Piercing Japan 'Myths' : Maverick Scholar Chalmers Johnson Inspires a New Generation of Critics Who Dispute Traditional Theories About the Japanese


Asia scholar Chalmers Johnson is like a mad slasher, furiously lancing every shibboleth many Americans have long held about the Japanese.

The major one: No, the Japanese are not going to become just like us. Whatever pride postwar America took in what it regarded as its faithful student, Japan is not going to willingly open its markets as widely as ours. Or become a consumer-driven society like us. Or adopt American-style institutions, such as a government that regulates rather than develops industry.

And why should it? Playing by its own rules, inventing new institutions of capitalism and putting them together in innovative ways, Japan has succeeded smashingly, says the professor of Pacific international relations at the University of California at San Diego. It is now the technological leader in most future industries and, per capita, the world's richest nation.

So Americans should forget about trying to compete with Japan along standard free-market rules, he says. The United States can instead adopt equally effective strategies, starting with a coherent industrial policy to foster competitiveness. It can retaliate against Japan if it refuses to reciprocate with open markets. Preferably, it should do both.

"Japan is not going to become a clone of America, and the reason people think that is because they know so damn little about Japan," Johnson said. "We in America should understand that the Japanese have no incentive to change. They have adapted brilliantly to a world created by the conqueror. We have to change and present them with a new world to adapt to."

For such views, vigorously held and bluntly expressed, the 58-year-old scholar has been anointed the intellectual "Godfather of Revisionism." A new, more skeptical thinking toward Japan that is beginning to take hold among leaders in U.S. government, business and academia, revisionism holds that Japan really is different and should no longer be treated paternalistically. The theory advocates new trade policies that recognize Japan and America are playing by two different sets of rules.

Those policies, depending on the revisionist, include retaliation if Japan insists on clinging to its closed markets and non-tariff barriers and insistance on a guaranteed market share in certain industries. Most prominently, revisionists advocate learning a lesson from Japan and adopting a U.S. industrial policy to help promote strategic industries and desirable economic behaviors, such as a higher savings rate and long-term business outlook.

Johnson has studied Japan since 1953, but his work has been recently popularized by three authors: Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen, former trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz and James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

In America, the four are known as revisionists. In Japan, they're called the "Gang of Four."

Johnson doesn't mind the company. But he hates the terms.

"Godfather, OK. Guru, well, maybe," the professor says. "But I don't regard my work in any way as revisionism. I regard it as serious institutional analysis."

He has a point. His seminal work on the subject is a 1982 tome titled, "MITI and the Japanese Miracle." It is a history of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and, on its face, hardly seems the stuff that would fuel a growing war of words across the Pacific.

But his work was the first American analysis of how one government bureaucracy directed and fostered Japan's startling postwar economic growth. In the process, Japan created new capitalistic institutions, ranging from industrial financing to business groupings to a savings system, and perfected a smooth business-government relationship.

None of it was like anything that the United States had ever seen before, and the book thus challenged prevailing theories that Japan was simply a marvelous student of American tutelage.

"The Americans have consistently interpreted Japan's great economic success as a validation of their own political philosophies, and they are terribly wrong," Johnson says.

Johnson has his critics, of course. Some scholars, both American and Japanese, think that he does not adequately recognize the role of politics or market forces in Japan. Others disagree with his prescriptions, or at least the way that some people are interpreting them.

"I think a lot of people have begun to use his ideas that Japan should be seen as a model for the United States, especially that the U.S. should have an industrial policy, and I think those people are wrong," says Erwin Scheiner, professor of Japanese history at the University of California at Berkeley.

"Politics plays a much more important role in American policy-making than in Japan. So when you're talking about a system in which bureaucrats can guide all policy without having to worry as much about political interests . . . it would not work."

Johnson himself acknowledges that his views have not been infallible. He used to advocate protecting Japan's rice market. He also defended the nation's Byzantine distribution system in the past, saying the Japanese "rightly resent" it being described by foreigners as a non-tariff barrier. In both cases, he says now, he was plain wrong.

But, at the very least, Johnson and the revisionists are forcing new candor into the noisy debate between the United States and Japan.

"The revisionism thing is a kind of red herring," Johnson says over a scallop salad in the newly constructed Faculty Center on the UCSD campus. "It isn't so much new as it is getting Americans to wake up."

He grabs public attention with colorful, unconventional and often outrageous pronouncements on the United States, Japan and relations between the two countries. Japan's legendary low crime rate, for instance, isn't caused by its monoracial society but by the Yakuza, one of the world's largest organized crime networks. The professionals, he argues, supersede the large-scale presence of amateur street crime.

Johnson sparked his lifelong interest in Japan and Asia as a young naval student during the Korean War. He earned his undergraduate degree in economics and his masters and doctorate degrees in political science, all at UC Berkeley. For the next 26 years, from 1962 to 1988, he stayed at Berkeley, teaching political science, arguing against the Cultural Revolution that had captivated many of his students, and eventually chairing the Center for Chinese Studies, Political Science Department and Group in Asian Studies.

His seven-page resume lists an impressive number of fellowships, honors, appointments and consulting positions, including nine years for the Central Intelligence Agency's Office of National Estimates. He has written 11 major books and dozens of articles, from "Freedom of Thought and Expression in China" in 1959 to "Rethinking Japanese Politics: A Godfather Reports" in the current issue of Freedom at Issue magazine.

Last year, UCSD lured Johnson from Berkeley to San Diego to help start its Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. It was a coup that gave the program instant credibility. For Johnson, it was an irresistible chance to do what he had long and loudly advocated: train Americans for the urgent challenge of East Asia with not only courses in the region's political economy and history, but, most importantly, its languages. Students cannot graduate unless they have attained fluency in Chinese, Japanese or Spanish. San Diego is the first U.S. graduate school to insist on that requirement.

"Most universities today are more part of the problem than the solution," Johnson says. "The challenge of East Asia is a real challenge, not just to business but to academia. I don't want to criticize Berkeley, but I don't think its been enormously responsive to this challenge."

In fact, Johnson lays much of the blame for America's misunderstandings about Japan in the lap of Cold War scholars and policy-makers. Starting with former Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, he argues, they promoted Japan for ideological reasons as a democratic nephew who would grow up to be just like Uncle Sam. The problem, he says, was that it just wasn't true. And it was American arrogance, the tendency to project Western values on other countries, to think that it could be.

"What is being revised here, and it's extremely embarrassing to a university, is that much of our social science is not social science but ideology," Johnson says. "America went to war with the Marxists, and we've been blindsided by someone playing a different game."

Prestowitz, who wrote "Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan to Take the Lead," agrees with the argument. "The U.S. wanted to tie Japan to it in its crusade against the Soviets," Prestowitz says. "So the whole thrust of postwar America, State Department policy . . . and most of the academic writing on Japan, has asserted the essential likeness, the shared values, the similarities of the two systems."

That the differences are now being recognized and scrutinized make many of the Japanese uncomfortable. Some fear it will eliminate any common ground for alliances, but Johnson says it was in fact the start of a more realistic relationship.

Once America recognizes the realities, he says, the nation can finally begin adopting solutions. He rejects protectionism and says a coherent industrial policy is the alternative to it: incentives to save rather than spend; to invest for the long term rather than quarterly profits; to rely more on the banking system than the capital markets to finance industry; to improve education, especially science; to revamp labor-management relations, to develop a larger number of engineers.

All of that, however, would seriously rattle the U.S. status quo and jeopardize special interests--which in many ways are greater threats to the United States than the Japanese, he says.

Indeed, what is not often mentioned about the "godfather" is that he is far more critical about his own country than Japan. "I would not like to be called a Japan basher, but I am prepared to be called an America basher," Johnson says. "We have important things to do and we ought to be doing them."

But Johnson, a Republican, is pessimistic that the country's political leadership is willing or capable of coaxing Americans to bear the necessary sacrifices to respond to the Japanese challenge. And in his crystal ball, that portends a gloomy future.

"(George) Bush manages to be a walking watercress sandwich on every issue," Johnson says. "I think things will probably proceed toward crisis, at which point it will become politicized and Americans will finally react."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World