Friday, March 6, 2009

Japan’s Crisis of the Mind [Excerpts]

On Monday, March 2nd the New York Times published an op ed by MASARU TAMAMOTO, currently of the World Policy Institute. Tamamoto is an innovative foreign policy analyst of Japan's generation next. He is cosmopolitan and articulate. He is not burdened with the postwar anxiety of presenting a benign Japan to a wary world.

He sees Japan's faults and misdeeds as something to confront, to work through, and to learn from. He is more representative of the new generation of Japanese thinkers than America's Japan managers know or want us to believe. Two years ago, he tried to open Western eyes to these emerging trends in Japanese thought as editor of a new English online journal on foreign policy supported by Japan's Foreign Minister. He failed. The story of his failure and his exile can be found HERE.

It is unfortunate that official Japan still finds safety in tired mythologies of the war and of its security relationship with the US. The effort to pacify Japan by ignoring its war histories (I include the conflicts back to the 1895 Sino-Japan War) created an emotional and intellectual void that Japan's Right has happily filled. Although the average Japanese person rejects these ultra-nationalist views, Japan's elites cling to them. The result is what Tamamoto has tried to write about.

Slowly, Tamamoto is beginning to reassert himself and talk about what worries his generation:

….The truth is, Japan is a mess. Mr. Aso’s approval rate recently hit 11 percent, and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party is in open disarray. His predecessor barely lasted a year. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan just offers more of the same. This is largely because we have become a nation of bureaucrats. What passes for national policy is the sum of various ministerial interests, often conflicting or redundant, with jealously guarded turfs and budgets….

….But what most people don’t recognize is that our crisis is not political, but psychological. After our aggression — and subsequent defeat — in World War II, safety and predictability became society’s goals. Bureaucrats rose to control the details of everyday life. We became a nation with lifetime employment, a corporate system based on stable cross-holdings of shares, and a large middle-class population in which people are equal and alike….

….Japan desperately needs change, and this will require risk. Risk-taking is not common among the bureaucratically controlled. You won’t find many signs on Japanese beaches saying, “Swim at your own risk. No lifeguard on duty.” If that sign were to appear, many Japanese would likely ask the authorities to tell them if it is safe to swim. This same risk aversion translates into protectionism and insularity. The ministry of agriculture, for example, wants to increase self-sufficiency in food. There is not nearly enough critical thinking and dissent in the Japanese news media.

Still, the idea that the Japanese are afraid of risk has no basis in history, for better or for worse. Remember Pearl Harbor? In fact, Japan’s passiveness today is in large measure a calculated and reasonable reaction to its behavior during the Second World War. But today, this emphasis on safety and security is long past its sell-by date.

We have run out of outside models to imitate. We must start from scratch, embracing an idea of progress that is based on innovation, ambition and dynamism. Doing so will take risk — and extraordinary leadership. But the alternative is to continue stumbling down a path of decline.

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1 comment:

  1. Think Mr T. has hit the nail firmly on the head there. Thanks for bringing him to Our Man's attention, which is notoriously short at the best of times. What a comfy armchair you have.


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