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Japan: The Fragile Superpower, by Frank Gibney

Japan: The Fragile Superpower.
by Frank Gibney.
Norton. 347 pp. $10.00.

Many more people should read this book than will. Mr. Gibney has set out to tell us everything about the modern Japanese, and to a very considerable degree he has succeeded. He assembles his compendium, moreover, with a light grace that makes it seem not at all compendious. Wisdom and erudition are matched by felicity of expression.

All this to recommend it—and yet it will probably sell a tenth of a myriad of copies for every ten myriads or so which that book telling us all about the Italians sold. The other side of the story is that one book telling us all about the Italians was enough, whereas book after book tells us all about the Japanese. Without in any way wishing to belittle Mr. Gibney’s achievement—indeed precisely because it is so very considerable—one rather hopes that there will be no more compendia. There will be, of course. One book about the Italians suffices because it is read with a series of wry smiles of recognition, and put down with a certain self-satisfied resignation. That is how things are, and one didn’t really have to be told; and one will go on living with these eccentrics even as one goes on living with a wife who is late for everything or a daughter who won’t eat anything except wheat germ. The Japanese is more like the gardener who comes in once a week, and whose ways of hacking and uprooting ask for explanation from time to time. Those who write explanations are read by the few who have gardeners and the few who, from the accidents of history, specialize in the behavior of gardeners; and because each of the explainers hopes to achieve the breakthrough and make the gardener a part of the family, and himself the Dr. Spock of gardeners, they go on being written.

That too is how things are. To say that the Japanese are important to us and we to them does not, and probably never will, really change things. The Italians have been in our ken for much, much longer, and no Popes dwell among the Japanese (though there are a few aspirants to the title, aided by earnest bands of missionaries). One may take comfort, if it is needed, in the fact that to understand all is not to forgive all. We are more likely to be murdered by the people who know us best than by strangers, and when we declare war upon our brethren it is always with a peculiar savagery; and to be gardener for the Western world is not the worst possible of fates.



Mr. Gibney is naturally better at some things than at others. He is better at simile than generalizations, at description than theory. Some of the similes are rather splendid. My favorite is that in which he likens himself, presiding over a Tokyo office reception, to a peanut floating upon an ocean of Kirin beer. It is not so much that the generalization and theory are unacceptable as that they are not as satisfying as the description. They do not quite seem to fit all the circumstances. One comes up with theories of one’s own—though it may be so with most theories, and something of the sort may be the main reason for having them in the first place.

In the matter of religion, for instance, Mr. Gibney seems to accept the common view that the Japanese are not a religious people. “The gods are gone from Japanism,” he says. He seems to contradict himself a little later when he describes Buddhism as “more congenial than Christianity and, hence, permanent”; but the dominant view is of a very advanced secularization. It may be valid. Yet one feels that matters of definition are important. Somehow to the Western mind the matter-of-fact, rather perfunctory way the Japanese have of acknowledging the presence of numerous Shinto gods does not qualify as religious. It is not thoughtful enough, or absolute enough. If, however, a belief in invisible worlds and spirits and powers is central to the religious, it may be argued that the Japanese are more religious than we are. I was rather startled one evening not long ago when the mother-in-law of the late Mishima Yukio remarked that he would without doubt be reading certain of my translations with approval. There was of course an element of flattery in the remark, but it had in it none of the fulsomeness or the strained, forensic quality that it would have had from the mouth of an American.

For his theories about the emotional organization of the Japanese, Mr. Gibney relies very heavily on Professor Doi Takeo and the concept of amae. There can be no doubt that Professor Doi came upon something good when he came upon amae, and that there is no other word available to characterize a very important quality and mode of behavior. Indeed the fact that there is no word at all for it in English has a great deal to do with Professor Doi’s initial discoveries. Yet one gets very tired of amae, and wishes that there were another word, one that does not have the cloying, wheedling quality of amae, to describe the remarkable faculty the Japanese have for transplanting family relationships into other institutions and indeed making the nation itself into a kind of mystical family. The fact that most Japanese children are spoiled and over-mothered certainly has a great deal to do with the case, and it is to a childlike presumption that indulgent and permissive affection is one’s natural due even when one is no longer a child that amae refers. But somehow it fails to account for the virile energy and enterprise with which these spoiled children face adult problems. It is a valuable yet tiresome and inadequate concept.

Mr. Gibney is very good on Japanese women and the Japanese language, and perhaps best of all on what he calls “the mandarins,” the grand satraps of the intellectual world and the press. Those who do not read Japanese will wonder whether his description of the big newspapers is not biased and unfair, and indeed numbers of people have asked me whether “it is really as bad as all that.” The answer is that it is perhaps even worse. Mr. Gibney’s wish to avoid the overkill, one may imagine, coupled with the fact that these are the people he must live and do business with, has made him pull his punches. Of the “big three” papers, the Asahi and the Yomiuri (the Mainichi is a little better) can be counted upon to ruin one’s breakfast with mechanical, ruthless efficiency, morning after morning. Their hypocrisy is the worst thing about them. Their “liberal” predilections might be vaguely tolerable if they were admitted, but they are not. Behind a sanctimonious pose of neutrality lurks a consistent anti-American bias, and their toadying to mainland China and North Korea is downright loathsome.

Yet perhaps “it” is not so bad after all, because it is not so terribly important. The reporting on China is so uniformly silly and dull that no one pays much attention to it, and one may be assured that a discriminating and well-informed readership (how it got that way is one of those mysteries) is making allowances, and assigning praise and blame with more fairness than the papers themselves. The Mainichi lost circulation drastically after the scandal in which one of its reporters was the crucial agent in a leakage of official secrets, and the reason obviously was that the public was outraged both at the reporter’s behavior and at the failure of the newspaper to maintain discipline.



Like most compendia, this one contains numbers of statements that are of dubious validity or distinct invalidity. Most of them do not matter a great deal, though they may sometimes touch a nerve. Many of us who number Tokyo among our principal pieds-à-terre are proud of our taxi drivers, and we do not like to have them described as “inept.” They are very lawless and sometimes they can be maddeningly unresponsive to suggestion, but if the lawlessness were not accompanied by a most wonderful mastery of their trade, the carnage would be horrible.

Occasionally, however, a statement of doubtful validity strikes close to the heart of something very important. One is made to doubt the validity of appearances in this land of the plausible appearance. There is an example in Mr. Gibney’s thoughtful concluding chapter. His treatent of disaffected youth depends in considerable measure on the World Youth Consciousness Survey conducted a few years ago by the prime minister’s office. “Only in Japan did the pessimism run so heavy. Among Americans, West Germans, and Swedes, the percentage of ‘dissatisfaction with your way of life’ ran about 45 per cent. Japan’s was 73.5 per cent, by far the highest of the group.” It is dangerous to contend that one can describe the mental workings of another better than he has described them himself; but I may say with some firmness that I do not believe what that poll seems to tell us about Japanese youth. I have had rather a lot to do with the youth of two important countries, Japan and the United States, and I feel strongly, despite the violence of the student revolt a few years ago, that Japanese youth is much the more accepting and unrebellious of the two.

The trouble is that a Japanese respondent in these polls is likely to behave as most of us do when playing the stock market. We ask ourselves, as we deliberate buying and selling, what all those other buyers and sellers are going to do. The response in this instance was to keep in step with the market by selling satisfaction and buying dissatisfaction. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the poll is that a quarter of the respondents mustered the courage to go against the crowd and buy satisfaction. Social researchers have a way of distorting the truth by their very presence, and the risks are greater for the delver into Japanese opinion, unless he asks very specific and emotionally neutral questions, than for most.


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