In Asia's Mirror: From Commodore Perry to the IMF

In Asia's Mirror: From Commodore Perry to the IMF

Mini Teaser: Asia has, in its moments of crisis, been forced to open up to the West before. These openings have been attended by an interesting kaleidoscope of moods, their usual pattern neatly captured in the life of just one man, both hero and anti-hero of t

by Author(s): Sebastian Mallaby

Asia has been laid low before. It has, in its moments of crisis, been
forced to open up to the West before. These openings have been
attended by an interesting kaleidoscope of moods, their usual pattern
neatly captured in the life of just one man, both hero and anti-hero
of the most dramatic Asian opening of all. His name is Takamori Saigo.

Saigo's story starts in mid-nineteenth century Japan: a Japan that is
still a feudal state, divided by caste, virtually devoid of industry.
After two and a half centuries of shunning contact with the outside
world, Japan's proud isolation is breaking down. Americans and
Europeans are pushing into Asia, demanding opportunities to trade,
carving up China. In 1853 it is Japan's turn. An American force
commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry appears uninvited in Tokyo Bay,
demanding that Japan open up also. Saigo and a group of fellow
samurai decide that Japan can only survive by being strong; they
launch a modernizing revolution now known as the Meiji Restoration.
The encrusted caste system is scrapped; a system of modern law is put
in place; designs for weapons and industrial machines are procured
from America and Europe. After its long hibernation, Japan's doors
are suddenly thrown wide. Even today, Japanese still remember the
Meiji Restoration of 1868 as the First Opening.

Then, barely a decade on, Saigo has a change of heart. The reforms
needed to modernize Japan have destroyed the feudal privileges of his
samurai friends. The samurai right to wear swords has been abolished;
their public stipends have been cut and then eliminated. This fills
Saigo with guilt: forced to choose between foreign modernity and the
human bonds of old Japan, a true samurai ought to prefer loyalty. To
make amends, Saigo leaves the government and assembles an army of
40,000 rebels, dedicated to the overthrow of the Westernizing state
that he had earlier created. A bloody fight ensues; the rebellion
fails; Saigo commits ritual suicide.

The rebellion, and the grisly death, took place over a century ago,
in 1877. Yet in modern Japan Takamori Saigo is still something of a
hero. Museums and statues commemorate him, politicians invoke his
name, and since its appearance in 1975, a series of books about him
has sold more than eight million copies. This fascination hinges on
Saigo's paradoxical career: He understood the need to modernize and
copy from the West, yet he sacrificed his life defending Japan's
ancient character. The Japanese are captivated by this, because the
struggle between these two conflicting instincts is the story of
their country. At the Meiji Restoration, and again after the Second
World War, and yet again when its economy collapsed in the early
1990s, Japan has responded to weakness by opening up to the West. And
yet, each time, it has felt the powerful undertow of nationalism and

For anyone trying to make sense of Asia's current financial mess,
Saigo's story is instructive. The humbling of Thailand, Indonesia,
and South Korea has brought another grand opening to the West, like
Japan's earlier openings. Asia is vulnerable, as Japan was in Saigo's
time: its system of capitalism has been made to look primitive, its
firms are in hock to Western creditors. And Westerners have
dispatched to Asia the technocrats of the International Monetary
Fund. In its spirit, if not in its details, the IMF's progress
through Asia over the past year recalls the long-ago voyage of
Commodore Perry.

When Perry visited Japan, he brought exotic gifts: a graph machine,
maps, and a miniature steam train. Now the IMF brings credit lines:
$17 billion for Thailand, $43 billion for Indonesia, $57 billion for
South Korea. Perry brought a trade ultimatum along with his gifts.
The IMF brings demands for high interest rates, greater transparency
in financial institutions, greater openness to foreign investors,
less government involvement in the allocation of credit, less
cronyism. In theory, the IMF is a supranational arbiter, with the
power to pursue policies independent of America; in practice, it has
little more leeway than did Perry when he set sail, entrusted by
President Fillmore with "full and discretionary powers" to deal with
the Japanese as he saw fit. Nobody doubts that the IMF represents
American views. From the start of the Asian crisis, its technocrats
have worked hand in glove with Robert Rubin's Treasury Department, a
cooperation facilitated by the fact that Rubin's deputy, Lawrence
Summers, comes from the IMF's sister organization, the World Bank;
while David Lipton, the Treasury's top international man, is a former
IMF official.

If the IMF, like Perry, is bent upon asserting American economic
ideas, then East Asians, like the Japanese of Perry's time, seem
disposed to listen--at least initially. This is especially true in
South Korea, where the onslaught of financial turmoil in December
1997 coincided with a presidential election. The voters blamed the
country's economic chaos on the president, and therefore snubbed his
chosen successor. In his place, they elected Kim Dae Jung, a
challenger who had long criticized Korea's UN-Western economic
system. Kim blames financial turmoil on cronyism, and declares that
the corrupt ties between government and business are best dissolved
by deeper democracy, Western style. He has welcomed the foreign
infiltration of South Korea's economy, taking on those who suspect
that if outsiders buy Korean firms, Korea's independence will be
compromised. In short, he has made all the arguments that believers
in Westernization love to hear. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New
York Times, declared in February that Kim Dae Jung stands for a "new
Korea and a new Asia: political democracy, market-oriented economics."

And yet, like Saigo before him, President Kim cannot escape the
undertow of nationalism and nostalgia. Korea, after all, is a
fiercely nationalistic place, held together by its citizens' desire
to ward off the great powers (Russia, China, and Japan) that have
historically threatened its sovereignty. Like Japan, Korea has long
made a point of excluding foreign companies from its economy. Like
Japan, it has promised Westernizing reforms before and only partially
delivered on them. For these reasons, it is risky to talk of a "new
Korea and a new Asia." The Westernizing promises of Kim Dae Jung,
like those emanating from other Asian seats of power, are made in
Takamori Saigo's shadow.

This shadow is already apparent. White-collar workers have protested
against the IMF in downtown Seoul; the middle class throughout the
region is indignant at the sudden tripling in the cost of consumer
imports. Editorialists have attacked arrogant American imperialism.
They have muttered about a second Opium War, an allusion to precisely
the same humiliation of Asians by Westerners that alarmed the
Japanese nationalists of the nineteenth century. In Indonesia,
President Suharto has resisted full implementation of the IMF's
initial demands for sweeping reforms, growling that any change must
conform to his nation's traditional belief in strong communities and
families, protected by strong government. The "Berkeley mafia", a
group of Indonesian technocrats that in the early stages of financial
turmoil seemed to have the upper hand, has declined in influence.
Instead, Suharto has installed as his deputy B.J. Habibie, the most
prominent of Indonesia's "technologist" school of economic
nationalists, who have long struggled for policy dominance with the

None of this would surprise the Japanese of Takamori Saigo's time.
Like Meiji Japan, Indonesia combines talk of Westernizing reforms
needed to grow strong with anti-Western rhetoric. Suharto signed a
deal with the IMF in November, and another one in January; but, after
this second pact, the press published a photograph that captured the
humiliation of the moment, strengthening the tide of anti-IMF
resistance. In it, the president sits hunched over his pen; the head
of the IMF looks on, glaring sternly, arms folded. As Seth Mydans
later reported in the New York Times, this became the defining image
of Indonesia's wounded pride. A local newspaperheadline demanded
angrily, "Who's stronger, the IMF or us?" "Indonesia is a proud
country", an Indonesian political scientist told Mydans. "We have
been known to choose to go hungry rather than give in to outside
pressure." Since the spring, frustration with foreigners and with
Suharto's rule has prompted student riots. And so the nationalist
undertow has pulled strong, even while the government has continued
to work with the IMF, signing a third deal in April. In Indonesia, as
in Saigo's Japan, the adoption of Western policies and ideas is not
an instantaneous or continuous thing. It pushes ahead, pauses,
staggers back a bit before again advancing.

The stop-go spread of Western ideas around the world has an
interesting effect on Western intellectuals. Because the gains are
always gradual, reversible, ambiguous, there is always room to debate
whether they are real at all, or whether, to follow Samuel
Huntington, we are in for an extended clash of unreconciled
civilizations. At any given time, skeptics of Westernization will be
heard, arguing that the backsliding may completely undo recent
advance, that the triumph of Western ideas will never happen. At any
given time, as well, bolder voices will retort that the tide of
history is flowing in the West's favor, and that all setbacks are
temporary. In Japan, the ambiguity of the Westernizing advance is
reflected in the popular fascination with Saigo's paradoxical career.
Americans, meanwhile, have found a personification of the same
ambiguity in General Douglas MacArthur.

Essay Types: Essay