Karel Van Wolferen: Insights into the new world disorder


When Karel Van Wolferen released his seminal book “The Enigma of Japanese Power” in the dying months of the bubble economy, the normally staid monthly magazine Chuo Koron described its impact as akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning. For once, the hype was merited. Little before had matched the authority, scope or ambition of “Enigma,” which set out to do nothing less than explain the inner workings of Japan’s political engine house to a then-uncomprehending planet.

From the famous opening line “Japan perplexes the world” to the bleak ending, which suggested that little short of a revolution would transform the country into a genuine democracy, Van Wolferen’s book was a daring analysis of bureaucratic misrule and a system with no political center of gravity. The fact that it laid out Japan’s political fault-lines at a time when most observers were blinded by its dazzling economic feats is testament to its prescience and resonance.

Nearly half a million Japanese bought the book, which has subsequently been translated into 11 languages and has sold about 750,000 copies. “Enigma” is now a staple of Asian studies courses around the world and has become required reading for a generation of Japan scholars, foreign correspondents and students. Not bad for a dense, complex 670-page tome with few jokes and a mild obsession with the workings of government bureaucrats.

Van Wolferen divides his life today between Japan and Holland, where he has just retired from teaching comparative political and institutions at the University of Amsterdam. Although he still writes books for the Japanese market — with more than a million copies in print — including the best-selling “The False Realities of a Politicized Society,” much of his energy since 2001 has been spent analyzing the global impact of 9/11 and what he calls the corrupt American plutocracy behind the Iraq disaster. His book “George W. Bush and the Destruction of World Order” was, in his words, “shipwrecked” by reluctant U.S. publishers. “They said they could only have one anti-Bush book per season,” he explains, laughing. “That was 2003.”

Born into a working-class Calvinist family in Rotterdam, Van Wolferen backpacked across the Middle East and Asia before arriving in Japan in 1962. After a spell teaching English, he became correspondent for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad, covering some of the key Asian events of the late 20th century, including the Vietnam War and the Philippine Revolution. In 1987 he was awarded the Dutch equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

Tellingly, his literary heroes are the polymath correspondent Arthur Koestler and the great British writer George Orwell, author of “1984.” Both plowed a dogged, iconoclastic path through the great ideological battles of the 20th century, criticizing the horrors of Stalinism and Nazism but also refusing to take intellectual comfort in their “own” side, which produced imperialism and the Great Depression. Van Wolferen too believes that intellectuals and journalists must be independent and free to write what they see, even if in doing so they destroy some sacred cows; one reason why he has never sat on a government panel in Japan — they “build illusions about democratic participation,” he says.

Can we start with your latest work on the “war on terror”? I know you’re critical of this, so rather than throw you a softball, what about the criticism by some that the left has failed to stand up to the threat of Islamic fascism?

Well, maybe we should talk about what this threat actually consists of. We had these spectacular attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The whole world watched this huge crime on television and was easily persuaded that we are facing this entirely new, terrifying power that could threaten civilization. Americans were even told that this might change their way of life. Clear bullsh**t. The comparison today, fairly common around the White House and among the neoconservatives, that we face a threat comparable to the Nazis and Stalinism in the form of Islamic-fascism, or Iran and Iraq lumped together as if they were part of this fascism, is such hogwash. I find it depressing that so many people are discussing this as though it is a legitimate point of discussion. Of course, we know that knowledge of history is not the strong point of [U.S. Vice President Dick] Cheney, who is of course the most important person in all this, but it is complete nonsense. At the start of World War II, Germany was Europe’s strongest industrial power. And after WWII, the Soviet Union was armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Obviously a very small number of what you might want to call radical Islamists engage in terrorist activity for whatever reason but to compare that to these earlier 20th century threats is totally unacceptable.

And of course bombing people is not the best way to win them away from the radicals.

Clearly. You know, we are living in a very odd and unexpected situation. The main architect of world order, as formalized in the United Nations Charter and the gradual development of international law, was the United States. Nobody had imagined that this very same country could turn against that which it had earlier done more than any other government to foster, and is now doing its utmost to break it up.

Didn’t people also worry, though, during the Vietnam War era that U.S. power was out of control?

I don’t know if the Vietnam War is a good example of American power out of control. There are signs of American military might becoming an uncontrollable entity. [Former U.S. President Dwight D.] Eisenhower saw that. [Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of America’s “military-industrial complex” in his presidential farewell address in 1961.] But I don’t think that was on display in Vietnam. Vietnam, of course, is dragged into the debate by a lot of antiwar people in the U.S. But the two cases — Iraq and Vietnam — are very different. This is not to say that Vietnam was a good idea — it wasn’t — but it is a very different story.

What is happening in Iraq is not sufficiently understood. A state has been destroyed, a state with all the things that made a state work: police protection against crime, infrastructure, electricity, schooling, medical facilities; everything that allows a society to function, even though under Saddam Hussein it was a tyranny. That state is no longer there! The discussion about the so-called civil war in Iraq among antiwar people conveys a degree of ignorance that is horrendous. I’m talking here about people whose heart is in the right place and who are horrified about what this war of choice has done to the U.S., but they share in the general American ignorance of the fact that in Iraq you have a vacuum. This has caused private security militias to emerge, and yes, it so happens that members of these militias identify very intensely with their Sunni or Shiite backgrounds and so turn against each other. Don’t talk about civil war or the ingratitude of the Iraqis who have an opportunity for democracy and don’t take it. What do you mean democratic opportunity? Where are the institutions? As if you can deliver democracy by FedEx or something. All that commentary reveals plain and unforgivable ignorance.

There is so much ignorance among educated people about how civil institutions are supposed to function, and ignorance of what a true civil war normally entails, that the unleashing of civil war has become the central criticism. What we essentially have in Iraq are groups that have turned against an invader. You can’t actually speak of occupation either because the U.S. doesn’t have the means of an occupier at its disposal; it squats and has no control over the country whatsoever. Amid these very heavily armored squatters who earlier destroyed the Iraqi state, the militias fight everyone they see as a future threat to themselves, since they know themselves to be unprotected by law, by a functioning state.

What about the comparison with the postwar occupation of Japan, which is sometimes made in this context?

The U.S. occupation left Japanese institutions intact. Americans operated under the illusion that they were remaking Japan. But by essentially leaving the bureaucracy in place, except for the Naimusho [home ministry, blamed by the Americans for fueling totalitarianism in the 1930s and ’40s] and the emperor legitimizing the whole thing, only eliminating the armed forces, they kept all the things necessary to keep the country going. And within a very short time the Japanese were smart enough to see to what extent they could flout American purposes. It is a fraudulent comparison to begin with; Iraq did not start a war that it lost.

I wonder if you think the U.S. has blundered into Iraq with the best intentions or is there a malevolent political agenda here which would include oil, of course, but also imposing its will on the region, strategically redrawing the map of the Middle East and so on.

This is conceptually a very challenging question and deserves a lot of attention. Analysts like [radical scholar and U.S. foreign policy critic Noam] Chomsky always postulate the existence of an active agent bringing it all about. But I think this business about agency and choice is built into liberalist interpretations of political life. I think our tradition of liberalism is still politically most rewarding, but at the same time you realize that history is not a string of events that were the result of conscious agency or choice. Take what Eisenhower in his farewell speech correctly identified as a monster that was getting out of control — the military-industrial complex. He referred to something that was set up for understandable purposes but began to lead a life of its own. Certain political and business interests are obviously served by this, and they want it to continue. They haven’t created the military-industrial complex, but they become agents for its continuation. Or take the lobby phenomenon. Politicians need a fortune to get re-elected, and businesses want favorable laws. Before you know it you have a plutocracy; but no one designed it.

On a national level, the U.S. ceased to be a democracy some time ago; I think it is stretching the term too far to still speak of democracy. It is a plutocracy. The new democratic majority has not brought significant changes with regard to the biggest thing which is going on — military action that is causing incredible suffering and hundreds of thousands of deaths. You have a corrupt Congress that does not reflect the wishes of the electorate. You have an out-of-control vice president who is almost certainly calling the shots. You have a president who should never have come close to office; who would not have had a position in government in almost any country where there is some parliamentary control. He is totally unsuited and unqualified. This is understood today by a majority of Americans and yet he is still there, destroying America’s position in the world! It is not just the U.S; you see it with Tony Blair in Britain. The British have gone further in analyzing cause and effect and the rot within, but yet Blair remains.

I recognize the achievements of Western political culture, but there is still no reason for us as Americans or Europeans to turn to any other country and say we’re going to teach you how to organize your political system.

There is a clear task here for the European Union, which has so far not been taken up: Europeans ought to form a collective voice simply reassuring the world: “We do not endorse this. We are not in favor of aggressive war. We want to stick to the U.N. charter. If the British government doesn’t want to join, this will speed up what is inevitable anyway — a two-speed, core and peripheral, Europe.

The big problem for Europe is its Atlanticist addiction, which is particularly strong in The Netherlands. It leads to widespread denial of global reality. There is no trans-Atlantic alliance at all; it has unilaterally been replaced by a system of vassalage that does not protect Europe. Europe does not share the imperialist ambitions of the U.S., and so the prime condition for an alliance — identity of purpose — is missing. NATO has essentially become a reservoir of auxiliary troops for American militarist projects. But the roots that Cold-War defense arrangements developed went deep and are still there. You have military entities in Europe that are insufficiently under the control of national parliaments. Again, we have here something that no one has chosen or wanted, but that has grown into something with a life of its own. The Dutch Air Force, for example, is simply an appendix of the American Air Force. They intend to go ahead with this new joint-strike fighter; that incredible plane designed to fight a nonexistent enemy, which can only fly with software that is controlled in Washington. The EU members — Bulgaria and Romania — have both accepted new American air-force bases, from which the Middle East or Central Asia can be bombed. And the Czechs and Poles have said ‘yes’ to becoming part of the American missile defense system — which in fact means part of long-range plans for space-based military control. In my view that is tantamount to welcoming a fifth column into the EU.

Like Japan, European countries run the risk of being sucked into American adventures that will bring disaster to all. Does that make me sound anti-American? Then I am in the same league as many Americans I know. For them it is terrible having to live with what has become of their country, something they thought could never happen. But then there are others, including quite a few antigovernment commentators, who suffer from a bad case of collective narcissism. Sometimes I wish there would be such a blow — hopefully not too punishing — as to wake those parochial minds up to the fact that they’re not the center of the universe and have not created the perfect model of society or the economy.

Wasn’t that 9/11?

No, not at all, although 9/11 should have done it. The public was ready to discuss the possible reasons why terrorists committed that huge crime. But that kind of sobering talk became taboo within a few months after the attacks. In the beginning there was a genuine effort to understand Islamic radicalism, but the country was hijacked through politics of deception that in the U.S. had never sunk to such depths before. What made all of it happen? Some basic conditions were there. There is this military-industrial complex. There is a plutocracy. There is a media world no longer capable of informing citizens about fundamentals they need to know, because it is corrupted and current media owners have never been interested in what we consider the task of journalism. There is an opposition party too cowardly to have halted rightwing excesses. In this environment a couple of people came to power, Dick Cheney and [former Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld, who had a traumatically disorienting experience in their recent past — the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union. The political reason for their being disappeared. They tried very hard to recreat a big enemy . That ridiculous category of rogue states, justifying a Cold War-era defense budget, has not been quite credible. Then these two, as well as the master of political deceit [presidential adviser] Karl Rove, were handed on a silver platter a magnificent new enemy. Without it, China would have been the prime candidate for the role.

Let’s turn to “Enigma.” Like many people, I suppose what struck me most strongly was how pessimistic its analysis was: Japanese people are locked into a system over which they have little or nor control. I wonder if you would revise any of it in the aftermath of the brief fall of the Liberal Democratic Party, the [former Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi years and now [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe?

If I was pessimistic to the extent that I didn’t think change was at all possible, I probably wouldn’t be saying these things. And I have continued writing for a Japanese audience; 15 or 16 books that in some way have revolved around this question of uncontrolled agency in Japan. But I do not believe in looking at the world through rose-colored glasses simply because it makes us feel better. Political reality is by definition something that must always be improved, and political reality is always under threat from opportunistic forces and institutions that have gone out of control because it wasn’t understood where they were going.

Koizumi is credited with reforming some elements of the system you criticize: cutting public works, trimming the bureaucracy, shaking up Japan Inc. by selling off publicly owned corporations. Do you think these were significant?

But these things were never part of the original reform program. Go back to the early 1990s and it was not about that at all. People like [Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro] Ozawa were discussing the necessity for Japan to become a normal country. This was Ozawa’s terminology and what he meant was political discussion and political control over the role Japan should play, both toward its own citizens and the outside world. Koizumi did not do anything about that. Public works spending was a thorn in the side of the Finance Ministry, because of its wastefulness.

By the way, remember that it has a major function, aside from providing politicians with funds and keeping the construction sector alive. It also creates yen. Some three quarters of what Japan has earned by exports has been in dollars. You cannot change that amount into yen without the yen going through the ozone layer.

Your problem then is how to create, yen and one way has been through series of bank deposits for the sub- and sub-sub and sub-sub-subcontractors who build unnecessary bridges and tunnels, and so on. It is, of course, a wasteful and inefficient program, but money does circulate through most prefectures, and it does create yen. So, while it is destroying the countryside and could be replaced with something far more effective, it is not entirely without merit.

What the Finance Ministry has done is cut back on some of its worst excesses. But this is not Koizumi’s doing: he didn’t know the first thing about it. Koizumi’s becoming prime minister was a great surprise to Koizumi himself. He had originally advertised himself as a reformist politician and when he took over there was a never-ending buzz about the dramatic reforms he would come up with. But it was never spelled out in the media what these reforms would consist of, or the chronology of any of them.

And, of course, Koizumi realized very early on that he was pretty powerless. The whole Koizumi show illustrates that a bunch of Finance Ministry officials can easily hijack the prime minister. He was their servant in continuing a long-term general campaign that is an extension of their “break fiscal rigidity movement” that came into being to rein in the exc- esses under Kakuei Tanaka. It is still an obsession for them. What this also illu- strates is that the Japanese public is not given a clue as to what actually happens.

So you think the tragedy you describe in the book continues: the failure of the Japanese people to impose their will on the system, via their elected representatives?

Yes. Politicians don’t represent the electorate to the point where the electorate can see themselves as citizens who shape Japan’s political reality. It has changed a little bit to the extent that, at least for a while, there appeared to be a choice with the emergence of a genuine opposition party. But because the DPJ grew too big and had to admit many politicians within its ranks who essentially were not part of the earlier political awakening, it has become more like a mirror image of the LDP. What we are moving toward perhaps is something comparable to before WWII when you had two parties that took turns. But what I analyzed to be the central problem of the Japanese political system, the absence of a center of political accountability, that is not on the way to a solution. Because of this there is also no generally accepted reliable accounting of Japanese history inside Japan. It means that Japan as a country does not say to China or Korea: “We know what happened in the past and we know it may continue to trouble our relations for some time to come, but we are now taking responsibility for this.”

My dream for the region is that China and Japan agree to work out their differences from the premise that they’re not ever going to fight each other.

You don’t think Abe can make a difference?

Well, Japanese prime ministers are not given the leeway to do things that are within the power of most of their foreign counterparts. [Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro] Nakasone tried to be a real prime minister, and he was more successful than most. It is interesting to compare Koizumi to Nakasone. Koizumi didn’t know how to go about actually influencing the bureaucracy [laughs], so he created plenty of illusions because he was the first TV prime minister. And poor Abe, he is not a TV star, so the media have already declared him a disappointment. For God’s sake, give him time. His initiative toward China is the best thing that has happened for a long time. I am also heartened by comments of the freshly minted defense minister, Fumio Kyuma, who made remarks about the U.S. in Iraq that perhaps pointed at a growing awareness in Japan that Japan should be an independent country.

But that is rhetoric surely, not matched by what is happening on the ground. Japan and America are cooperating on defense issues more closely than ever.

And this is something about which we cannot warn all countries loudly enough, in Europe as well as Asia: Don’t become accessories to American schemes for world control. The U.S. is no longer a force for order in the world and it doesn’t protect you. Under current circumstances, no true alliance with the U.S. is possible. Japan has an unprotected vassal status. Look at Tony Blair to see what this means: the man was not for one moment taken seriously by Cheney, Rumsfeld and the others.

Abe appears to be a more traditional right-winger than Koizumi, if you look at his background. Are you worried about what he might do?

I wouldn’t use the term right-winger because I don’t know what it means in this context. He is identified with groups within the LDP which have always wanted certain things that have of course always been characterized by the Japanese left as right wing. But is it proper to continue doing this? I think for example the drive to revise the Constitution is overdue. Unfortunately, the Japanese left has always had a knee-jerk response to this, as though changing one letter of the Constitution is akin to a reformed alcoholic having a drink. It is actually outrageously condescending to think this way. There should have been a legally-informed intellectual drive to get the Constitution in line with reality. Japan has, by budget measures, the third or fourth-largest armed forces in the world! Article 9 can easily be changed by spelling out that the Japanese people, on the basis of their historical experience, have decided never to allow their state to use this right for any other purpose but to stop an invader. I have long thought that the Socialist Party betrayed the voters for decades so I was very glad to see it disappear and glad to see the appearance of the DPJ, and I haven’t given up the hope that the DPJ will offer genuine political change in Japan.

But isn’t the left in Japan wise to be suspicious about the agenda of Abe and his government?

No, I think they should be suspicious of the agenda of the education ministry. It is simply a third-rate ministry, working toward aims that are pretty unrealistic today and don’t fit the needs of the school system, which is a shambles. I am very sorry that Nikkyoso [the Japan Teachers’ Union] lost its long fight and had to buckle under. These agendas gestate for years before breaking to the surface, and the prime minister then becomes associated with things that were not his idea.

Look, our concern as foreigners should be less what happens in Japan than what happens between Japan and its neighbors. The moment Abe becomes prime minister he attempts to reverse one of the worst developments under Koizumi — relations with China. His grandfather [former Prime Minister] Nobusuke Kishi, who like other members of the political elite right after the American occupation had not planned for Japan to be a virtual protectorate of the U.S., traveled throughout East Asia on a mission to assure everyone that Japan could and wanted to be a good neighbor. His father, a decent man, was one of the more effective foreign ministers I have watched. I have hopes that Abe has imbued, sitting on the knees of his grandfather, the necessity of good relations with the rest of Asia. He is not of Kishi’s caliber, of course, but he is not an illusionist like Koizumi.

You don’t think that Abe represents a faction within the LDP that believes China can never be a real copartner with Japan and will always represent a threat, or that what he has been doing is putting out fires rather than attempting to build a real lasting relationship?

I have heard that line of analysis here and there, but it appears to me contrived to fit the ready-made decision that he represents the regressives in the LDP. The fact that Abe went to Beijing first rather than Washington was of considerable significance in itself, I think. Europeans and many people in Asia interpret the world through an inevitable American filter built into a system of cross-border news purveyors who are predominantly American. These may be very good, but editorial priorities and prejudices determine the common questions asked about developments. Japanese media, as those in Europe, tend to be guided by those questions and do not see many others that should be asked. The reality, at least as I see it, is not being addressed.

Japan’s situation, like that of Europe has changed dramatically with the changed global role of the U.S. The Japanese political elite, like those of Europe, has not sufficiently woken up to that fact. These elites still run the risk of being dragged into positions they will have cause greatly to regret in a few years. But among them one notices a much stronger sense that something is very wrong than you could, say, a couple of years ago. For one thing, most of the world, except for the Washington Beltway radicals, has absorbed the 20th-century lesson that wars will always bring disaster to those who start them. The threat-from-China rhetoric is comparable to the threat-from-Russia stuff to which the Europeans are currently exposed, and which serves the purpose of keeping the former Cold War allies scared so that these will hanker for the old days and will try to bring them back by accommodating Washington. I think all of us with a voice can help Japan by encouraging Abe to make serious moves to join ASEAN+3.