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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2000

The 'third way' goes via Japan

CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY IN MODERN JAPAN, edited by Ian Inkster and Fumihiko Satofuka. 2000, I.B. Tauris, 39.50 British pounds / St. Martin's Press, $59.50.
THE JAPANESE AND EUROPE: Images and Perceptions, by Bert Edstrom. Japan Library, 35 British pounds / $55.

In less than 150 years, Japan has changed from a peripheral feudal state into the second-most-powerful industrial nation in the world. This is no accident. When Commander Matthew C. Perry forcibly unlocked Japan from its self-imposed isolation by triggering the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it quickly became clear that Japan's only choice was a forced march to modernization.

The Japanese sacrificed the old to the new with great brutality and little opposition. Inside 50 years, they had transformed themselves from an island marooned in history to a military power that could take on and sink the might of the Russian Navy in 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima, after besting the Russian Army in the almost chivalrous siege of Port Arthur.

Japan's drive to modernize was motivated as much by fear as by envy. All too obvious a fate awaited if it failed to make the grade. The search was on for the magic formula for success. In the 1880s, the answer was biology: improving the feeble Japanese body and mind by opening Japan up, encouraging mixed marriages, promoting a meat diet and studying English.

This split between homogeneity and diversity had its synthesis, which blighted the '30s and '40s, when patriotic ultranationalism for the God-Emperor and his state was married to an outgoing expansionism to bring the benefits of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" to Japan's Asian neighbors.

Ultimately more popular was to beat the West at its own game: industrialization. Japan was to winch itself to the top, at least initially, with a combination of cheap Oriental labor and Western science.

As late as 1919, Japan successfully argued for exemption from the International Labor Conference's proposed restrictions on working hours by claiming to be on a par with India and China.

From 1871, when the Iwakura Mission, led by Prince Iwakura Tonomi, visited the United States and Europe to assess how Japan could emulate the West's technologies, the process of "catchup" had been under way. Japan imported hardware and software and replicated it. Hardware, in terms of machinery to be copied, and software, in terms of "Live Machines" to be mined -- Western experts to be questioned and to teach by example the next cohorts of Japanese engineers and technologists.

In his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," the historian of science Thomas Kuhn identifies two distinct models of scientific progress. The first, "normal science," builds on the past and is typical of the work of all scientists most of the time.

The second, "revolutionary science," is the exceptional work of a few scientists on the rare occasions when, against the grain of consensus and common sense, they tear down the current orthodoxy.

Japan's success was the result of a lucky conjunction of circumstances that fitted in uniquely well with the first, "Kentucky Fried Science." Japanese society was -- and is -- dominated by teams and their leaders. Industrial work processes were artisanal. Both were perfect for "normal science," with its mixture of tacit knowledge and craft practice. This is the ideal environment to facilitate copying and, eventually, improvement.

After the war, these incremental innovations bred sister and daughter products derived from initial breakthroughs born abroad. They might not have been Nobel Prize-winning science, but they were extremely profitable, particularly in an industrial environment kept sweet by the emergence of the "three treasures" of labor management: lifetime employment, company unions and seniority by age.

For many, Japanese exceptionalism can be summed up by the old-fashioned slogan "wakon yosai" (Japanese spirit, Western means). "Culture and Technology" and "The Japanese and Europe" contribute with their variety of views to filling out this history, and much more.

In the former, a collection of essays exploring the links between science, technology and society in Japan, it is very clear that Margaret Thatcher's brutal Darwinian statement there is "no such thing as society" makes no sense at all in a Japanese context. In Japan, the extended group is central, and John Ruskin's view of human labor having an ethical value -- as illustrated in the recent Tate Gallery exhibition in London -- still has a purchase.

In "The Japanese and Europe," a selection of conference papers tackling relations between Europe in its broadest sense and Japan from the 19th century to today, we learn of the lost world of Karafuto, Japan's colony in Southern Sakhalin that has been conveniently erased from public discourse, and the life of Abdurresid Ibrahim, a Russian Tartar and imam who became an agent for Japan's ambitions between the wars.

Both books show that Japan doesn't just borrow, it transforms. Much of Japan's added value has been reimported to the West in industry and culture, from "just in time" delivery and quality circles to "manga" and "anime."

Japanese capitalism, economically and socially, has been tested and has proved its worth in this particular period of industrial evolution, delivering levels of equality, social harmony and wealth that should make a Blairite blush. Soviet capitalism worked in its Stakhanovite heavy-industry phase, but then collapsed as its inflexibility led to stagnation.

U.S. capitalism provides wealth, and poverty in plenty, linked to a social structure that leaves tens of millions living in Third World conditions in the world's only superpower. To paraphrase an old Trotskyist slogan, is it "Neither Washington nor Moscow, but Tokyo"?

Glyn Ford is Labor member of the European Parliament for Southwest England and member of the delegation for relations with Japan.

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