No Brakes, No Compass

No Brakes, No Compass

Mini Teaser: LEON HOLLERMAN's preceding account of Japan's global strategy makes it easier to talk about what remains a conceptually elusive and controversial phenomenon: Japanese international power.

by Author(s): Karel van Wolferen

LEON HOLLERMAN's preceding account of Japan's global strategy makes it easier to talk about what remains a conceptually elusive and controversial phenomenon: Japanese international power. The ``headquarters nation'' idea explains much.  The description of Japan's ``adversarial investment'' is timely since it has already become much more significant than what, five years ago, Peter Drucker very usefully defined as ``adversarial trade.''  Hollerman's account also prompts intriguing questions: What will Japan's ``outflanking strategy'' ultimately lead to?  Does the campaign to create a global economic headquarters country constitute a viable policy?  Is it the actual intention of Japan's political elite to run the world in times of peace?  If so, can it be sure of the consent of the world, and especially of the United States?

Let us first make the reasonable assumption that the answer to the last question is no.  A new set of questions then emerges: Are Japan's strategists gamblers?  Are the members of Hollerman's ``collusive oligopoly'' accountable to anyone?

We can safely say that Japan's political elite includes very few gamblers.  Many businessmen have observed that Japanese organizations are extremely risk-averse, and psychologists/anthropologists have been struck by the degree to which Japanese in charge of anything try to cater for every calculable contingency.  My own observations confirm that the unpredictable scares the Japanese to an extraordinary extent.

The current situation, marked by the uncertain aims and uncertain strength of the United States, puts real fear into some senior members of Japan's powerful officialdom and business world.  I know this from private conversations with them.  Of course, one remedy has been imaginatively to create Japanese certainties.  Like some American political scientists, Japan's newly emerged ``techno-nationalists'' contrast America's industrial decline with Japan's socio-economic superiority, and postulate a new international power hierarchy determined by economic prowess rather than by the old-fashioned ``European-style'' political and military might.  Populist politician Shintaro Ishihara has a third bestseller in the bookstores celebrating ``the Japan that can say no'' (to the United States, that is).  One should consider, too, the possibility of a United States dependent on Japan.  But while some informed Americans I have recently talked to have already concluded that Japan has ``won,'' the thinking members of the Japanese elite are much less sure.  The commonly noticed arrogance of Japanese government and business administrators is to a significant degree a pose, hiding insecurity.

Hollerman correctly identifies Japan's ``passion for security'' as a main motive.  The economic strategists of Japan--who plow their gains back into new investments for further conquests of foreign markets and systematically buy foreign assets on a massive scale, all without regard for medium-term profitability--are not in the business of business, but in the business of national security.  They have a pathological fear of being victimized by circumstances they cannot control.  A common Japanese term, higaisha ishiki (victimhood consciousness), reflects a diffuse but fairly strong sense that the world cannot be trusted and that Japan will always be a potential victim of capricious external forces.  Japan's power-holders are products of a socio-political world that is not ultimately regulated by law and that lacks judicial means for solving conflicts.  Nothing in their experience at home reassures them that international agreements or treaties can ultimately be trusted.

But since Japan's power-holders are not gamblers and cannot be sure that the United States will allow Japanese hegemony, why are they engaged in what frightened outsiders most easily, even if wrongly, identify as a conspiracy to conquer the world economically?  They appear to be undermining their paramount aim.

Political Paralysis

IN MY BOOK, The Enigma of Japanese Power, I offered an answer that remains most convincing to me.  What the members of Hollerman's collusive oligopoly have wrought is, in the final analysis, out of control.  Answerability is indeed a crucial problem.  This follows from the major defect of the Japanese state: the absence of a center of political accountability.  The Japanese economic juggernaut has no brakes.

Which brings us to the difference between my analysis and Hollerman's.  I distinguish administrative decisions, which involve adjustments to an existing policy, from political decisions, which introduce new commitments or major changes in the way a country orders its domestic affairs or relates to the rest of the world.  Japan's administrators (government bureaucrats as well as the bureaucrats in the industrial federations, the financial institutions, and the corporate groupings) are among the world's most capable administrators.  But like bureaucrats anywhere in the world, they can of necessity only be concerned with very limited areas of policy-making.  What makes Japan special is the inability of its politicians to come up with the necessary political input, even when that would seem to serve the national interest.

A political system with a center of accountability can explain to other countries, to the people at home, and, not least, to itself what it is doing and why.  In the process of doing so, it can adjust its actions or take new action to stave off disaster.  Hollerman speaks of ``national interests'' and ``national goals'' as defined by a collusive oligopoly.  But this oligopoly does not encompass or subordinate all entities that go into the running of a country.  And within it there exists such conflict that it is not much good for anything that goes beyond the minimum for which it evolved: Japan's unlimited economic expansion.  The concerted efforts of the government bureaucrats, the keiretsu companies, and the industrial associations are not subject to a well thought-out and responsibly administered national policy that includes safeguards preventing the expansionary campaign from undermining its own aims of greater security for Japan.  Once one understands this defect, one sees that appeals by the United States and other countries to ``Japan's'' better judgment and ``Japan's'' sense of shared interests are wasted.  In that sense, there is no Japan.

Problems of effective political control over forces unbridled by legal sanction have plagued Japan ever since the passing of the Meiji oligarchy at the beginning of this century.  Neither the Japanese prime minister nor his cabinet is given the mandate, in practical terms, to make decisions that are binding on all the components of the Japanese power system.  Whereas individual Japanese must answer for their deeds and omissions to the organizations they belong to, the larger of these organizations are not, for all practical purposes (as distinct from ritualistic ones), accountable to any other.  And, contrary to what many Westerners have been led to believe, Japan does not run on ``consensus'' any more than other countries.

Japan's best bureaucrats have phenomenal memories and, as Hollerman demonstrates, a very well-developed ability to draw advantage from new and unexpected circumstances.  But they are only expected to use this intelligence for the benefit of their own organizations.  They are not trained to transcend, in their thinking, the interests of their own ministry, [mdit]keiretsu[med] company, or industrial federation.  If they are personally concerned about the national interest, they cannot translate such thinking into effective action because their institutions are geared only to think ultimately of themselves, and because if they breach convention they will be considered bad officials.  The result is that members of Japan's political elite permanently confuse Japan's national interest with the prosperity and perpetuation of their own organizations.

ILLUSTRATIONS of the resulting political paralysis are plentiful.  The best recent example is Tokyo's weak response to the Gulf Crisis.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, who told the prime minister in early August that he could not go on his scheduled trip to the Middle East because ``Japan had not made up its mind yet,'' saw only the threat of ``amateurish'' encroachments on their territory.  Ministry of Finance officials, who openly wrangled in the following six weeks about the proper level of Japan's financial contribution, focused only on the reputation they had to lose as the guardians of the national budget.  Opposition Diet members gleefully seized upon the opportunity to embarrass the government, something they must do every few years to remind the public that they still exist.  No Japanese can rise above this discord in the way that Western heads of state can and frequently do in times of crisis.  It must be noted that the average politically aware Japanese initially showed a genuine sense of embarrassment--even shame--over Tokyo's inept response.

Two months into the crisis, rationalizations emerged for inaction.  Americans were told by the Japanese consul general in New York, Masamichi Hanabusa, that in Japanese opinion, whoever controlled the Middle East would have to sell oil.  Japan's business leaders privately boasted that Japan could afford the price any dictator would demand.  This line was quietly encouraged by the bureaucracy.  One should not be deceived by what officials claim is Japanese opinion.  The explanations conveyed not so much a positive belief behind purposeful inaction as a defensive justification hiding incapacity.

A popular explanation for Tokyo's near inaction compares it with the behavior of the United States half a century ago.  At that time the United States was already a dominating economic power but was hesitant to become deeply involved in world affairs.  Japanologist Ezra Vogel of Harvard, who holds this view, believes that the next international crisis will not find Tokyo so unprepared or uncertain.  But this misses the point.  We are dealing not with unwillingness to get involved, not with inexperience, not with power-holders of limited talents, not with intellectual or--as some Westerners believe--moral shortcomings.  We are faced with the fact that, ultimately, bureaucrats on their own cannot run countries.  If the next international crisis closely resembles the Gulf Crisis, there is a chance that Tokyo will be prepared for it.  But a political nerve center that can respond to events and crises whose characteristics are unpredictable does not now exist.

Essay Types: Essay