Writings to Think on Japan

I’ve been living in Japan for a long time but it’s easy to be oblivious to what’s going on politically. You have to go out and find people that are active to have decent conversations.My first foray into serious literature on Japan was instigated by an endnote in Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy There is, by now, a virtual industry on "what makes Japan tick," varying in quality. Not without interest, despite racist undertones and illusions about the West, is Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (Knopf, 1989). I think some parts of Dogs and Demons were ok but Gavan McCormack‘s Client State, Japan in the American Embrace brings you up to date on a few years worth of Japanese News. I have to go back to it for the background on Nuclear energy. Kyushu power company wants to ram through it’s third nuclear plant to meet projected .5 percent increases in demand, and replace aging plants(ja). They also need a place to store all the nuclear waste piling up in current plants(ja). The reprocessing plans are not going well. The Harvey Wasserman’s of Japan say that Nuke plants are like ‘Condominiums without toilets’ (Toire no nai Manshon). Would you want to live in a highrise with nobody able to flush? (No one is imagining these condos installing Earth toilets in this situation for the eco savvy out there. The Japan Times put out this bookreview of Client State – and a recent (well when Abe was PM, more recent than Enigma though) interview with Karel van Wolferen too.

When Karel Van Wolferen released his seminal book "The Enigma of Japanese Power" in the dying months of the bubble economy, the normally staid monthly magazine Chuo Koron described its impact as akin to being struck by a bolt of lightning. For once, the hype was merited. Little before had matched the authority, scope or ambition of "Enigma," which set out to do nothing less than explain the inner workings of Japan’s political engine house to a then-uncomprehending planet.

Here’s a glowing review of Gavan McCormack’s Client State.

Like Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson, McCormack challenges the dominant narrative and underlying assumptions, raising serious questions about the nature of the U.S.-Japan relationship that are often buried behind nostrums about "the most important alliance bar none." He writes, "The Koizumi-Abe ‘revolution’ actually meant the liquidation of some important residual levers of Japanese autonomy, and the acceptance of an even higher level of submission and exploitation within the U.S. global empire."

McCormack explains that, "Identity is the fundamental unresolved question of Japan’s modern history." In this context one can better understand the culture war being waged by Abe in imposing patriotic education, airbrushing Japan’s wartime history and promoting constitutional revision. By allowing the emperor to remain institutionalized as the symbol of the state in the Constitution, embracing the wartime conservative elite and postponing any reckoning over Japan’s shared history with Asia due to the Cold War, Washington has powerfully shaped Japan’s identity. These policies keep Japan aloof from the region and impair moves toward regional reconciliation.

Because Japan has been nurtured as a dependent "superstate" with an American- imposed identity, the author believes that "The symbols and rhetoric of nationalism function as empty conceits, while the substance of nation is denied." He adds that "prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine are a sign not of a reviving nationalism so much as an attempt to compensate for an abandoned one."

"Client State" details the general rightward shift in Japan over the past decade and the spread of violence against critics of this trend. McCormack rightly condemns the shameless silence of then Prime Minister Koizumi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe for a full 10 days after the arson attack against Koichi Kato, former Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party, in August 2006 following Kato’s criticism of visits to Yasukuni. This eloquent silence was "tantamount to consent" and hardly encouraging about the state of democracy in Japan.

In recent decades the ‘modernist’ spirit, which could thus exploit the environment to the point of driving so many species to extinction, has been subtly evolving. Now, the question of how the human and natural orders should coexist weighs on the people of Ogasawara, as indeed it does on those throughout Japan. Ecological and economic considerations have come to be seen as linked. The question posed by Ogasawara is how to find a formula for ‘development’ that will cause the islands to prosper and the residents to be employed in profitable and satisfying tasks without bringing about the destruction of the natural assets that made the islands unique in the first place. …….

If Japan loosens its security ties with the U.S., won’t it be a sitting duck in a dangerous neighborhood? On the contrary, McCormack thinks that the alliance is dangerous in the sense that it insulates Japan from the need of making headway on reaching accommodation with its neighbors based on a "return to the understanding of history it briefly reached in the mid-1990s." Without reconciliation, the chances for regional peace and security are limited. McCormack advocates Japan shifting its priority from serving the U.S. to attending to its domestic problems and helping forge an "Asian commonwealth."

This wide-ranging and perceptive book also explores the unhappy triangle of Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa, Japan’s hypocrisy in its dealings with North Korea, the implications of Japan’s nuclear-energy program and many more hot topics. We are fortunate to have such a lucid and compelling commentary on our very own Truman Show.

As I was searching around for Gavan McCormack and tryin to remember where I read that Japan’s exhorbitantly expensive highways are responsible for more money laundering than Pachinko parlors (maybe Enigman) when I found this. It was nice to see the good environmental fight won in these Ogasawara islands (Tokoyo jurisdiction but a 25 hour boat ride from the Metropolis) .  The fights I saw lose here in Miyazaki had hoped that a rare mushroom, or nesting birds (Kumataka)would help halt a huge pump storage dam and power line project but to no avail. The pump-storage dam boondoggle is tied to Nuclear Power plant construction in the news today.

The pattern of development from 1968 followed very much the same path as that of Okinawa from 1972, or Amami from 1953, all island groups that were subject to development plans which placed central importance on infrastructure and public works funded by lavish subsidies from central government funds. Construction companies became the major employer and roads, harbors, bridges, and coastal and river works proliferated. Development funds to a total of 83.1 billion were poured into the Ogasawaras in the nearly three decades to 1995. As of 1994, agriculture and fisheries employed a mere 3.4 per cent of the work force, secondary industry 0.2 per cent, administration 23.5 per cent, services (guides, boat crews, etc. for whale- watching, fishing, and diving) 6.0 per cent, and construction a whopping 43.3 per cent. This pattern of gross imbalance is shared with Okinawa and Amami. Had such public works been occasioned by need and infrastructural backwardness, one would expect their role would indeed have been high in the early years after reversion but then would have peaked and begun to decline. The fact that this did not happen points to the inherently pathological nature of the process, best understood in light of the phenomenon known in Japan as the ‘doken kokka’ or ‘construction state.’ Public works-led development simply breeds more and more public works development.


In recent decades the ‘modernist’ spirit, which could thus exploit the environment to the point of driving so many species to extinction, has been subtly evolving. Now, the question of how the human and natural orders should coexist weighs on the people of Ogasawara, as indeed it does on those throughout Japan. Ecological and economic considerations have come to be seen as linked. The question posed by Ogasawara is how to find a formula for ‘development’ that will cause the islands to prosper and the residents to be employed in profitable and satisfying tasks without bringing about the destruction of the natural assets that made the islands unique in the first place.


It was in the end the bizarre fact that the empty, virtually waterless, mostly flat and rather unprepossessing island of Anijima was home to some rare–even unique– shrubbery, and even more important to a unique species of endangered snail, the katamaimai, that proved decisive. Up until the 1990s, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that a Japanese project for airport construction might be derailed by a snail, but that is what happened as the snail became the hero of the conservationist campaign and Anijima came to be described in the national media as a ‘snail paradise.’ In January 1996 the Minister for the Environment, Sumio Iwatare, called on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to reconsider its decision, and to give due weight to ‘preservation of the ecological cycle and biodiversity.’ The fact that the Anijima plan was cancelled out of deference to the katamaimai is surely evidence that thinking about questions of nature and development is beginning to change in late twentieth century Japan.


Like Anijima with its snails, the Shigureyama site possesses singular environmental riches. There are rare, but not unique, botanical specimens such as the ‘Bonin peony’ (Munin botan), and nesting places for rare birds such as the ‘Ogasawara buzzard’ (Ogasawara nosuri). The greatest headache, however, is the ‘Bonin azalea’ (Munin tsutsuji), one of about 50 Japanese varieties, whose sole remaining specimen happens to grow just below the summit of Mt. Tsutsuji that the airport construction would level. For over a decade Japan’s horticultural experts have been struggling to replicate this particular species, taking hundreds of cuttings from it, but they have found that these will only take root when transplanted back to the immediate vicinity of the ‘mother’ plant. Both the consulting company advising the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the government itself recognized that this azalea presented the biggest problem.

Chichijima’s resident botanist and former high school teacher, Takaya Yasui, conducted an independent survey of the proposed airport site and found that 88 of the 217 plant species on the site are distinctive local species, including 27 that are classified as ‘endangered,’ and another five as being ‘at some risk.’ About a further 26 species, there is insufficient information to make a judgment. Yasui concluded that the mountain site is not only a unique and outstanding topography in its own right and home to many endangered species, but a critical location for influencing the climate of the entire southern half of the island. The delicate interplay of mists and rain caused as clouds from the south buffet the mountain ridge between Mt. Tsutsuji and Mt. Tsuitate might be significantly altered if the peaks were levelled and the valleys filled in, possibly changing weather conditions. As for the Bonin azalea, he surmises that the topographical and climatic conditions of Mt. Tsutsuji–of soil, mist, warmth, ground water flow, etc.–simply cannot be reproduced elsewhere.

Clearly, this privately-produced study of the biota of the projected site differs greatly in its conclusions from that prepared for and relied on by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. A close reading reveals, however, that it differs even more strikingly in its methodology: whereas Yasui, the ‘amateur,’ applied objective and scientific criteria without introducing any prior assumptions into his study, the official, ‘professional’ analysts proceeded from the assumption that an airport had to be built. They therefore drew a distinction between ‘ecological core areas’ (‘seitaikei no kakushin chiiki’) and non-core areas, and strove to find a location where the ecological impact could be relatively contained. Given the smallness of the island, it is questionable whether its already fragile ecology can be properly analyzed in such terms. It is equally questionable whether Shigureyama should be described as a non-core area. In fact, the final advisory committee report noted that the level of environmental difficulty of the chosen site was ‘extremely high’ (‘ritchi no konnando ga kiwamete takai’) and that there were questions concerning the site’s safety for arriving aircraft (‘unkomen kara wa, chakuriku ni nan ga aru’) because of the common pattern of mists in the area.


At stake on these scattered and tiny islands is the common problem of late twentieth century Japan: how to evolve beyond the ‘develop at all costs,’ debt-financed, environmentally-careless imposition of monolithic metropolitan standards and patterns throughout the archipelago, into an ecologically-sensitive, regionally- differentiated, ‘post-modern’ civilization. The public works-centered structures of regional subordination to the bureaucratic will of Tokyo have suffocated local creativity throughout all of Japan’s islands, sapping democracy and feeding dependency, alienation, indifference and corruption. These are also deeply rooted in Ogasawara, but they are being contested.

It is worth noting that the opponents of the Ogasawara Airport plans have produced a range of interesting, alternative ideas, not only on how to meet the social need for better communication with the rest of Japan (briefly mentioned above), but also, and more importantly, about the desirable direction of development, and about values. The fundamental difference in their orientation is that it is rooted in the subjectivity of the island people themselves. They want to build upon the existing ‘anti-resort,’ eco- tourist, small-scale kinds of development that already, in a modest way, flourish on the islands, celebrating difference rather than striving to eliminate it. They would like more communication, not only with Tokyo, but also westward with the other Pacific islands and the wider world. A tax-free status for the islands, they believe, might do more to stimulate the stagnant agricultural and fishing sectors than the projected airport.

The lesson they draw from the experience of the Galapagos Islands is the slightly paradoxical one that the best development is that which conserves, that numbers of visitors should be kept deliberately low, although the ‘value-added’ component of the visitor experience should be high and heavily dependent on the assistance of local specialist guides. The islanders also stress the uniquely multicultural roots of the Ogasawara life, where roughly one-tenth of the population is descended from early European and American settlers, many known by ‘katakana’ (Japanese syllabary) names and their families going back up to seven generations. Visitors to Ogasawara are unanimous that it is precisely the differences from the rest of Japan that they cherish about island life. The sea voyage may be long, but it allows for a gradual process of preparation to enter a different, non-homogenized world. For that, many are prepared to return again and again.

Is it too much to see in such thinking the germ of the kinds of ‘post-modern,’ democratic creativity that planners, politicians and academics in Tokyo insist the country desperately needs to nurture? Might the time be approaching when Ogasawara could be a model for the rest of Japan instead of the last place upon which to stamp the absolute sovereignty of the central bureaucracy?



And this book on how Japan is really multicultural might help deal with irritation caused by people pushing their ‘Japanese spirit’ and ‘Nihojinron’ gibberish on you. I’m starting to think asking questions to draw out ignored history might work better than just crushing their argument but it might depend on the situation. I just discovered it now but …


For despite pulling their punches, the overall findings of these Japanese as well as non-Japanese authors can be rather devastating. Instead of welcoming the latest archaeological discovery on the front page of the vernacular dailies, the reader may start to wince at the tendentious attempts to read a distinctive Japaneseness into roots without grounds. Having taken the trouble, for example, to read what Japanese archaeologists are telling the public, one could feel duped by assertions such as that the Jomon period people were identical to the Japanese today. When the Yayoi people trotted in from the Asian mainland with rice cultivating and metalworking technologies, it is most likely that the New Stone Age Jomon people did most of the assimilating. Then again with the Kofun Period there was apparently a large migration from the Korean peninsula, so each new prehistoric era represented a cultural or ethnic change in a multicultural archipelago. Among the resultant ironies, the authors believe that the decultured Ainu and the marginalized Okinawans are closest to the original inhabitants. When there was finally a Japan to speak of, it was apparently united in response to mainland trends, and the authors believe that Imperial tombs are closed to investigation to hide the Korean origins of the Imperial family. The authors thus expose the official self-image of Japan as riddled with historical ironies, some in nearly every paper in the collection, others left to the reader to adduce. The ultimate irony to this reader is that everything hyped as most Japanese owes most to foreign influence if not substantial migration.

What is most present in the collection is a clear consensus on disinterested scholarly objectivity. Yet while the Japanese contributors agree with the Australians and others, they also seem to realize that such a volume, in English no less, cannot surmount the well-funded orthodoxy that colludes with the official view of the nation. If anything is missing in the collection it is less the bulk of material evidence available than a regional East Asian perspective that would clarify who came to Japan from where and with what. These are among the impressions left with one student of Japan, and it would take a far longer review to summarize each paper, let alone share fascinating quotations therein. A recommendation to order the book must suffice to augment the brief summary as follows. …..

Part 4, with two papers on the Japanese family, begins with Chapter 12, by Ueno Chizuko. She shows that the patrilineal extended family system (ie) was an invented tradition by the Meiji government. The 90% non-samurai had practiced matrilineal succession in the feudal era, yet ironically the actual tradition of the vast majority was dismissed as barbarian. In competition with new Western conceptions as well, Confucian ideologues won out. By linking the family to the state, the former was brought out more in public to be controlled by the latter. Ueno also finds Japanese femininity a modern construct, with romanticism trapping women into internalizing the patriarchical social norm.


I went to an anthroplogists conference at a local university and got to wondering what you might find way back in Shinto’s roots. A local professer from Korea gave her presentation on how a festival that used to celebrate the maturation of daughters became tied to the emperor. After reading David Suzuki’s Good News section on J. Stephen Lansing discovering the ‘water cult’ of Bali functioning as ecological managers you have to wonder what the mountain and river gods might mean. This isn’t just from watching Princess Mononoke, though Hayao Miyazaki seems like an interesting character for his political views too.


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