Aug 112012



Over 100 years ago an author called Lafcadio Hearn wrote and published a book called Japan: An Interpretation. The 1904 book is quoted at the beginning of Japan A Reinterpretation and a good reason for Patrick Smith’s book name given the basic premise that Japan and Japanese have been misrepresented, misunderstood and different and dissimilar to what most have been told and taught.

The Japan most know is not the Japan that actually exists. The book works hard at dispelling the illusion. There is much to learn in Japan A Reinterpretation including an understanding of the said cultivated image placed to inspire Americans, allies and East Asians, created and fostered by accomplices like the so-called Chrysanthemum Club comprised of American scholars like Reischauer, who later would be appointed the US ambassador to Japan, and was strongly suspected of meddling in Japanese national elections or Ezra Vogel another author and scholar of the same ilk. The same suspect historians stand accused of cloaking the true picture of Japan and ostracizing the unaffected historians of Japan, like Canada’s E.H. Norman, who would end up committing suicide under suspicious circumstances after coming under pressure by the Americans.

Smith presents the Japanese as actors. The book is so concerned with the self versus the façade; private and public duality the author identifies in the Japanese psyche.

Much of the premise and assertion of the book range from difficult to surprising to unbelievable, but the author manages to selectively be convincing partly due to his job as a correspondent in Japan, living in Japan and years of research. Then there is praise for the book by the esteemed Chalmers Johnson whose credibility on Japan ranks high.

The dilemma of Japan and its people is premised as a conflict between ego and social duty, something the author claims the Meiji restoration of the 19th Century and the American-induced post-World War II democracy left unresolved or even stimulated. However, the Japanese have done it before: changed and transformed themselves so evolution is possible even if sometimes the core of the people – of the country – seems close to an explosion of change, which remains suspended like the wave on the book’s cover.

Reinterpretation highlights the contrasts between Japan and “us” (i.e. Westerners) from as early as the 1540s when the first Christian missionaries landed on Japanese soil and began to record the locals’ remarkable difference in psyche, height, habits and psychology as the Jesuit saw it.

Early on and on page eight there is a grammatical mistake. It is written “from left to write” instead of the obviously intended ‘from left to right’ in a discussion of Japanese writing and alphabet. It is worth pointing out because occasionally the writer’s intended denotation is unclear and obfuscated by his choice of words and grammar. Examples continue to the book’s end, but here is an example from page nine: “from our point of view it was a simple failure of perspective.” It might seem simple enough, but the reference is imprecise and the writer might as well be composing abstract poetry. For the record he is discussing Japanese conventions. Here is another one where the reference is explained or fulfilled. “Orientalism grew from empire.”

The book delves into serious and oft undiscussed topics. “The Japanese were not permitted, if that is the word, their own history.” Smith holds a special disdain for American treatment of the Japanese – be it the clichéd remoulding or the misrepresentation, which he seeks to expose. He also derides the racist and condescending attitude that reeks from Americans’ delusional superiority complex. The book quotes a newspaper article which appeared in the US describing the Kobe earthquake victims, as a result of which it is useful to remember 6,5000 Japanese died, as “ideal ones” as in ideal earthquake victims and, in essence, reducing the Japanese to insignificant sushi-eating ants. And the quoted article stems not from 1905, but from 1995!


Following World War II and the occupation of Japan by the allies the GHQ (or General Headquarters) for SCAP (nominally the allies’, but in essence Americans’,’ command structure in Japan and the Pacific) introduced deliberate and significant changes to Japan. With the goal of transforming Japan into a Western-styled country, that would never again threaten its neighbours and the West, SCAP set about rewriting law and conventions into one where individual freedoms were dominant. The Westernization also injected everything Western into Japan like Country Music, jazz, billiards and you name it. Yet soon something happened. Individuality and liberalism were set back in favour of Communist containment given the War Of Koreas, Mao’s takeover of Peking and China and other threats to Americans’ world order. SCAP resorted to restoring old Nationalists and embracing the old fascists to the point of sponsoring them into power. Most earlier reforms were arrested in order to make Japan a dam in front of the Communist expansion. This reversal is core, the author says, as to why Japanese trust and distrust, like and disdain USA to this day. War criminals were brought back as Prime Ministers and Japan put under US security protection (1951) especially after Article 9 of the Constitution of 1947 banned outward Japanese armed forces. The author remarks that the Constitution was authored by the Americans in English and then translated to Japanese no matter how much the two sides pretend it was co-authored. One recommendation at the album’s end is for the Japanese to initiate and write their own constitution in their own language and the new document be more positive. The current one is infused with too many ‘thou shalt nots’ as opposed to ‘shalls.’

As the book points out one of the main reasons the Japanese accepted such a document, alongside the obvious World War II defeat and the ensuing occupation, is Prime Minister Yoshida, himself a pre-war diplomat, who thought what japan had lost militarily it could win economically. Indeed, for the most part this has been the story of post-war Japan. Yet, the author reckons it had been at the cost of Japan’s psyche, maturity and social well-being.

In essence, Japan became a garrison and US protectorate. This is not news. Much else in the book shouldn’t be either were it not for the suppression of so much in the West and the media. For instance, as the New York Times revealed in the early ‘90s to apparent little fanfare, the CIA had been funnelling tens of millions of dollars to the ruling conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP), which is hardly the hallmark of a democratic country. This is the same party that controlled Japan’s post-war economy almost without interruption and went out of its way to accommodate and comply with American demands. The Japanese government was naturally conservative and pro-America, but it also calculated that its compliance gained it economic advantage and the concessions for which it aspired. Thus, the Japanese went some 30 years never challenging the US or ever voting or acting against its conqueror even if the decisions were against Japan’s own direct interests. At the same time, Japan was portrayed as a paradigm for Asian democracy and advancement by the American government and American media as US had assigned Japan the Asian role model assignment. Japan was to serve American interests in Asia and be the vanguard of American aspirations in the continent and no image less than a willing supporter of America and stable and eager Cold War ally would do.


Smith makes a point. Even if wrong the Japanese have a right to their mistakes and until such time as they are allowed this the country and its people will not mature sociologically and catch up with their industrial position. AMPO was the ‘security’ treaty under which the United States formalized its protector and umbrella status with Japan. In retrospect, history shows that bona fide war criminal Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi not only forcibly and undemocratically renewed AMPO in 1960 against the wishes of the Japanese population, but did so while being in the pay of the CIA. Thus, the LDP Prime Minister renewed and perpetuated Japan’s status as a country beholden and “under tutelage” of America and crushed democracy in favour of a forced mantra of “tolerance and patience” which was convenient for LDP’s aspiration that America’s wishes, and its own power, be preserved.


Facts such as this are highlighted because the violence and opposition to Americans and casting of Japanese as a willing group of submissive allies casts doubt on the manufactured image of Japan as conformist group-thinkers. Were the image of docile Japanese as lemmings true the author argues that tradition would have not allowed events like the forcible eviction of MPs from the diet by the police (not to mention Yakuza thugs threatening MPs and intimidating the population) to occur. The author does not cover it, but industrialization was accompanied by much tumult and labour unrest as well. The Japanese protests and turbulence soon lead to US President Eisenhower’s visit to be cancelled, AMPO nevertheless was renewed.


In other words, the Japanese are not conformist and compliant economic animals, but the politicians and the media have managed to nurture the image to some extent using mantra like ‘the samurai way’ and so forth. The Japanese have been fed context.  Moreover, in the West too the image of Japan was undergoing a re-examination beginning the late ‘80s including the infamous anti-Japan sentiments that swept America – otherwise known as Japan-bashing – that quickly took over the airwaves and general public following developments such as the purchase of CBS by Sony, the sale of The Rockefeller Center to Japan’s Rockefeller Group, the drubbing of the US Big 3 by Toyota, Datsun/Nissan and Honda and more. These invoked feelings of prejudice in the US somewhat diminishing the innocent imagery of the Japanese. In short, Japanese went from being heathens in need of proselytizing in the 19th Century to scary “yellow peril” savages (WWII) to being ”beasts” and as uttered by US President Eisenhower to being “workaholics” and “Economic animals.” The people were lampooned and became anything except complex and multi-faceted human beings.


One circumstance that led to the Japanese being deemed group-oriented, among other contexts, is how they were not even allowed surnames until the Meiji era. Here though is where the author returns to his main assertion that the Japanese are illusory as individuality exists; it exists, but it is hidden. They prefer not to reveal their individuality like everything else they hide. The author insists that in Japan true feelings are closely kept hidden, yet individuality is there lurking beneath the surface, carefully masked.

Unfortunately, the Reinterpretation’s main, and other points, remain partially unresolved. Some explanation and an exploration of the sources of the traits the Japanese are saddled with will come, but not forcefully and explicitly enough. Certainly in Japan the ‘public’ is valued more highly than among most countries, even if that fact is on the decline in modern Japan, but the author argues that the notion is overstated and imposed. Nonetheless, let’s recall the Japanese ‘group’ is as old as Japan itself: an isolated island where dwellers undertook rice cultivation together and mountain after mountain rendered most isolated. On page ninety-two Arinori Mori, Japan’s first education minister, is described as a man who wanted a state-directed education system, which was not Shinto and for his troubles was stabbed by a conservative right-winger. The minister was deceptive in his actions, however. He closed private schools where he could and condemned the rest by stipulating that university attendance is conditional upon students having finished state high schools only. Why would he do this? The central government in Tokyo believes knowledge, research and results should not necessarily be objective, but remain at the service of the state. The state wants conformity and a fabled ‘samurai way.’ Schools are subject to annual inspections and central control aimed at keeping lessons centralized and nationally in line with the curriculum barring regional variations through the direct governance coming from Tokyo. The idea was to conceive of one Japan with one thought model. This way the government maintained what it thought was desirable in the population: harsh working conditions, overtime and karoshi (death from overwork) as cruel employers and government have tried to instil hard work and dedication to vocation by relating the ideas to Japan’s history, heritage and honour. It is a fable of course, but one that again serves an economic purpose.


In the meantime, on the western side of the hemisphere, despite all of Japan’s industrial modernism, as well as cultural sway as varied as sushi, manga and anime the world remains ignorant of the real Japan. Americans being ignorant to begin with it has been easy for most to be indoctrinated with false images of the country at the rim of the Pacific. If the above quotations were insufficient Smith has more up his sleeve. A high-ranking US cabinet Secretary claims the Japanese universal education as owing its existence to the American occupation and influence when in fact the Japanese enjoyed universal education even before the Meiji restoration. The author explains the centralized nature of education in Japan as a tool of conformity, in the name of serving Japan, but offers statistics and reports on the amount of restlessness including bullying and violence in the country.

Japan A Reinterpretation attacks the subject from different angles. A chapter called Happiness In A Hidden Corner turns to the place of women in Japan. This topic is perhaps less controversial and a much less disputed or controversial topic for most acknowledge the lesser place of women in Japanese society. A toothless 1986 law (equal opportunity) aside most acknowledge Japanese women have traditionally been suppressed and thus come to claim a yearning for the sex to be advanced and aligned to the other gender and society as a whole. I, and perhaps others, have noticed how Japanese women have nowhere near the achievement level of men whether in the areas of art, science, Scholarship or rank. It is as if Japanese men are the fabled advanced ‘Japanese’ and Japanese women are… geisha. In Kabuki theatre, to take an example, Japanese women were Kuroko, literally ‘black people,’ dressed in black and largely unseen. What is more, even women were played by men. In society, women were designated ‘inside’ the house; men were ‘outside.’ Some feminists have been content with such a state of things and adopted the saying Dansei Joi, Josei yui ‘men superior, women dominant.’ The thinking has been that men can have the ‘outside’ as long as women have the ‘inside.’

To highlight the devolution in the status of women the author wades through ancient Japanese history noticing how women were not always subordinates. As a matter of fact, women had gained a societal voice in the Heian period (794-1192) of Japan before the age of shogun and samurai, Chinese influence and Confucian Orthodoxy gained ascendancy and relegated women to Oku (the innermost part of the house for chores) for marriage and love were meaningless and largely inconsequential.

Perhaps that’s why – and this is not from Smith – Japanese women are coloured white in traditional ceremonies as tradition had them in the shadows. Females in Japan were called oku-san or ‘inside person.’

In the Heian period in 1672 famed Japanese ethicist and scientist Ekken Kaibara noted that women have five defects: disobedience, anger, slander, jealousy and ignorance.

As I read the accounts regarding the state of Japanese women I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in the Japanese film Ran where two minor lords offer their daughters to lord Ichimonji for his one son as a offering. Naturally, the women are not present and have no say in the matter.

Readers might be of the belief that Japanese women have made great strides and pushed forward, and of course it would be true, but the author takes the reader back to the post-World War II reversal induced by the SCAP to counterpoint. In 1946, before the reversal, 39 women were elected into the lower house Diet, which is approximately a ten-percent share. This number was not matched until 2012 when the proportion topped at 10.8%. In contrast here is some numbers from the rest-of-the-world including both industrially advanced and non-advanced countries. As of this writing, women Members Of Parliament numbers stand at 25% in Iraq, 56% in Rwanda, 40% in Iceland and 25% in Canada.

Regarding xenophobia and the oft discussed sense of racism prevalent in Japan towards foreigners Smith claims some of the fear is not so much dislike of foreigners, but the antipathy towards the Westernization imposed centrally from Tokyo. Much of Japan’s modernization was imposed on the rest of Japan by Tokyo. Foreigners are associated with the change. This makes sense be it USA, Canada, Zambia or Japan the uneducated are fearful and scared of change.


To quote page 200, “Japan’s psychological violence towards its own people…” Smith never uses the word “hypocrite” but strongly infers it. He remarks that when the Second World War ended masses of Japanese were ready to commit suicide and die for the Emperor. Within a matter of hours and when the Emperor spoke relief and a festival atmosphere prevailed instead. In his autobiography the renowned Akira Kurosawa describes the difference as he walked through the streets of Tokyo the day the war officially ended. He calls his fellow countrymen, or their reaction, “shallow” as in empty vessels ready to be filled with whatever.

These assertions are a segue for the next topic in the book. Almost casually comes the next contention appearing almost as a throw-away passage on page 226. The Americans deliberately – and this has been rarely debated – rewrote history in order to reinvent the Emperor Hirohito’s involvement in World War II. Preserving the Emperor as an innocent bystander to the Pacific War and not complicit to the invasions, massacres and rapes suited the American needs and so it was done. The author depicts this as an “ambitious deception,” which launched the “culture of irresponsibility” of Japan and goes on to provide a sample of a tanaka the Emperor himself wrote exhorting patience and Japanese superiority. The idea hearkens back to the economic deal Yoshida proposed and put into motion for the Japanese to come back economically. Oddly, Smith has to agree, the deception has by and large been a success.

The Emperor Hirohito, goes the contention, was aware and involved in Pearl Harbor, rapes of Nanjing and even had more than a passing interest in chemical weapons and biology.


Japan A Reinterpretation at length discusses and analyses a topic from several different angles that is rarely parsed let alone acknowledged. Japan’s modernization is hollow, imposed and a con used by levers of japaneseism as a ruse. Yet, despite the negativity and pessimism some optimism should be permitted as younger Japanese abandon tradition – recall that the author is clearly in the individualism camp, a premise other readers or I might not agree with. Younger Japanese not only are abandoning recent past traditions and “World War II” thinking, but also semi-sacrosanct concepts as kokutai (‘national identity’), yamato (the Japanese spirit of the ‘rice cultivating people’) and the fable of Emperor Jummu.

One could easily come away from the book stirred to pessimism. Taken that way Japan’s economic slide of the last twenty years could easily fit into the perspective. Then again, economic development never was an argument for the author instead going the opposite way and bashing the industrial expansion set against the personal progression of the people. Moreover, Smith is not reserving blame for the Japanese leaders and system. He clearly blames the US and its opportunistic retrenchment after WWII.

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