A Salman Rushdie for Japan : THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER People and Politics in a Stateless Nation<i> by Karel van Wolferen (Alfred A. Knopf: $24.95; 477 pp.; 0-394-57796-5) </i>


After several exhausting weeks struggling to read and digest “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” this reviewer is inclined to proclaim the author a brilliant chronicler of Japan, then punch him, rhetorically, in the nose.

Never in my 16 years of involvement with this country--studying here, reporting from here, escaping and then returning to its smothering embrace--have I read a single volume that provoked such a visceral response, or illuminated so many shadows in the Japanese political and social landscape.

The book made me pound my kitchen table and shout, “That’s exactly it!” I drew odd stares from strangers on crowded subway cars when I snorted with laughter, mumbled in amazement, or thwacked the book in approval.


The book also made me mad.

The author, Karel van Wolferen, a Dutch journalist based in Tokyo since the mid-1960s, succeeds in capturing the underpinnings of the wonderfully warm world of Japanese authoritarianism.

Regrettably, but perhaps by necessity, he adopts a heavy-handed, didactic approach to the task, ruthlessly hammering away at some rather sacrosanct myths--stories the Japanese like to tell themselves, and the world, about themselves.

He is probably dead right on most counts, though, and that is why it hurts. The irrational, soft spots in the heart of this self-confessed Japanophile felt bullied--deprogrammed might be a better word--by Van Wolferen’s repetitious incantations against the spell of the Japanese ethos.

It goes without saying that a lot of Japanese are going to be offended by the book, perhaps not to the extent that the Islamic world felt slurred by Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” but a similar brand of blasphemy is at work.

Van Wolferen indicts the Japanese “system” as an aimlessly self-sustaining, but politically motivated, religious cult.

In education, mass media, criminal justice, employment and business practices, it spins a beguiling web of social control, he says. Even the supremacy of the family structure is a political ruse, the argument goes.

In making his case, Van Wolferen combines erudition and personal insight with an almost evangelical point of view, one that champions the Western concept of individual rights and decries their suppression by the group-oriented machine of this Asian society.

Paying painstaking attention to documentation, Van Wolferen etches away layer after layer of the notions we assume to ring true about Japan. When the exorcism concludes, we see a portrait of the Japanese “system” stripped down to a disturbing essence: raw, rudderless, amoral power.

No one is in charge, he contends, and therefore no one is accountable for the actions Japan must now take as a major player in the grand game of international relations.

“The phoenix has soared majestically for the entire world to see, and has drawn deserved applause and expressions of awe,” Van Wolferen writes. “But it is burdened with an inherent defect that disorients it. The defect is, of course, in its steering mechanism: in its inability to adopt alternative methods and aims, because of the absence of an individual or unified group with the power to make political decisions to shift goals. The phoenix appears stuck on a collision course.”

This dark perspective is provocative and certain to draw heated denunciation, as did the author’s seminal essay on the vacuum of Japanese leadership behind the U.S.-Japan trade friction, published in Foreign Affairs two years ago. But even without controversy, this would be an important book. Anyone wishing to do some serious, skeptical thinking about contemporary Japan should consider it required reading.

That is not to say the work is unflawed.

Take for instance his summary trial and conviction of Zen Buddhism, which, he argues, has historically been a tool designed “to lower the resistence of the individual against the blind obedience expected of him, as can be gathered from the common Zen imagery of ‘destroying’ or ‘extinguishing’ the mind.”

True, Zen adherents have not tended to revolt against governments over the centuries, but it is hardly credible to dismiss the potent lucidity of Zen transcendentalism, and its triumph over the delusions of power, as the lackey of political control.

“Transcendental truth” and “universal values” in Van Wolferen’s scheme of things are ultimately tied to a Western preconception of absolute law, and the Japanese are therefore crippled by their situational, “superfluity of logic.”

The question may reek of what Van Wolferen would consider mushy “cultural relativism,” but it still seems valid to ask whether the Western intellectual tradition has a monopoly on universal truth.

“The world through Japanese eyes does not, in most cases, contain the certainties that come with a belief in a moral order based on immutable principles,” he says, “which means that most Japanese have ultimately no intellectual handrail.”

At the core of the author’s assault is an attempt to debunk the premise, essential to the Japanese world view, that authority is invested with intrinsic goodness, and that social order and harmony are beneficial to the subservient masses, not just the powerful elite.

He stops short of charging that the people who run Japan--bureaucrats, clout-politicians and captains of industry--possess evil intent, or that there is a deliberate conspiracy afoot.

But the implication is that behind a shallow facade of Western democratic ideals, a spontaneous propensity for collusion is deeply encoded in Japanese behavior.

In fact, strong evidence exists to substantiate this view. And in its most insidious forms, the collusion is as unfair to the underdogs in Japan as it is to the foreign merchants who are driving themselves mad trying to crack the Japanese marketplace, only to be told they are not trying hard enough.

Industrial cartels are sanctioned by the Japan Fair Trade Commission, for example, despite a postwar anti-monopoly law. The distribution and supply system is locked up by disciplined loyalty to the large conglomerates. The stock market is rigged by the big four securities firms. Consumer advocates have been neutered. Graft is institutionalized in politics. The construction industry is closed, and it always will be.

There is no room in a brief review to document these claims. Suffice it to say that Van Wolferen has done some groundbreaking work in cataloguing how amorphous power is exercised and abused in Japan, to the detriment of anyone interested in challenging the rigid social order.

“The Enigma of Japanese Power” will therefore provide an indispensable frame of reference in the debate over Japan’s elusive state of affairs. It may be written with an overbearing Western bias, but that, alas, is the language spoken in the ranks of industrialized nations where Japan must make its peace.