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What six reasonable men can do

by Jeff Kingston

REASONABLE MEN, POWERFUL WORDS: Political Culture and Expertise in 20th Century Japan, by Laura Hein. Berkeley, Calif.; University of California Press, 2004, 328 pp., $45 (cloth).

This is the compelling story of how six prominent intellectuals shaped the conventional wisdom that came to characterize post-World War II Japan. These economists — including Hyoe Ouchi, Hiromi Arisawa, Masao Takahashi and Ryokichi Minobe — first rose to prominence in the pre-WWII era. Subsequently, as advisers, activists, pundits and, in Minobe’s case, as governor of Tokyo, they promoted a progressive agenda.

They believed that the primary purpose of economic growth was to improve everyone’s living standards, and that the state was responsible for helping those who needed it. Ouchi and his students “tried to strengthen civil society in ways that would temper arbitrary state power, defang militarism, provide a comprehensive economic safety net and give all Japanese the tools to challenge their government and institutionalize their political and economic priorities.”

Laura Hein excels at capturing the ambiguities, ambivalences and compromises intrinsic to the efforts of these “reasonable” men. Socialist in principle, they worked extensively and productively within a conservative system to advance their agenda. They worked to achieve what was possible rather than doggedly sticking to what was ideal.

Ironically, by convincing successive Liberal Democratic Party administrations to adopt their labor, welfare and health policies, they contributed to one-party hegemony and sparked the ire of many who shared their ideals but not their knack for making deals. In doing so they helped spread the fruits of high-speed economic growth.

Sympathetically assessing their legacy, and noting how partisan politics affected policy debates, Hein points out that “it is difficult to separate co-optation from compromise, or a principled stand from pigheadedness.” In the end, they exerted considerable influence over the relationship between the state and its citizens in many ways that benefited the latter. Japan became a richer and more equitable society in part because of their success in promoting policymaking based on rigorous social-science analysis.

These men gained prominence in the post-WWII era partly because they are credited with telling the wartime government that winning a war against the United States was impossible. All were incarcerated for not toadying to the militarists, and their careers suffered in a reactionary climate. Trying to convince the authorities that teaching about Marxist analysis was not tantamount to communist subversion proved difficult. Hein notes, “Ouchi argued that he was persecuted on the principle that ignorance is the only protection against dangerous thoughts.”

These men sought to place economics at the service of democracy by gathering and disseminating statistical information. In their view, “statistics offered one of the most powerful weapons against bad government” because it enabled citizens to monitor the government. They successfully lobbied for the establishment of the Bureau of Statistics in 1947 with Minobe as director. They shared with their American occupiers the belief that social-science analysis was key to developing sound policies that addressed social ills.

The experience of wartime repression explains the prolonged political engagement of these intellectuals who feared a return of tyranny. They believed that peace, democracy and socialism were mutually reinforcing. Hein adds, “They also defined pacifism as acknowledgment — not evasion — of their own responsibility to other Asians for Japan’s imperial and wartime depredations.” Ouchi denounced the government for evading its war responsibility to Asians. He expressed shame and outrage that Japan agreed “to repay money borrowed before the war from the U.S. and Britain before offering reparations to China to fulfill a debt that was not only a higher moral responsibility but would help a poor nation rather than rich ones.”

For these reasonable men, passive subservience to the U.S. was a festering sore. This explains why they were active in various peace organizations including Beiheiren, the most prominent anti-Vietnam war movement in Japan. Back in 1965 the 77-year-old Ouchi remained feisty, predicting failure and condemning the U.S. and Japanese governments for choosing the wrong side. In trying to crush nationalism and the desire for independence among Vietnamese, Ouchi saw parallels with Japan’s Asian rampage when it rationalized wanton destruction in the name of liberation.

These men left a rich legacy by advancing progressive policies and advocating development based on social responsibility and pacifism. However, the unraveling of paternalistic employment policies, growing income inequalities and efforts to elbow pacifism aside illustrate how quickly Japan is changing in fundamental ways. They have been fortunate in having their contributions elucidated by a historian at the top of her craft. Anyone seeking to understand the evolution of Japan’s civil society in the 20th century and the fault lines of contemporary political battles should read this well-written, thoroughly researched book brimming with thoughtful and stimulating analysis.