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The International Writers Magazine
: Extended Review

Japan: A Reinterpretation
Dean H Ruetzler reviews Patrick Smith's new work on contemporary Japan

One of the standard stereotypes about Americans is that they know little about the rest of the world. Whether this is true or not, or whether the rest of the world, too, is ignorant of America is the subject of endless debate. Needless to say, I have been confronted with this stereotype many times during my three years in Japan. In the case of Japan, if Americans are ignorant of the country, it is not due to lack of material to learn from.

Patrick Smith- Japan: A Reinterpretation

A visit to a chain "mega"-bookstore such as Barnes & Noble or Borders will confirm this. A visit to such bookstores in my rural home state will produce literally thousands of books that are about Japan, its language, people, or culture. In truth, in a country where fully one-third have eaten sushi, and more than fifty percent of the population have eaten some form of Japanese cooking, ignorance about Japan is more of a choice nowadays, and less of simply not being exposed to the subject matter. The late twentieth century, for many reasons, heightened the ability to learn about Japan through all forms of media. In my opinion, Japan is probably the country that is most analyzed, scrutinized, dissected, watched, interpreted, debated, utilized, studied, and then re-examined in contemporary America. With mixed results, I must add.

This Japanese "explosion" has produced some very remarkable books about Japan in the last few years. John Dower's "Embracing Defeat" won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Aurthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" was one of the best selling books of the last few years. It also has been at the forefront of a multi-media extravaganza obsessed with Japan from its past to its pop culture. Iris Chang's "Rape of Nanjing" brought a forgotten military holocaust to the front pages, and the debate on that and Japan`s responsibility for its role in World War Two will go on for years. If one wants to learn about Japan without traveling halfway across the world, no time has been better than these last few years. One only needs to watch TV, go to the local Japanese eatery, or make a trip to the local bookstore.( Indeed this years Oscar nominations include two nominations for 'Lost in Translation' Sofia Coppala's witty take on life in Tokyo.)

Patrick Smith's "Japan: A Reinterpretaion" has placed itself firmly into this upper echelon of books concerned with Japan. It won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, one of the more coveted awards a book about Asia can receive. It is reputed to be an interpretation of Japanese history, culture, politics, and society that is a challenge to the general perception of Japan on both sides of the Pacific. It is hailed as one of the leaders of the "revisionist" movement in interpretation of Japan. That is, "revisionist" in opposition to Japan "bashing" or Japan "apologizing". Revisionism attempts to take a look at Japan that does not have the optimistic "functional and healthy WESTERN-style capitalist democracy" outlook of "apologizing". It also does not have the complete and through damnation of the country from its war conduct, corrupt government, inefficient bureaucratic structure and societal repression of individuality, all the way down to the level of the Japanese individual. Revisionism seeks to dissect a Japan-concerned issue or issues and point the finger of blame at the root causes of its troubles, then tries to analyze the rest of the society and country in a way that isolates them from those causes. The aim of revisionism is to find an ultimately realistic and pragmatic way of interpreting Japanese history, culture, government, and society. The conclusions quite often are in opposition to the common stereotypes that abound about Japan on these subjects and issues.

Patrick Smith leaves little doubt as to where he stands on revisionism. Not too far into the book he berates the scholars who have dominated much of overseas interpretation of Japan since World War Two. These scholars are known derisively as the "The Chrysanthemum Club". He then corroborates the revisionist view that they have manipulated much of the world to believe that Japan is a functional democracy and capitalist state, while in actuality that is not exactly the truth. Furthermore, he pursues the ringleader to this club. That leader would be, according to Smith, none other than Edwin O. Reischauer.

Edwin O. Reischauer? The Japan scholar who has both the Harvard AND Johns Hopkins Asian Studies schools named after him? The statesman who was the United States Ambassador to Japan for six years? The demigod of an author whose treatise "The Japanese" was considered the bible of interpreting the people, society and culture for many years? The American who was born and raised in Japan, due to his parents vocation? In some circles Smith`s views would be considered nothing short of high treason and blasphemy. To add to the tarnishing of Reischauer's image, Smith will lead you to documentation released by the Freedom of Information Act that places Reischauer as the architect of some political meddling and transfer of United States funds to the benefit of Japan`s Liberal Democratic Party. Smith will raise allegations that Japan's leaders are neither liberal or democratic, but not too far removed from the militarists who pushed Japan into starting the Pacific War, and before that the daimyoo (feudal lords) and shoogun (feudal generals) who ruled Japan with an iron fist for hundreds of years. If that is not enough, he also spends time painting the Emperor Hirohito as quite culpable for World War Two. During the course of the book, he will attack a lot of institutions (in the literal and metaphorical sense) and common perceptions.
That ultimately works in his favor. Patrick Smith has written a book that is not short of new ideas, and he certainly is not afraid to thumb his nose at the establishment. I also applaud his courage on doing this. While many revisionist writers want to change your interpretations of Japan, they spend more time on that subject themselves and less on the huge obfuscation on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, that necessitate a reinterpretation of views about Japan in the first place. Besides, you just have to admire the pluck of an author who will challenge so many with his writing. If one has been reading the latest revisionist writers, Smith will not seem all that radical or revolutionary, but still he manages to go a little further than most of them.

The academic revisionists, most notably John Dower, are somewhat constrained by their academic positions. The must be exceedingly careful to try to present their views from a scholarly, neutral distance. Other revisionist journalists like Masao Miyamoto M.D., Iris Chang and Robert Whiting (Yes, ultimately, I believe, they are, when not being overly sensational, revisionists) are limited by the narrow focus of their subject matter. Miyamoto, by sticking primarily to his own personal and professional opinions after becoming part of the Japanese medical bureaucracy. This was preceded by fifteen years of training and employment (plus the subsequent "westernization") overseas. Whiting, by originating his writing mostly from the view of one aspect of Japanese society such as baseball or organized crime, and Chang from choosing one event, the Nanking Massacre, and expanding from that into her views on modern Japan.
"Japan: A Reinterpretation" has a larger target. In it Smith is trying to take a blanket view of Japan, and whittle down the subject matter from there. This form of writing is a risky venture. Reischauer's aforementioned "The Japanese" is quite dry, and while it does have some moments of great explanation, it generally reads like a college statistics textbook. Frank McGibney`s frequently quoted "Japan:The Fragile Superpower" was quite revisionist for its 1977 publishing date. Nowadays its reading is a little antiquated even though it does have some great insights to Japan. In my opinion the book is limited by an inability of McGibney to tie everything together. It is also limited by McGibney`s limitations as an author. He is more an academic than a journalist and the books prose at times reflects that, with an inability to consistently hook the reader, despite its skilled analysis of Japan.

The reader will find "Japan: A Reinterpretation" a fascinating book to read. Smith worked in Asia for fourteen years as a reporter or editor. He has written a book that takes the skills of a talented writer, and applies it to an all-encompassing view of Japan. This comprehensive view is commonly taken by academics, less often by professional journalists. Smith tackles a lot of different subjects, but in the end he is able in the end to tie the book together. At times while reading, I had no idea at all where he was taking the book, but his writing skills kept me interested, and lead me to a suitable conclusion.

The writing style that Smith used in this book was one of my favorite aspects of the book. He capitalized on his many years of journalistic experience in Asia and Japan, and wrote the book in a very straightforward, firsthand method. He does not profess to have a distant analysis of the subject matter, but more of an up close and personal approach to writing the book. He forwards the views of the book as purely his opinions and interpretations, and uses research to supplement his views, not base his views on that research. He certainly utilized his time in Japan well in writing the book. He also supplements that with the words of a lot of contacts he made in those years from American diplomats to Japanese right-wing think tank researchers and high ranking politicians. He adds to his opinions and views, those of the people who have developed much of the Japan he elicits. He adds the voices of his personal acquaintances to those of history, anecdote, and media.

Because of his opinions and those of his professional contacts, this book has an accented quality of being straight "from the horses mouth". One of these "horses mouths" is an American diplomat whose gruff, one-line "not for the foreseeable future" summarizes the potential for a more revisionist view on a policy matter. Another one is a Japanese right-wing pundit who agrees completely with Smith on the need for change, but differs on how to go about doing it.

Along the way to the books conclusion Smith will take you to a few places that many writers do not touch upon. Two areas that Smith brought to light are areas where I have seen little more than paragraphs written about in most other books. Smith devotes a chapter of the book to each of these. The first of these is the disparity in development between Omote-Nihon (The part of Japan that borders the Pacific Ocean) and Ura-Nihon (The part of Japan that borders the Sea of Japan lit.

"The face of Japan"). He brings to light the great disparity between the two places, how in a sense they are two countries within one. He describes Ura-Nihon (lit. "The rear of Japan" as "part dumping ground" (for toxic waste) and "part playground/escape"(from overdeveloped Japan). Furthermore, he describes it as a bastion for the traditional values so important to Japanese culture, so as to allow the modernization of the rest of Japan. He also bemoans the lack of power for these individual prefectures to determine their own fate, thanks to the top heavy power structure of the Japanese National Government. A prefectural Governor, he adds "Can not change the location of a bus stop without permission from Tokyo". Of course, with my current job being in a prefectural capital right in the middle of Ura-Nihon, to me it is a completely fascinating chapter. This really speaks of the Japan that the Chrysanthemum Club forgot to tell me about, as one can encounter some shocking lack of development in these areas. The village only twenty kilometers from my apartment that did not receive electric power until 1988 speaks of what Smith is trying to bring forth here.

The next point that springs up to attention in this book is discrimination and prejudice in Japan. It is not the discrimination and prejudice towards foreigners which is a constant point of debate, public attention, and contention in Japan and overseas. Smith goes forward with attention towards Japan`s discrimination towards its own people. He gives substantial attention to Japan`s treatment of the Ainu (Indigenous people based mainly in Hokkaido), Japanese of Korean descent, Burakumin (In feudal times the people of certain jobs, who have evolved into an "untouchable" caste) and also Okinawans. It is not that I have not heard of these subjects before, but most authors never grant these subjects more than a cursory dealing. Since one of the underlying themes of the book, is the myth of Japanese "uniqueness", it is interesting to see how the society views those considered outsiders. Especially in light of the fact that Okinawa-No-Hito and Burakumin have absolutely no genetic difference to the so-called "Japanese", plus Ainu and Korean bloodlines are a large portion of the "Japanese" genetic stock.

In the book Smith explores many different topics from varied sections of Japan, much as he takes a look at Japan's treatment of its "others", devoting a chapter to each study. "Becoming Nihonjin (Japanese)" takes a close look at education in Japan and how it aims to strip the Japanese of their sense of individuality, becoming the "producers" that "Japan Inc." needs to propel the economy. "Fences in the Heart" aims to shatter the "sarariman (white-collar worker) as samurai (warrior)" legend. It also aims to show this "samurai" is not leading a healthy existence, and is not even a more productive worker. "Happiness in a Hidden Corner", the following chapter explores sexism in Japanese society, and concludes that a Japanese woman is in truth (but perhaps not ostensibly) more "free" within Japan`s rigid sex roles. "The Spirit That Runs..." explores the Japanese fascination with being Japanese, and how that ideology has been a tool of the Japanese ruling elite especially since the Meiji Era. In other words, how Japan`s leaders have continued their hegemony through the opening to the west and Allied occupation. By promoting "Japaneseness" as a superior quality, and selling the concept to the people, it has been able to curb foreign influence that could potentially undermine their rule. He also paints the Japanese populace as accepting this dogma less and less every day. "The Sacred Nothing" explores the cult of "emperor worship" in Japanese society. He concludes that with the death of Emporer Hirohito in 1989, most Japanese see the emperor as nothing more than ornament, a key in the Japanese societal discovery of its individuality. "The Unfinished Dream" is an exploration of Japanese Arts. It especially looks at how Japanese Art has been influenced since the Meiji Era, what is truly "Japanese" art, and what is not and how that has been perceived in Japan and abroad. All in all, a variety of topics, with some interpretations that will come as a surprise to both Japanese and many foreigners, especially those most influenced by the "Chrysanthemum Club".

It almost seems from the content of his topics here that Smith is Japan-"bashing". Nothing could be farther from the truth. He wants to give a fresh, open honest opinion, and that includes not giving Japan the "window dressing" treatment that the Chrysanthemum Club does. He is similar to a lot of revisionist writers in that he describes Japan as a country that has been ruled by the same ruthless and corrupt leaders since feudal days without interruption. He also faults the United States government in aiding this process since the days of Admiral Perry`s "Black Ships", especially during the occupation after World War Two, where they helped remove democratic process` and ensured that, with only cosmetic change, the ruling elite of Japan was to stay in power. That was done in order to have what was described in the book as "an unsinkable battleship" off the coasts of Russia and China. This is not exactly how Reischauer and his comrades presented Japan to the rest of the world.

Indeed, Smith is quite sympathetic towards the Japanese people in his opinions. Like other revisionists he feels that given a fair chance to develop their own way, instead of being ruled in a feudal manner with the illusion of democracy, they will be just fine. His text spends a good deal of time describing this as the "true" Japanese throughout history, and sees a truly "emancipated" Japan coming someday. Of this he writes, "Most of all, standard accounts of Japan. leave out evidence of the enduring desire of ordinary Japanese for individual autonomy, that is, for an existence free of the humiliating paternalism that persists a pervasive feature of Japanese society. It is a glaring omission, for this desire and the suppression of it have been near the center of Japanese life from the beginning of the nations modern era." This is not exactly the standard view of Japan proffered by those who wrote our textbooks and influenced our media.

Patrick Smith's refusal to take the standard view, does bring a fresh outlook, that at worst will give you more food for thought. For example most Japanese scholars and pundits (revisionists included) will have one look at the Allied occupation as the defining moment of Japanese post-World War Two history. Not Smith, he wants you to look at 1960 when the treaty for the security arrangement with the United States was up for renewal, and opposition to it was strong. The Prime Minister at the time was Nobosuke Kishi, a former class "A" war criminal. Despite popular and legislative opposition to the treaty, he signed it, bypassing democratic procedure. Along the way, he had police literally carry his opponents out of the Diet building when it came time to pass the treaty. The security used to quell the rioting in protest across the country was that of a police state. A functioning, healthy democracy? Not so says Smith.

The most influential Japanese Prime Minister beyond the legendary Shigeru Yoshida? Mos t(including revisionists) will point you at Kakuei Tanaka, whose power was so legendary, it is said he ruled the country from his jail cell after his bribery incarceration. Not so says Smith. He looks to Tanaka`s successor Yasuhiro Nakasone. The architect of the "kokusaika" (Japan as a more "internationalized" country) movement, he was also the man at the helm of Japan for most of its economic glory days. Immensely popular initially, Nakasone's nationalist, arch-conservative ways lead to his demise, primarily because he scared too many people by calling for the abolition of the postwar constitution and rearmament. This has had many affects on Japanese society and politics. It has lead to the popularity of Shintaro Ishihara whose nationalist politics take him a step further than Nakasone. It leads one who is involved in the "kokusaika" movement, such as myself (at least at the grassroots level, working for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET)
Program)", to really question the meaning and intention of internationalization.

Smith is not without his critics. The aforementioned McGibney, president of Pomona College's Pacific Basin Institute, feels that America is given too much credit and/or blame in shaping Japans history, especially after World War Two. I admit I have to agree, this is one place where Smith goes too far. Yes, America has been very influential, one way or another, in much of Japan`s modern history, perhaps too much. There simply is a point where one country simply cannot exert its influence over another country. I think the way that Smith implies this of the United States goes beyond that point. In the book Smith writes there is a "culture of irresponsibility" among Japans modern day ruling guard. Japan itself must take some responsibility for its own actions as a country. From the crimes of World War Two, to the current economic and bureaucratic malaise, responsibility should be taken by those who run Japan. Gaiatsu ("Pressure from Outside"), a concept frequently cited by Japan’s leaders as a reason for making unpopular decisions, is not an acceptable defense, and Smith tries to proffer it as such.

Finally, and most importantly, "Japan: A Reinterpretation" brings up the question of abolishing a constitution (or at least parts of) that Smith alleges(and many other revisionists corroborate) was hand written by the Allied occupation forces. This leads up to Smith`s main point. In this he is all for Japan`s rearming and abolition of the constitution, or at least bringing them to a public forum and choice. He feels that it will have the potential for the breakthrough of the Japanese as a true and not just in name only, democracy. The Japan we really have never been able to see because of the smothering ruling elite in Tokyo, and the obfuscation of the perception of Japan lead by the Chrysanthemum Club, will finally come to blossom. He says Japan is on the verge of change. Unlike the Meiji Restoration, the military expansion of the 1930s-40s, and the formation of Japan into "Japan Inc.", the second largest economy in the world, this change will not be forced on the people, but be brought about by, be of and for the people.
We recently have seen the installation of a reform movement lead by populist Junichiro Koizumi at the top of Japan’s politically dominant Liberal Democratic Party, over the "old guard" ruling elite represented by Ryutaro Hashimoto, a once failed Prime Minister. Is this a portent of change? Is Koizumi really the "peoples" candidate? Perhaps he is just a concession to the horrible Yoshihro Mori administration, which seemed to encapsulate all that is wrong with Japan's stale administrative and bureaucratic elite?
The answers to these questions will be the source of debate for a while. Just as will the questions; "Will Japan REALLY change?" "What place will Japan take in the world of the 21st century politically, economically, and militarily?" and "Is Japan a TRUE democracy/capitalist system?" The fact of the matter is there is much yet to be answered along these lines. Japan is, undoubtedly, a very interesting country to be in at the moment. Patrick Smith may have gone a little too far with his ideas, but he certainly has give us a well written book, full of interesting insight that serves as a wonderful reading experience to those who watch Japan, from the inside and from the outside.

© Dean H. Ruetzler Feb 2004
Morioka, Iwate, Japan and South Burlington,Vermont, USA
Curry Farming in the USA



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