LAUSANNE, Switzerland — One of Japan’s problems in the global era arises from foreign academic experts on the country. The key qualification to be a foreign academic expert on Japan, or a “Japanologist,” is to command the spoken and written language. Thus the late Professor G.C. Allen, who wrote some of the best pioneering work on the Japanese economy, does not fit this category, as he did not speak Japanese.
Ian Buruma, whom I referred to in my Sept. 11 column, does not fit either. Although he has mastered Japanese, he is a writer and a freelance journalist, not an academic.
Bill Emmott, the author of 1989’s prescient work “The Sun Also Sets” — perhaps one of the writers who best understood the Japanese economy — would also be excluded, as he is neither an academic nor a Japanese speaker.
The academic experts include, it must be stressed, a number of excellent scholars who have contributed greatly not only to an understanding of Japan, but also to their disciplines. Among the many people in this distinguished category are Ezra Vogel and Ronald Dore in sociology, Carmen Blacker in religious studies, John Dower in history, Gerry Curtis in political science and Ed Lincoln in economics.
Then why do I say that foreign academic experts on Japan can be a problem? There are several reasons.
There are academic experts who tend to be highly possessive of and aggressively defensive about Japan. By espousing a sort of “Japan can do no wrong” creed, they become, so to speak, more papist than the pope, i.e., not just “Japanologists” but “Japanists.” To a considerable extent, of course, the nature of Japanologists reflects what Japan has represented in the modern era.
In the case of China in the early postwar decades, foreign scholars were attracted to “Maoism,” while others were skeptical or indeed repulsed. Scholars on modern Russia became generally pro- or anti-Soviet. Many Arabists in Europe in the ’50s and ’60s were seduced by the political ideology of Pan-Arabic socialism espoused by the late Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, but have no time at all for current leader Hosni Mubarak.
Most countries or regions have proposed ideologies that generated universal attention and elicited passionate intellectual responses. The West has stood at the best of times, for liberalism, while at the worst of times some of its nations have espoused fascism.
India proposed not only the political philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, but also the Nehruvian socialist model of political economy. In the 1960s and ’70s, Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere attracted popular and academic following as potential beacons for new approaches not only to African development, but also to world society.
Japan’s revolution in 1868 and entry into the modern world was founded not on any universal ideological principle, but on the much more pragmatic course of national survival, which was subsequently transformed into nationalism as the dominant, indeed ultimately exclusive, national ideology.
Rising from the ashes of World War II, liberals such as Shigeto Tsuru, Masao Maruyama and author Shusaku Endo hoped that Japan, with its new constitution, would come to represent a new international force of pacifist socialism. The consolidation of the establishment and imposition of the “1955 system,” composed of big business, the national bureaucracy and the Liberal Democratic Party, brought such dreams sharply to an end. The driving force of Japan’s spectacular postwar resurgence was, once again, nationalism, albeit directed at exclusively economic ends, as opposed to the territorial and military nationalist ambitions harbored in the prewar era.
The one glimmer of possible universal appeal that Japan seemed to offer for a while was an alternative, more just and more sustainable, form of capitalism. During the 1980s, many people, including myself, were intrigued and strongly attracted by what appeared to be a Japanese model of enterprise and economic society.
The word “appeared” is the operative term. With the corporate and government scandals that occurred in the ’90s and the doldrums that the economy has been in for the last decade, a closer scrutiny of the Japanese business and economic environment revealed that a lot of what purported to be the Japanese model was founded on hype; today the Japanese economic model is somewhat in tatters — to put it mildly.
The political and economic ideology of Japan is nationalism. This may be one of the main reasons for the fact that Japanese, including scholars, tend to be so poor at communicating with non-Japanese; there are no universal principles emanating from Japan to share and thus they have little to contribute. This inward-looking ethnocentrism rubs off on foreign academic experts of Japan.
As a member of various associations of Japanese studies in Europe in the 1970s, I was struck, and depressed, by the proclivity of the Japanologists to talk exclusively to each other, to be highly critical of others — especially those who might write about Japan, without the qualifications of Japanologists — and ultimately produce very little themselves. The closed nature of Japanese society, the generally uncontested assumption that foreigners cannot understand Japan, the aloof absence of Japanese from international forums of discussion (which result in the country becoming a massive freemasonry) are all reflected in the closed world of Japanology.
Japan, as one of the world’s pre-eminent nations inclined to navel-gazing (“Nihonjin-ron” and all that), has a similar effect on its foreign experts. This is one of the reasons why academic specialists on Japan often seem incapable of putting the country in a broader global analytical context. The other reason no doubt arises from the difficulty of mastering the language and the great intellectual hurdle in becoming a true Japanologist — hence the time and effort that need to be invested at the expense of learning about other societies.
Another phenomenon arising from Japanese nationalism is that Japanology seems to attract a type of individual, a trait I find especially among some Americans, who, for whatever reason, feel alienated from their own society. Their adhesion to Japanese nationalism, therefore, includes the use of Japan as a rod to beat their own country and society. The line between nationalism and chauvinism then becomes blurred.
Thus, although the foreign experts, in principle, should be in an excellent position to explain Japan to the outside world, in general either they do not bother or they do so in stridently Japanist terms. Thus they contribute more to obscuring than clarifying and to exacerbating the problem of Japan’s inward-looking nature and global “incommunicability.” They are obstacles, not agents, in bringing about a more open Japan.
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