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To improve the East, must we move West?

by Florian Coulmas

JAPAN: The Burden of Success, by Jean-Marie Bouissou. London: Hurst & Co., 2002, 374 pp., £35.00 (cloth), £14.95 (paper).

Jean-Marie Bouissou, who lived in Japan in the 1980s, is a political scientist at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Centre Franco-Japonais de Management. “The Burden of Success,” an updated translation of the French original that was published under the title “Japan since 1945,” establishes him as an expert on Japanese affairs, both political and economic. It is a detailed political history of post-World War II Japan tracing its economic development from the destruction of the 1940s and the period of recovery through the prolonged economic stagnation since the early 1990s.

Groundwork is laid in the first chapter, which offers a brief overview of those aspects of Japanese history that help readers understand the country’s position in the world and its social conditions at the time of surrender in 1945.

Six chapters follow dealing, respectively, with the occupation, the stabilization of the new political system in the 1950s, the economic “miracle” of the high-growth period, the ensuing saturation, Liberal Democratic Party hegemony and corruption, and what the author calls the end of the “Japanese Model.” In addition to political and economic developments, Bouissou takes up social transformations such as the changing position of women in society; increasing immigration; major environmental disasters; and cultural trends, especially literature and cinema, which in his view epitomized the periods under discussion. Books on Japan drawing such a wide canvas have become rare, most studies now narrow fields of focus to offer greater depth. Though there is very little in terms of a theory or a red thread guiding us to appreciate why things developed in one way rather than another, as an introduction to contemporary Japan, this is still a very readable book.

Bouissou’s account of Japan’s political history over the past half century is largely good descriptive text. For example, his sketches of the bubble economy, the complex protracted recession of the past decade and the various corruption scandals that rocked the political arena in the 1980s and ’90s are instructive and to the point. He also makes many interesting observations, such as the rarely noted fact that, so far, the enduring economic crisis has not led to social disruption — a comment on the stability that Japanese society has achieved in the period under consideration.

In spite of many well-researched details, however, the whole of this book is no more than the sum of its parts. There is no comprehensive and clear perspective that captures Japan from a particular angle. There is no message. This is not to say that Bouissou has no decisive views. On the contrary, he never shies away from passing judgment and has no problem evaluating past events on the basis of present-day standards. He is clearly committed to the idea that progress means the adoption of Western practices and institutions, and that Japan still has a long way to go. It appears that many of his statements are premised on this assumption.

For instance, he observes that “even today, Japanese people still do not have their individual identity cards; their ‘identity’ is still linked to registration in the family koseki until they marry.” “Still,” presumably, means as opposed to certain more advanced Western countries that Japan will inevitably follow. Both the idea that an identity card adds a quality to one’s identity and that having identity cards is more advanced, or in any sense better that having none, is rather ludicrous.

Other similar details betray the author’s biased view, which would be much more palatable if only it were openly stated as the considered basis of his report. As it stands, there is a lack of theoretical foundation, which also would be less of a deficit if this were not presented as a scholarly book.

His writing, true to the tradition of French political literature, is somewhat flamboyant. The English translation, unfortunately, sometimes shifts this into a condescending tone, but this cannot be laid at the author’s doorstep. In sum, Bouissou’s book is useful as a general source of information on the Japan of the second half of the 20th century — even if it fails to lay out a distinctive vision, or present it in a new light.