BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;
BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE
BEGINNING THE NEW LIFE IN JAPAN (1978 – early 1980’s)
1. GETTING ORGANISED IN TOKYO
2. MORE BOOK PUBLISHING
3. DISCOVERING THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT COMMITTEE
4. BEING A JAPANESE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR
5. MORE ON THE JAPANESE LECTURE CIRCUIT
Life in the faster lane
In just one year my life had changed, dramatically.
Early 1978: I am still a refugee from Canberra’s confused politics and Australia’s empty academism.
The best I can do is become a part-time lecturer at Tokyo's Sophia University, eking out extra income from translations and odd jobs and with no visible future other than the manuscript of a book in my desk drawer.
Early 1979: The book has been published. As a result I am a full professor at Sophia University and a regular face on Japanese national television, quoted heavily in the print media, and launched firmly on Japan’s lucrative lecture circuit.
The sudden jump from total obscurity to all-Japan notoriety was rather like the jolt from a rocket launch.
You can suffer some gravity problems as a result.
1. GETTING ORGANISED IN TOKYO
First priority was to improve living conditions for self and family.
An upbringing in the harsh, postwar Australian countryside had dampened any addiction I might have had for beautiful living.
But the extraordinary income coming in from the lecture circuit meant there had to be some lifestyle changes.
First move was to get out of our tiny Sugamachi apartment and find ourselves a piece of land with a house on it, which we did, in the Akebono-bashi district, also quite close to central Tokyo.
The house was very old and the sellers had planned to pull it down before sale. But it had an old-word traditional feel about it.
When we discovered it would cost them three million yen to demolish the house we told them to leave it on the site and reduce the price of the land by three million, which they did.
So we ended up living in a house with a negative value of 3 million yen.
Even so, the land was not cheap (around one million yen a tsubo). And much renovation was needed to make the old house livable.
A few years later we were to build another and more conventional house in the small garden alongside, and move there. The old house was rented out to various foreigners, including the US academic and Japanologist, Carol Gluck.
She had firm ideas about house decoration. To my initial dismay she threw out all the remaining traditional junk in the house - old wooden shutters, ancient tatami etc - and replaced it with chic shoji and a sunken kotatsu.
Later I had to admit she was right, though we disagreed a lot about Japan and its history.
I think she saw me as one of those distasteful Nihonjinron people
Next move was to get out of my cell in Sophia and set up a proper office in the well located Kojimachi area near the Nagata-cho Diet complex.
The new place had live-in facilities, and was close enough to Sophia for me still to be able to provide office hours to students.
(The tiny rooms allocated to professors at Japanese universities could not even provide space for interviews, let alone a secretary.)
(Most academics on the lecture/TV guru circuit also have to seek offices outside, which does little to endear them to their less fortunate colleagues remaining in the cells.)
The Kojimachi office occupied one floor in the house of a retired banker, Kazuro Sonoda, brought up in Germany during the war years, fluent in German as a result, and with certain aristocratic pretensions (his five story house was on some formerly palace-owned land next to the Akasaka Prince hotel).
I had also hired a part-time assistant — a Sophia student who was supposed to be studying law but seemed to know little more than the details of the Japanese Constitution.
She was a typical and largely uneducated product of Japan’s irresponsible and in those days still leftist university education system.
But even the expense of an office and a secretary could not absorb the deluge of funds from the lecture circuit. By a series of accidents I came to be involved in the land development business.
It kept me fit and taught me a lot about flowers, trees and bulldozers. But it was very time and attention consuming.
Gregory Clark with friends in Japan’s Southern Alps - 1978
Whether or not in the process I did serious damage to a promising career as academic, writer and commentator depends a lot on whether I could have had such a career in the first place.
It began with my chance discovery of the vast Boso Peninsula to the south of Tokyo, which I described earlier in chapter 12 (a).
It ended up with me trying to manage a community housed in 30-40 houses and bungalows scattered over hills and valleys on the east side of the peninsula.
In between I also tried to hold down several university jobs, continue to give lectures across the nation and to put out about half a dozen more books.
Of the books by far the most successful was the one that gave me the least trouble to prepare – a slim paperback which took me all of two days to prepare.
2. MORE BOOK PUBLISHING
Kodansha, a leading publisher, had asked me to do a follow-up to my Japanese Tribe book.
But this time it would be in taidan (dialogue) form, with me discussing my ideas about Japan with an up-and-coming rightwing Japanese celebrity, Takemura Kenichi.
I would not have to write anything myself, they said. I would just talk.
Takemura’s favorite message to his devoted audiences was to say that what was commonsense (joshiki) in Japan was non-commonsense (hi-joshiki) in the outside world.
My ‘tribe’ theory about Japanese values being in many ways the reverse of our non-Japanese values slotted in to all this neatly, even if our politics differed greatly.
Kodansha hired a room for us in a luxury hotel. For two days we were fed, wined and listened to while we talked into a tape-recorder.
A first-rate Kodansha editor, Suzuki Satoru, then pulled our ramblings into a neat little 190 page paperback in the Gendai Shinsho series.
Titled Yuniiku no Nihonjin — Unique Japanese - the book was to go through 18 printings and sell something like 160,000 copies, far more than the original Japanese Tribe book from Simul (though Simul, like most Japanese publishers, never gave me full sales figures).
And to think that it had only taken me two days to produce!
The Kodansha book gave an added fillip to my lecture circuit.
And soon the requests to join Japanese policy making and advisory committees also began to flow in.
That too was to be a highly educational, if fairly time-consuming, affair.
3. DISCOVERING THE JAPANESE COMMITTEE
The first invitation was to a committee set up by then Prime Minister, Ohira Masayoshi (1978-80).
I had had contacts earlier with him as a journalist, and respected him as one of the more intelligent and liberal-minded LDP politicians.
(As foreign minister, he had been crucial to Japan opening relations with China back in 1972.)
The committee was set up to discuss Ohira’s favorite concept of garden-town development (denen toshi kaihatsu). The garden-towns were supposed to replace Japan's ugly urban sprawl.
I knew little about town-planning (though I was later to be put on several other development-planning committees where I could develop a few ideas for myself — the Odaiba planning committee in Tokyo, Makuhari in Chiba and Mirai 21 in Yokohama.)
But in the Ohira committee my lack of expertise did not seem to matter very much. There were quite a few others who knew even less than I did.
Next to me was the professor of monkey studies from Kyoto University. His contacts with the simian species were supposed to have given him insights into the formulas needed for successful human communal living.
(The Japanese are fascinated by monkey societies. The rise and fall of boss monkeys in the main zoo colonies used to make newspaper headlines, together with detailed analyses of the personality factors that create boss monkey success – quiet but firm assertion of leadership plus support from female monkeys.)
The Ohira invitation was to be followed by many more. Eventually there would be requests from almost every Ministry or agency of policy-making importance in Japan.
At last count there were 43 of them (the full list can be seen in the Biography/CV on this website). Only the Foreign Ministry avoided me, for reasons that later will become obvious.
And it goes without saying that I was not invited to anything in the Defence Agency (through one of their think-tanks once did invite me to give a speech about the former Soviet Union).
Many of the committees were mere front operations aimed to give some kind of respectability to devious bureaucratic operations. But some occasionally provided a good look into the workings of Japan Inc.
So I persevered.
The proliferation of committees is one of Japan’s stranger phenomena.
It owes much to Japan's much-mentioned consensus ethic - to the way bureaucrats and politicians like to appear to have appealed to and considered public opinion before they hand down new policies.
And to some extent, in the postwar years at least when Japan was a much humbler and poorer society and when the wartime sense of national community still lingered, this search for consensus was fairly genuine.
There was a real effort to promote the national interest and to have Japan regain its position in the world.
Opinion polls were frequent. When the public turned critical, the bureaucrats listened.
Today much of this has changed. Zoku* (‘tribe’)-minded bureaucrats and politicians specializing in specific and narrow areas of national policy are in control.
For example, we have the doro (road) zoku of politicians and others with a vested interest in building roads. And so on.
Preserving the territory and interests of the area covered by one’s zoku or ministry is the primary aim. The national interest is often irrelevant.
(Many in the West were fooled by Chalmers Johnson book 'MITI and Japan's Economic Miracle' written in the wake of this earlier, humbler period. It did much to create the image of dedicated Japanese bureaucrats devoted to the national interest and whose strong control from the top was the key to Japan’s successful economic growth.)
(Today, some have come to realise that bureaucratic and political tribalism and lack of strong control from the top is a major factor hindering Japan's successful progress.)
But this territorial narrowing, if anything, made the bureaucrats and politicians feel even more the need to create policy-advising committees, to prove they were still in touch with the national consensus.
The routine was well established.
First you find a collection of so-called yuushiki-keikensha - ‘knowledgeable and experienced people’ - to serve as 'experts' on the committee. These 'experts' are people who, with one or two exceptions, can be expected to agree generally with what you want to have approved.
Then you call them together for a much-publicized opening meeting covered heavily by the media.
As the faces of the 'experts' flash across the nation's TV screens that evening, the public is encouraged to believe that the bureaucrats and politicians really are trying to come up with policies that are best for Japan.
Then follow a dozen or so two-hour meetings (this time largely ignored by the media) where detailed briefing materials are supplied and read out at length.
By the time the reading out is finished there is usually little time for more than a few desultory remarks among the members, followed by some discussion about the date for the next meeting.
A few months later the committee will then approve a final report, prepared by bureaucrats and allegedly taking into account committee views, but for the most part recommending precisely the policies that the bureaucrats wanted from the beginning to have approved.
Often those reports are prepared in draft even before the committees get underway.
*(Zoku is usually translated in the media as ‘tribe,’ though it can also be translated as gang, as in boso-zoku – hot-rod motorbike gangs.)
The Role of the Foreigner
How did a foreigner like myself come to get involved in all these committees, some of which, in theory at least, were supposed to discuss questions of national policy?
I too still wonder. But there is what I call the ‘lubra’ theory.
When the officials set up their committees they like to recruit a few other than their regular panel of ‘experts,’ to show they really have tapped into a broad cross-section of the society.
Often some notable from the sporting or artistic world will be included.
I once sat through ten committee sessions on some topic with a sumo wrestler who did little more than grunt.
Then when the female emancipation of the seventies got underway, the demand was for at least one female on any committee.
I once spent the best part of a year on a MITI committee to discuss global economic policies, and which included a rather attractive haiku lady who did little more than look demure for the entire time we were in session.
Then with the onset of the ‘internationalisation’ (kokusaika) boom of the eighties, there was also the demand for a foreigner or two to be appointed to committees.
It reminded me of Canberra in the Whitlam years when the political correctness said the voices of the infirm, the female, the aborigines and the non-heterosexuals should all be heard in the corridors of power.
The ideal candidate for a Whitlam committee was said, rather cruelly, to be a one-legged lesbian lubra.
(Note: a lubra is a female aborigine person.)
I lacked several lubra qualifications. But as a Japanese-speaking foreigner attached to the well-known Sophia university, and, more importantly, sometimes free during day time hours, I was an obvious choice at the time.
The few foreigner females with similar qualifications were even more in demand.
Inside the Committees
Many of the committees I was asked to join turned out to be fairly meaningless. But some gave me a good inside view of the bureaucratic and political process in action.
They also told me a lot about the personalities of the ‘experts’ being appointed to the committees.
Since some of those alleged experts were quite influential in molding Japanese opinion, it was good to see them close up in action.
Needless to say, most were highly conservative.
As well, the materials prepared for these committees were often useful for my own research.
Some were even marked secret. Amazingly, the Japanese organizers seemed not to worry about a foreigner reading their secrets.
One reason could be that until very recently, at least, Japan had none of the secrecy mania that infects Western societies.
Another could be more cultural.
As a member of the committee I was automatically an insider. The fact that I was also a gaijin (literally, an ‘outside person’, or foreigner) was secondary.
As such I was just as entitled to the information being given to the other insiders on the committee, and being denied the Japanese world outside.
It was yet another example of the soto-uchi (outside-inside) phenomenon often used to explain group formation in Japan.
But insider or not, only rarely could this humble foreigner exert any real influence.
Indeed, the one concrete policy shift I can claim credit for over all those years was on a committee set up to chose a new symbol mark for Tokyo.
Votes of the other 12 members were evenly split, so I had he casting vote.
As a result Tokyo today has the simple, clean, green leaf symbol used on all official documents and buildings, rather than the complicated mess that the other six members had preferred.
In short, the many hours spent sitting around those long, cloth-covered committee tables were not entirely wasted.
But they were always peripheral to what had become my main preoccupation, namely Japan’s amazing lecture circuit.
And superimposed on all that was what supposed to be my real career in Japan — teaching at a university.
4. BEING A JAPANESE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR
In Japanese a dual faculty position is called a kentan.
At Sophia I had been given a kentan covering two areas— the Faculty of Economics, and the International Division (now known as the Faculty of Comparative Culture).
Some might see that as an honor.
But for me it meant two lecture schedules, two different faculty committees to attend, two different sets of academic intrigues to cope with, and two very different languages in which to operate.
The strain was substantial — particularly on top of all my committee and outside lecturing commitments.
Worse, I was being asked in the Economics Faculty to give lectures, in Japanese, to vast halls of bored students taking basic economics courses.
I have a fairly good constitution. But sometimes just thinking about having to give one of those excruciating lectures used to make me sick in the stomach.
After about three years of this purgatory, I was suddenly told that the kentan had been terminated, that I should confine myself to the International Division position.
Maybe they did not like my amateurish efforts to lecture on economics in Japanese. More likely, I suspect, they did not like my being dragged into in the intense faction fights racking the economics faculty in those days.
Either way, the relief was very substantial.
At the International Division life was much easier. Faction fights and boring faculty meetings could be ignored or bypassed.
Teaching was in English. The lecture burden was light, and could be concentrated into one or two days of the week, giving me more time and leeway for the still expanding lecture circuit.
5. LIFE ON THE LECTURE CIRCUIT
How to Lecture
From my earlier description (chapter 12a) the reader should already have some idea of Japan’s extraordinary lecture circuit.
There was the sheer volume of it , of course — my giving an average of around three lectures a week, to audiences of every type and size, all around Japan.
And there was the sheer variety of audiences – businessmen, nurses, teachers, bureaucrats, average citizens, even farmers sometimes.
Fortunately I was able to master a few techniques.
When one is giving much the same lecture, day after day, month after month, even an initially poor speaker such as myself begins to learn something about public speaking, and about Japanese audiences.
First lesson was that Japanese audiences are extremely sensitive, much more so than you would normally realize from their often deadpan expressions.
From the moment you walk onto the podium they are watching you closely.
You have to show full confidence; they can tell very quickly whether you are at ease with your subject.
You learn to talk slowly and carefully at the start, giving the impression that you have something important to say later (Hitler is said to have used the same technique).
You have to create rapport. And you have to maintain it for an hour and half — the normal time for lectures in Japan.
You are not allowed to flag, even for a moment; once the audience senses even the slightest hesitation or doubt, they switch off. It is hard to recapture them.
But if you capture them well from the start and keep them captured they will listen, and well.
The attention is both intelligent and genuine; their reactions to strong points and jokes are good indicators.
Most try hard to avoid showing doubt or boredom towards the lecturer, unlike with Western audiences, which turn off, or even hostile, the moment they do not agree with the speaker.
In Japan, even when you are saying something that might contradict their beliefs people try hard to show interest and agreement.
If all goes well you are rewarded with an immense psychological high.
It is as if you have managed, single-handedly, standing on a tiny, isolated podium, to elevate an entire audience, sometimes several thousand people, and hold them there.
One begins to realise how dictators come to love to orate.
(Problems only begin when the audiences are school students. If they start whispering to each other things can easily get out of control.)
(When that happens you are left standing helplessly on the podium, talking into a vacuum, waiting for the clock to run out.)
In my case it was not so much the oratory that held people’s attention; part of the attraction was the fact I was a foreigner.
My earlier reference to myself as the talking dog might have been a bit exaggerated (to recapitulate, why did people pay money to listen to the talking dog? Not because of anything the dog was saying, but because the dog was able to talk).
There was also a genuine interest in what the foreigner was saying.
Often I was putting out ideas new to Japanese audiences. ‘‘Thank you for saying things that ‘hurt our ears’ (mimi ga itai)’’ was one common reaction.
Another was ‘you have made the scales (uroka, or fish scales) drop from our eyes.’
A further help was the fact that I seem to have mastered what I call ‘the Japanese joke.’
In the West, jokes or humorous asides in speeches are expected, demanded even from speakers. Not so in Japan.
Most Japanese speakers take themselves very seriously. Either they don’t know any jokes, or else they feel that delivering them detracts from their status as the esteemed sensei handing down wisdom to the masses.
Needless to say, as a stray foreigner wandering the country I lacked such pretensions. I was more than happy to use jokes, or humorous asides, if that helped create rapport.
Sponsors and audiences would then tell me repeatedly how much they appreciated this, as if being humorous was a quality quite unexpected in a university professor.
But almost always attempts at western humor would fail. The humor would have to be ‘Japanese.’
How does one find a ‘Japanese joke’?
Often I would be saying something I did not think was very funny, but the audience would break into laughter.
I would try the same thing on the next audience, and they too would burst out laughing. Then I knew that I had discovered yet another ‘Japanese joke.’
Jokes would have to be simple, with little of the subtlety of Western jokes. Puns were popular. Irony was a no-no.
(A favorite ‘Japanese joke’ was a true story about myself, new to Japan, trying to order food in a sushi bar and thinking that okonomi – very expensively selected – sushi would be the cheap dish because I had misheard okonomi for ekonomi – economical. Only when I got the bill did I realize there had been a mistake.)
I ended up with a few dozen of these ‘jokes.’ Scattered throughout the standard 90 minute speech, they proved perfect attention-getters.
Another quality for which I was sometimes praised by sponsors, but of which I was hardly aware, was the ability to handle pauses (ma).
For some reason ma are very important for Japanese listeners. They communicate some kind of spiritual essence.
If I could handle pauses, maybe it was because I was becoming very familiar with my topic (I should have been after delivering much the same speech several thousand times).
Finally, and I guess this goes without saying, the easiest way to hold an audience — any audience, but particularly a Japanese audience - is to speak from the heart.
I could do that most of the time because I was genuinely interested in my subject — namely, the differences between the Japanese and us non-Japanese, and the reasons for those differences.
In effect I was being given a chance to talk directly to the subjects of my research, free of charge.
Normally a researcher has to pay good money for that opportunity.
Talking of heart, a popular lecturer around Japan at the time was Hayasaka Shigezo, former secretary to Tanaka Kakuei.
To show sincerity at key moments, Hayasaka would remove his shirt, jump up and down violently, and sweat profusely. The audiences loved it.
I could not compete with him. But before good audiences — school teachers were the best — it was not hard for me to get deeply involved in what I wanted to say.
Sometimes I could even draw tears - for example, and as proof of Japan’s closed nation mentality I would often use as a topic Japan’s obstinate reluctance to allow organ transplants.
As a result, numbers of Japanese children were going abroad for operations, which meant that foreign children also waiting for transplants would possibly die if priority was given to the Japanese.
Even so, we more internationally minded foreigners were often willing to give the Japanese child priority.
Japan’s media and public would be delighted when the Japanese child returned cured. They seemed to show little interest in the problems that Japan’s conservative refusal to allow the transplants at home might be causing to children abroad.
(I had a strange experience trying to get media attention for this distorted Japanese attitude.)
(A column I wrote for the progressive Asahi was dismissed out of hand. I then rewrote it for the conservatively rightwing Yomiuri who were delighted to use it.)
(So why was the allegedly progressive Asahi so reluctant to run with what elsewhere is a popular progressive cause, to the point of seeming to agree with the Japanese ultra-conservatives opposed to transplants? Tampering with the human body and soul, they said it was. )
(But as someone explained to me, the leftwing in Japan saw any freedom for doctors to carve up bodies as an opening for Japan to revert to its bestial live vivisections on prisoners during the war with China.)
(That seemed rather unlikely, but it did say something about the progressives’ distrust of the establishment.)
The lecture circuit had other benefits.
The pressure of standing on a podium and trying to communicate to a large audience forces one constantly to rethink and expand ideas.
Discussions and questions also helped.
Thanks to all that I was able to refine my original ‘tribe’ theory of Japan into something much more sophisticated than the original, but also much easier to explain.
More on that in the next chapter. ...