Commentary Magazine


The Japanese, by Edwin O. Reischauer

Japan in the World

The Japanese.
by Edwin O. Reischauer.
Harvard University Press. 443 pp. $15.00.

“Someone has calculated,” Edwin O. Reischauer writes, “that, whereas in 1934, there were only thirteen scholars in the United States capable of making substantial use of the Japanese language, by 1969 there were five hundred.” Reischauer was probably one of those first thirteen; certainly he has been instrumental in expanding the number ever since. Born and reared in Japan (the son of Presbyterian missionaries), a pioneer in the establishment of Asian studies in America and now University Professor at Harvard, co-author—with Harvard colleague John K. Fairbank—of a widely-used text in East Asian history, Reischauer is clearly the “dean” of Japanese studies in this country. As U.S. ambassador in Tokyo (1961-66), he can speak with equal authority about contemporary Japan and about U.S. policies toward it.

Yet if one wishes to understand the character of his latest book—a lengthy distillation of a lifetime’s study of a formidable people—one must also remember that Reischauer is a highly respected figure in Japan itself. It may be too much to say that as a foreign commentator on Japanese life he enjoys a position analogous to such great foreign students of America as de Tocqueville and Bryce, but it is not too far-fetched to think that the Japanese may regard him in this way. At the least, the Japanese take seriously anything Reischauer has to say about them and to them. And because the Japanese-American relationship remains central in holding today’s world together, we ought to know how the Japanese are being instructed to think—especially about their own role in the world.

About a quarter of the book is given over to historical summary, the rest to a discussion of individual and national characteristics as they are reflected in Japanese business, politics, social relations, and, of great importance to Reischauer, in Japan’s sense of itself. (He comments not at all on modern Japanese cultural, especially literary, achievements, in part perhaps because the modern Japanese novel must be profoundly offensive to a good Presbyterian, but also because the sensibility displayed in modern Japanese writing seems hardly to illustrate the “coherence” and good mental order Reischauer finds in Japan.) What Reischauer seeks to explain is why Japan succeeded early in this century in becoming the only non-white, non-Christian, industrial and military power, how it so rapidly succeeded in restoring its economic position after its total defeat in World War II, and how, alone among the nations of the Third World (using the term here in its strictly geographic sense), Japan has maintained a spectacularly productive economy and a spirited parliamentary democracy.

Reischauer isolates a number of factors which seem to him to have predisposed Japan to success in the modern world. Japan’s prominence was achieved, according to him, not by discarding tradition, but by making use of it in positive, even ingenious, ways, so that modern Japan must be seen not as the product of revolutionary changes in traditional culture, but as an almost natural unfolding of preexisting tendencies. Although the West provided a critical stimulus, the Japanese took from it only so much as was necessary to defend themselves from total envelopment in, or destruction by, a Western world nearing the height of its own expansive dynamism, a West which had already humbled China when—in the person of Commodore Perry—it forcibly “opened” Japan in the mid-19th century.

When he comes to Japan’s contemporary situation, Reischauer focuses on a central dilemma which in some ways arises from that country’s peculiar relation to the West. Of the world’s major states, Japan is the most vulnerable to global disorders and upsets; it is wholly dependent on imported raw materials and petroleum, and can pay for these things only by trade. Yet while it is the most “interdependent” of the industrial democracies, Japan is also the least appropriately equipped to participate in international politics. Japan’s sense of “separateness”—which is itself the product of the country’s insular history, its racial homogeneity, its excruciatingly difficult writing system, and the lack of flair for the study of foreign languages—has rendered it incapable of assuming its proper role in world affairs. Reischauer lectures the Japanese on the importance of taking greater initiatives in the international arena, suggests that both their history and their present condition give them a basis for doing so, and even explains, at some length, how they can improve upon their teaching of English.

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But there may be another explanation for Japanese reticence on the world scene. Japan has no real power base, other than the power of its good example. Having lost a rather desperate gamble for “self-sufficiency” in the 1940′s, Japan was incorporated into the American-designed postwar system. The United States is now Japan’s power base, and whatever political—as distinct from economic—influence Japan has in the world derives from that circumstance. Even Japan’s foreign policy has been taken over by the U.S. Surely the fact that we function as the de facto foreign ministry of Japan defines the limits of Japan’s participation in the world system, even as it determines the solidity of the Japanese-American connection.

Reischauer proposes that the Japanese play a more assertive role, yet we can scarcely expect them to be more royalist than the king when it comes to advancing or protecting the interests of the industrial democracies. Indeed, borrowing Donald Hellman’s characterization of Japan as “half a nation” (because of its essentially non-existent military capabilities), we may say that any Japanese foreign policy will be half that of the United States. If one shares Reischauer’s concern that the missing half not be supplied in the form of a massive Japanese military buildup, it would seem that little less than continued and unambiguous American leadership can propel Japan into a greater international role. Reischauer’s advocacy of more efficient English instruction, and his promotion of the Japan-based United Nations University, are no doubt worthy in their way, but other ways must be found if we are serious about involving Japan more deeply in world affairs. Would not the Japanese be right to regard prescriptions like Reischauer’s as but further evidence of America’s decline as an Asian, if not a world, power?

Still, this book will have served a useful purpose if it succeeds in focusing attention on the importance of Japan to the United States. An American public once obsessed with the specter of China’s export of revolution now directs its attention to Japan’s export of color television sets. A government once under intense political pressure to resist China (totalitarian) now finds itself pressured to resist Japan (incorporated). By ruling that surplus Alaskan crude oil will not be sold to the Japanese, the American government once again underscores Japan’s vulnerability to Third World resource exporters—and reassures the Japanese that in the final analysis they have no one to turn to except the Arabs.

What are the Japanese, who appreciate the symbolic content of politics, supposed to conclude from this? Thirty years ago the U.S. sent them Douglas MacArthur; for better or worse, the America he represented was an Asian power. Today, the U.S. sends as its ambassador the former majority leader of the Senate, a man known above all as a tenacious opponent of American power in Asia (though admittedly his opposition to continued American power in Europe was even greater). One can only wonder how Ambassador Mansfield will present the case that former Ambassador Reischauer has developed.

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