution, bullying. The readers of newspapers in Japan are given the impression that bullying is an unfortunate phenomenon which comes from undisciplined children that want to lord it over their classmates. But bullying is in fact quietly encouraged in many classroom situations. Because with bullying you establish a hierarchy, you establish order in the classrooms. And the teachers who find it very difficult to keep order in the classroom are in fact aided by such a hierarchy established by the pupils themselves.

It also introduces the child to forms of intimidation that it will encounter later on as it grows up and enters the salariman world. All this is clearly not desirable for the spiritual growth, the mental growth of human beings. And parents should take an interest in it and parents should begin to demand a different school system. The Ministry of Education in Tokyo ought to be placed under a barrage of criticism and demands. It's one way of tackling, to begin tackling Japanese democracy.

But the problem is that what you're saying now comes out so commonsensical and obvious, and yet Japan being the antithesis of that in many ways, has produced this economic miracle. And now all these educational scholars from all over the East and West are rushing over here to find out how they're producing such compliant, docile, productive, and often brilliant workers. So as far as the rest of the world is concerned Japan is constantly cited as a major success story...
KVW: Well, it's not the rest of the world. It's primarily the United States. Now we already established the fact that Americans do not know that Japan is run by a bunch of bureaucrats rather than elected representatives. Since Americans must find an explanation for Japan's economic success, they think that the Japanese are made more clever than they are, and they're made more clever through the school system.

And because the American school system is in a state of crisis and because there is a lot of dissatisfaction with it, Americans look outside and say what can we learn from other peoples' school systems?" They come to Japan because Japan is economically successful. I would prefer...If I were American I wouldn't come to Japan to study it, I would go to France or I'd go to Germany. I mean the French school system is also very strict, and in some parts archaic, but it sure as hell develops people who can think, who are encouraged to think. And it sure as hell develops people who have a sense of what their own minds are capable of doing if they set their minds to it. And they're also given a sense of the richness of literate culture - none of that is given to Japanese children.

But now you're pretending that the point of the system here is to develop individuality, but, as you have often pointed out, it is actually to develop the new generations that will staff the corporations and bureaucracies.
KVW: Well, you see, the thing is that it's never spelled out this way. We are asked by Japanese, by official explainers of Japan - Japan's official spokesmen, the people that write in those glossy magazines explaining Japan to the world and academic commentators that are essentially the servants of the Japanese bureaucracy, because that's what they are, most of them - we are asked to accept that whereas in the West where there is a belief in the value of the individual, in Japan this belief is not so strong and we have an alternative civilization where the group is more important. Implicit in all this all the time is that the person, the single one person, the individual person gains as much psychological comfort out of this in Japan as he does in the West.

And this is stark nonsense. Japanese are human beings just as much as Europeans and Americans are. What human beings have in common is potential to become something that is there in them in the way that is for a bud to become a rose and for a cub to become a tiger, it is in the human being to become an integrated personality capable of great things but only if he grows - he or she grows. And that growth is always toward individuation.

Any grown mature human being is an individual. The Japanese are individuals but they are conditioned not to show that too much. They are conditioned to believe they feel more comfortable in the group. When you look closely at Japanese groups you realize that this is not true at all because Japanese groups tend to be conflict-ridden - a lot of conflict that is not acknowledged because it is embarrassing. And unacknowledged conflict festers and makes everybody uncomfortable.

I think that Dutch groups are great deal more harmonious than Japanese groups, because in Dutch groups you are allowed a degree of disagreement with fellow members that will enable you to position yourself more comfortably in the context of the group. Japanese in some groups are given this opportunity, but in many others they are not, Japanese companies have personnel problems that are essentially not different from the personnel problems in companies any where in the world. There are at least as many snake pits in Japanese organizations as there are anywhere else, perhaps more again because of the command to suppress conflict.

Now this command "Thou shalt have no conflict with others" helps the power holders. It helps maintain a relatively placid, docile, politically dormant society in which the individual is not reminded of the possibility of standing up and with reason ask why he should obey certain things and why he should accept what he is given. So what you have in Japan is grudging, grudgingly going along with what other people do and sometimes irrational outbursts because frustrations may finally become too great and have to find a way out. The sad thing about Japan - and this has very much to do with what we talked about earlier on the prospects for democracy here - the sad thing is that there is no acceptance, no social acceptance of conflict as a good and necessary thing. Because there are therefore no effective means of conflict resolution, and that is what democracy is - a set of means for conflict resolution.

When you talk about individuation as the natural course of evolutionary events, you do recognize the possibility that it can be retarded, perhaps even systematically.
KVW: Yes, the Japanese setup, the Japanese System as I call it, systematically suppresses human potential. It selects certain potentials and develops it to the point of caricature, and it suppresses much of what is good. It kills so much talent. It kills off and discourages so much intelligence. It forces so many grown up people into puerile behavior. It limits and actively bars, actively prevents the possibilities of genuine intimacy in human relations. It's pretty sick.
OK, but when you say puerile, it takes us back to MacArthur's quote about Japan being a nation of twelve-year-olds. And a lot of people facing the sexual dysfunctions in this country, at least the widespread taste for bondage and sadomasochism and those kinds of comics and fantasies, notice that this is a standard 13- to 14-year-old level of sexuality. I mean, it's pre-sensual, pre-intimate, pre-adult. So there's a point where the retardation of individuation actually becomes a retardation of basic normal psycho-social development.
KVW: That's right. That's right. Japanese are human beings, so what happens to them when you push them down is fairly similar to what happens to you and me when you push us down. Of course, the difference is that there is a society surrounding Japanese that encourages them to accept being pushed down. Now that may be different than your society.
Yes, but to that extent, a certain large percentage of Japan's educational "product" is eminently preconditioned to function in a corporate environment with much, much less stress...?
KVW: That's right. Well, theoretically with much less stress but in actual fact it doesn't come out that way at all. Japanese salarimen are heavily stressed. Another interesting phenomenon that I think that must have caught your attention is that Japanese women are silently protesting. The number of Japanese women who decide not to marry at all has grown rather dramatically in recent years. And Japanese women marry at a much later age and when they do marry they decide not to have children or to have fewer children and to have them later. And I think this is generally acknowledged by Japan's social commentators as a sign of protest.
Against the quality of men they are being offered? What?
KVW: Against salariman culture, salariman life which is of course their environment.
Again it's amazing though, because when you consider how many people in the society are actually salarimen or are connected to that sort of thing, you are only talking about a quarter of the population...
KVW: Yeah, about one-third, I would say, that follow this lifestyle.
And yet it totally dominates the culture, the mass media...
KVW: It's the official culture. Yes, like samurai culture once was. It's also the samuraization of Japan - the spread of salariman culture. The kinds of social strictures and strict rules that people had to follow once only pertained to the class of samurai and people sort of right underneath. The common folks, living in the villages were not well off, but they sure as hell were less regimented. And it is the regimentation of Japanese salariman life that has spread - diluted, of course - diluted forms of samurai values all over. They are military values. The samurai were after all a military class. So you could say that bureaucratic authoritarianism and military regimentation is a very important part of what we are now seeing.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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The Enigma of Japanese Power

Japan's Repressed Middle Class