Needed: A Two-Way Street

Political commentator James Fallows published a book on Japan and America a few years ago with the title "More Like Us." Fallows was impatient with Americans who were infatuated with the Japanese economic model. His "American Plan for American Recovery" called for his fellow citizens to be not more like them but (his title) more like us.

Over the last decade, Japanese management (the just-in-time assembly line, quality circles, etc.) and Japanese economics (MITI, industrial policy, "Japan, Inc.") may well have attracted more American attention than it deserved. What properly irks Japanologists, however, is the implication that Japan merits no attention on any grounds other than economic. As Times writer Sonni Efron showed last week in a story on Japanese reading habits, Japan takes no such narrow, profit-motivated interest in the United States. Nothing we do, wear, think or sing escapes the omnivorous Japanese cultural curiosity: everything from grand opera to Mickey Mouse to, above all, American literature and the English language.

It may be true that nothing so stimulates cross-cultural curiosity as a major defeat in war. But the post-World War II emergence of Japan as a "Western" society at the eastern edge of Asia was not an American feat. It was the culmination of an effort at collective self-education and social transformation that began with the Meiji restoration of 1868. The Japanese roamed the world of ideas--and brought back the artistic as well as the practical for their children. We could do worse than to honor their openness with an answering openness of our own.

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