井の中の蛙

8/8/2011

Old Myths, New Myths: Problems of Informed Punditry

The Asia/Pacific Journal, aka Japan Focus, has a fascinating interview with Heinrich Reinfried, Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies at the University St. Gallen, Switzerland, conducted by a Swiss weekly. “Sushi and Samurai: Western Stereotypes and the (Mis)Understanding of Post-Tsunami Japan” begins and ends with a credible historical and thematic deconstruction of some of the less helpful stereotypes of Japan: Japan as samurai state, kamikaze, zen masters. I particularly liked the short bit on Herrigel

Nazi Germany made use of the samurai ideal of one who obeys orders unconditionally, who sacrifices himself on orders from above, who although not a Christian has a noble soul. This is the ideological basis of Zen in the Art of Archery by the Nazi Eugen Herrigel, a book which has exerted a powerful influence over the years. Some Swiss still today regard this book as the open sesame to Japan. It is amusing to hear of Europeans with an anti-authoritarian upbringing who go to Japan to let a Zen master hit them should they doze off during meditation.

He mentions early 20th century ideas about national character, and Saidian othering

we use Japan as a negative role model incorporating the opposite of the positive qualities we attribute to ourselves.

And he talks about the Cold War re-exoticisation of Japan as a land of Geisha and gardens, class-less capitalism. I’m not sure Henry Luce is as much to blame as Reinfried, nor am I terribly convinced by his analysis of Japan’s response/role in the process:
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12/29/2009

America’s “Lost Decade”

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:41 am

Paul Krugman wrote a column in which he argued that the last decade in the US has been a waste of time, economically speaking:

But from an economic point of view, I’d suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. …
It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family. …
It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early …
… it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. …
So here’s what Mr. Summers — and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time — believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

My mother sent me the column, and I wrote back the following comparison:

It’s almost like we had the same Lost Decade that the Japanese had in the 90s, but in a much more dramatic fashion. They had the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks; we had 9/11. They had the Hanshin Earthquake, we had Katrina; both triggered a discussion about emergency preparedness and civil society. They had a bubble burst and zero growth; we had several bubbles burst and, ultimately, zero growth.

Unfortunately, it’s very clear that Japanese leaders and citizens didn’t learn very much from the experience: it took almost another decade before a major change in leadership, and their economy remains extremely weak. Not a happy comparison.

9/9/2009

HNN, NYT Post Competing Japan Election Analysis

HNN has posted an extended version of the Soft and Fuzzy history I posted a few days ago. What I’ve added, for the general readership, is more background on the LDP:

The survival of the LDP as the dominant party in Japan for so many post-war decades was a combination of historical luck, savvy leadership, and the cooptation of successful minor party issues. The collapse of the LDP was a combination of historical misfortune, a leadership vacuum, and the realignment of minor parties to create a viable alternative.

The rise and fall of the Yoshida Doctrine and the factional nature of the ’55 System LDP are at the center of the argument.

Meanwhile, the NYT has a Philip Underwood piece explaining how “In Japan, by contrast, failure traditionally carries a deeper stigma, an enduring shame that limits the appetite for risk, in the view of many of the nation’s cultural observers. This makes the Japanese far less comfortable with choices that increase the prospect of failure, even if they promise greater potential gains.” Ugh.

8/31/2009

Soft and Fuzzy Historic Events

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:42 am

Ton-Chan DollLast time I lived in Japan, the LDP lost control of the Diet, and for a year and a half there was a Socialist Prime Minister in charge of an implausible coalition between the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Democratic Party of Japan, which just took control of the lower house of the Diet, was formed in the aftermath of that coalition: the more liberal elements of the LDP combined with the more moderate elements of the JSP.1 This left a more conservative LDP and a more Socialist SDP, and also, as a side effect, left the LDP again in charge of the government, in coalition with the Komeito and other conservative groups. Another side effect: the bushy eyebrows and grandfatherly face of Murayama Tomiichi were immortalized in the “Ton-chan” dolls sold by the JSP; I bought one, thinking that this might be “historic.”2

You could hardly tell from the news reports coming out of Japan at the moment.3 I suppose that I’m not surprised by the lack of respect given to the mid-90s political turmoil: it was inconclusive and sloppy, not the kind of clear-cut “historic” event that makes for banner headlines. But what came out of it was an LDP that was, honestly, destined to fail: instead of representing the middle two-thirds of the Japanese political spectrum, it represented a heavily right-oriented one-third, while the DPJ took a big chunk of what was left. Essentially, the LDP split, probably the natural end to a party that was a coalition to begin with, formed out of a Cold War fear that Japan’s leftist parties might put aside their differences long enough to win control of the Diet. While it took a few elections, and another decade of disappointing economic stagnation, the left wing of the former LDP has overtaken the right wing of the former LDP, and a former member of the LDP is going to be Prime Minister.4

Is this “historic“? Well, it depends, of course. If the DP turns out to be more or less just like the LDP, then it’s no more historic than Pepsi™ overtaking Coca-Cola™. If the DP turns out to be a genuinely center-left party which reduces international entanglements while successfully fostering economic development, it could actually be a revival of the Yoshida Doctrine. That might actually be interesting, especially since it could mean a shift away from the normalization discourses we’ve been hearing so much of. I guess it’s a bit too soon to write the new narrative.

  1. This is a rough approximation. The faction politics of the LDP did not neatly divide along ideological lines, but some sense of policy alignment was starting to become clearer when the split happened []
  2. Actually, I bought two: one for me and one for my parents. []
  3. I want to thank Adam Richards for his tireless political blogging during this election, possibly the best reportage in English this time around. []
  4. I don’t think anyone’s going to make plush toys out of Hatoyama Yukio, though he’d make a credible daruma. []

7/16/2009

ASPAC Blogging: Japan’s Political Present and Future

Fauna of Soka - Squirrel standingMy copanelists on Saturday were political scientists, and it was a good update for me on what what’s going on with Japan in the last ten years or so. “Normalization” is the name of the game: Japan’s political spectrum and international relations are starting to look a lot less like Yoshida’s vision and a lot more like a pretty normal regional power.
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11/15/2008

Only in Japan: Yakuza Sued

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:26 pm

The New York Times is reporting on tensions between the Dojinkai and the civilians living in the neighborhood of their headquarters. Two features of this are worth noting in the context of the Samurai course. First, the Yakuza are widely acknowledged to be one of the last, greatest bastions of feudal samurai concepts of honor and the utility of violence; comparing the modern yakuza to medieval samurai is shockingly fruitful. Second, the social order represented by the neighborhood association is a modern incarnation of the horizontal alliances described by Berry in The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, the ikki as described by Ikegami, and the goningumi of the great Tokugawa order.

Even the appeal to law, civil authorities, is quite traditional: though the Japanese are considered “non-litigious” it’s really not true of the present or the past. In the present, a lot of disputes are dealt with through arbitration systems that aren’t that different from small-claims courts. In the past, of course, the petition to authority and the lawsuit were common enough to be one of our best historical sources. [crossposted to Japanese History]

Late Update: Going through old email, I found this McNeill Adelstein report on the current state of yakuza. I was surprised to see that the 1992 law had so little effect: when I was in Japan in ’94-95, it seemed like it had done some good.

3/5/2008

Macroeconomics never gives you more than an overview

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:58 pm

Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia has an op-ed in the New York Times (UPDATE: reprinted in Japan Focus) arguing that Japan’s post-bubble recession and fifteen year stagnation may well be what the US economy is facing now. I think he’s right about some of the dangers, but I think he’s leaving out some critical components. Macroeconomics never gives you more than an overview, and I think the situation in the US is much worse.

Roach writes:
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