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America, Take Off Your Sunglasses : LOOKING AT THE SUN: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System, By James Fallows (Pantheon: $25; 528 pp.)

August 07, 1994|Andrew Horvat | The former Tokyo bureau chief for American Public Radio's "Marketplace," Andrew Horvat is a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for East Asian Studies

In "Looking at the Sun," James Fallows declares that the majority of Japan's nationally elected politicians are sons of politicians. The statement is one of many Fallows makes to warn American readers that Japan is not the democratic country they imagine it to be; it is also one of many that does not jibe with the facts.

While it is true that political families are more common in Japan than in the land of the Kennedys, Rockefellers or Browns, at last count, of 511 members of Japan's lower house, 114 (about one out of every five) were sons of politicians. Even by the most liberal reckoning, fewer than one-third of Japan's political elite is linked by marriage or blood ties to previously serving politicians.

An intriguing question that arises while one reads this book is why Fallows insists on gilding the lily? It seems that for this politically influential writer and broadcaster, it is not enough that Japan be alien, the country must also appear to be outlandish. This tendency is not merely a flaw of this book but of current thinking about Japan in Washington, where being tough on Japan seems to be far more important these days than having accurate information about the country.

According to Fallows, Japan is an undemocratic country where elections mean nothing, and where promises of reform cannot be trusted. Fallows' message is that Americans should cast off the illusions their own officials fed them during the Cold War about a democratic Japan committed to free market ideals and that they should see Japan as the originator of an alien system of state-supported capitalism which is now spreading through Asia and which challenges the long-term well-being of the Anglo-American world. After reading "Looking at the Sun," no one can accuse Fallows of being "soft on Japan."

As for being factually correct, that's another matter. There is a pattern to the inaccuracies in this book. For example, Fallows warns Americans that Japan is not a democratic country because power did not change hands through the ballot box for more than 100 years. What he does not say is that for the first 22 of those 100 years Japan had no parliament. Then, until 1946 the prime minister did not have to be an elected politician, so it was impossible for voters to oust him. Fallows also does not say that when the constitution was changed after World War II, governments were voted in and out of office, in 1947, 1949 and 1954.

Fallows also tells us that most of the members of the reformist coalition of former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa (who took office in August last year) were until a few weeks earlier members of the corrupt, long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Fallows' idea is to show that Japanese promises of reform cannot be taken at face value. But this too is an example of imagination leaping ahead of easily available information. Of some 260 lower house members of Hosokawa's coalition last August, a mere 73 were former LDP politicians.

In spite of its many inaccuracies, or rather because of them, "Looking at the Sun" is an important book. Its negative view of Japan is shared by policy-makers in the Clinton Administration and this view forms the underpinnings of the present get-tough policy toward Tokyo on trade. The insistence of the Clinton Administration on getting the Japanese to agree to numerical targets on everything from market-opening measures to a reduction of Japan's trade deficits stems from the above kind of pessimistic assumptions about Japan. Incidentally, the present stalemate in U.S.-Japan trade negotiations is due in large part to the inflexibility of the numerical target strategy, an approach which assumes that in order to solve a trade dispute, it is enough if one side, the one with all the problems, agrees to change.

Why does this book contain serious inaccuracies? One reason is plain carelessness. At one point Fallows describes Sakhalin as a peninsula. When Chekhov wrote his book about the place in the last century, he called it "The Island," and when I visited Sakhalin a few years ago it was still neatly separated from Siberia by the Tatar Straits.

But another reason for Fallows' all-pervasive pessimism about Japan seems to be a visceral hostility toward the country. In one anecdote we are told that a teacher of Fallows' son praised the boy by saying his math was not bad for a foreigner. The story is presented as a way of showing that Japanese are racists. There are, indeed, many racists in Japan but when it comes to math scores, Japanese students outperform their U.S. counterparts on internationally administered tests by about 2 to 1. In this case, the teacher was probably trying to pay a compliment to Fallows' son.

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