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Just Another Ordinary Different Place : A Meditation on the Soul of Japan, and the Myths that Hide It from Both Americans and the Japanese

March 08, 1992|Jonathan Rauch | Jonathan Rauch has written extensively on American economic and political issues. This article was excerpted from his book, "The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan," to be published in April by Harvard Business School Press

We are all feeling the elephant. We are like the blind men in the fable, one touching the trunk, another the tail, another the leg, saying snake or vine or tree ; except that we all have our eyes wide open, staring and intent, so that perhaps we are looking too hard; and there are far more of us than three. For foreigners in general, and especially for Americans, Japan presents itself as a singularity in need of explanation. I have been, for example, to Israel, a country whose culture is as unique and strange as any on God's crazy planet, but I felt content to watch and sometimes to laugh or shake my head. I felt no compulsion to explain. Japan is no more singular than that, it is no more strange, but we who come here see it as a knot to be untied, a puzzle to be solved; and so we go to work, each putting a hand out to touch, each looking for the whole within which the parts make sense. Of course, as is always the case, no two of us who examine the beast see quite the same thing or look at it in the same way; but whereas usually we blame ourselves for this and name as culprit the vagaries of human understanding, in the case of Japan we blame the elephant, and call it a mystery.

We have been mystified by Japan for at least a century, but at no time has our mystification run deeper or mattered more than now. Japan is one of the great powers, after years of merely promising that it would be. It has become, depending on which patch of the elephant you touch, a threat to other nations or an example to them, a challenge to the so-called "Western" way or a reaffirmation of the Protestant work ethic, the Jewish commitment to education, the strong Catholic family. We are here in droves now, all looking for the "real" Japan. Is it "really" a democracy, or is it something else, a regime built on hidden coercion and enforced conformity? Is it really capitalism, is it really a market economy, or is it something new, a third way between Adam Smith and Karl Marx? Is Japan free? Is it benign? Or is it dangerous?

Sometimes I fear that, in the din and the crush that we foreigners make, we see and touch mostly each other. I stayed only six months in Japan, but there were moments when I felt that every American intellectual was either in Japan or at home writing about it. For the first time, interest in the beast's anatomy and internal systems has moved outside the circle of professors and diplomats who specialize, and into the reading public. And there, the specialists fear, as they look at the recent spatelet of books and articles creating a small but respectable commotion ("Rising Sun," "The Coming War With Japan," "In the Shadow of the Rising Sun"), the discussion is getting out of control. Well, out of control is just the way it ought to be. Japan is a major power, and the old relationship with the United States has become suffocating for both parties, and this means we will have to reassess Japan--not as an exotic island on the edge of the world, but as a large and powerful country. And the "we" no longer means "we specialists": It means you and me, the citizens and voters and business people who must learn what to believe and feel about the place. And so in Japan I put out my hand to touch the elephant and tried to learn how I ought to feel.

Anyone who reads about Japan is likely to have noticed that there are the people who have been branded "Japan bashers" (an invidious expression) and the ones who have been branded "Japan handlers" (also invidious), and you can barely believe that they are talking about the same place. Japan is big and powerful and unstoppable and incapable of any but the most technical sort of finesse; it gobbles up foreign markets implacably, it earns mountains of cash, it grows and grows. (What does it want?) But it is also small and vulnerable and hesitant and delicate; it is peace-loving and eager to please; its people are gentle and want nothing more than to get along with each other and to be liked abroad. There are two prevalent pictures, and they aren't consistent. Yet both seem truthful. Something is wrong. Isn't it?

From far away, there is "Japan." It is discrete, unitary, has goals and intentions and methods. In newspapers it is often spoken of as a person: "Japan" is beating American companies and buying Rockefeller Center, "Japan" believes that economic power is the key to national strength, "Japan" feels shame but not guilt for its wartime misdeeds. This is a natural way to talk, but treacherous. There is, after all, no "Japan." Enter Japan and almost immediately "Japan" disaggregates.

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