NEW YORK — The tragic flaws discovered in Toyota cars have crowded out other news about Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship during this 50th anniversary year of the formal U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Some have gone so far as to claim that Toyota Motor Corp. represents the Japanese nation-state and that its flaws presage larger flaws of a society in decline. Just as articles 30 years ago hyped up images of Japan as a large sumo about to gobble up America, some critics now paint in the opposite direction, creating images of a nation near death.
Both extremes use the wrong indicators to assess Japanese society, and both obscure the important and deep relationship — economic and otherwise — between the peoples of both nations. There is no doubt that Japan has its share of social problems, and that Toyota’s troubles have had ripple effects beyond the corporation, but there is more to Japan than this dismal one-sided perspective.
Consider, for example, that Japan’s Human Development Index ranking is higher than that of the United States. Education, health and standard of living are generally better for Japanese people than for Americans.
Japan has one of the lowest crime rates of any industrialized country in the world, and simultaneously one of the most literate societies.
Japan has one of the most sophisticated train systems in the world. As President Barack Obama considers ways to develop high-speed lines in the U.S., Japan’s system is one to envy.
Japanese schools are often cited by American educational leaders who wish their students could compete with Japanese students on international math and science examinations.
Japan’s traditional arts and contemporary architecture inspire people around the globe. Organizations in New York City and Los Angeles look at urban design in Japan as potential models for efficient building design.
Movies by Miyazaki Hayao, an Academy Award recipient, are enjoyed the world over, as are manga and other forms of Japanese pop culture. (Japanese culture is being celebrated at this year’s Indiana State Fair to highlight the importance of Japanese investment. Other states and towns across the U.S. and Japan have similar relationships.)
Japan is constantly exploring innovative green technologies that may eventually be put to use around the globe. It is one of the most advanced countries in field of robotics, for example.
The perception that Japan had only one bright spot left, namely engineering prowess associated with industries such as car manufacturing, and that this has now faded, is wrong. As the above points illustrate, Japan wields multiple forms of modern influence through human capital, innovative thinking and tradition.
It also has something else: a thriving democracy. Since the end of World War II, the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party has has been a big source of criticism of Japan. And despite the historic election last August, Japan continues to be criticized by people who see its democracy as flawed. Instead of celebrating Japan’s democratic development, they decry its weaknesses.
Every democracy has flaws; the important point is that the Japanese people did not have to overthrow the LDP by revolution. They voted them out in a free election. This event is especially worth celebrating as the U.S. fights wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to leave behind democratic states.
Measuring Japan only by gross domestic product, or by the success or failure of one company — instead of understanding the depth of Japanese culture and society and the network of relations between Americans and Japanese — is dangerous. Japan is one of America’s most important allies, a fact highlighted during this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan. Agreements such as these presuppose shared norms between parties. This treaty is not the core of the relationship; rather, the core — which is the friendship, respect, shared values and interests of Americans and Japanese — supports the treaty.
When media, public intellectuals and even the government put on blinders that limit their views of Japan and Japanese society, they ignore the core of our relationship and risk letting our friendship deteriorate and our alliance come apart.
Portrayals of Japanese decline are often paired with those of a rising China. Such articles herald China’s growing GDP, hinting that America’s new focus in Asia should be China at Japan’s expense. Judging only the economic worth of a nation leaves out other important considerations.
For instance, according to Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World Index,” China is “not free,” while Japan, like the U.S., is “free.” Should GDP trump all other measurements? Why should the U.S. have to choose between China or Japan anyway, instead of enhancing its friendship with Japan while deepening its relationship with China? Self-confident states should be able to achieve such objectives without viewing relationships as zero-sum game scenarios.
As with all societies, Japan, and the companies based there, should be called out for flaws, problems and unacceptable behavior. At the same time, however, we should balance our perspective by realizing that the U.S. and Japan share the values of freedom and justice.
Until we realize that no nation is without flaws and begin to understand societies, cultures, and states in more complex ways, our understanding of ourselves and others will remain dismally limited.
David P. Janes is a Scott M. Johnson Fellow of the U.S.-Japan Leadership Program, a Ph.D. candidate at The New School for Social Research’s Department of Sociology, and director of foundation grants at the United States-Japan Foundation.
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