OSAKA — American author and scholar Chalmers Johnson, whose views on postwar Japan angered American academics and Japan experts in the late 1980s but influenced a generation of students studying the country, died Saturday in California at age 79.
The cause of death was not immediately known.
Born in Arizona in 1931, Johnson served in Japan with the navy during the Korean War. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and taught there and at other UC institutions between 1962 and 1992.
Originally a China scholar, Johnson used his knowledge of postwar China’s planned economy to analyze Japan’s postwar economic transformation.
His early 1980s book “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” analyzed Japan’s prewar and postwar economic policies and proposed that, far from being a result of laissez-faire capitalism, Japan was a developmental state.
The Japanese economic miracle, Johnson argued, was due to the fact that the then Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economic, Trade, and Industry) was picking winners and losers.
That message was rejected by traditional American economists and others in government who had long argued Japan’s economy was based on free-market principles.
The debate between Johnson and the traditionalists became heated during the late 1980s and early 1990s bubble economy era.
Johnson, along with journalists James Fallows and Karel van Wolferen and economic experts like R. Taggart Murphy, who shared many of his fundamental assumptions, were attacked in both the U.S. academia and media for their ideas, which, many suggested, were tinged with racism.
Johnson and the others became known as revisionists, seeking to change fundamental assumptions about Japan’s economy and its people that the U.S. had held for decades.
Johnson, in turn, fired back by dubbing his fiercest critics, experts on Japanese politics and economics at Columbia and Harvard universities, critics, as well as many within the Washington policy community as “Chrysanthemum Club” members.
This club, he wrote in several books and essays, consisted of corrupt academics and others more interested in keeping their jobs than in challenging the traditional post-1945 view of Japan as a free-market economy.
Debito Arudou, a columnist for The Japan Times, was a student of Johnson’s at the University of California at San Diego in the early 1990s. He said that in the classroom, Johnson was the voice of Zeus.
“He never suffered fools gladly, but everything he said was meticulously researched. He presented his ideas with verve,” Arudou said.
By 2000, many of Johnson’s ideas about Japan’s economy had become more widely accepted as economists sought answers for the economic stagnation during the 1990s.
By then, though, he was turning his attention away from Japan and toward U.S. foreign policy.
Johnson, who once worked as a consultant to the Office of National Estimates, part of the CIA, began writing about U.S. post-World War II foreign policy failures.
“Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire” was published just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and became a best-seller afterward as Americans attempted to understand what was being done in their name abroad.
That was followed by “Sorrows of Empire” and “Nemesis,” two works that criticized the U.S. response to 9/11, detailed U.S. foreign policy actions in the 2003 Iraq war, and analyzed how the U.S. military operates abroad.
All three books became hugely influential among Americans who not only opposed the Iraq war but also called for scaling down the U.S. overseas military presence, which includes some 700 bases and facilities worldwide.
“Chalmers Johnson rivals Henry Kissinger as the most significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental boundaries and goalposts of U.S. foreign policy in the modern era,” Steve Clemons of the Washington D.C.-based New America Foundation wrote Sunday in his blog, The Washington Note.
Despite his prominence as a knowledgeable critic of U.S. foreign policy, Johnson maintained his interest in Japan, especially Okinawa. Along with Clemons and blogger Tom Englehardt, who was Johnson’s editor, he founded the Japan Policy Research Institute, which published critical reports on the postwar U.S. Occupation of Okinawa and the continued military presence there after it was returned to Japan.
In May, Johnson wrote an opinion piece for The Los Angeles Times, calling on the U.S. to withdraw its forces from U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
“I would strongly suggest that the United States climb off its high horse, move the Futenma marines back to a base in the United States (such as Camp Pendleton, near where I live) and thank the Okinawans for their 65 years of forbearance,” he wrote.
Johnson frequently contributed articles to The Japan Times from the 1990s to 2002.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Sheila, an anthropologist and editor who worked closely with him on his books and as an editor at the Japan Policy Research Institute.