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‘Dewy-eyed’ U.S. no match for Japan’s samurai values

by Jeff Kingston

BAMBOOZLED! How America Loses the Intellectual Game with Japan and its Implications for Our Future in Asia, by Ivan P. Hall. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, New York, 2002, 324 pp., $26.95 (paper)

For an enjoyable and stimulating read, one could do much worse than this thoughtful polemic on what ails bilateral relations between the United States and Japan. Ivan P. Hall pulls no punches and shrinks from no taboos in advancing his argument: that the Japanese have taken advantage of American naivete to effectively muddle U.S. perceptions of Japan and muzzle critics of alleged Japanese subterfuges.

The author skewers the U.S. for mishandling its relationship with Japan, castigating it for nonchalance, ignorance and intellectual adolescence. It has, he says, failed to come to terms with the challenges posed by a nation that is neither playing by the same rules nor inspired by the same values and ideals. He asks: “Can we go on forever being the cocker spaniels of international society, fancying every guest in the room an easily made friend . . .?”

According to Hall, U.S. myopia and willful self-delusion have made it easy for Japan to win the bilateral intellectual game and rack up enormous trade surpluses with its biggest trade partner. What really gets Hall’s teeth gnashing is the extent to which Japan specialists in the U.S., so-called Japanapologists, have become loyal advocates for Japan, aiding and abetting the “enemy” while working to silence discordant voices such as Hall’s.

The Mutual Understanding Industry encompasses the various organizations, foundations and individuals that have a vested interest in making sure that there is no fundamental questioning or criticizing of the bilateral relationship. The flow of funds, access, invitations, awards, high-level pampering and the trappings of power and influence are carefully doled out, or withheld, in an effort to make sure that outwardly friendly and mutually beneficial relations are promoted.

This is not an equal or reciprocal exchange, with Japanese efforts and largess dwarfing those emanating from the U.S. Hall not so much criticizes the Japanese establishment for being extraordinarily effective at playing the lobbying game as much as he berates U.S. scholars, journalists and other opinion shapers who he asserts have sold out.

The influx of Japanese funds to U.S. universities, in Hall’s eyes, is a purposeful effort to influence the debate and make dissenting, critical opinions less likely and the public less receptive. It is not a matter of crudely “buying” professors, but “. . . by co-opting scholars into an ego-stroking trans-Pacific jet set and engaging them as go-betweens on matters of high intergovernmental policy, Tokyo skews the academic playing field for American Japanology.” The reader will have to judge whether Hall meets the burden of proof in backing up this provocative assertion; it seems likely that his critics will be able to marshal considerable evidence to the contrary.

In penning this often churlish tome, Hall leaves himself open to the usual charges of Japan-bashing and displaying a neo-orientalist contempt. Numerous references to Japan’s grisly wartime record and efforts to deny, mitigate and otherwise shift responsibility for the brutal carnage serve to remind readers who we are dealing with and what they are capable of. In the context of trade tensions and bilateral battles for the public’s heart and mind, he consciously inserts the specter of war into the debate; they did it once and who knows what might happen again.

Hall could easily be portrayed as a disgruntled academic, unhappy that he never got his due and now certifiably paranoid about conspirators, silencers and others out to muffle his voice. He also risks categorization as yet another sanctimonious, whining Yank who preaches, finger points, name-calls and holds other countries to standards that his own fails to meet. (Many readers, for example, will find themselves nodding vigorously in agreement when Hall assails Japan’s closed markets, but others will point out that the U.S. also sins mightily at the altar of free trade, citing farm subsidies and steel duties, among others.) Some, too, may dismiss him as America’s answer to Japan’s nattering chauvinists who pen best-selling, brain-dead diatribes embracing the usual themes of Japan’s victimization and U.S. treachery.

“Bamboozled,” however, is a far better, more sophisticated and complex treatise than its critics are ever likely to give it credit for. Hall is unabashedly one-sided precisely because he passionately believes that the dissenters who share his views have not received anything like equal time, and because he thinks that the current penchant for papering over problems is a recipe for disaster.

He believes that the U.S. is finding common cause with the more threatening elements of Japan, namely the current ruling conservative elite. In his view, the U.S. needs to encourage the growth of civil society and democracy in Japan to counter the dangers of a more assertive and reckless chauvinism. This means working with the remnants of Japan’s Left rather than seeking short-term gains on security and deregulation with what he views as the increasingly conservative Liberal Democratic Party. However, he cautions against the possibility that Japan will change or converge toward U.S. druthers, asserting that such expectations are part of the problem in understanding Japan and how to deal with it.

Hall’s Japan is tenacious in holding to its samurai values and shrewdly calculating in its dealings with its adversaries, i.e. the rest of the world. Washington’s “dewy-eyed diplomats” are no match for Japan’s warrior mandarins. For Hall, the latter half of the 20th century is a story of how the U.S. nurtured an adversary that is far more adept at the game and knows its opponent’s weaknesses and tendencies so well that it can’t lose.

“Bamboozled” is a belated wake-up call aimed at forcing the U.S. public and its leaders to face up to the ruthless efficiency of Japan in promoting its national interest, and to respond by implementing policies that are based on U.S. interests rather than hopeful optimism about Japan’s prospects for transformation. Well-written, perceptive and witty, this book merits a wide audience and a place in public debate.