Monday, July 15, 2013

Revisiting The Japan That Can Say No

Shintaro Ishihara has made a literary, and then a political, career out of grabbing attention with inflammatory remarks. It was certainly such a remark which drew American attention to him in 1989, specifically his claim in his 1989 book The Japan That Can Say No, that "Japan holds the trump card in the nuclear arms race" (21), because "only Japanese electronics firms have the mass-production and quality-control capability to supply the multimegabit semiconductors for the weapons systems and other equipment" (20-21).1 Accordingly,
if Japan told Washington it would no longer sell computer chips to the United States, the Pentagon would be totally helpless. Furthermore, the global military balance could be completely upset if Japan decided to sell its computer chips to the Soviet Union instead of the United States (21).
There was, of course, a great deal of oversimplification and exaggeration in such a remark, and that too has been strongly reflective of his approach throughout the book. While he presents serious issues, genuine problems and valid criticisms (of his country, and others), by and large he deals with them in the trite, shallow, predictable and rather disorganized manner one expects of today's more successful politicians--and certainly those who have comparable career trajectories.

Instead of a comprehensive analysis, we get a grab-bag of gripes and gloats. In the course of jumping from one to the next, Ishihara criticizes the country's policymaking elites for being insufficiently assertive against the Foreigner, whose displeasure with his government, he insists, is entirely a matter of his bigotry; makes much of the virtue of his countrymen, crediting this, rather than sound policies or historic opportunities, with the nation's economic successes (all a matter of deep cooperation between visionary, production-oriented managers and dedicated, craft-oriented workers, he would have us believe)2; acknowledges the existence of popular economic grievances, while muddling the issue by avoiding substantive criticism of the nation's speculation-mad financial sector or the conduct of Big Business, and even downplaying the existence of inequality and class differences3 (his ire exclusively directed at the retail sector); and lightly dismisses the prospects of other countries (writing off China and all the countries of Europe), which he holds to be doing everything wrong, while expressing complacent optimism about the prospects of his own--if it sticks to his slanted version of what it has been doing all along. On the way, we also get a good deal of anti-intellectualism4, anti-materialism and outright mysticism5.

Ishihara's world-view is, naturally, reflected in his vision of the post-Cold War international order, beginning with his explicit dismissal of the prospect of a multipolar world. He envisioned the former Soviet bloc entering Japan's "technological sphere of influence" (109), with the economies of the entire region from Vladivostok to Warsaw revitalized by Japanese technology and Japanese know-how--in part because, unlike debt-ridden America, Japan would be able to finance the aid these countries needed.6 He expected that China would, along with the Soviet Union, actually continue to see its influence decline because of its economic failures, while Europe would fail to come together around a reunified Germany. This would leave the Group of Two (the U.S. and Japan) as the decisive actors, and he imagined that after a "cold war" phase between the two countries (military component included), and the U.S.'s getting its house in order (an ironically numbered Chapter Eleven actually lays out a program for the United States), this relationship would be essentially cooperative.7

Of course, he was not even close to the mark. The Soviet Union dissolved, and certainly did not enter Japan's sphere of influence, not least because Japan proved to be in no position to bankroll the kind of aid he talked about. Rather the bursting of the giant asset bubble he downplayed here wreaked havoc with the country's banking system, and helped explode the central government's debt to a level which made the American fiscal situation of which he was so critical look enviable. At the same time, the particular technological strengths he believed to be crucial failed to yield the expected results, Japan's dominance in semiconductors much more fragile and short-lived than he seemed to think, while Maglev rail today looks much like the flying car of yesteryear. China, which he wrote off even more fully than Europe, emerged as the colossus that increasingly dominated Asia, and which would have to be regarded as the other member in any "Group of Two" with the U.S.. Meanwhile, the U.S. failed to get its house in order in the ways he prescribed (or any others), its manufacturing continuing to recede and its trade deficits exploding to levels that made those of the 1980s seem small--this politician famously critical of the United States proving overoptimistic in his assessment of how the U.S. would deal with its '80s-era problems.

To be fair, other visions have dated almost as severely and as quickly, many of them as a result of the same predictions. (Recall, for instance, George Friedman and Meredith Lebard's The Coming War With Japan?) Nonetheless, with well-wrought futurology (like the writings of H.G. Wells recently discussed here) we are usually left with a great deal of food for thought even where it has gone wrong. Indeed, we are apt to find compelling reasons why history could have gone another way, yesteryear's forecast turning into today's counterfactual. Ishihara's work, however, is utterly lacking in such insight, but then that was only to be expected, this book consisting of essentially the same drivel with which Ishihara's innumerable counterparts in America (and everywhere else) fill their speeches and books.

1. The bibliographical information for my edition was as follows: Shintaro Ishihara, The Japan That Can Say No. Trans. Frank Baldwin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
2. The truth is that business is rarely far-seeing and production-oriented, except when it is incentivized to be. Ishihara overlooked the crucial role of government policy in building up the country's industries--and the dramatic way in which policy was about to fail by permitting the emergence of the massive speculation and financial corruption that did so much damage to the country's economy.
3. This attains an absurd extreme when he characterizes Japan as having one of the world's most egalitarian class structures (81), even offering an implausible anecdote about Lech Walesa touring Japanese factories and declaring "Japan the ideal socialist country" (82).
4. Ishihara dismisses the rise of a "knowledge economy" not on the grounds of the numerous practical arguments against it (the limited demand for high-skilled personnel, etc.), but because "all brain and no brawn cannot be good for the country," which is "better off if our Olympic athletes won a basket of medals and the younger generation did strenuous work" (19).
5. Ishihara gleefully announces the end of the "modern era" with its faith in "materialism, science and progress" (123), his discussion of which references Oswald Spengler, whom Ishihara writes claimed that "the solution is to attain a higher level of civilization blended from diverse cultures" (124)--which gives me the impression that Ishihara has confused Spengler with Arnold Toynbee. Even the best-informed of us err, but somehow it is hard to picture someone who has read either of those authors actually confusing the one with the other in this way.
6. Reading this prediction I found myself wondering if this was an inspiration for the scenario in Ralph Peters' The War in 2020, which has the U.S. and Japan fighting a proxy war over a crumbling Soviet Union.
7. Ishihara's recommendations to the U.S. are a mix of the substantive and the vague, the irrefutably sensible and the deeply dubious, and the larger part of them inconceivable within the U.S.'s corporate culture. Ishihara, for instance, was entirely right about the problems of U.S. short-termism, and the country's obsession with speculation and merger and acquisitions games at the expense of manufacturing (which by 2008 reached the astonishing levels seen in the cases of General Electric and General Motors). However, it was certainly not the case that post-Reagan America was in desperate need of a lower capital gains tax or more incentives to oil exploration, or that increased consumption taxes were the best way to raise the revenue needed to redress the budget deficit (while he totally avoided touching on the role of upper-income tax cuts in creating the problem).

My Posts on Shintaro Ishihara
My Posts on H.G. Wells
My Posts on Futurology

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