A SUNDAY IN DECEMBER : CHAPTER 4 : When Cultures Clash

It was cool. The day was dark. The battleship Missouri lurked like a bad dream 18 miles off Yokohama in Tokyo Bay. It was a day of national mortification. Sept. 2, 1945.

On this day aboard the Missouri, Japan surrendered to the United States and submitted to occupation for the first time. To the U.S. commander in charge, it was a time of rare opportunity.

“It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind,” proclaimed Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, “that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past--a world founded upon faith and understanding--a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish--for freedom, tolerance and justice.”

So began seven years of U.S. sovereignty that intruded into the affairs of Japan unlike anything Commodore Matthew C. Perry had ever imagined. Its purpose was to remold Japan into a peace-loving society--democratic and free. The American occupation sought to remake Japan into the image America had of itself. It was nothing short of a revolution. The results inspire in the Japanese, even today, an enduring gratitude. “If it had been left to Japanese only,” says Toshifumi Tateyama, a postwar labor leader, “democratization would not have been possible.”


A few of the reforms succeeded so well that younger Japanese cannot imagine what the old days were like. Under MacArthur, for example, the emperor, once a god-like sovereign, was reduced to such a figurehead that when Emperor Hirohito died in 1989 many university students were genuinely mystified by the grief of older Japanese.

Over time, however, the Japanese have staged a second revolution. In many ways, they have embraced the form of American democracy; but at the same time, they have overwhelmed its substance with Japanese-ness. The effect has been to give American values and institutions a distinctively Japanese character. So it is that some of the ways the Japanese adopted during the occupation have been restructured and reshaped--changed to suit a people who are as different from Americans as sake is from Kentucky bourbon.

For instance:

* Nonaggression. For a period of time, the Japanese military was abolished. Now Japan again has armed forces. But they show no sign of aggression. Indeed, Japan has become so apathetic to security concerns that it frustrated the West by refusing to send troops to help the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf War to free Kuwait, which provides much of Japan’s own oil.


* Democracy. A prewar parliament that lacked power to check the government has been made the nation’s supreme lawmaking body. But the ruling party has such a grip on power that some scholars wonder aloud whether Japan has, in fact, become a democracy. Today women can vote. And some hold office. But only once have women exerted decisive influence on an election outcome. In or out of office, women are still the ones who pour tea.

* Fairness. The great prewar, family-controlled banking and industrial combines, called zaibatsu, have been broken up. But they have been replaced with closely cooperating groups of companies, called keiretsu --some organized by cross-shareholding and interlocking directorates, others built upon longstanding customer-supplier relationships. The Japanese still favor cooperation over competition. And Japan to this day is very much inclined to keep most foreign competitors out.

* Schooling. Japan took to heart MacArthur’s order to improve. It has produced what is perhaps the best-educated populace anywhere in the world. But the Japanese have returned to a prewar habit of saving the best for the elite. They have made scholastic competition among students so intense that only children from families who can afford private classes get into the top schools.

Despite these modifications in what MacArthur and the occupation originally intended, Japan’s legacy from Pearl Harbor has been positive--so positive that some Japanese are glad America ended up defeating them. “When Emperor Hirohito died, some of the maintenance staff at my school said that if we hadn’t lost the war, we couldn’t be living such comfortable lives,” says Takako Kiba, an English teacher at a Tokyo high school. Japan today is a happy place. Laughter fills society. People take personal pride in the way they do their jobs. Crime rates are among the lowest in the world. Most of the 10 million Japanese who travel abroad each year come home more convinced that they are fortunate.


Everywhere Americans are treated with courtesy--even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities destroyed by U.S. nuclear bombs. Nowhere is there any lingering desire for revenge.

MacArthur ran the occupation like an American shogun. As supreme commander, he directed a staff of 2,200 American servicemen and civilians. In time, they increased to 5,000. MacArthur occupied a walnut-paneled office on the top floor of one of the few Tokyo buildings that the war left standing--a six-story granite edifice across the moat from the Imperial Palace, which had been and remains the headquarters of the Dai Ichi (No. 1) Life Insurance Co. The firm still preserves MacArthur’s office as it was when he left, using it only for meetings of its directors.

MacArthur fed the Japanese people. He saved 30% of them from starvation, says former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. MacArthur restored the Japanese to health. Ichiro Shioji, a former chairman of the Japanese Autoworkers Unions, remembers American soldiers who deloused him with insecticide to prevent typhus. On MacArthur’s orders, medics vaccinated 70 million Japanese against smallpox--and 23 million more against tuberculosis. They immunized countless others against diphtheria. And they wiped out cholera. MacArthur said the health measures saved another 2 million lives.

Not least, the occupation gave the Japanese a taste of up-to-date American culture. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio paid a visit. Theaters played Westerns and war films that portrayed Japanese soldiers as the epitome of evil. “Strangely enough, watching war movies of Japan and Americans fighting each other, we were siding with the Americans,” remembers Kenichi Morimoto, who was 12 at the time.


The Asahi newspaper ran Chic Young’s comic strip, “Blondie,” with Japanese captions, says historian William Manchester. A school opened to teach American slang. Geisha crooned “You Are My Sunshine.” Musicians learned boogie-woogie. Ginza stalls sold toy jeeps . A filling station outside Kyoto called itself the “Last Chance . " About 2 million Japanese converted to Christianity. A number of Japanese even learned to square dance. “I do not know who was responsible for introducing square-dancing to Japan,” says Herbert Passin, an American professor who served in the occupation. “But I remember meeting young (U.S.) military-government officers in the provinces who were absolutely convinced that square-dancing was the magic key to transforming Japan into a democratic society.”

Japanese who were young at the time, such as Masayuki Kohama, now a senior representative in Los Angeles for Hitachi, Ltd., think of their generation as “MacArthur’s children.” A handful of Japanese even asked Congress to admit Japan as America’s 49th state.


Americans, to be sure, did not always behave well. Sometimes they were arrogant. One of MacArthur’s first steps was to encourage the adoption of a constitution establishing a democratic government. He grew irritated when the Japanese would not prepare a document that met with his expectations. So the Americans wrote a draft themselves. They caught Japanese officials by surprise and gave them 15 minutes to read it, according to historian Manchester, while MacArthur’s chief representative and his aides stepped outside. By coincidence, a bomber flew low overhead. It had hardly passed when the Americans went back inside--and MacArthur’s man made his point. “We have just been basking,” he said, “in the warmth of atomic sunshine.” The Japanese accepted their draft.


In the end, however, the United States pulled some of its punches. By the late 1940s, America needed Japan’s support in its struggle against a new adversary: the Soviet Union. At the State Department, George S. Kennan, the principal architect of Soviet containment, persuaded the Harry S. Truman Administration to halt MacArthur’s campaign to break up monopolies. And he forced MacArthur to let some of the more conservative Japanese assume positions of power. MacArthur quit purging ultranationalists and began purging Communists and their sympathizers instead.

Years later, Kennan wrote that next to the Marshall Plan, which he helped draft for the postwar rehabilitation of Europe, turning around MacArthur’s occupation policy was “the most significant contribution I was ever able to make in government.” It had the effect, however, of leaving many of the Japanese Old Guard in power and making it easier for them to moderate occupation reforms.

Nonetheless, says Sodei Rinjiro, a Japanese historian and political scientist, even now, with the occupation long since past, “the bottle is at least half full--and that’s enough to make a toast to all those who were involved.”



More than any other legacy of the occupation, the constitution the United States imposed upon Japan seems inviolable, at least in form. Interpretations, however, have twisted its original meaning beyond recognition. Article 9, for example, renounces the maintenance of a military. Yet Japan does possess a military: its Self-Defense Forces. Revanchism, however, is not in the air.

Pacifism has deep and resilient roots in contemporary Japan because of the horrific wartime experiences of the Japanese people. More than 600,000 civilians died. In addition, as many as 1.9 million military men were killed in combat. MacArthur found a public ready to renounce war.

Today, elders are concerned that the younger generation, who did not experience the war, might once again become putty in the hands of neo-nationalists--who have been a constant but so far powerless part of the postwar milieu. Peace education in the schools, however, has left an indelible mark in the minds of many of the younger Japanese. Japan might have the world’s third-largest defense budget, but its Self-Defense Forces cannot recruit enough young men and women to fill the ranks of the army--which has had to reconfigure its force structure to compensate.

Since World War II, the United States has fought three major wars and countless other battles. Not once in those 46 years have the Japanese engaged in conflict. Indeed, Japan is the only major nation in Asia to stay at peace. Although it has the ability to build nuclear weapons, Japan has refrained from doing so--even as its neighbors have built nuclear arsenals of their own: China in 1964 and India more recently. No leader of any major nation spends less time thinking of security issues than does the Japanese prime minister. Indeed, Japan spends more money on wine and women than on warriors and weapons. Last year, Japanese expenditures for business entertainment totaled $38.3 billion--$6.3 billion more than the national defense budget.


“There is utterly no desire to build up military power,” says Hiroomi Kurisu, a retired chairman of the postwar Japanese joint chiefs of staff. Nor is there any desire, he says, to send troops overseas. Moves to dispatch noncombat military teams for disaster relief or U.N. peacekeeping efforts are being debated only because of American pressure, he says. Indeed, so thoroughly have the Japanese embraced non-involvement that Japan’s refusal to concern itself with security issues beyond its own borders has become a source of growing frustration in Washington. This became particularly true earlier this year during the Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait--a chief supplier of Japanese oil. Japan sent no troops. Instead, it contributed $11 billion toward the cost of the war (and another $2 billion in economic aid to front-line states) while Americans and other allied troops did all the fighting.

The United States seems torn between fears of Japan’s re-emergence as a military power and its desire to see Japan pick up a larger share of the burden for international security. Chalmers Johnson, an Asian expert at UC San Diego, says security arrangements between the United States and Japan should be changed.

Under a treaty that went into effect in 1952, when the Japanese regained their independence, the United States shoulders Japan’s overseas defense responsibilities so it will not turn back into a military power. Johnson says the defense duties should be reciprocal. “We are defending a nation to whom we are going into debt,” he says. “If that doesn’t seem unstable, I don’t know what instability is.” Others, like former President Richard M. Nixon and Maj. Gen. Henry C. Stackpole III, who has commanded Marine bases in Japan, warn that America must keep Japan in tow militarily. “No one,” Stackpole says, “wants a rearmed, resurgent Japan.”

Johnson wants the Japanese to do more. Nixon and Stackpole fear they will.



In a New Year’s address in 1946, MacArthur proclaimed that the nation of Japan now has “freedom for the people.”

Such freedom, however, he declared, imposes upon every person a “duty to think and to act on his own initiative.” The people, he said, “now have the power to govern, and what is done must be done by them. . . . “

But MacArthur’s ideal did not take root. The reason, says Masaya Mori, a retired veteran of more than four decades of politics in the prefecture of Shizuoka, is that the Japanese do not vote in a democratically ideal way. A person’s vote is usually not the expression of his or her own personal opinion. Often it is power bequeathed to entrenched political bosses.


As a result, one thing seems to be never-changing. The same conservative Establishment has ruled Japan through one party, the Liberal Democratic Party, without interruption since 1955--when the party was patched together from prewar remnants. Important decisions are handed down from the top. The nation’s top political leader has never been directly elected by voters.

So unbreakable is the party’s grasp on power that foreign scholars and critics of Japan have begun to charge that Japan is not truly a democracy. Japan, they say, maintains the trappings of a democracy--without its substance. “I can’t say democracy doesn’t exist in Japan,” declares Minoru Tada, a commentator and former political editor of the Yomiuri newspaper. “But there has been no change of government. There is no possibility of a change in government. The people are not thinking of a change of government. Most of the opposition is not thinking of it. And even if the Liberal Democrats lost a majority, they would be the ones who would form a (coalition) government. The situation is not good.”

How has this come to be?

Shigeru Aoki, a former leader of the tiny Salaryman’s Party, attributes the ruling party stranglehold to the fact that democracy was given to the Japanese: It was not something they had to fight for. Japanese democracy is “immature,” Aoki says, because it “was distributed--like handouts of food--after the war, during the occupation. It didn’t come like in the French Revolution, that was won by blood and fighting.”


Perhaps the most interesting explanation begins with the fact that Japan is what Chie Nakane, a sociologist at Tokyo University, calls a “vertical society.” For adults, conversation cannot begin without exchanging name cards bearing titles and revealing ranks. Junior/senior relationships are strict, and a hierarchal pecking order remains firm--reminiscent of feudal era rankings of (1) samurai, (2) farmer, (3) artisan, (4) merchant and (5) non-human. Hierarchy shows up even in the Japanese language. Kudasaru is the word for “give” when it involves a gift or a kindness from a superior to an inferior. Kudasaru means to hand down. But it is kureru to receive from an equal. And it is yaru to give to an inferior--whether to a person or to a dog.

Nations, too, have their pecking order. And so do politicians. The Japanese, says journalist James Fallows, “live in a culture that honors authority.” They refer to their government officials as o-kami-- “the honorable above.” This attitude and the lobbying patterns and political contributions accompanying it empower political bosses.

That reinforces the status quo, and this has made things particularly difficult for women. Until the occupation, women in Japan could not vote. They had to walk behind men and had to carry all the bundles. MacArthur thought the vote would be the key to their “emancipation.” Enfranchised for the first time, women elected a record 39 female members of Parliament in 1946. And MacArthur would not have it undone--even by one seat. The day after the election, he said in his memoirs, a Japanese politician visited him to report something terrible: “A prostitute, your excellency, has been elected to the House of Representatives!” So MacArthur asked, “How many votes did she receive?” The reply was 256,000. “Then I should say,” MacArthur responded, “there must have been more than her dubious profession involved.” He sent a letter of congratulations to each woman, says historian Manchester, “including the whore.”

But since then progress for women in Japan has been slow. It took seven years after the end of the occupation for women to win the abolition of legal prostitution. A law granting equal employment opportunities for women was not enacted until the mid-1980s. Until then, women were banned from working after 11 p.m., unless they were in the “entertainment” industry. Japan’s first sexual harassment suit has only now reached the courts.


Only once since their first success have women managed to make a mark at the polls. In 1989, Takako Doi, chairwoman of the Socialist Party, galvanized them into a revolt against a 3% tax on consumption. A record 146 women ran for Parliament. Seventeen won. The Liberal Democrats lost control of the upper house.

But it was not enough to oust them from power.


When MacArthur broke up Japan’s prewar banking and industrial combines, he had in mind replacing them with open competition. It was not to be.


To restore dignity, Japan felt it must triumph in business. As late as the 1960s, the Japanese were aware that “Made in Japan” meant shoddy. “We have to try harder: That’s the way we felt,” says Masayuki Kohama, the senior Hitachi representative in Los Angeles. “Our products must be good. . . . That kind of spirit, most of Japan had it at that time.”

In this endeavor, another American, W. Edwards Deming, had more influence than MacArthur. An engineer and mathematical physicist who taught at New York University, Deming advocated empowering workers with quality control decisions and monitoring the result statistically. He urged a transformation in the approach and mentality of management: Teamwork, he said, is crucial, as are decisions for the long-term, especially ones that keep excellence firmly in mind. Deming first lectured in Japan in 1951. His hosts were so impressed they created the Deming Prize, which became Japan’s most coveted industrial award. Today he is better known in Japan than in his own country.

Deming advised the Japanese to eliminate competitive sourcing and to build long-term relationships with both suppliers and buyers. This suggestion, plus Japan’s own drive to triumph economically, has made it hard for the full force of MacArthur’s economic reforms to take root. Family ownership and holding companies are gone, but informal coordinating and consulting have taken their place--with a bank or a trading company in a low-key leadership role. The combination is called a keiretsu. These business groups tend to impede imports because members take on an obligation to trade among themselves.

At the same time, two institutions created by the occupation to promote fairness in business have been co-opted by the Japanese Establishment. One is an independent Japanese securities and exchange commission, modeled after its American counterpart to police the buying and selling of securities. It was absorbed by the powerful Ministry of Finance, and its watchdog functions essentially dismissed. Only since a securities scandal last summer has consideration been given to strict policing of brokers.


The second institution is the Japan Fair Trade Commission, charged with enforcing an anti-monopoly law. It has limited power to impose fines--and only twice has it pressed criminal charges in cases such as price-fixing, bid-rigging and collusion. Although Japan has promised a more vigorous enforcement of its anti-monopoly laws in negotiations with the United States, the Fair Trade Commission, so far, has been neutered by the Ministry of Finance--and by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. The latter has shielded businesses from antitrust constraints to more freely pursue objectives of industrial policy.

The Japanese favor cooperation over competition because it is practical. Seeking practicality over principle causes Japanese companies to make competitive takeovers impossible by securing pledges from “stable stockholders” to keep their stock in perpetuity. Practicality over principle makes farmers who benefited from MacArthur’s breakup of absentee landholdings close Japanese markets to agricultural imports--including rice from the United States. It is practicality over principle that has shrunk adversarial, industrywide unions, legalized during the occupation, down to company-sized unions that embrace cooperation with management to maximize security and benefits within the “corporate family"--complete with company uniforms, company calisthenics, company training sessions, and company songs.


The vast expansion of public education ordained by MacArthur has given Japan what may well be the best-schooled populace in the world.


MacArthur instituted nine years of compulsory education, instead of six. Because this would mean more education for common people, it was strenuously opposed by the Japanese Establishment, including Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. But MacArthur ordered it anyway.

The good results are plain. The percentage of teen-agers who graduate from high school is nearly 20% higher in Japan than in the United States. American high school graduates are more likely to go on to college than their Japanese counterparts. But while virtually every Japanese who goes on to higher education completes it, vast numbers of Americans drop out of college. Only at the graduate level does the United States have an edge--among those in their early 20s, fewer than one Japanese in 1,000 enrolls in graduate school compared with seven in 1,000 in the United States.

Now, however, one prewar Japanese educational custom is coming back. Before 1945, the Japanese divided post-elementary students into two groups: those allowed to advance into a five-year course for the elite, which led to college; and those who were given a four-year general or technical course, which did not. Today a divided system is returning--but in a different form. The division now is between quality schools--usually private institutions--and second-rate schools, starting at the junior high school (grade 7) level. As before the war, which track a student takes can make all the difference in ultimately winning admission to a prestigious university and a good job afterward.

Which track a student takes is determined by testing--what the Japanese have come to call “examination hell.” It has spawned a fight to get into good schools that reaches down to kindergarten.


The new system favors families who are well-off. To give children a leg up, the Japanese operate what are called cram schools-- juku-- which offer private classes where youngsters can take extra studies in addition to their regular schoolwork. Cram schools are costly. So are the top private junior high schools and the private high schools it is necessary to attend to make it into a top-rate college. Of the 10 high schools that produce the largest number of entrants to Tokyo University, not one is a public institution. And the student body at Tokyo University, once noted for its poverty, now consists largely of the sons and daughters of parents with annual incomes of more than $75,000.

Yoshiko Kihara sends her son and daughter to juku, or cram schools. She and her husband are salaried workers. It makes their finances tight. But they do it anyway. “Educational background has a high priority in one’s life,” she says, although she knows “some people say we should put more value on uniqueness or talent.” To her, it comes down to success. “If you want to work for well-established companies, you have to compete with many applicants. It’s the company that has choices, not an individual.”

Education costs of about $10,700 a year are the biggest item in the Kihara family budget. “Most of it is paid for the cram schools,” Kihara says.

The Kiharas wonder sometimes about the cost. “But we have to invest our money for our children’s education sooner or later,” Yoshiko Kihara says. “Since this is the first step up the ladder for them, we decided to pay now, rather than wait until later. We don’t want to regret what we didn’t do.”


Another misgiving is stress on the children. “Juku puts a heavy burden on children,” she says. “It takes too much time and energy from their lives. They don’t have any time to play and are very tired at home. Sometimes they are too tired to eat.”

Finally, Kihara worries about what such intense competition may create. “I wonder,” she says, “what kind of people children who push away others’ friendships in order to win will turn out to be when they grow up. I fear they may lack consideration for others.”


On the deck of the Missouri that dark morning in 1945, MacArthur declared that “the energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed,” would enable Japan to lift itself “into a position of dignity.” But dignity, Japanese say, has not yet come.


Wrapping up five years as prime minister in 1987, Yasuhiro Nakasone confessed he had not accomplished what he most wanted: “To make Japan a nation respected in international society. . . . I wanted more than anything” to erase descriptions of Japan as “tricky,” “unfair” or “an economic animal,” he said. “I worked every day with that in mind. . . . We have accumulated riches. . . . But we have not yet won international respect. For that, we must correct our faults, we must expand efforts to associate with foreigners and we must make appropriate contributions to the world.”

Just last month, in his maiden speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa also expressed hope that “Japan can attain an honored place in the international community and be a country of quiet dignity that its people can be proud of.”

One problem is that while national goals of the past have disappeared, aspirations for the future remain ill-defined. “The prewar slogan of the Japanese was ‘fukoku kyohei’ (rich country, strong army). World War II changed that. We gave up one part of that slogan--the kyohei part. In the postwar era, the national aspiration--almost a national obsession--was to catch up with the advanced industrial countries of North America and Europe,” says Takakazu Kuriyama, former vice foreign minister. But after the goal was achieved, nothing emerged to replace it.

Although a plethora of books purporting to see conspiracies and secret plots by Japan to “take over the world” or “dominate global industries” has become a popular genre in the United States, Japan’s problem is exactly the opposite: It has no master plan. “It’s natural to look at Japan from the outside and think that Japan has some great national vision. But Japan is an insular country that cannot even imagine a ‘global strategy’ like that of the United States,” says Nagayoshi Sumida, foreign news editor of the Sankei newspaper.


While Japan is happy to defer to the United States on global strategy, however, it sees little to emulate in Washington’s economic policies. Criticizing a 1990 Japan Fair Trade Commission recommendation that the government end its regulation of aviation, Japan’s transportation minister remarked: “In public transportation, safety comes first. If you ease all the regulations, airplanes will start falling from the skies all the time--like in the United States.” When Americans pushed Japan to speed up deregulation of its financial markets, Finance Ministry officials retorted that America, with its savings and loan debacle, was in no position to give advice.

A Note on Language

For reasons of historical accuracy, the term Japs appears in this special section of World Report, even though it has long been The Times’ policy to avoid such pejorative racial terms.