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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000

Revealing the nation one grain at a time

THE POLITICS OF AGRICULTURE IN JAPAN, by Aurelia George Mulgan. London & New York: Routledge, 2000, 856 pp.,82 British pounds/$125 (cloth).

In 1890, a young German academic agreed to evaluate a survey of landowners in the German provinces east of the Elbe River. Overcoming the limitations of biased and unsophisticated data, he brilliantly analyzed the impact of emerging market forces on the decaying structures of Prussian Junker society.

The scholar was Max Weber. Within a year, this polymath would publish a major legal work on the agrarian history of ancient Rome.

Both works would subtly influence Weber's most famous work, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism." That masterpiece, together with his monumental "Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft" (Economy and Society), would crown Weber's career as a thinker and underwrite his claim to be the greatest social scientist the world has ever seen.

In her energy, ambition and relentless pursuit of empirical truth, Aurelia George Mulgan is an heir to this legacy of Weberian greatness. "The Politics of Agriculture in Japan" is part of a huge three-volume opus. The other two, apparently near completion, carry the working titles "Politicians and Bureaucrats: Agricultural Policies and Policymaking in Japan" and "The Challenge of Vested Interests: Contesting Agricultural Power in Japan."

This opus will stand as one of the largest studies of Japan ever undertaken by a Western scholar. The size reflects Mulgan's research methods. Indeed, her appetite for facts has become a compulsion under the impact of the research approach she has embraced.

Mulgan's method explains not only her brutal assault on antifactual strategies such as rational-choice theory, but also her brusque rejection of social science as science. But before we turn to the question of whether Japan studies are a factual quest and nothing more, we should ask why agricultural politics demands comprehensive analysis on this scale.

The answer begins with an photograph. It shows Aomori farmers gathered in a rough wooden structure, their glum deliberations lit only by a naked light bulb and licks of flame from a "hibachi." The year is 1934 and they are discussing how the village can survive without their selling their daughters.

As myth and fact, the crisis of the Japanese farm in the 1930s shook this nation to its foundations. In the name of a rural countryside ravaged by an unholy alliance of free-market capitalism and global protectionism, alienated soldiers joined hands with political extremists to wage a campaign of public protests, assassinations and attempted revolution against the complacent centers of prewar Japanese elitism. This farm crisis helped to drive Japan to war and overseas expansion, in 1931, 1937 and 1941. Japanese politics has never recovered from this battering.

Although the crisis of prewar agriculture is the indispensable backdrop to Mulgan's study, the focus of her research is strictly postwar. To trace the trajectory of what she calls "rice-roots politics," she has written six big, largely self-contained chapters on "interest group politics," "farmers' politics," "organizational politics," "representative politics," "the political demography of agriculture" and "policy campaigning."

According to Mulgan, Japanese farmers are powerful because (1) they are well-organized, (2) they vote as a bloc, and (3) they have co-opted a large number of Diet politicians, including some of the most powerful players in the Liberal Democratic Party.

The high food prices patiently paid by this country's huge urban majority are a measure of this strength, as is Japan's reputation as the most protected and subsidized farm sector in the world. But, Mulgan also concludes, "the effects of government intervention on Japanese agriculture have been palliative and insufficient to prevent its slow and inexorable decline."

Thus, during the past 15 years, the Japanese farmer and his political allies have suffered repeated defeats. In 1987, producer rice prices were cut for first time in 31 years. The next year, Japan agreed to ease import quotas on beef and oranges. This came into effect in 1991. Citrus-juice imports were approved in 1992.

Later in the 1990s, the rice production law was liberalized. Then in 1999, a new Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas Basic Law passed the Diet. This "full-scale revision" of the old protectionist legal framework signaled a growing acceptance of market forces, freer trade and reduced subsidies in agriculture by the Japanese state.

Still more interesting, however, is how Japan has "successfully" resisted the more disruptive aspects of globalization, not only in farming but across the whole economy. When Oxford's J.A.A. Stockwin concludes in his editor's preface that Mulgan "provides important new insights into the Japanese political system as a whole," he is on confident ground.

The publication of "The Politics of Agriculture in Japan" under the aegis of Oxford's Nissan Institute is no accident. Stockwin was Mulgan's doctoral supervisor at the Australian National University. Since moving to the Nissan chair at Oxford in the 1980s, Stockwin has made the Oxford-Australia axis a productive power in Japan studies.

ANU has been a linchpin in this effort because Japan looms so large in any definition of Australia's national interest in a way that is no longer true of postimperial Britain. As major exporters of farm products, Australia and New Zealand have had an enormous stake in the liberalization of "Fortress Japan." Such real-world pressure gives invaluable stimulus and relevance to a New Zealand scholar such as Mulgan, who now teaches at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Mulgan denounces the rational-choice approach to Japan as "over-simplified, ahistorical, culture-bound and institutionally reductionist." This is the voice of the Oxford-Australian axis striking back at those who say its research methods are outdated. When Stockwin insists that this book is about how Japan's politics really works, he hits the rational-choice theorist where it hurts.

Facts are Mulgan's friends; detail reassures her. In the name of the facts, she rejects not only positivist Procrusteanism but also social science as science. Indeed, she renounces any attempt "to generate systemic-level descriptions of Japanese politics or Japanese interest-group politics" because these are "artificial constructs" spawned by a "spurious scientism" which results in "vacuous theories."

Breaking with Weberian science, she declares, "This study seeks to impose no "theoretical order" on the data."

This is the loudest "no" in the social scientific study of modern Japan. In Mulgan's vision of social studies, individual facts are all that count.

At a crucial phase of her research, Mulgan worked at the University of Tokyo. There, spurred by Takeshi Ishida, she discovered for herself that many Western political scientific ideas -- interest groups, legislative lobbying and the distinction between public and private -- could not be usefully applied to Japanese reality.

This is a singular insight. But instead of attempting to recast these ideas in a revolutionary manner, Mulgan tried to abandon theory all together. Only this could do justice to "the infinite variety of minute variations and modifications of unchanging basic forms" (Karl Lowith), the pursuit of which dominates the understanding of political phenomena for so many Japanese scholars.

For the Western mind, "these (minute variations) appear more or less insignificant, because our senses seize less on such perceptible nuances than on decisive oppositions." It also follows that radical criticism is at a decisive disadvantage in an intellectual culture that shuns generalizations and other decisive oppositions.

Mulgan thus stands suspended between two intensely antitheoretical traditions: Japanese micro-empiricism and Anglo-Australian historical-journalism. The result is a scholarly achievement of unique interest and provocation. Modern Japan studies can boast few textual monuments, but this is one of them. Let us celebrate its singular virtues.

David Williams is the author of "Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science."

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