WHAT IS JAPAN? by Taichi Sakaiya


Contradictions and Transformations
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 A coherent, perceptive appraisal of Japan, from a former official of its vaunted Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Ranging back and forth through his homeland's history, Sakaiya (The Knowledge-Value Revolution, 1991) offers an utterly fascinating account of how an internally cohesive island nation without natural resources became a global economic power despite a shattering defeat in WW II. He traces key character traits of the remarkably homogeneous, consensus-oriented population back to the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meijii Restoration, and other premodern eras, but he contends that the military regime in control before Pearl Harbor was primarily responsible for harnessing the traditions and spirit of Japan to build an industrial juggernaut. The means to this end, the author argues, was administrative guidance provided by a bureaucratic system whose stress on standardization has made the country immensely productive, albeit less than creative. Commercial success has left the diligent, provident Japanese vaguely discontented, concludes Sakaiya, who goes on to detail the many ways in which the government is geared to accommodate big business, frequently at the expense of domestic consumers. Nonetheless, he reports, quality-of-life issues have begun to interest a long-suffering electorate increasingly disturbed by public scandals, while demographic as well as international pressures may force convulsive revisions in the social contract. Worth noting in this context is the author's observation that ``when change occurs in Japan, it occurs completely, because Japanese fear being different from the group.'' Revelatory perspectives on a country that strikes many as a latter-day analogue of Churchill's 1939 take on Russia--``a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.''

Pub Date: July 1st, 1993
ISBN: 1-56836-001-0
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Kodansha
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1993