Books by Karel van Wolferen

Released: April 11, 1989

By a Dutch correspondent with 20 years in Japan, this book is the latest in a long tradition of attempts to explain that country—to Americans in particular. It does so in a unique and devastating way. Van Wolferen believes that the difficulties of mutual incomprehension arise mainly from the nature of Japan's postwar structure. Japanese culture, he says, not to mention its economic power, is the product of that structure—a political set-up that arose primarily from a perfection of prewar and wartime techniques designed to achieve two central and related aims—control of the Japanese themselves and the infinite expansion of economic might. The result, displaying many continuities from the whole of Japanese history, is what van Wolferen calls the "System." Composed of complexly interrelated sets of bureaucrats, politicians, financiers, and businessmen, operating by deliberately informal and intensely personal methods (while sharing—thanks to rearing and education—the same world-view), this "System" is the real government of Japan—not the supposedly democratic but actually impotent Diet and Prime ministership. Most amazing is the logical consequence: no one is in charge of this "System." For the same design that makes possible the economic marvels is kept as diffuse as possible and is so riven within by power struggles that no form of clear responsibility and accountability is possible. This "System," moreover, is made possible because its main victim is simultaneously its principal protector—the US. Without our military and diplomatic shield, which also buys 40% of Japan's exports, the "System" must fail. And here is the final crunch: unless the "System" alters its protectionism, this shield will be withdrawn. And even if the system wanted to change, it couldn't—because its design will not permit emergence of the true executive leadership such action would require. Japan is like no other country, not so much for its "cultural" views as for its singular political architecture, uniquely out of control. So long as Americans do not grasp this, attempts to work solutions to the present predicament must fail. Perhaps the most crucial work of its kind for many years—clear, complex, and virtually irrefutable. Read full book review >