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.