Japan III: Asia to Asians

(Published in Grail World 17/2000)

A society fixed in Confucian tradition is looking for its way into the future: Japan has recently drawn attention to itself through many a crisis. But the "Land of the Rising Sun" has already managed many an unexpected rise in the past...

The opening of Japanese ports in the mid-19th century brought economic turmoil to the country, and the prices of basic foodstuffs soared. The ignorant people blamed the "foreign barbarians" for their plight and demanded their expulsion. Military confrontations with the West ensued, which made Japan - like China before it - painfully aware of its technical backwardness and forced "unequal treaties" upon it. Critics of the government were suppressed and even executed by the anti-reform shogunate. Only a civil war swept away the Tokugawa shogunate after 264 years and renewed the imperial regime.

The Meiji Revolution of 1868

"Meiji" (enlightened government) was the motto of the young Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912, reigned 1868-1912), which gave its name to an era in Japanese history. The Tenno, revered as a descendant of the sun goddess, became head of state. The constitution of 1889 made him the sovereign with great power. Although the people elected a lower house, its rights were limited because officials, including ministers, were answerable only to the tenno and the army was completely outside parliamentary control. The Tenno's state goal was "a rich country and a strong army." Japan had been humiliated by Western countries and wanted to catch up with Western standards at all costs.

In an unprecedented effort, feudal Japan was to become an industrialized state within a generation. Compulsory education and compulsory military service were introduced, and exports (initially mainly silk and tea) were expanded. The army was given special importance.

An industrious people and low wages made the seemingly impossible possible, albeit at the expense of the common people, especially the peasants. With Western machines and Japanese wages, the industrial breakthrough was achieved. After a few decades of tumultuous development, combined with famine, internal uprisings and much turbulence, Japanese industry was modernized and in some areas, such as the cotton industry, was able to cope with fierce international competition.

As Western technology came into vogue, so did Western customs, Western dress, and Western food; sometimes leading to whimsical distortions:

A German physician reported from Tokyo in 1877:
"...the Japanese government has seen fit to make tails and top hats the official attire for New Year's visits. So figures that surpass any imagination in comedy walk the streets of the capital. You poor Japanese, squeezed into unspeakably ill-fitting tailcoats and baggy pants! And on the head mostly never fitting angstroms!..Who has not seen these street scenes and antichamboo groups with his own eyes, cannot possibly get a picture of it. Yet these same people look so good, indeed, often dignified and distinguished in their native holiday costumes!"

"We are no longer ashamed to face the world as Japanese people....The name Japanese now means honor, splendor, courage, triumph and victory. Before, we did not know each other, and the world did not know us. But now we have tested our strength."      Tokutomi SOHO, 1894.

A proud people strives for recognition

Japan felt strong and wanted to expand its political influence in the world, immediately coming into conflict with China. Both nations laid claim to the Korean peninsula, and a war was fought on Korean soil in 1894, which Japan won militarily.

Soon thereafter, the great power Russia stood in the way of further Japanese expansionist efforts. In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War broke out, which Japan won once again, thus entering the world political stage as an international power barely 40 years after the forced opening.

The army's successes determined policy. In 1931, Japanese troops invaded Manchuria and provoked a conflict with China that led to a war fought with extreme harshness in 1937. Japanese troops conquered large parts of China and even landed in Indochina (Vietnam) in 1940. The expansion of Japanese spheres of influence to all of East Asia seemed almost unstoppable.

In the first half of the 20th century, Japan was on its way to becoming a great power. Popular education was beginning to bear fruit, industrialization was advancing, and workers were streaming from the countryside into the cities. The "zaibatsus" set the tone. These were family empires (e.g. Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Yäsuda), who controlled a large bank and numerous business enterprises. Later, they were forced into the service of the armaments demanded by the army.

This rise of Japan to become the largest economic power in East Asia was not without slumps (e.g., the Great Depression of 1929), for which foreigners were blamed. Nationalist and fascist ideas emerged, supported by large parts of the army.

Western countries made it difficult to import cheap Japanese goods, and the United States and Australia turned away Japanese emigrants. Thus, Japanese economic and military expansion had to turn to Asia, to Manchuria and China.

Despite some tensions with Western countries, the transfer of technology worked. Japan was able to build up a powerful navy and a serious air force, which would have been impossible without support from the United States and Europe and without the training of Japanese scientists at Western universities. All of Asia, all of the colonial peoples, looked spellbound at Japan, which had risen up on its own and could compete with Western industrialized countries.

The Japanese social system
"Japan's rise as a leading industrial country was accompanied by a welfare system, invisible at first glance, that was anchored in the economy itself and relieved the burden on the state. Businesses created jobs, and almost every adult Japanese had one (women were under pressure to give up their jobs when they married). Sometimes it was boring work with no chance of advancement, but millions of Japanese were employed in activities that would have long been "rationalized away" in the United States or Europe. According to Confucian tradition, entrepreneurs felt obligated to their employees as a new form of "extended family" and were almost never willing to fire an employee, no matter how expendable.
Together with the partial isolation of the Japanese market from foreign competition (not necessarily through tariffs, but with effective, sensitive Japanese means), which at first glance appears to be absurd, a situation arose: Life in Japan was expensive (an apple cost 4 dollars , a can of beer was $ 5, Japanese rice was about 7 times more expensive than American), and part of the Japanese economy (e.g. food, retail, agriculture) was, if not to say, highly unproductive by world standards backward; because far too many workers were dragged along. At the same time there was an extremely productive export industry (consumer electronics, automobiles, photography, optics, etc.) which scared the rest of the world but only partially offset the overall balance. (The Mc Kinsay Global Institute estimated the total productivity of the Japanese economy to be only 72% of the US economy in 1993).
Similar to other industrialized countries, this welfare system came under pressure from globalization. The Americans pushed to open the Japanese market; in the growth euphoria of the last decades, it was not uncommon to overinvest, and real estate prices exploded (the site of the old Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth almost as much on paper as all of Florida a few years ago). The overdue correction of the overheated boom plunged Japan into a deep financial crisis that battered banks and corporations. The social guarantees of the corporations could no longer be kept, there were layoffs, and the self-confidence of the post-war generation, which had been spoiled by success, was severely shaken. Now reforms are needed - as in almost all industrialized countries. Japan is currently struggling to find the right path between Confucian tradition and the neo-capitalism propagated above all by the USA and the World Bank. A change of course in Japan is necessary, but radical changes are particularly difficult in a society that is bound by tradition and in which no one wants to "lose face. There is no reason for us Europeans to gloat, because we are struggling to reduce mass unemployment, which is unsustainable in the long run and which we do not want to see arise in Japan in the first place."
According to William GREIDER: "Endstation Globalisierung", Wilh. Heyne, Munich, 1998.

In April 1940, Japan celebrated the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the empire by the legendary Jimmu Tenno. Never in these millennia did an enemy stand victorious on Japanese soil, and a hundred million Japanese looked with pride on their army and its successes.
Japan was the dominant power in the East, it wanted to gather all of East Asia under its flag so that it would become the first power on earth under Japanese leadership. Japan had come to terms with the Soviet Union, so that only the USA stood in the way of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the first East Asian power.

The West blocks

The North Americans threatened a dangerous embargo: the supply of raw materials vital to the war effort, such as oil and rubber, was to be cut off from the Japanese unless the territories illegally occupied since 1931 were cleared...
This condition is unacceptable to the proud Japanese army, which lives in samurai tradition. When negotiations fail, Japan attacks: On December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier aircraft bomb the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. is supposedly taken by surprise. In fact, American experts on Japan were probably aware of an expected attack. Britain is tied against Hitler's Germany in Europe. Thus, in a few months, the Japanese manage to conquer large parts of East Asia and secure important sources of raw materials.
Japanese conquests and sunk British battleships become a beacon: Colonialism has passed its peak, and no colonial people will accept its colonization without resistance in the future.
Wherever the Japanese appear, they greet Asian nationalists as liberators: for the victors bring the incendiary slogan "Asia for the Asians": they exploit hatred against the whites and promise freedom. This Japan-friendly mood soon collapses when it becomes clear that the Japanese, in their missionary mania, exploit the conquered countries no less ruthlessly than classical colonial powers.

The war-minded Japanese patriots had overestimated the economic and military capabilities of their island empire as well as underestimated the determination of their wartime adversaries. Catastrophic setbacks on all fronts, including the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first nuclear weapons, hurled Japan into the first total defeat in its history. The military dreams of great power had perished in fire and blood, the population depressed and despairing, the country deeply humiliated and badly destroyed.

An Asian "economic miracle 

After the defeat, Japan was under American military administration, which forced reforms. A democratic constitution was enacted, the zaibatsus were unbundled, the tenno's claim to divinity was ended, labor unions were established, etc. Japan was to be modernized along American lines.

In domestic politics, conservative and progressive forces clashed, and leftist parties pinned their hopes on a socialist state, which quickly evaporated in the emerging Cold War.

After some lethargy following the surrender, the economy began to be built up. At first, the Japanese felt like "apprentices" of the USA, from which they adopted technologies and organizational structures. The race to catch up with Western standards was over by the mid-1970s. Since then, Japan has been able to dominate the course of events in an increasing number of areas.

This was helped by the mentality of the inhabitants of the "small island without resources" ("hiagaisha ishiki"), who have always had to stand together to stand up to the outside world.
The notions of competition and free trade, which the West regards as the be-all and end-all, are used where it seems appropriate, but there is not necessarily a conviction that the capitalist market process always best serves national goals. Thus, even the unbundling of the tsaibatsus has merely led to other, looser linkages: the "keiretsus." These are successors to the tsaibatsus, linked less by ownership than by tradition.

Government intervention in the economy is viewed with less skepticism in Japan than in the West. Literally, it is the MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry) that politically steers and supports Japanese companies. It is from this ministry, for example, that Japan has been trimmed to the "high-tech course." However, it has failed in the fight against corruption and is partly to blame for the financial crisis that is currently (2000) crippling Japan.

The heaviest language on earth
"The peculiarity of the Japanese language can be explained in part by the impetuosity with which the Japanese of early history adopted Chinese characters and with which the Japanese of today Japaneseize thousands of American words....
The Japanese script consists of the two syllable alphabets Katakana and Hiragana and the actual characters, the number of which has been officially limited to 1,850 by the Ministry of Culture. Officially, they are sufficient to read the Japanese language. In reality, newspapers, but above all specialist magazines and specialist books, use other characters and also revive characters that have already been deleted for reuse, so that one can say that 2,500 to 3,000 characters are required to be able to read the relevant reading as an educated person.
A serious difficulty with reading script is that the same character can and must be read in different ways. Since the characters were taken over from China in different periods, the Chinese pronunciation, which the Japanese keep as a Sino-Japanese reading to this day, is based either on Confucius' "conversations" and thus pointed to a North Chinese reading (canon), or them is based on the suras of Buddhism and proves to be a South Chinese reading (goon).
The syllabary Katakana is used to write telegrams, to paraphrase foreign names and words and for the reading books of elementary school students in the first grade. Hiragana is used significantly more and fills about two thirds of the normal, printed or written line, because prefixes and suffixes and the very numerous particles are written in Hiragana. The characters themselves form the stems of the words and have a certain meaning, such as learning, seeing, origin, country, but which cannot be too strictly limited to one content. Having 2,000 to 3,000 meanings fixed in writing at hand in order to express oneself initially means a visual linguistic wealth of incomparable size, compared to the western alphabet, which has far less precise memory aids, but therefore forces abstract thinking, i.e. a higher level of Characterizes language development.
The difficulties faced by the student of Japanese becomes clear from the consideration of another peculiarity of this language: two, three or even more characters are put together to form a word, whereby the reading of each component of this word cannot be traced according to logical principles. but rather by memorizing the respective common reading, i.e. it has to be grasped simply by memory.
The student of the Japanese language must not be discouraged by lack of logic, but must stick to vigorous memory work. When you consider how difficult it is for linguistically gifted non-Japanese to learn this language, and realize that all Japanese have mastered it, including the irritating readings, one can roughly imagine the highly practical school of diligence, patience and tenacity through which Persevere the Japanese go. "
After Helmut ERLINGHAGEN; "Japan", dtv, Munich, 1979.

Another way of understanding the world for Asians

In the Japanese economy and in social life there are differences in the understanding of the world between East and West, which one has to consider when dealing with Asians:
In Asia people don't like to be strict and precise; you leave several options open to remain flexible. This attitude may be related to the respective worldview. The strict monotheism of the West is a recent phenomenon in East Asia; it competes with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto and many other currents, which sometimes mix. Asians find nothing in sacrificing in different temples in order not to miss any of the chances for help from the invisible.

Europeans are brought up to believe in only one god, next to whom other gods have no place. For centuries, this strict monotheism was not limited to polytheistic religions; Christianity was also irreconcilable towards Judaism and Islam, and even Christian churches accused one another of heresy. Language, writing and religion educated the Westerner to be clear and precise, but also dogmatic and sometimes too narrow, dominated by only one idea.

At the moment everyone is talking about the financial crisis in East Asia, for which Japan is not least responsible. There is growing pressure on Japan to carry out reforms so that the weakness of Asia's most important industrial country does not drag the entire world economy into recession. Japan’s current problems are sought at different levels:
* As in the rest of Asia, the government is only democratically to a limited extent and very conservative. It is difficult to tackle inevitable reforms.
* The Keiretsus are linked to the authorities through a web of corruption that has contributed to the catastrophic situation of many Japanese banks, which granted loans in an irresponsible manner.
* The Japanese industry is in a transition phase. So far, many inventions from Europe or the USA have been adopted and developed ready for production in an astonishingly short time. A few examples: microchips and copiers were taken over from the USA, the microwave oven, fax machine and video machine from Europe. All products with which Japan is causing problems for western competitors. In the meantime, other countries have learned to market their ideas themselves, not to hesitate until Japan has conquered the market. This is the beginning of a new challenge for the Japanese: They have to prove that they can not only adopt, develop and produce ideas, but that they are also creative themselves. Not everyone thinks they can be creative enough.

We do well to expect the Japanese to courageously samurai-style their problems and solve them. Asian problem solving often takes longer than we expect in Europe, but they are usually well covered and there is a broad consensus. As far as creativity is concerned, we in Europe or the USA should not fall back into old arrogance and believe that we are superior to colored peoples.

The global challenges have led to crises in East Asia that cannot be trivialized; but I am confident - based on my personal experience with Asians - that the East Asians will emerge stronger.

(1) Colcutt, Martin et al .: "Japan", Christian Verlag, Munich, 1989.
(2) Erlinghagen, Helmut: "Japan", dtv, Munich, 1979.
(3) Kiyoshi, Inoue: “History of Japan”, Campus, Ffm., 1995.
(4) Ladstätter / Linhart: "China and Japan", Carl Ueberreuther, Vienna, 1983.
(5) Merson, John: “Streets to Xanadu”, Hoffmannund & Campe, Hamburg, 1989.
(6) Zierer, Otto: "God Wind", Seb. Lux, Murnau, 1960.