Final Chapter


Japan – Is it Unique?

1.  Japanese Honesty. Can it be found Elsewhere?
2.  The Outsider View
3.  National Togetherness
4.  The Empirical Test
5.  Indonesia, the Philippines
6.  South Europe,South Asia
7.  North Europe
8.  Meanwhile in Japan
9. Meanwhile in China
10.China: The Lazy Colossus

In my long Japan career I have lost several wallets. Each time they have been returned, intact, with the money inside untouched. 

What causes this honesty? And can it be found elsewhere?

Some conservative Japanese say it is due to the O tento-sama – the Shintoist Sun God who watches over the behaviour of all. 

But that hardly explains the honesty of the new generation of Japanese.

1.  Japanese Honesty. Can it be found Elsewhere?

Nor it it just wallets.  Shopkeepers will go to lengths to make sure change is correct, even to the point of chasing the customer down the road to return correct change. Why?

What is the force that drives group cooperation in Japan? The large manufacturing organisations which operate like clockwork?

What is the force the holds Japan together as a nation?

Why was Japan able so easily simply to persuade the entire population to wear masks during the Corona virus pandemic without resort to fines or other punitive mandates?

What creates the nation-wide moods and fads?

Why is it so easy to move society into antagonisms? Into the vicious media scape-coating of individuals or companies that seem to act differently, such as Recruit in the eighties ?

2. The Outsider View

Most outsiders end up speaking about Japanese enigmas, Orwellian discipline inculcated since birth, or something just called Japanism.

One European critic* even insisted that children who have spent time abroad were required to go to special schools to be re-educated into Japanese disciplinary values.

Yet if anyone knows the true situation it is myself, as the father of two children brought up both in Japan and abroad.

Schools for returnees exist.  But they are to help children catch up with the Japan curriculum.  They are few, and very hard to get into.

The honesty, discipline, group cooperation we see in Japan and so on are a natural part of the culture. Group cooperation is part of the education system. But it is not forced. It is taken for granted.

*Karel van Wolferen  The Enigma of Japanese Power

3. National Togetherness

In this book I have argued that while group, even national, togetherness can be instinctive, in most societies it usually has to compete with the other forces – logic, religions, common sense, intellectual development, individualism – that shape our behaviour.  

What makes Japan unique is that even at the national level the instinctive, collectivist values we all inherited from our original tribal societies remain strong. 

Indeed, I myself, was the target of that tribal togetherness – by being abruptly excluded from Japanese society after I was seen as criticising a particularly ridiculous piece of Japan’s foreign policy known as the abductee problem.   The few others to try to do the same have been severely punished by the state.

I have argued that because of its unusual history and isolated position in Asia,  Japan was able to develop to the level of nation the emotional, instinctive values of togetherness that we all have in small groups.

In that sense Japan is unique. 

4. The Empirical Test

But the proof of a theory lies not just in argument. Empirical backing is needed. 

Have other nations which developed in a kind of environment similar to that of Japan developed the same values?

And the answer is yes, to some extent.

They may not have developed those collectivist values as fully as Japan. But the direction has been similar.

5. Indonesia,Philippines

We can begin with Indonesia — a large, isolated, island society on which a strong ideology – Islam — was imposed. But despite the imposition of that foreign ideology, like Japan it was able to develop an advanced feudal society, with Japanese-like values.

Those values included gotong royong (mutual assistance) and mufakat (consensus). 

Group cooperation is emphasised. As one Google commentator puts it:

‘Individuals often perceive themselves to be members of ‘groups’ rather than autonomous actors. These groups reflect or come to define who its members are and often expect a high degree of loyalty.’ (Japanese collectivism could not be described more correctly.)

True, in the case of Indonesia Islam was able to penetrate the society more strongly than religions in Japan. But as in Japan, it is able to coexist with other religions, Buddhism especially.

In other words it avoided the dogmatism which we see in the Middle East for example, where Shi’a faction believers seem locked eternally in a bloody confrontation with mainstream Sunni faction believers. 

Indonesia also has a strong sprinkling of shamanistic religions.

But Indonesia’s chances of further advance as a well-organised feudal society to a modern society were cut off by Dutch colonialism. 

They were also cut off later by the influx of US anti-communist ideology. This, as in many other societies, led to the destruction of the emerging intelligentsia needed to push a society to modernisation. 

The Philippines also for most of its early history was able to develop in relative isolation.   One Filipino value very similar to Japan’s value of giri is utang na loob – reciprocity in gratitude. 

Similar also is pakikisama defined as the ‘maintaining of smooth interpersonal relations.’ 

But any further evolution into feudalism was cut off by Spanish colonialism several hundred years before Indonesia had to suffer Dutch invasion. It then had to suffer domination by US culture. 

As Filipinos put: Three hundred years in a Spanish convent and then 50 years in a US brothel.

As a result group cooperation seems to be less emphasised. The chance to evolve as Japan did was cut off almost at birth. It has been struggling ever since in its efforts to create a coherent society, with US intervention preforming its usual disruptive function.

6. South Europe, South Asia

The continental societies of southern Europe and the Middle East moved in the opposite direction.Whether the Bible or the Sharia, they had firm sets of argued principles regulating behaviour.

The contents of these documents bordered on the dogmatic. But for this reason they invited refutations, arguments over points of interpretation, factions etc.  This in turn lead to a demand for logic and scientific thinking.

This more rationalistic approach was doubtless due to long histories of struggle between rival nations and ideologies -the Middle Eastern societies especially – encouraging the dogmas, and then the reasonings and questionings that underlie scientific and philosophic thinking.

But while this has its virtues, they can be at the expense of collectivist, pragmatic thinking.

The countries of southern Europe were influenced by this thinking. So it is no accident they they produced great thinkers and philosophies.

But even as modern societies, attempt to create large-scale manufacturing have usually been weak. Armies too have been weak.

With qualifications, Italy and France, for example, usually could only show military prowess against weaker enemies. With the exception of guerrilla warfare, greater individualism hinders the blind, instinctive togetherness needed for most military strength. 

7. North Europe

But island isolation is not the only possible crucible for instinctive values. 

Isolation in the northern areas of the European continent has also produced values and societies similar to Japan.

The UK, Scandinavia and Germany, for example, were sufficiently isolated from the more ideological societies of southern Europe to be able, like Japan, to borrow the ideologies and scientific wisdom of others, mainly in South Europe, while retaining the collectivism of their original village and feudal values. 

This combination, as in Japan, underlay their rapid industrial growth based mainly in manufacturing, and their stronger militarism.

Until recently they have retained elements of what I have called instinctive values. View a video of the construction of the Boulder Dam in the early thirties and you are looking at a Japanese-style construction site, each man going about his appointed role methodically.

In the UK I knew in the 1950’s people took an instinctive pride in the quality of their work. Trains ran on time, manufacturing had a high rank and productivity. 

Honesty in relations was taken for granted.  As in Japan today, there was little need to check taxi change.

But already while I was there in the sixties I could see the move from collectivist cooperation and responsible manufacturing to everyman-for-himself service or gig industry employment. Almost all my UK university colleagues wanted to enter law, brokering, investing, politics.  

None were interested in dirty-hands manufacture.That combined with the influence of Thatcherist individualism ‘there is no such thing as society’ has hastened Britain’s decline into a service industry economy with weak manufacturing.

It efforts to retain a car industry have usually been doomed.

Germany, thanks perhaps to greater isolation, has done much better in retaining group cooperation, attention to detail, craftsmanship and the pragmatic thinking of the village/feudal grassroots. It is no accident Germany and the  Scandinavian societies were able so easily to replace the UK as the superior manufacturing centres of Europe.

8. Meanwhile in Japan

In the Japan, where I once taught, employment in manufacturing – Nissan and Toyota, for example – was keenly sought by students. 

Service sector employment was regarded as much lower in rank – kyaku hiki, or customer snatching. 

Unfortunately the same simple, group-cooperative values were able to help the rise of fascism, militarism and cruelty to other peoples, as shown also by Germany.

The world may still have to live with that unfortunate result for some time to come. 

In Japan I have met some beautiful people – people who bitterly regret the harm they have caused to other people, the Chinese in particular.  They join pacifist groups.  They try to spread  their message abroad.

My wife for many years, Yasuko, was one of them.

Sadly their efforts have been almost totally wasted.

As in Germany in the thirties losing a war does not mean the people who opposed the war come to power and the people who supported that war lose power. 

To the contrary.  The men who created the war usually survive the war.  They still the control the wealth and many of the levers of power. They control the armies.

They still harbour the resentments, the biases, the hatreds, the ambitions that underlay that former war. They see defeat in that war as imposed on them unfairly by outside forces, and are determined to get revenge. After a few years effort they can control the government despite a national revulsion against the policies that led to that war. 

My letter and mail boxes are filled with material justifying past wars, particularly the claimed effort by Japan to liberate Asia from Western colonial oppression.  

They see the opportunity finally to defeat China but this time with the help rather than the opposition of the US. 

9. Meanwhile in China

Asa large continental nation with a lengthy history it remains obsessed with its own history and debates. Its armies are weak and often corrupt. It bestirs itself only after insults to its sovereignty, such as Taiwan.  And even then it prefers to rely on bluster and brick-wall diplomacy.

’The good Chinese (Han) does not become a soldier’ was one saying I took away from my years of mixing with Chinese.  

Only after being attacked does it make some effort to organise its armies. Hopefully this is not too late. 

10. China: The Lazy Colossus 

For twenty years it tolerated brutal US military intervention in Afghanistan, a nation literally on its borders.

It made little effort try to hasten US defeat.  It made little effort to expose the hypocrisy of that intervention, namely the US claim it was anxious to liberate Afghani women at the very moment it was supporting extreme Islamist forces seeking to suppress Afghani women.

It is accused of aggression against neighbours.  One of those neighbours is the large nation of 

Mongolia upon which China depends for coal and other minerals. Mongolia flirts with the West – it is a ‘NATO partner across the globe’ and has an open skies agreement with the US. With a population of just over 3 million and an unguarded border of more than 4,000 kms. with China it could be conquered in weeks. 

The Republic of China government in Taiwan claims it is part of China and criticises Beijing’s tolerance of Mongolia’s independence. Yet the Western governments supporting Taiwan criticise China’s alleged expansionism. Hypocrisy has no limits.

If Mongolia were a neighbour of the US it would have been taken over a century ago, along with Texas, California and all the other remnants of the Spanish empire.. 

Unfortunately this kind of blind hypocrisy in the hands of militarists fuels wars.