Chapter 45 – A Book About Japan


1. Simul Publishing
2. Invited to Write
3. Reasons to Write
4. Chinese-Japanese Differences
5.  Nihonjin-ron
6.  An Answer?
7.  Disorganised Nihonjin-ron
8.  Yamamoto Shichihei – Japanese and Jews
9.  Why the Differences, Weird Theories
10. Culture versus Values
11. Anti-Nihonjin ron
12. ‘System’ theorists

Sam Jameson, Los Angeles Times correspondent and myself discussing book plans with Simul’s Muramatsu Masumi and publisher, Tamura Katsuo.

The idea of writing a book about Japan had not been mine.

It had been put to me by a ski friend, Muramatsu Masumi (or MM as his friends called him), back in 1974 while I was still working as a correspondent in Japan.

1. Simul Publishing

MM was a skilled interpreter who had set up a very successful interpreting and translation company called Simul.

He had then expanded into book publishing. (Simul would later go bankrupt, mainly because of the over-expansion into book publishing).

Initially the book-publishing division had concentrated on translations of well-known Western books, including books from Australia, where MM had some sentimental connections. But gradually it began to commission books in its own right.

2. Invited to Write

 MM suggested that since I had been in Japan so long (all of four years) and had had so many ‘interesting experiences,’ maybe I would like to write a book – in English to be translated into Japanese –  about my impressions.

Books about Japan sold well in those days – whether in English or Japanese.

The ever-friendly and gregarious MM clearly liked the idea of getting one of his mates to write a book, best- seller or not.

I said yes, and not just to keep him happy. I had wanted to write a book about Japan anyway, for several reasons. 

3. Reasons to Write

One reason was that a lot had happened in the four years I had been in Japan – the Red Army, the Tanaka Kakuei affair, the opening to China, the oil shock, economic ups and downs, anti-Japan riots in Bangkok and Jakarta…

I had been involved in some of this. For the record, if nothing else, I wanted to write about it.

True, I also realised that four years is much less than the time needed to know and understand Japan. 

But since that had not stopped quite a few other foreigners without much experience from writing about Japan I was less hesitant than maybe I should have been.

My experiences would be one thing. But my main topic would be an attempt to explain the Japanese personality.

I had been surprised by the emotionalism of the seemingly impassive Japanese – their propensity for bizarre, nation-wide moods, booms, panics. Today it was tennis, tomorrow it would be bowls, then it would be golf with acres of countryside later abandoned when golf fell out of favour.

The changes seemed driven purely by mood, not reason.

Someone had discovered the Australian coin embossed with the image of the frilled lizard, an animal which would feign anger by showing the fearsome frill around its neck but when approached would then turn tail and run away furiously. 

Japan decided it loved the animal. The Australian mint had to double production of the coin to satisfy demand from Japan.

The strong groupist instincts of the Japanese also were curious, and the factionalism. Tokyo University’s earthquake prediction center had been paralysed for years by some obscure clash between two rival academic factions.

Human relations seemed to dominate all, often illogically.

I once had a bank officer stand outside my office door for a week begging me to open an account with his bank. He gave me no reasons to use his bank. His just wanted to impress me with his sincerity.

(Nor did he do anything later to help me maintain the account. The feigned sincerity was simply a ritual.)

4. Chinese-Japanese Differences

The Chinese did not behave like this.

They were individualists. They told you frankly what they thought, what they liked and disliked. There was little Japanese-style ambiguity. 

Overall the Chinese seemed much more cerebral than the Japanese – with a genuine interest in ideas and debate, even during their crazy periods of ideological fervour.  

The Japanese were more submissive. Consensus, sometimes imposed, was the goal. Confrontations were to be avoided.

TV debates were often little more than a polite exchanges of views.

(An acquaintance had done quite well by setting up an institute to teach people how to  debate.)

The weakness of ideology in Japan was another point. Communists and Socialists basically had the same policies. But they were kept apart (and out of power) for over a generation because of factional differences. 

Chinese took their persuasions seriously. Thee were usually good reasons for their splits. Or at the very least they tried hard to manufacture reasons. 

In short, in their basic personality the Chinese seemed much more like us Westerners than they were like the Japanese.


The same was true for the Koreans I had come across. Opinions, like religions, were weak in Japan but strong in Korea.

Why the differences? And why the extraordinary economic success in Japan?

I would try to find an answer.

I told MM that even though I was about to go back to Australia I would try to let him have his book as soon as I could. 

MM seemed satisfied.

5. Nihonjin-ron

To be honest I had another and even more compelling reason to want to write.

The early 1970’s had seen a spate of best-selling books by Japanese scholars seeking to explain the Japanese to themselves and the rest of the world.

Collectively, their various theories were known as Nihonjin-ron – theories to explain the Japanese people.

Prominent authors had included the sociologist, Nakane Chie (with a book analysing the peculiarities of Japan’s ‘vertical, i.e hierarchal, society’), and Doi Takeo who emphasised the Japanese propensity for emotional indulgence – amae.

(In fact the concept of amae, and the word for it, had been lying around for a very long time. But no one had thought of using it to explain the Japanese as a people, let alone write a book about it.)

(But it was so successful that the very title of the book – amae no kozo, or structure of amae – has entered the Japanese language.)

A book published years later by a Tokyo University professor, Minami Hiroshi, identified well over one hundred different Nihonjin-ron theories in published circulation.

Western scholars have liked to dismiss Nihonjin-ron as national narcissism. But it clearly went much deeper than that.

The Japanese sensed there was something in their culture that set them apart from other peoples, and wanted an explanation.

The problem, however, was in the nature of those explanations.

One scholar would insist that Japan was a highly egalitarian society. Another would say it was rigidly stratified. One would emphasise the emotionalism. Another would talk about the strict rules of behavior. And so on.

A favourite explanation said that the Japanese had a unique sense of harmony (wa). In that case, I thought, how to explain the brutality of Japanese soldiers in warfare, or the intensity of the faction fights?

All one could say was that there were times when the Japanese could be uniquely harmonious. But there were also times when they could be uniquely unharmonious.

One Nihonjin-ron I liked said Japan was a bokashi shakai – a society that like to obscure things. People did not like to things to be too definite.

The frequent use of the word chotto, or ‘a bit,’ was an example  So if it was hot, one would say it is chotto atsui, or ‘a bit hot’, rather than simply hot.  And so on. 

Someone later was aptly to say that you could say almost anything you liked about the Japanese and you would probably be right. 

6. An Answer?

I needed time to find a solution to all this confusion. And I think I eventually did.

But for the moment I will summarise, as follows:

As humans, we all share the same qualities. 

We are all, Japanese and non-Japanese, capable of hierarchy and equality, harmony and disharmony, friendship and hostility, cooperation and non-cooperation, etc. 

But we all have a choice in the way of doing these things. We can, and do, them in the one dimension (for the moment I will call it the emotional/instinctive) of the human personality, which we all tend to use in small groups.

Or we can do them in another more principled/rationalistic dimension which most of us non-Japanese tend to use in larger groups.

The Japanese, whether in small or large groups, tend to do these things in the emotional/instinctive dimension. 

So in large groups like the nation, where we non-Japanese would rely on the argued principles, laws, or religious doctrines, the Japanese would tend instinctively to prefer to rely on traditional rules or mood or seek consensus. And so on.

The result is that while much of what the Japanese were doing – enterprise management or diplomacy for example – may seem to us to be different and unusual, in fact they were simply trying to do what we do but using a different dimension.

More details later.(See Chapter 41, Refining the Theory, for the final version.)

7. Disorganised Nihonjin-ron

Compounding the confusion was the way each Nihonjin-ron advocate would set out to focus on a particular quality of interest to him or her – amae (indulgence), for example – and insist that not only was this unique to Japan but also that it explained everything else about Japan.

In fact, we are all capable of indulgence, but we do not handle it in quite the emotional way that the Japanese do. (To his credit, Doi was later to realise this point.)

We all seek hierarchy as a basis on which to organise our societies.  But we non-Japanese seek rationalistic principles, merit for example, as a basis. 

The Japanese rely on the more instinctive rule of seniority.

We all seek harmony. But where most non-Japanese will rely on laws, ideologies, argued reasons etc., Japanese will tends to rely more on instinctive feelings or traditional rules.  

And so on.

8. Yamamoto Shichihei – Japanese and Jews

Encouraging me in my search for ways to understand Japan was the extraordinary success of a rather shallow book called ‘The Japanese and The Jews.’ 

It was said to have been written by a scholar of Japanese classical literature, Yamamoto Shichihei. But to spike reader curiosity Yamamoto had used a Jewish pseudonym, Isaih Ben-darsan, for authorship.

He had pretended that Isaih was a Kobe-born Jew who had left Japan some years earlier to teach at an obscure mid-west, US university and was hiding from publicity. 

Japan was so intrigued that some media sent their reporters all the way to the US to try to track down this oracle of wisdom.

Needless to say, they were not very successful. But the book was. 

It sold in the millions. 

Back in those early days the Japanese were fascinated, obsessed even, by the foreigner’s view of themselves. If Yamamoto had written under his own name his book would probably have been ignored.

Yamamoto’s description of allegedly unique Japanese qualities was very superficial.

And his effort to explain differences was even more bizarre than most. It was something along the lines of Japan having a lot of water and Israel having little.

Surely there was a market out there for a better book on the subject of the Japanese, I thought. And this time it would be written by a genuine foreigner – me.

In particular, it would try more systematically to cover all aspects of the Japanese – HOW they seemed to be different, and then WHY the differences.

(Maybe I too would sell in the millions?)

9. Why the Differences, Weird Theories

True, Japanese writers did not entirely ignore the WHY problem. But like Yamamoto’s water theory, most explanations were weird, confused, and often contradictory.

We were told, for example, that the Japanese were as they were because they ate rice (as if no one else did), had a gentle climate, had a very un-gentle climate (battled typhoons and volcanoes), spoke a unique language etc.

One elderly scholar based in a government-funded outfit called the International Japan Culture Research Center (set up by the conservative Nakasone establishment to explain Japan’s unique culture to the rest of us) was insisting that the Japanese were as they were because they had inherited the mysterious, spirit-worshipping culture of their forest-dwelling Jomon ancestors 3,000 years earlier.

(Interestingly the Germans had a similar forest-dwelling theory to explain themselves.)

Another theory went even further in the vegetation direction. Much of southern Japan, it noted, was covered by a variety of sub-tropical, darkly-lustrous leaved trees and shrubs (native camellias and camphor trees for example). 

This, it insisted, had created the dark emotionalism of the Japanese soul!

Even the more respectable theories being put forward by serious scholars like Nakane Chie seemed fairly weak – that Japan’s groupism was the result of rice growing collectivity, that living in confined valleys explained the narrowness of much Japanese thinking,  and so on.

But the Japanese were not the only people to grow rice, and most was grown on wide, flat flood-plain.


One very popular theory to explain the lack of individualism in Japan was, and remains, Japan’s Shintoist polytheism – yaoyorozu no kami.

Western and Middle Eastern religions have only one God, we were told. This meant that people could define their identity individually and directly in relation to that God.

The Japanese were said to have been denied that opportunity because of their confusion of gods. So they had ended up seeing identity in the collective.

The problem with this theory, however, was that the nation with arguably the most polytheistic of religions – India – had a highly individualistic population!

Perhaps the most pervasive of the various theories was the fu-do-ron – climate theory – of Watsuji Tetsuro, often seen as the founder of Nihonjin-ron. 

It says Japan’s ‘monsoon’ climate – the extreme variation between hot, wet summers and cold, dry winters – explains the emotionalism and violent mood changes in the Japanese personality.

Someone should ask these fu-do-ron advocates if they know where the term ‘monsoon’ comes from, and whether the people in that country – India – resemble the Japanese personality.

Another fu-do-ron says Japan’s clearly defined seasonal changes affect the national personality, as if no other nation had clearly defined seasonal changes.

10. Culture versus Values

Helping to clear up the Nihonjin-ron confusion would be to realise the difference between value systems and cultures

For example, Japanese culture has much in common with Chinese culture – the use of kanji (often with identical meanings and similar pronunciations), the Confucian borrowings in the culture, education in the Chinese classics, and so on.

But few familiar with both peoples will doubt the difference in values.

The challenge is to define that difference, and why.

11. Anti-Nihonjin ron

Unfortunately, the weaknesses and absurdities of Japan’s many Nihonjin-ron theories have convinced most Western students of Japan that the entire topic should be dismissed as an intellectual aberration.

In the books they write about Japan, often all or part of an entire chapter ritually denouncing Nihonjin-ron seems obligatory.

The French, the Albanians, the Indonesians etc. all have their own very distinctive cultures, the critics tell us. But none of them claim to be uniquely different from everyone else.

They do not demand some kind of ‘ron’ – theory – to explain themselves (though I sometimes think the French come quite close).

Nihonjin-ron efforts to explain the Japanese simply pander to Japan’s inherent racism – its irrational desire to seem to be different – they say.

Worse, it is a revival of the prewar militarist kokusui thinking that said Japan was both unique and specially favoured by the gods.

The Japanese, the anti-Nihonjinron critics insist, are just like the rest of us but do not want to admit it. 

But the anti-Nihonjinron critics themselves at times seem as confused as the people they criticise.  

For after having blasted Nihonjin-ron, they usually end up trying to produce their own theories to explain Japan.

One of the more respected of the US Japanologists, Chalmers Johnson, in his book ‘Japan – Who Governs’  criticized Nihonjin-ron.  

But he then gave us an entire chapter on Omote/Ura (the importance in Japan of outside appearance versus the inner reality) – something the Nihonjin-ron people also note. 

He saw that as a basis for plots and fakery in Japanese economic affairs.

12. ‘System’ Theorists

One of their most fervent plot theorists was a European scholar who had managed to spend 25 years in Japan without learning the language and who, after making the usual harsh condemnations of Nihonjin-ron, then went on to say that they – the Japanese – were controlled by some mysterious ‘system.’

The concept of some nebulous ‘system’ controlling Japanese behaviour was also popular among others unable to understand Japan. But they never told us what the system was and how it operated. 

What they were in fact looking at was a set of values laid down by tradition or emotion, rather than by bibles, logic or argument. Maybe that was the system?

Some took the easy road by simply saying the Japanese were controlled by something called ‘Japanism.’

Many also assumed ‘the system’ was something indoctrinated into children at an early age, and stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

This ‘indoctrination’ theory hardly made sense, unless one was simply saying that the Japanese had their own system of values, and that, as in any other society, children were taught those values both in the schools and elsewhere.

If anything it was the lack of a ‘system’,  in the sense of not having a guiding national religion or political ideology, that distinguished postwar Japan from most. 

Their ‘system’ was something more nebulous.

Many Japanese teachers in the postwar years, reacting against the militaristic education of the past, simply turned to rejection of past rules and assumptions.  

Perhaps one of their legacies was the strange gakkyu-hokai problem – classes that had obeyed no rules, that had slipped totally out of control. 

Nationalists worried by the moral vacuum do call for some stronger set of guiding rules – generally something closer to the feudal Bushido system. But not many take the call seriously.

The once-strong attachment to Confucian rulings had also been weakening steadily over the past century.

Even so the theorists remained determined to find some kind of  ‘system’ to explain Japan — preferably something demonic to explain economic and trade prowess.

Few seemed to realise that as in a village or family,  the ’system’ was simply a set of rules passed down over generations which had been laid down and taught but did not need to be explained.

Even fewer realised how such values could create powerful economies. 

One of the stranger ’system’ theories (produced by said European) said that Japanese children educated abroad, on return to Japan were compelled to go to special schools so they could be indoctrinated back into Japanese values.

True, there are special schools to help the children coming back to Japan to catch up in their studies and rediscover the culture, but they certainly were not compulsory.

The reality is they are very hard to get into, as I discovered when I tried to get entry for my own children after they had spent some time abroad and needed to catch up.

Many of the Japanologists seemed too busy writing books to go out and discover the real world of Japan.  

But the world, knowing even less about Japan, often accepted what they had to say.

Even some Japanese, it seemed, could be bamboozled into accepting the views of these people, so eager were they to have themselves explained.

If and when I wrote my book I would put an end to  this charlatanism, I told myself.

But first I had to get my own ideas into shape.