LAUSANNE, Switzerland — The best book on the modern Japanese political economy is the late Shigeto Tsuru’s “Japan’s Capitalism: Creative Defeat and Beyond,” published by Cambridge University Press in 1993. Tsuru holds to the great original tradition of economics as a sub-branch of moral philosophy, not of mathematics (to which it has degenerated in many economics faculties today). His book, apart from providing an incisive analysis of the Japanese economy’s postwar development, raises some profound questions not only about Japan’s political economy, but also about both macroeconomics and capitalism in general. Almost 10 years old, it remains highly relevant, indeed visionary. In upcoming installments of this series, I shall refer to his book and to his vision.
Let us begin with the end, with the vision that he summarizes in the first page of his final chapter, “Whither Japan,” and then proceeds to develop in detail. Tsuru writes:
“A Japan that takes the lead in pressing for world disarmament, is assiduous in the fight against disease by making the country the health-care center of the world, lays emphasis on tourist facilities at sites of scenic beauty, is active in international exchange in the fields of cultural and aesthetic life, is radically willing to increase the country’s contribution to the United Nations University, and works hard, through both aid and trade, to wipe out the poverty that plagues the Third World, would be a Japan where the people would feel assured of holding in common positive values worth defending.”
One of the many remarkable aspects of Tsuru’s book was how sensitive he was not just to the environment, but also to scenic beauty. Not many books on political economy incorporate scenic beauty in discussing a country’s national assets and gross national product. Tsuru does. The passages, especially on the Inland Sea, are quite magnificent.
In the modern era, Japan was “opened” in the 1850s, but became known to a broader Western public primarily during the last three decades of the 19th century, when both globe-trotting and the travelogue developed. What struck the early visitors to Japan was the great beauty of the country — the scenery, but also the villages, the art, the architecture, etc. Rudyard Kipling, among others, considered Japan the most beautiful country he had ever seen; he wanted to put it in a “glass case” to be preserved in its pristine beauty for eternity.
I was very fortunate to have traveled pretty much the width and breadth of Japan — with the exception of northern Hokkaido — throughout the 1960s and early ’70s. The beauty was stunning, with a certain art de vivre, during my stay at inns, whether “ryokan” or the more modest “minshuku.”
The bath, the wood, the tatami, the meal and sake were highly aesthetic experiences. The very colorful festivals (“matsuri”) were gorgeous and great fun. What is fantastic about Japan is not just the beauty of individual temples or castles, but the great cultural diffusion throughout the country. Japan is culturally an extremely rich country. This is a happy legacy of Japan’s long history of feudalism.
But the image of Japan as a land of graceful beauty hardly corresponds to that commonly held today. In the course of the ’70s, it became known perhaps mainly as the land of “growing national pollution,” as the Anglo-Hungarian writer George Mikes referred to it, and then as an industrial base for manufacturing cars.
The great cultural wealth of Japan notwithstanding, it is not a country that attracts much attention, and certainly not many visitors. According to World Tourism Organization data for 2000, as an East Asian tourist destination Japan came after China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Macau, Indonesia and South Korea, but ahead of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea and Mongolia. When I was running an office in Tokyo in the ’80s, I was struck — in fact distressed — by the fact that my young foreign colleagues, all of whom lived in Japan, spoke Japanese, etc., would invariably fly off to Malaysia, Thailand or wherever for their holidays and many of them had hardly, if ever, been to Tohoku, Shikoku or other more distant regions of Japan.
The failure of foreigners to appreciate the great beauty of Japan can be ascribed to three main causes. The first is no doubt just ignorance on the part of foreigners. The second is that the great beauty of Japan is in many cases an irretrievable thing of the past. This is Tsuru’s great lament; namely, that Japan’s postwar economic rush resulted in the destruction on a monumental scale of the environment and of Japan’s scenic beauty, thereby materially enriching current generations, but spiritually and aesthetically impoverishing future generations.
Among the many myths that the Japanese chose to adopt about themselves was their alleged “closeness to nature.” The Inland Sea was designated by the Japanese government as “not only a natural endowment of incomparable beauty of Japan and the world but also a treasure house of valuable marine resources for the nation.” In fact, however, nature in the Inland Sea was destroyed by wanton industrial vandalism. By the 1970s, the Inland Sea Designated National Park was home to “53 percent of the country’s total steel-making capacity, 40 percent of oil refining, 35 percent of petrochemical, 63 percent of copper-refining and 76 percent of lead-refining industries of Japan.” The industrial capacity of the Inland Sea alone surpassed that of the entire United Kingdom.
As Tsuru sadly notes: “what was once a pride of Japan’s natural beauty has become a problem area of the first order from the environmental viewpoint.”
This abysmal destruction notwithstanding, there are still many parts of Japan that retain their beauty and cultural assets are well preserved. Hiraizumi, to cite only one example, is a small global splendor.
The third reason that foreigners may fail to appreciate the beauty of Japan is that beauty, aesthetics, nature, the environment and foreign tourism have not been national priorities. During the bubble years, massive funds were spent on environmentally offensive golf courses and/or on resorts that can be noted only for their expensive vulgarity. Little was done to restore and maintain the more traditional cultural and natural attributes of the country.
I revisited Miyajima with my wife last November after an interval of 34 years. Although it still appeared quite magnificent — especially the great ensemble of Daijoin in the hill — it was also a bit run down, with many of the ryokan in need of a coat of paint and general restoration. In the fast growing industrial years and then during the wild intoxication of the bubble economy years, Japanese traditional concepts of aesthetics, encompassing simplicity, grace, movement and subtlety have been by and large pushed aside.
A great national program of putting emphasis on tourist facilities at sites of scenic beauty, as Tsuru suggests, and by laying emphasis on Japanese traditions of aesthetics and sensibilities, would accomplish a number of grand objectives. It would restore to Japanese a sense of identity and pride, give them a sense of purpose and embellish Japan’s image in the world. It would also attract quality tourism and thus provide revenue and employment. A culturally, environmentally, scenically rich, beautiful and proud Japan would be a tremendous contribution to the global era.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.