In his May 30 article, “Bedfellows of those ‘lax,’ ‘insular’ Japanese,” Hiroaki Sato points out that cozy relationships between big business and government regulators are not confined to Japan, as last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico exemplifies. He is right, but I disagree with his suggestion that concepts of the Japanese as “a race apart” are Western constructs.
In the 18th century, Motoori Norinaga described the Japanese character undefiled by foreign influences as “kiyoki akaki kokoro” (pure and cheerful heart) and thus became the first in a long line of Japanese scholars touting Japanese values versus Chinese, and later Western, rationalism, talkativeness and rigidness, etc.
During Japan’s modernization process from the mid-19th century on, the Japanese were eager to distinguish themselves from the West under the slogan “wakon yosai” (Japanese spirit and Western learning). The one cultural axiom touted in contrast to Western “conflict society” is “wa” (harmony), which has become a synonym for Japan ever since it was mentioned in Crown Prince Shotoku Taishi’s seventh-century “constitution.”
The now commonplace notion that Japanese society in general — and especially relationships between workers and management or among government, bureaucracy and business — are governed by harmonious consensus rather than antagonistic discourse was actively promoted as an inherent Japanese trait.
In 1999, when big banks receiving huge amounts of tax money to stave off bankruptcy treated their supervisors from the Finance Ministry to shabu-shabu served by waitresses without panties — in exchange for hints about the next inspection date — many people just shrugged their shoulders in the belief that this was part of the consensus-building process and for the common good.
The sad truth is that the system is severely flawed on both sides of the cultural divide. As I cannot offer any easy solution to this, I end with the simple conclusion that the Japanese people will have to awaken to the truth that harmony among their leaders does not necessarily mean that they will live in peace.
The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.
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