The International Writers Magazine: Extended Review
H Ruetzler reviews Patrick Smith's new work on contemporary Japan
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.
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
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
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
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 Japans
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
We recently have seen the installation of a reform movement lead by
populist Junichiro Koizumi at the top of Japans 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
all rights reserved