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Yamatoism is coming back

by Takamitsu Sawa

Shortly after the start of the second half of 1985, there came a burst of criticism from European and American intellectuals against “Yamatoism,” the word “Yamato” being Japan’s ancient name.

What touched them off was a thesis written by Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen, which appeared in the winter 1986-87 issue of Foreign Affairs, a prestigious magazine published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Under the title “The Japan Problem,” he argued that Japan’s diplomatic friction with the United States and Europe would never be resolved as long as the Europeans and Americans failed to discard two pieces of “fiction” they shared about Japan.

The first was that “Japan is a sovereign state like any other, a state with central organs of government which can both recognize what is good for the country and bear ultimate responsibility for national decision-making.” The second was, “Japan belongs … in that loose category known as capitalist, free-market economies.”

Van Wolferen’s thesis was followed by an article written by Ian Buruma, another Dutch journalist, for the April 12, 1987, issue of The New York Times Magazine, in which the newly coined word of “Yamatoism” made its debut.

His line of argument — directly connecting, in a somewhat short-circuited manner, moves of Japan’s rightist forces with an unconditional praise of Japan by European and American intellectuals — may be criticized as being a bit cursory. Nevertheless, his arguments were valuable as a criticism of Yamatoistic tendencies then prevailing in the Japanese journalism of blindly applauding Japan’s culture, systems and customs.

In the 1980s, the Japanese economy was at its peak while European countries and North America were suffering from serious slumps. This presumably led a majority of Japanese economists to propagate what they said was the superiority of Japanese management style and to claim that the only way for America’s manufacturing industry to regain its dominance was to emulate that management style.

The Japanese management style is derived from the people’s unique characteristics such as diligence, loyalty, homogeneity and cooperativeness. In the thinking of those economists, these characteristics made Japan superior to other countries. They went so far as to try to impress journalists both at home and abroad with unfounded optimistic views such as: “By the end of the 20th century, Japan’s gross domestic product will exceed 20 percent of the global total,” or “The Japanese yen will replace the U.S. dollar as the world’s key currency.”

Following the bursting of economic bubbles in March 1991, however, the tone of those economists’ comments underwent dramatic changes. In short, their evaluation of the Japanese economy changed from “excellent” to “poorest.”

A main factor behind this about-face was the complete reversal of the economic positions of Japan and the United States. Japan suffered a protracted slump from the 1990s through the first decade of the 21st century in stark contrast with a boom enjoyed by the American economy.

It did not take long for Yamatoists to stop praising Japan and for economists to stop applauding the Japanese management style.

Van Wolferen had insisted that the proposition that Japan is a “sovereign state” and a “free-market economy” was fiction. But this proposition proved to be true to some extent.

Junichiro Koizumi, who headed the government as prime minister from April 2001 to September 2006, vigorously and courageously promoted the market economy by implementing the creed of deregulation, privatization (“from the public to private sector”) and small government.

Collusion among lawmakers, bureaucrats and business executives, and influence peddling by politicians have been rectified considerably, though not necessarily completely. At least on the surface, the public sector started playing smaller roles in managing the nation’s economy and the vitality of the private sector came to be used more extensively.

However, since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power on Dec. 26, 2012, what Buruma called Yamatoism seems to have regained power and the proposition that Japan is a “sovereign state” and a “capitalist free-market economy” seems to have turned again into the fiction identified by van Wolferen. Even though Buruma and van Wolferen made those observations more than a quarter century ago, they can be interpreted rightly as a correct warning against nationalistic policies being pushed by the Abe administration.

Abe is at the extreme right end of the Liberal Democratic Party’s political spectrum from the first, and I expected that he would begin his nationalistic agenda — such as amending the Constitution — after the “three arrows” of his “Abenomics” economic policy had succeeded in pulling the Japanese economy out of its long period of deflation. But these expectations have proved to be off the mark.

Abenomics initially appeared to be moving ahead with an irresistible force. Now it is at a standstill, making its success or failure unpredictable. Yet, Abe rushes to push a right-leaning agenda despite advice to the contrary from close associates.

Although he undoubtedly assumed that his visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Dec. 26, 2013, would lead to the deterioration of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, he apparently did not imagine that the visit would invite “disappointment” from the U.S. government.

After all, Abe is nothing but an ultra-rightist fundamentalist — judging from the fact that he gives priority to his “creed” over the country’s strategic interests in total disregard of advice from members of his inner circle who, from realistic perspectives, attach importance to the nation’s strategic benefits and worry about the deterioration of Japan-U.S. relations.

On Feb. 12, Abe became the first incumbent Japanese prime minister to deliver a keynote address at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and received a big round of applause from the audience when he expressed his high hopes for and confidence in Abenomics.

Speaking in Japanese at a subsequent press conference, he noted that this year marked the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. He said Britain and Germany had gone to war against each other despite their mutual economic interdependence, and that each had been the biggest trading partner of the other.

When an interpreter supplemented Abe’s remarks by saying, “China and Japan are in a similar situation today” — which Abe did not say — it drew criticism from the press bureau chief of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and surprise from European and American members of the press.

According to Kyodo News reports, Abe in fact said that “leaders of the two countries understand” that a military clash between them will cause great damage not only to them but also to the rest of the world, and emphasized the need to avoid “an accidental mishap or clash” between the two countries.

While it is not clear where Abe’s true intentions lie, I pray from the bottom of my heart that he will spare no effort to prevent a military clash with China. I would like him to always keep in mind that such an effort constitutes the responsibilities of the prime minister of a sovereign state.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.