Why Japan And The Unites States
You will notice that as far as countries go I appear preoccupied with the United States and Japan. That has a reason. I lived in Japan for all of my career as a foreign correspondent – as a base for journeys to parts of East and South Asia – as well as roughly a decade before and after that. There is no other country that has been more intellectually stimulating to me. Trying to make sense of its political and social life forced me to conceptualize things that otherwise would have remained routine, taken for granted. I concluded some time ago that Japan, when regarded with serious and sympathic curiosity, offers laboratory-like conditions for viewing the human condition. The political culture that developed during centuries of isolation moulded a society that in many respects appears farthest away from social experience based on European and American habits.
It is, therefore an ideal place to contemplate human institutions and how they interact. Politically it has achieved the major feat of maintaining very orderly communal life while lacking a center where power is held to account. Without that center of political accountability it is yet fairly democratic in the popular sense of the word. I cannot get enough of it. And I can say the same about Japanese economic organization. It remains the world’s second largest economy, and managed to attain that ranking only a couple of decades after a war that had left it with a devastated industrial base. The manner in which it did this, and in which economic activities continue to flourish, has perplexed most economists who took a close look, and provides compelling arguments against prevailing economic doctrine in Europe and the United States. I made an attempt to put that in perspective in a recent talk, which was published and can be found here in pdf form. I will continue to come back to that subject.
As for the United States, my preoccupation hardly requires explanation. The way in which much of the world with access to TV sets and the Web followed a year-long battle for the presidency may have had something to do with its soap-opera qualities, but probably more important is the general understanding of our planet’s population that it does matter very much who occupies that “most powerful person in the world” position. The first decade of the twentyfirst century, now nearing its close, has shown how much, strategically and financially, the United States can change things in the world.
Aside from that, the United States is home for a people whom I admire (most of the time), but who to me appear to be in the midst of moral and political crises that can, as yet, shake up the world some more. Almost all my American friends tend to agree. I am fascinated and concerned and want to continue following this closely. I am of course aware that, unlike the Japanese, Americans on the whole do not take too kindly to what foreigners may have to say about them if that leads to negative interpretations. But, so be it. The United States is far too important to be left to Americans to discuss.
As for the relationship between these two countries, it deserves all our attention; or at least far more than it has so far received. I cannot find anything in history that resembles it. Here we have the world’s first and second largest industrial powers. But for all intents and purposes Japan is a kind of protectorate of the United States, which has allowed it an existence of “being in the world but not of it”. Most things through which a state is internationally recognized as a state have been carried out by American proxy for much of the post-World-War-II period. But American attempts to help determine political and economic realities inside Japan have failed, even in the six years when the United States occupied the country.
That odd but fascinating nichibei relationship, as it is known in Japan, should be particularly interesting for Europeans thinking about the possibilities of forming a friendly but independent power on the world stage.