Holiday Tangent: Seidensticker in TIME/LIFE World Library book on Japan dated 1965. Compare and contrast with today’s assessments.
Posted by debito on December 27th, 2011
Hi Blog. Happy holidays. Today I offer you some historical perspective regarding overseas dialog on Japan, in this case policy towards Japan by the United States. The year is 1965 (first edition 1961), an excerpt from a book about my age offering Edward Seidensticker, famous translator and interpreter of things Japanese for the English-reading outsider.
This is a “WORLD LIBRARY” monthly library book on Japan (published by Time Life Inc.). As the book says about the author:
In the text of this volume, Edward Seidensticker gives an interpretation of Japan based on more than 13 years of residence in the country, where he won a reputation as a sensitive intepreter of the Japanese people and as an incisive commentator on the contemporary scene. His knowledge of the country dates from 1945, when he served for a time as a Marine officer with the U.S. Occupation Forces. Mr. Seidensticker, who was born in Colorado, returned to Tokyo in 1948 for two years’ service with the Department of State and then did graduate work at the University of Tokyo. A noted translator of Japanese literature, he contibutes to general and scholarly publications in the United States and Europe. He is now a professor of Japanese literature at Stanford University.
Okay, time out. After I read this, I blinked and said, “Only 13 years in Japan and he gets this much credibility? What’s with that?” The Table of Contents offered me little solace (The Crowded Country, The Heritage of a Long Isolation, Storm and Calm in Politics, A Resilient and Growing Economy, Upheavals in Family and Society, Traces of Spirit, Diversions Borrowed and Preserved, The Tolerant Believers, Powerful Molders of Young Minds, and A Nation in the Balance), all broad strokes all in a slim volume of only about 150 pages including voluminous photos.
But let me type in the concluding chapter. Let’s see what you think about Seidensticker’s insights then and consider how much has or has not changed, both on the ground and in overseas discourse on Japan, fifty years later. My comments follow.
Chapter 10, A Nation in the Balance, pp. 145-151
By Edward Seidensticker
There is an imaginary border line skirting the ridges of Tokyo, which thrust eastward towards the bay like fingers. In the days when the city’s predecessor, Edo, was a fishing village, the ridges came down to the water’s edge. The shogunate later filled in the shallow fringes of the bay to provide a mercantile center for the city and a place for the merchants to live. The line between the eastern “downtown’” of the flats and the western “uptown” of the ridges therefore became the line between the easygoing, slangy, pleasure-loving townsmen and the austere members of the warrior class. Today it may be taken to symbolize the political division of the country. East of the line, in the flats, is the world of the Japanese who works hard, does not trouble himself much with transcendental thoughts and loves to have a festival now and then. Although he may not be deliriously happy with things as they are, he generally accepts them. In the hills to the west is the world of the professional and white-collar classes, of commuter trains, drab middle-class housing, the huge Iwanami Publishing Company and the influential and somewhat highbrow newspapers. Suspicious of the West and wishful, if at the moment confused, about the Communist bloc, this is the articulate half of the country, and it can be generally relied on for opposition to suggestions for an expansion of the American alliance. It is not from the poor low-lying districts east of the imaginary line but rather from the hilly white-collar districts to the west that Communists are elected to the Tokyo City Council.
Badly divided, with one half willing to accept fundamental principles that the other half wants only to ignore, Japan as yet finds it difficult to come forward as a nation and answer the question that is put to it: Which side is it on?
The Japanese should not be pushed for an answer, but they may not be ignored. They have accomplished too much during the last century and particularly the last two decades, and their position in the world is too important Until a few years ago, Japan’s economic stability was heavily dependent on the American economy. Today the dependence has been so reduced that some economist think Japan could weather a fairly severe American recession, though not a full-scale depression. If the resourcefulness of the Japanese stays with them, even the rising monster across the China Sea need not be as threatening a competitor as one might think it.
The Japanese economy is one of the half dozen most powerful in the world. Any transfer of such an economy to the other side in the cold war would be an event of tremendous moment. By tipping a delicate balance in Asia, it could, indeed, be the jolt that would send the whole precarious complex of world politics crashing into disaster.
Of all the great industrialized peoples of the world, the Japanese are the least committed, and so perhaps among those most strategically placed for administering that final push. It could be argued that France, with its own kind of polarization and its disaffected intellectuals, in an equally good position; but when the French underwent a crisis in 1958, they turned to help not to a Marxist but to a conservative and a Roman Catholic, General de Gaulle, and so back to the very sources of the western tradition. A shift to the other side would be for them a shattering revolution.
In the middle years of the 1960s, the Japanese, industriously building, and even occasionally hinting that they might like to assist the U.S. foreign-aid program, gave a surface impression of having allowed old uncertainties to recede into the background. Certainly the country leans to the West at present; yet only a relatively few observers would make the definite assertion that it would be impossible for Japan to shift to the other side. A few more years of prosperity, of Red Chinese truculence and of freedom from rankling incidents in relations with the United States might see the old uncertainties buried forever. The future, will tell, and it may be significant that the Left was unable in 1964 to make visits of American nuclear submarines to Japan into the issue that had been made over revising the Security Treaty with the United States in 1960. For the present, the wise ally ought still to be aware of a certain suspicion of U.S. motives on the part of some Japanese.
It is difficult to blame the Japanese for their lack of firmness. They are part of the western alliance not because they are part of its tradition but because they lost a war with its strongest member Material prosperity has not ended a feeling of restlessness. No number of washing machines can really substitute for a sense of mission. When Eisako [sic] Sato became Japan’s 10th postwar prime minister in 1964, almost his first words were: ”Japan’s international voice has been too small”. What that voice will say is as yet unclear. Obviously, dreams of empire are gone, but the Japanese government apparently does wish to take a more active role in the free world’s fight for peace. The country is already giving $600 million in aid to underdeveloped nations. It would like a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and there have been proposals in Japan that the country contribute a peace-keeping force to the U.N. But Japan as a whole remains ambivalent about playing a strong international role.
By and large, the Japanese still dread the prospect of rearmament. Many Japanese — in a general way, those from east of the symbolic Tokyo line — are able to sink themselves into their work and so to accept the chiefly negative attractions of the American alliance. Others look to the Chinese or the Russians or waver between them.
United in fear of war and the atom bomb, to which they alone have offered victims, the Japanese are in a difficult position. The observer pities a country that cannot make up its mind to defend itself but cannot really make up its mind to have others defend it; that cannot live with armaments (especially nuclear ones) but cannot live without them. The observer can even understand, so emotion-ridden is the question, why those who resolve the dilemma by dismissing defenses and defenders show a strong tendency to try to eat their cake and have it too.
It is the articulate intelligentsia that does so, and in a way this is a new twist to the venerable Japanese institution of blithely accepting contradictory beliefs. The policy approved by the intelligentsia means, in effect, that a country can have security without paying for it. The policy in question is disarmed neutralism, and it has the support of the second largest party in the country, the Socialist party.
There are two cynical but logical ways of defending such a policy. One is the position of the few who have followed their Marxist assumptions through to a conclusion: that neutralism is a device for preparing to switch sides in the world conflict. The other is the hardheaded position held by such operators as President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt: that the two sides can be played off against each other.
For most of its supporters, however, disarmed neutralism is simply a matter of wishfulness and self-deception. Its advocates assume that an economically powerful country, situated far from the nearest help, would be safe if disarmed, because any invasion or fifth-column subversion would start a major war. In other words, it assumes that the United States, even if it were restricted to its own side of the Pacific, would come to the aid of the Japanese in an attack. Hence a self-deception arises that verges on willful duplicity: the West is simultaneously condemned and looked to for protection.
Yet intolerable though this attitude may seem to an American, it is after all one which might have been anticipated. The stronger party must accept it in good humor and hope that there will one day be an awakening.
The chances of an awakening certainly seem better than they were a few years ago. Although it is still far from victory, the Socialist party creeps a little closer to it with every election. In its eagerness to make the last push, it may turn to wooing the essentially conservative voter east of that imaginary downtown-uptown line. It cannot do so unless it stops talking revolution and tones down its hostility toward the United States, a country which continues to be popular east of the line. So far the talk has been ambiguous, with one clause contradicting the next in the same sentence. The whole argument apparently leads to the conclusion that there will be a revolution, but not quite yet, and a revolution that will not necessarily have to be achieved by forceful means.
However domestic politics alone might have altered its position, the Socialist party has recently been exposed to winds from abroad. The Chinese nuclear test and the belligerent position of Peking on revolution by force, as well as its attack on the nuclear-test treaty concluded between the Soviet Union and the United States early in 1964, have driven the Socialists into the arms of Moscow and to an acceptance of Moscow’s line of peaceful coexistence. By backing the treaty, the Socialists, for the first time since the Occupation, have taken a position in international affairs that is openly at odds with that of the Japanese Communist party. The Russians may move toward the West, and the Japanese Socialists may move with them, but on that possibility one can only speculate.
If the Russians, the Chinese and the Japanese themselves can influence this left-wing Japanese pole, possible influence on it from the United States must be listed as a poor fourth. Yes U.S. influence in Japan is not negligible, as witness the fact that the Security Treaty was, after all, accepted in 1960 despite all the fulmination from the the Left, and by the fact that successive postwar governments have affirmed their support for the U.S. alliance. In 1965 Premier Sato, on a visit to the United States, declared that Japan and the U.S. were bound by ties of “mutual interdependence.”
So many forces shaping the future of Japan are nevertheless out of Japanese hands, and therefore beyond the power of anyone to influence, that no country can afford to be unmindful of them. This can be said of any country, but it is particularly true of a country that remains divided.
For the West, and particularly its most powerful nation, a pair of injunctions would seem to be an apt conclusion to what has been said: Be quiet, and be strong.
Be quiet. If the troubles the United States had with Japan in 1960 taught a lesson, it was that the Japanese must not be pushed to a decision about their responsibilities in the world. They may eventually come to a decision by their own devices, but as things stand today, nothing should be done that might give the impression that the United States is applying pressure.
Proposals which demand of the Japanese more positive cooperation than they are now offering are still more dangerous. It may seem that every nation has an obligation to defend itself, particularly if on occasion its international monetary problems seem of less moment than those of its chief ally. Yet the Japanese are too important to the western world and too vulnerable to be left wandering unprotected, and today there are elements in Japan itself which seem to have reached that conclusion. There are even some important factions in Prime Minister Sato’s own conservative party that not ony recognize the necessity of U.S. nuclear defenses but also see a need for Japan to have nuclear weapons of its own. That is not a widely shared view; any proposal for adequate defenses flies squarely in the face of the American-drafted Japanese Constitution, and any effort to alter the Constitution would provoke violent opposition. So the disagreeable but undeniable fact, not likely to change for a long time, is that the United States must be responsible for the defense of Japan and expect considerable vituperation in return.
And the United States and the West must be strong. There is yet another important element in Japanese neutralism. In addition to being in some measure cynical, in some measure pro-Communist and in some measure wishful, neutralism is based on fear and opportunism, in this case closely intertiwned. There are Japanese who simply want to be on the winning side, and they think they see which side it will be. Hence, whether or not they have any convictions, they say favorable things about China.
It is possible to understand and even to sympathize with such people. The United States is across the Pacific, but the Soviet Union is within sight of the northernmost Japanese island, and across the China Seas lies the newest of the nuclear powers, larger in terms of manpower than all the others put together.
On a practical level, the strength of the American economy is important. Although Japan is not as dependent on the United States as it once was, it is nevertheless more dependent on the United States than on any other country.
A serious recession in America is the thing most certain to disturb the solid voting habits of the Japanese. To remain prosperous is perhaps the best thing the United States and the West can do for Japan. Economic stability may not answer all the questions, but economic disaster would be quite certain to produce all the wrong answers.
COMMENT: Seidensticker attempts what all good scholars try to do with the society they have devoted their lives to: Convince everyone else that they should be paying attention to it as well.
In this case, we have the classic Western assessments of a fragile Japan in balance, at the time teetering between the contemporary poles of Free World and Communist Bloc; an ignorant nudge from the United States just might send it crashing down on the wrong side and throw world politics into “disaster”. (Clearly the USG is the intended audience here, as it reads more like a policy prescription in Foreign Affairs than an exotic travelogue; I am reminded of George Kennan’s “X” Soviet containment article.)
So Seidensticker’s advice? Be quiet and strong. Leave Japan alone to develop along its own ways, but be mindful of which direction it’s going. Shouldn’t be too hard, he suggests — if the US just keeps its economy chugging along its merry way, dependent Japan’s will too. Thus the paternalism of the United States, in this article’s case towards Japan in its position as a Cold-War pawn, still in my view colors US-Japan Relations today.
Don’t get “pushy” with this “badly divided” and society mired in its “confused” exoticism? Clearly this is a much better route than getting involved in Japan’s minutia like the US was doing in Vietnam (later soon Cambodia and Laos), if this indeed is how dipolar the choices were seen back then. But if so, is there any wonder why Japan’s intellectuals showed such mistrust of the US?
In sum, this is a thoughtful article, and in 2000 words Seidensticker acquits himself well when it comes to knowledge and sensitivity towards Japan. But it’s clearly dated (not just because of smug hindsight to see how many predictions he got wrong); it’s clearly in the Edwin Reischauer camp of “poor, poor, misunderstood Japan, let’s not be ignorant or mean towards it”, meaning protecting the status quo or else someday Japan will attack us.
Yet now, fifty years later, Japan has essentially gotten everything it wanted from the West in order to develop and prosper. Yet I believe it’s heading back towards insularity today due to structures and habits that were NOT removed from Japan’s postwar bureaucracy and education system. Such as a weak investigative press, an economic system not geared beyond developmental capitalism, a lack of solid oversight systems that encourage rule of law rather than allow bureaucratic extralegal guidelines or political filibustering, a lackluster judiciary that cannot (or refuses to) hold powerful people and bureaucrats responsible, a public undereducated beyond a mythological and anti-scientific “uniqueness” mindset, able to understand equality and fairness towards people who are disenfranchised or who are not members of The Tribe, etc.
These are all essential developments crucial to the development of an equitable society that were stalled or stymied (starting with the Reverse Course of 1947) under the very same name of maintaining the delicate balance of Japan’s anti-communist status quo. Well, the Cold War is long over, folks, yet Japan still seems locked into unhealthy dependency relationships (unless it is able to lord it over poorer countries in cynical and venal attempts to influence world politics in its own petty directions; also unhealthy). Only this time, for the past twenty years and counting, Japan simply isn’t getting rich from it any longer.
Further thoughts, Debito.org Readers? Arudou Debito