Monday, 6 August 2012

In Japan: Our Friendly Enemies and Fear of Failure

It was a year ago in Venice when I first realized how scrutable the Japanese are. It was the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, and of course nobody Italian had ever been a fascist. The Italians were hard at work forgetting their tackier collaborationist pasts. And the Japanese were trying even harder to prove that they had never lost in the Pacific. Italy was awash in a tidal wave of “cultural exchanges” from the Land of the Rising SONY.

The two I saw in quick succession that afternoon in Venice were as disparate as it is possible for the same culture to present itself. The first was a really instructive essay on how Japanese painters Westernized their themes and styles after the Meiji Revolution. It was simply astonishing—here was a Degas, Nipponized just enough to make it interesting in its own right; here a Gauguin, with a wee dollop of Japonism.

It was uncanny. It was like attending a lecture in Art 101 on early Modernism with a pair of slant-eyed glasses, slightly jaundiced in tint. Man, those cats sure could copy.

But never sedulously. Transform is perhaps an apter word, just as they imported Chinese characters, trimmed the ideographs down from 8,000 to 1,800—and voila! A lean and meaner Japanese script—”easier” to learn than Chinese, much better adapted eventually for linotype machines as well.

Except that they also started restructuring their museology—adopting the Western convention of arranging by medium and genre rather than by “spirit.” In 1983, the self-taught art historian Yoshinobu Tokugawa (he was a banker before he took over the last Shogunate’s museum of family treasures in Nagoya), set the Japanese art world on its (deaf) ear by circulating the Tokugawa treasures internationally (funded by Minolta) in suites of objects, as required by the Buddhist esthetic—not in the Western manner of the paintings in one gallery, the prints in another, photos off by themselves, etc. Tea ceremony objects (vase, scroll, utensils) derive their meaning together.

The Japanese art world policy makers I queried about this indictment of the current heir to the last Shogun dismissed him as something of a crank. But of course the emperor is not. He knows what gave his traditional art its meaning; the art bureaucracy merely knows what is currently good for its budgets—distorting the national heritage but beating the West at its own game nonetheless. In a shame and guilt-driven culture, saving face, especially after having lost it monumentally as in World War II, is the most important thing there is. Truth is the first thing lost in such a war of nerves.

The next show I saw that afternoon in Venice was on robot toys, that American invention out of which the Japanese have made an instant mega-industry. Copying our major painters, copying our major toy makers. But always with an energy and drive that made the results look almost sui generis. Will the real Japan sit down and explain to me which was which?

Two days later in Genoa there was an even more ambiguous cultural exchange on display, touted with all the publicity skills of the municipality which was sponsoring an entire festival of Japanese arts. In central cases were the raunchiest 19th-Century woodcuts this ex-sailor has ever seen. I mean, this was neurotic eroticism.

And encircling it? The most ethereally spiritual 20th-Century kimonos you can imagine! Ah, Japan—the most spiritually horny culture on earth.

I was beginning to understand. Japan is an aerosol culture, keeping the most volatile mix of contradictory elements under pressure and (most of the time) under control.

Robert Christopher’s The Japanese Mind (1983) remains the most accessible explanation of this flip-flop culture which, after Meiji, turned 180 degrees in a flash after three centuries of enforced hermeticism, and then under Tojo flip-flopped just as dramatically into the greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere.

Will they flip-flop again? Are the Nakasone gaffes over American racism and his education minister’s trial balloon about Japan having got a bum rep for World War II the signs of something flip about to flop?

Don’t be too surprised. Christopher explains the “enviable” solidarity of the homogenous Japanese as accruing from a millennium of expected but unpredictable catastrophes—typhoons, tidal waves, earthquakes, famines, civil agitations. The beleaguered who don’t stick together disappear together. It is this mentality that undergrids their ludicrously one-sided approach to foreign imports.

Take their non-existent wine industry. Why protect it? I got a clue to this in a strange venue last fall.

I was attending the Fukuoka Museum’s biennial symposium and exhibition of Asian art. The artists were grousing at the symposium that they resented being put up at the city’s premier hotel when they wanted to meet fellow artists, even if it meant staying over in the artists’ marginal digs.

The Japanese organizers were so intent on buttering up fellow artists from Asian countries beginning to squawk at trade imbalances and revisionist Japanese histories of their 20th-Century colonial pasts, that they were alienating those they were trying to soothe. Artists, after all, are neither businessmen nor politicians.

But it was at the culminating buffet reception that I got my clue. It was a splendid spread, paid for by the lower newspaper magnate. (Fukuoka has a population of 2 million and is the economic and cultural capital of Kyushu, the southernmost island. But it has something of a Third City syndrome—Osaka, the Chicago of Japan, is Second City to Tokyo’s Onesmanship.)

Oh, what sashimi. Oh, what sushi. Everything was fit for a shogun until you got to the bar. Trying their wine, I was on the brink of spitting it out, it was so unpotable.

One curator I have visited several times, enough to talk to candidly about things, saw my distaste. “It’s the Bulgarian stuff,” he explained. “They let any wine with 5% Japanese grapes be called Japanese. But they’ve got a treaty with several Eastern European countries to let their bulk wine in for tariffs a miniscule percentage of what you American pay.”

It seemed absurd to me. The Japanese are on a positive frenzy of proving that they want only the best, yet they allow the farcical stuff labeled Japanese wine keep out the good California vino. Are they nuts?

No, just terribly afraid to fail, and willing to go to great lengths to reduce their chances of doing so.

Saving the prime minister’s face as well. It is common knowledge that Nakasone has proclivities to right-wing nationalism. He was the head of the Self-Defense Force when Yukio Mishima could never have trained his paramilitaries, nor indeed been there at all, without Nakusone’s good offices.

All potentially embarrassing to the Ron-Yasu relationship, eh? So what happens when Paul Schrader’s film Mishima tries to get an import license in Japan? It doesn’t get it, is what. For months. For years.

The moral of the story is that when dealing with Japan, never believe what they say, look for hidden reasons for their behavior. They don’t say what they mean; and they rarely mean what they say.

I had a serendipitous encounter that day I inspected the Toyota factory outside Toyoda-shi. The PR people were obviously puzzled at why a retired American lit professor (even an ex-automobile factory worker from Detroit) like me was so interested in understanding the provenance of excellence in Japanese mass production. So they parried my questions, tried to flatter me by talking about literature instead of automobiles, and took me to lunch.

As we left the lunchroom, two American GM executives and their Japanese counterparts entered. They were there negotiating for the joint GM-Toyota plant in Fremont, California.

Oh, what a mismatch. The GM duo looked like central casting’s choice for Dorian Gray at the very end. I have never seen such dissipated looking Yalies! But their Japanese hosts appeared in the pink, sleek as a thin Sumo wrestler, if you can imagine that contradiction.

When I spoke of that encounter at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, it triggered Oriental smirks and sniggers. Later a Dutch correspondent explained: “They have finally whupped you, and it only took them 40 years to do it. They’re obviously elated.”

These recollections and speculations flooded in on me this week as I finished reading two new books that are absolutely indispensable to understanding the semi-scrutable, our friendly enemies, the Japanese. One is Akio Morita’s Made in Japan, his memoir of how Sony did it, laced with straight talk to both Japanese and American businessmen, neither of whom is encountering a surfeit of vital truths about themselves and each other right about now. The other is David Halberstam’s The Reckoning, a book that illuminates America’s precarious predicament with a clarity I haven’t felt since reading Max Lerner’s America as a Civilization 30 years ago.

First, the smaller of the two, Morita comes from a 15th-generation sake-making family outside Nagoya, and just to see how he slipped out of the first-born’s enthrallment as putative successor is an absorbing tale of the complexities of modernization in Japan.

And the story of how Sony made its way out of the debris of postwar Tokyo when the zaibatsu wouldn’t give it wire for sound recorders (neither would the foreign exchange bank give them the money to import tape) is simply a stunning epic of the triumph of character over environment.

And that independence of character makes Morita an indispensible mentor for those who would turn the present economic impasse between Japan and America into a greater opportunity for alleged friends who could quickly become de facto enemies. He chides the Americans for their whining, for their unwillingness to learn Japanese language and culture, for their Disneyland Narcissism. And he chides the Japanese for their mealymouthedness—for their unwillingness to admit that they do keep the playing field of competition absurdly uneven.

I often find the Japanese remarkable, sometimes enviable, but rarely likeable. Morita-san is my kind of Japanese, of which I think I’ve found about five during three long trips there.

He won’t make it any easier for America to survive the Japanese economic onslaught. But I don’t see how we can survive it equably without taking his counsel to heart.

Halbertstam’s monumental epic of the coeval rise (of Nissan) and fall (of Ford) touches so many bases that I know I’m going to be assimilating his insights for years.

Take his account of the bitter labor strife at Nissan—MacArthur pro-unionism had the paradoxical effect of putting Communist labor leaders in vital positions of influence, even control, of the Japanese automobile industry at the height of our own McCarthyite madness. The hardball that Japanese union leaders played makes some of our Teamsters look like pussycats.

And the vaunted womb-to-tomb security of the major Japanese firms is here revealed as a kind of labor peace that doesn’t antedate the war. The Boston Globe reported last month that even the big Japanese firms were beginning to dump this “tradition” as unemployment rose to 6%.

It is amusing to read that Nissan invented the name Datsun for the first clunker it exported to America because it didn’t want to soil its own domestic rep.

On my first visit to Japan in 1983, Nissan was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a remarkable book, Dawns of Tradition, that it was distributing free to media and academics in the 125 countries it served in an edition of 500,000. (It costs $10 a pop to print.) Its theme was that Japanese mass production was high because of two factors: min gei (literally, people-art, or as we would say, “folk art”) and “living national treasures.”

The day I visited Toyota, I sat down to a living national treasure on the bullet train between Nagoya and Kyoto. The LNT’s son affirmed the Nissan golden jubilee manifesto. For a thousand years, the Japanese have mastered “negligible” materials like bamboo. And for several decades they have revered those who create masterpieces in scores of media.

It was an attractive hypothesis for an ex-academic like me, nurtured in the Emersonian tradition of anti-materialism (“Events are in the saddle / in America / , and ride mankind,” the sage of Concord had intoned.) except that something else not quite so attractive had caught my eye outside the Toyota factory: a hundred or so high school students in identical white jumpsuits doing their synchronized PE exercises.

It could have been a Kafka scenario for a movie about fascism. All those “humans” with but a single (lack of) thought.

Halberstam is indispensable for the dark underside of Japanese export triumphs. He tells me what I never saw in my “protected” visits to Japanese factories. It is a remarkable narrative, especially the flak that Nissan’s first West Coast importer got from his friends and enemies in the Tokyo headquarters. Halberstam demythologizes our friendly enemies. He also describes with heart-stopping clarity how the American automobile industry got into the mess from which it has not yet by a long sight extricated itself.

Consumer binges have consequences. And the tailfin psychosis that inflicted American producer and consumer alike in the 1950s and 1960s is spelled out in excruciatingly fascinating detail.

The eclipse of the American engineer by the Defense Department—tutored whiz kids is a sad tale of best intentions backfiring. The closer those MBAs watched the bottom lines, the less chance the consumer had to get a car that would last. His options narrowed down to load more options on a car that began to fall apart before it left the assembly line.

Meanwhile, back on the peninsula, the Koreans are revving up to whip the ass of their oppressor! And the Japanese are more worried about their unbrothers in Seoul than their purported soul brothers in Washington. That’s a real twist!

From Welcomat, December 23, 1986

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