VALUES AND SOCIETIES: HOW THE EXAMPLE OF JAPAN FORCES A RADICAL REAPRAISAL.
by Gregory Clark, Tokyo March, 1995
(a) The major political/economic fault line in global civilization is not between West and East. It is between the rationalistic/ideological civilizations of the Eurasian continent long in close contact and competition with each other - China, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and southern Europe to some extent - and a more particularistic and collectivist ethic developed by the peoples on the periphery - Japan especially and north Europe/north America to some extent.
(b) The West owes its progress to the mixture of south European civilization with the particularistic/collectivist ethic of north Europe. But the combination is unstable and the rationalistic ethic is now dominant.
(c) Japan also owes much of its progress to the particularistic/collectivist ethic of its original village and then
feudal society, combined with borrowings from outside civilizations - first from China and then the West. But in Japan the collectivist ethic still remains dominant.
(d) The Confucian ethic as developed in China and the rest of East Asia has superior elements. But its role in helping the progress of the East Asian peoples is more complex than most realise. The East Asian 'miracle' could well be repeated by others, India especially.
The recent Kobe earthquake showed the world a Japan very different from the conventional image of world-beating efficiency. The authorities had foolishly ignored the fact that their city was build on fault lines. Rescue and fire control teams needed more than 24 hours to organise themselves, during which 250 hectares of the city was burnt out and many hundreds died. And the city they were trying to save was itself a strange mixture of the modern and the decrepit - gleaming buildings alongside ugly, collapsible mudroof shacks, Kobe Steel's massive rolling mills only a few miles from a backroom shoe-making industry. Were these really the people who until recently at least had been praised for their economic miracle and were widely seen as leaders of an East Asian Confucianist revolution that would knock the West from its economic perch?
To those who knew Japan, however, the surprise was more muted. Japan is an industrial superpower with tribal underpinnings. The Japanese cooperate well to overcome specific problems, as we saw after events had settled down in Kobe. But confronted with the unexpected they are not the organised, resourceful, relentlessly efficient nation of Western imagination.
Nor are they highly Confucianist. The Singapore government likes to push the idea of an East Asian Confucian bloc with Japan as the leading member. Yet in many ways it would be hard to imagine two societies more different than Singapore and Japan. Singapore Chinese are bossy and argumentative. Their job-hopping ratios - a clear indicator of individualistic self-interest - are among the highest in the world. Japan's are among the lowest.
With its efficient town planning, strong government leadership, reasoned economic policies, and penchant for laws and punishments to check each and every perceived social problem, Singapore is a model of controlled rationalism in action. The emotionally and groupist-minded Japanese avoid argument. With their haphazard planning processes, nebulous decision making, dislike of legalism and their conservative blind-eye to most social problems, they lie at the other end of the rationalistic scale.
Japan is what many Japanese have long insisted it is - a rather closed, conservative, village-mentality (mura-ishiki) society in which rules, group pressures, immediate relationships, the emotional and the intuitive - the particularistic - can easily count for much more than abstract principles, universalistic ideology, argued reasons and logical debate - the rationalistic. Yet this often inefficient, village-style society seems to have had little trouble in catching up with the industrialised West and even overtaking it in some areas. Why?
To date we Westerners have had a simple one dimensional approach to economic and social progress. Societies are supposed to begin life with the simple particularistic values of the village, tribe or clan. They acquire crude ideologies and advance to feudalism. But progress to the final stage of modern, industrial, democracy requires a more reasoned and universalistic approach. Rationalism - the propensity to operate on the basis of principles and reasons claiming some basis of universal, objective validity is seen as crucial to the development of the systems of science, universalistic ideology, economy, law, government etc needed for growth. Progress is a straight line, as in Figure 1.
From this it follows that if we in the West seemed more advanced than others in terms, that was because our Greco-Roman civilization was rationalistically superior to that of others. It has been up to others to follow in our rationalistic footsteps and create modern, democratic, industrial, nation-states like ours.
But there have long been problems with this approach. The most obvious is where we put Japan. In the past we could place it at a midway point in Figure 1, somewhere between the West and the older civilizations, and argue that its backwardness relative to the West was due to a feudal hangover of particularistic values.
But today's Japan is clearly the equal of the north Europe/America societies in economic and perhaps even social progress. Some like to argue that Westernisation has shifted its values towards the top righthand corner of Figure 1, near North Europe/America. But this argument gets few takers in Japan. The factionalism, the paternalistic style of enterprise management, the emotionalism of booms, moods etc, the piecemeal approach to planning, the unending revelations of crony corruption, and the bureaucrats concerned only with the interests of their own ministry, all show that mura-ish/ki still rules Japan.
Not does Figure 1 do much to explain gaps in Western progress. Western civilization originated in south Europe. But most industrial and political progress in recent centuries has been in north Europe. The Weberian claim that north European progress was the result of a practical, utilitarian Protestant ethic puts the cart before the horse. Societies create religions, not vice versa. North Europe got a utilitarian Protestantism because it wanted something more practical and less dogmatic than the universalistic and rigidly ideological Catholicism of south Europe. In the same way, Japan got a more utilitarian Buddhism and Confucianism because it too wanted something simpler and more practical than the more ideological products coming out of India and China.
Nor was our Greco-Roman civilization quite as superior as we like to believe. It owed much to borrowings from Middle Eastern civilisation. It collapsed ignominiously in the face of barbarian attack and could only be revived after a long period of Dark Age backwardness, with more borrowings from the Middle East. Meanwhile the civilizations of China, India and the Middle East were not only surviving; they were producing a range of scientific, philosophic and other intellectual achievement equal to anything Europe could produce at the time.
Even in relative decline these older, non-Western civilizations have kept many
of their rationalistic skills intact. The cerebral quality of their politicians,
writers, financiers, thinkers and debaters at least equals the West. In diplomacy
they can often outwit their Western counterparts. Provide their students with a proper
education and they can produce scientists and technologists equal to if not superior
to those of the West; the performance of Chinese or Indian origin researchers and
computer specialists in the US today is but one proof. During the Sino-Soviet polemics
of the early sixties the Soviet ideologists had their arguments torn to shreds by
the relentless logic of the Chinese side. In international organisations Indian delegates
are wellknown for the detail and persistence of their arguments.
We blame the backward state of these societies on the presence of backward structures, attitudes etc. But that is like saying that backwardness causes backwardness. Give these peoples the same opportunities and stimulae as we have in the West and they can easily excel us, as we are beginning to see in Confucian East Asia.
Similarly within Western civilization. North Europe/America can claim superior economic and social progress. But south Europeans and Latin Americans can claim equal if not superior intellectual or business skills. North Europeans used to make good ships, but most of them ended up being owned by smart Italian or Greek businessmen. Japan has also seen much of its shipping come under the control of smart Chinese businessmen operating out of Hong Kong.
Why then the unevenness in economic progress? Some like to fall back on Toynbeean explanations: civilizations rise as they respond to challenges but then fall back. But intuitively that does not seem to explain all; it does not, for example, explain why Japan was able to rise to the challenge of Western expansionism in the 19th century but China could not.
The key, I suggest, lies in the correct definition of rationalistic. We equate
rationalism with rationality. But the rationalistic is simply the attempt to be rational,
relying on arguments and principles that claim some basis of objective validity.
If that validity exists then well and good. But if the validity does not exist? In
that case we end up with a very harmful dogmatism and we do not have to look much
beyond many of our religious and political ideologies* for examples.
Similarly with the particularistic. It can have its large areas of irrationality, to the extent it encourages people to rely too much on instinctive emotions, unreasoned traditions or particular relationships. But it can also have its large areas of sensible, grassroots, practicality.
[FOOTNOTE: By now it should be clear I am using the word ideology in the sense of a system of values and beliefs which claims univeralistic and objective validity.]
The tribe or village that cooperates naturally to get its crops planted on time, for example, or which instinctively holds itself together in adversity, is acting particularisticaly. But it is also acting with great rationality. Japanese enterprises which emphasise employee welfare, seniority pay scales, dealings based on trust, and attitudes that say the firm must survive at all costs, have what is often called familial, and therefore particularistic, managment. But until recently at least few would have argued that this necessarily makes them inferior to rationalistic Western enterprises where company merger, acquisition and liquidation has become financial game, employees are ruthlessly hired and fired, CEO's claim enormous salaries on the basis of some alleged merit, and contractors or customers are dumped at whim.
In many of our advanced Western societies the call today is for a return to traditional values. In which case, Japan's conservative reluctance to abandon the rituals, conventions, beliefs etc that it inherited from its traditional past is not quite as backward-looking as many used to assume.
This in turn tells us what long should have been obvious, namely that progress is two dimensional, not one dimensional. The rationalistic values and the scientific, organisational and other byproducts of advanced civilization are important; without them we would indeed lack the tools of progress. But many particularistic values are also important - sensible practicality, instinctive willingness to cooperate with others, and so on. Progress is not a straight line of Figure 1; it is a curve - the mixture of sensible particularism and sensible rationalism, as in Figure 2. Japan comes quite close to that ideal, even if it still has some excessive bias towards the particularistic. The problem with the rest of us is that we have all gone too far in the rationalistic direction.
This is especially true for the older civilizations. After an early burst of spectacular progress to the Apex in Figure 2, these peoples became too caught up in the seeming logic and reasoning of their various ideologies. Their intellectuals became too scholastic, their leaders too authoritarian, their bureaucrats too aloof, their societies too divorced from the grassroots practicality and instinctive collectivism of their origins. They moved into relative decline, well beyond the Apex in Figure 2.
South Europe was a special case. Its long period of Dark Age feudalism allowed it a degree of two-dimensional progress. But since the Renaissance period it has been stumbling to retain the right balance. France occupies the middle ground, with its mix of refined intellectualism and peasant practicality.
Why we find these differences in values? A strong empirical clue lies in the fact that the older civilizations all developed in the more central areas of the Eurasian continent - in the Middle East, central Asia, China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Mediterranean. Here peoples long in close contact and conflict with each other were forced to develop strong governments and ideological systems by which they could organise themselves and assert their identity against foreign rivals. Ideological thinking in turn encouraged rationalistic thinking as people developed the propensity for operating in terms of absolutes, reasons and arguments. This in turn allowed the early development of systems of science, law, technology, strong government etc. needed for progress.
Societies cut off from contact with older civilizations tended to remain in their original tribal, village or early feudal state, and there is no shortage of peoples in the more remote areas of Africa or the Pacific who can confirm this. Those too close to the older civilizations were dominated; Korea and Vietnam for example were close to becoming virtual clones of Chinese civilization. Others on the periphery but further removed tried to develop their village/feudal ethic while absorbing elements of outside civilization. But in many cases the mix was hurried (as in Russia and much of East Europe) or was interrupted by colonisation (as in Indonesia* or the Philippines).
(*FOOTNOTE: But Bali, the last area of Indonesia to be colonised, was able to
create a highly collectivist society with economic progress and feudal institutions
very similar to that of Tokugawa Japan. Java too has many Japanese-type values, with
consensus and group cooperation written into the Indonesian constitution.)
Japan and north Europe were in the ideal situation. They had access to rationalistic civilization, but were not greatly subject to attack or domination by those civilizations. So they had a very long period of grace in which they could retain and refine the collectivist values of their original village/feudal societies while bringing what they saw as useful in the outside civilization ideologies, the systems of government, law, economy etc. They could get the best of both worlds - the particularistic and the rationalistic - and combine them at their own pace and choosing. It was the ideal formula for progress.
To date the idea that Japan and the north European societies developed in much the same way has not enjoyed great recognition.* But the similarities exist Both began life as simple tribal, village and clan societies into which outside civilization was forcefully implanted - from China via Korea in the ritsuryo period of the 7th and 8th centuries AD in the case of Japan, and from the Roman Empire in the case of north Europe - but then gradually moderated to meet local conditions. During a long period of feudal gestation both societies continued to absorb the outside civilization - Buddhism and Confucianism from China through to the Tokugawa period and then the deliberate importation of Western civilization during the Meiji period; the flow of Renaissance civilization into north Europe.
[* FOOTNOTE: One of the first scholars to do so was the former US ambassador to Japan, Edwin Reischauer. In "Feudalism in History" (ed Rushton Coulborn, 1956) he noted the similarities between Japanese and European, especially German, feudalism. In his 1986 book "My Life Between Japan and America" he regrets that 'I have never had the chance to develop these ideas myself thoroughly.' Others who emphasise the Tokugawa period as the key to Japan's later industrial progress indirectly recognise to the importance of Japan's feudal era.] [In a forthcoming book Francis Fukuyama closely examines the similarities between Japan and north Europe in development, institutions and ways of association. I myself first developed the idea of Japan as a 'tribal' society in a book published in Japan in 1977 (Nihonjin; Yuniikusa no Gensen - The Japanese: Origins of Uniqueness.) The ideas and the graph in this article have been developed in several books and articles published in Japan since 1979, in particular 'Understanding the Japanese, ' Kinseido (Tokyo) 1983 and 'Gokai sareru Nihonjin' (The Misunderstood Japanese), Kodansha (Tokyo), 1991.]
Many like to see feudalism as the antithesis of progress, and therefore harmful.
But that is like saying that adolescence is the opposite of adulthood and therefore
harmful. During their period of full feudalism* both Japan and north Europe developed
many of the values crucial to their later progress - a work and frugality ethic,
systems of implicit obligation, a wide range of decentralised economic activity in
small locally-based enterprises, punctiliousness and attention to detail, a willingness
to accept convention and practical day-to-day rules, and an attitude which said the
making of things and the quality of the making was an important source of identity
(in north Europe the nature of one's work even came to serve as the basis for one's
name, as in Mr Smith, Mr Baker etc).
In particular, both North Europe and Japan have had the enormous advantage of what some call locational*, but I would describe as instinctive or particularistic, collectivism, All societies encourage or require people to form groups and cooperate with each other. But in the ideological/rationalistic society groups are formed more on the basis of attributes such as kinship, caste, class, shared religious belief or commitment to ideological ideals. It is a more logical or reasoned kind of group formation, and has contributed greatly to the stability of the older civilizations over the centuries. But it does not help economic or political progress greatly. Government is controlled by caste-like elites. Positions of trust in enterprises often can only be filled with kinsfolk.
[*FOOTNOTE: Full feudalism should be distinguished from what can be called semi-feudalism
- the Russian type of semi-feudalism for example where an imperfect form of rationalistic
central government is imposed awkwardly on a backward feudalistic countryside, or
the Chinese/Indian type where the economy and central government have been weakened
to the point where control in the countryside has reverted to local warlords and
landlords. Under full feudalism, the central government and local rulers maintain
a balance in obligations - Magna Carta and all that, a feudal code of ethics emerges
- bushido in Japan and chivalry in West Europe, and local rulers also maintain a
balance of obligations with their subjects.]
[In 'Russia Under the Old Regime' (Macmillan, New York, 1974), Richard Pipes, seeking to distinguish Russia's patrimonial feudal state from the more advanced feudalism of Western Europe, quotes Marc Bloch: "The originality [of Western feudalism] consisted in the emphasis it placed on the idea of an agreement capable of binding the rulers; and in this way, oppressive as it may have been to the poor, it has in truth bequeathed to our Western civilization something with which we still desire to live." Unfortunately Pipes like many others assumes that only we Westerners were able to create such feudalism. He relegates Japanese feudalism to the same category as Russia and India]
In the particularistic society, however, people relate closely with those around them and with whom they are involved simply because they are around and are involved. This non-attribute approach to group formation may be arbitrary and unprincipled, but it is also very effective. Political factions remain open to all comers. People thrown together in a work situation cooperate naturally with each other. As the Japanese saying puts it: More important than the distant relative is the stranger close by.
A former US aid expert familiar with conditions in Latin America and southern
Italy, Lawrence Harrison, developed in the 1980's the concept of the 'radius of trust.'
** He notes how in the Latin societies trust rarely extends beyond family members,
and this clearly stunts the growth of effective institutions. In Japan and the 'Protestant
ethic' societies, however, extremely broad and complex webs of relationships develop
- clubs, associations, trade unions, professional groups and so on. This was clearly
a help to progress in Japan and north Europe/America, he concluded.
Harrison does not say so, but the ultimate in 'radius of trust' expansion is the nation-state. In effect the instinctive collectivism of the village or tribe expands to embrace the feudal region, and ultimately the nation, with the bonds of shared culture also helping to bring people together - the nation/tribe.
[*FOOTNOTE: See 'Japanese Society,' Pelican Books,1973 for a translated version
of the important early work on this topic by the Japanese anthropologist, Chie Nakane.]
[**FOOTNOTE: Harrison's most recent work is "Who Prospers? How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success" Basic Books, New York, 1992]
Elsewhere, ideology has to serve as the binding force holding people together.
This expanded 'tribalistic' collectivism provides the basis of the social contract
which in turn is the basis of effective democracy. It is no accident that it is only
among the north European origin peoples and more recently in Japan that we find full-fledged,
nation-state consciousness, and that democracy has really taken proper root.
The Japan-Germany connection is of particular interest: the underlying emotionality in the national culture; the ease with which both slid into militarism and fascism 60 years ago; the close relations between banks and enterprises; coperation between trade unions and enterprise management; the attention to practical, on-the- job, apprentice-style training; the stodginess of the intellectuals. The Swedish sociologist, Ake Daun* has claimed close similarities between Japan and Sweden, especially in the way people try to avoid conflict in relations.
The British have also shown Japanese features, at least until recently: conservative pragmatism and a dislike of the ideological; religious flexibility**; the instinctive sense of order (traffic, queues); the attachment to monarchy; the respect for police and authority; self-centered, 'perfidious' trade policies; a nonchalant ability to forget past colonialist atrocities. As in Japan, a liking for the practical rather than the intellectual produced a class of highly effective entrepreneurs, and colonisers. With their ability to organise an entire nation simply on the basis of convention and precedent without relying on a formal constitution the British go beyond the Japanese.
(*FOOTNOTE: Swedish Mentality: A Comparative Perspective, Stockholm University, 1989)
[**FOOTNOTE: Japan is remarkable for its ability to retain the primitive, animistic beliefs of Shinto as the basis of a national religion, and then combine this with other beliefs. The average Japanese has a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral, and nowadays some of the younger ones also want Christian weddings. The British match this eclecticism somewhat with the concept of a Church of England (a contradiction in terms surely, since God is unlikely to have wanted to create a religion especially for the English) into which some also try to mix the rites of Catholicism.]
But it is in manufacturing prowess that the British and the Japanese most resemble
each other. The way very ordinary people in very ordinary British or Japanese towns
can come together to produce complex machines for export around the globe is, or
was, one of the world's wonders. Western critics determined to see Japan as the product
of some devious scheme or system would soon change their views if they spent more
time in Japanese factories, both large and small.
As an island nation with limited resources but close to the western extremity of the Eurasian continent, Britain created the first Industrial Revolution. Another island nation with limited resources close to the eastern extremity of the Eurasian continent, Japan, created what could well be called the second Industrial Revolution. But for superficial differences of culture* and race, the coincidence would have been noted much earlier.
Even in the new frontier Anglo-saxon culture societies such as the US or Australia we can see value similarities with Japan. 'Radius of trust' attitudes were reinforced by the hardships of people battling against frontier hardships to create a highly instinctive cooperative ethic - the mateship ethic of Australians and the strong sense of community in traditionalist Americans. Today, most like to see Americans and Australians as rugged individualists, but a major reason for past industrial success was that only a generation ago their enterprises had much the same collective style of management as in Japan - a point brought out strongly in the case of the US by the spate of books in the 80's noting how the best US companies had long ago discovered the secrets of what was later to be seen as Japanese management.
Interestingly, Japanese manufacturing management has exported well to all the Anglosaxon culture societies, particularly to the rural areas where traditional values still survive. But it has done very poorly in the Sinitic culture societies of East Asia. Educated, rationalistic Chinese and Koreans have little interest in the enterprise as a source of emotional identity.
[*FOOTNOTE: I use culture in the sense of language, art, religions etc. Values are deeper and create what could be called the personality of a society. Peoples of very different race and with very different cultures can have similar personalities. Conversely peoples with shared Western race and culture, the British and the Greeks for example, can have very different national personalities.]
One reason why the Japan - north Europe/America connection is overlooked is the
way some tend to see a scientifically-inclined West as radically different from a
more metaphysical, humannexus oriented East, with Japan firmly in the Eastern camp.
But this confuses several issues. The 'Eastern' civilizations matured gradually in
a pre-industrial era. So their rationalism and ideologies naturally tended to focus
on the metaphysical and human relationships - areas where absolutes are muted and
ambiguity can be a virtue. Japan comes to the same conclusions, but via a much simpler
Western civilization matured later and more savagely , when major ideological wars were an everyday occurrence and the scientific revolution was getting underway. So our rationalists tended to concentrate more on black-and-white absolutes. Everything has to be either good or bad, which in turn explains much of the confusion is judging Japan. We find it hard to accept that the good can coexist with the bad.
Today we peoples of north European origins like to see ourselves as leading the world in refined rationalism. But it is really only in the past few decades that our societies have moved firmly into the rationalistic orbit. Enlightenment rationalism from south Europe began to influence our educated classes some centuries back, as shown by the quality of our scientists and other thinkers in recent history*. But it took time for these rationalistic values to penetrate down into the body of our societies, into our working or rural classes especially. Like Japan, we were able to combine the two growth factors - particularism and rationalism - very effectively.
[*FOOTNOTE: It is highly likely, however, that much of our scientific quality was due to a strong pragmatic input. Our scientists and others had not yet succumbed to the dry scholasticism that afflicted the older civilizations, including south Europe, and which is starting to afflict some of our social sciences today.]
Today, however, our north European culture societies are moving beyond the Apex in Figure 2. Our plunge into a rather immature rationalism is beginning to produce more negatives than positives - the plague of legalism, impersonal 'scientific' enterprise management, bureaucrats chopping and changing with each new administrative brainwave, credentialism, preference for 'intellectual' rather than practical forms of employment (financial services rather than manufacturing, for example). Compare the pragmatic commonsense of a Keynes with the arid scholasticism of today's monetary and free market economists (interestingly, they call themselves economic rationalists) and at least one of the reasons for our recent relative economic decline should be obvious. As some have noted, Japan has poor economists but a strong economy. Britain has a poor economy and any number of Nobel Prize winners in economics. The inverse correlation is not pure coincidence.
What was the first large north European society to graduate from feudalism to create the Industrial Revolution? Britain. What is the north European society today furthest on the downward slope of relative decline? Britain, again. The correlation seems clear, and it is no coincidence that all the other Anglosaxon culture societies seem to be suffering from a weakened industrial base and a disintegrating social fabric. Germany, the last north European society to leave feudalism, has only recently begun to suffer.
Japan will probably come to suffer too. To date it has been unique in that its feudal ethic was developed much more thoroughly than in north Europe and lasted much longer, formally until 1868 though some would argue that it still continues. And the 'Enlightenment' was much weaker. Japan's educated classes never gave full allegiance to either Chinese or Western rationalism. Many still prefer a homegrown ethic that gives precedence to the emotional over the intellectual, the intuitive over the reasoned. Japan still lies to the left side of Apex in Figure 2 and until recently at least was continuing to rise up the curve simply by replacing the more backward aspects of its particularism with some of the better elements in Western rationalism - discovering the simple rules of Western economics, using laws to fight corruption, etc.
Many like to explain Japan's progress in terms of a shared East Asian Confucianism; after all it seems no coincidence that this area leads the world in recent progress. But little more than thirty years ago the conventional wisdom said exactly the opposite. Then it was taken for granted that Confucianism was harmful to growth. This explained why pre-1949 Confucian China had remained mired in backwardness, and Taiwan and South Korea, both then still clinging to a rather tattered Confucianism to legitimise their shaky regimes, had made such poor progress. Even Communism seem preferable to Confucianism, with Mainland China showing a growth vigor not found in Taiwan. North Korea, incredible though it may seem today, was doing better than South Korea. If Japan was doing best that was supposed to be because it was the one area of East Asia least influenced by Confucianism. Hongkong and Singapore were seen as being saved by a strong admixture of Western wisdom.
Nor was it hard to find reasons why Confucianism might be so harmful. Its emphasis on close family ties bred nepotism. It encouraged bureaucratic aloofness and over-centralised government. The status quo was preferred to change. It put intellectual activity ahead of entrepreneurial activity. And if one had to go out and make money, one did so though trading or banking rather than running factories; one prospered through one's wits rather than one's hands. None of this seemed like a formula for industrial or political progress.
So why the progress we see today? Two factors seem involved. One is that the Confucian ethic for all its faults also has some important merits. The requirement to look after the welfare and raise the status of one's family is an obvious plus, for any society. So too is the emphasis on education, and moral legitimacy in leaders. 'Confucius says' aphorisms include large areas of simple, practical commonsense, which is what we might expect in an ideology developed to help contain wars in China's feudal society of 2,500 years ago.
Secondly, Confucianism as a largely secular ideology finds it easier than most others to discard faults and reform itself, particularly under the pressure of Westernisation or competition with a communist rival.
Japan came under considerable Confucian influence, particularly during the Tokugawa period when the feudal leaders badly needed an ideology to justify their rule and provide a basis of national unity. But Japan could usually amend Confucianism to take advantage of the pluses while ignoring minuses like over-emphasis on family ties etc. Korea, which sees itself as more Confucian than China, was long scandalised by the pragmatic Japanese attitude to adoption and more recently by the ease with which even the nuclear family in Japan has been allowed to come under threat.
Korea and the other more ideologically-minded Sinitic culture societies of East
Asia were much slower to make amendments. But when they did, they did so decisively.
In Taiwan and South Korea during the sixties there was a conscious effort to replace
Confucianist status-quoism with an ideology of industrial progress. Making money
and entrepreneurship were endorsed. Manufacturing and the acquisition of technology
were elevated to the level of holy virtues (entire TV programs would be devoted to
the logic of nuts fitting into bolts). Bureaucrats began to take an active interest
in the details of economics and business they had previously viewed with contempt.
Progress followed quickly thanks to the many Confucian merits that remained, the emphasis on education especially (though some would say the Japanese or British infrastructure imposed on much of East Asia during colonial times was also a help). Today in Singapore we see a society which tries consciously to combine the best of reformed Confucian principles with what is useful in Western rationalism.
China too is changing. After relying on Communism in a bid to break out of the morass of traditional Confucianism, it is now moving to embrace some of the Confucian merits, and Westernisation. In effect Confucian East Asia goes ahead by moving backward up the curve of Figure 2, away from the ideological dogma of the past and towards a more practical rationalism, with Western progress as a guide. Conscious attempts to imitate Japan also help this backward-moving progress.
In short, if our societies have to have ideologies, reformed Confucianism could come close to the ideal. It avoids religious dogma. It emphasises the human factor. It keeps fairly close to the practicality of its feudal origins. It requires leaders to behave with at least the appearance of restraint. It counters nationalist ideologies. One cannot ask for much more than that.
With the other older civilisations, the religious influences have been stronger. Traditional dogmas have persisted longer. But reform is not impossible. India now seems to be on the verge of takeoff. If the Islamic societies could rid themselves of the need to cling to fundamentalist ideology in the face of real and imagined insult from the West, they too could progress (if the West could remove some of that insult, even better). Certainly these highly rationalistic societies have no shortage of the intellectual talent needed for progress.
If anything it is the non-ideological societies that could be in trouble in the future. To date Japan and north Europe have been able to rely on tradition, rules, rituals, conventions and social pressures to get people to behave, to do what the British used to describe as the 'done thing.' People have not needed reasons to tell them why they had to do those things.
But what happens when people do begin to want reasons, when they decide, rationalistically, that they can enjoy a good life, power or status at little risk by abusing or ignoring the implicit controls and conventions? Collectivist nations tend to take their fragile cohesion for granted. In their complacency they try to ignore problems that threaten that cohesion, like the presence of large unassimilable minorities, rising crime, alienation, and persistent youth unemployment. One small breakdown easily leads to other and larger breakdowns. The sad decay of the British social fabric in little more than one generation is a warning to the rest of us*.
[*FOOTNOTE: A small example of how the fabric unravels: Some of us studying at
Oxford in the fifties used to drive taxis to earn pocket money. It became almost
a sport amongst us young 'rationalists' to see how far we could exploit the trusting
honesty of our fares and employers to make extra money with minimum effort. Paradoxically
today in Japan I benefit almost daily from the extraordinary honesty of taxidrivers
- absence of shortchanging, punctilious courtesy and cleanliness. Even a wallet left
behind in a taxi has a good chance of being carefully returned.]
It is here that the logic of the older civilizations begins to operate. We Westerners like to condemn their draconian punishments, their ideological rigidities, the smothering nature of kinship and caste ties, their authoritarian rulers. But using these techniques they have at least been able to hold themselves together for very long and difficult periods.
We like to insist that our form of nation-state democracy is the ultimate in political development and should be imitated by others. But Western democracy is a highly transitional affair, a golden moment at the Apex of Figure 2 when the web of mutual restraints and obligation developed during the feudal period can be supplemented by the principles of parliamentary government. The social contract is still intact; the Westminster conventions can be relied on.
Breakdown comes quickly as politicians realise how easy it is to gain and abuse power by ignoring the conventions and restraints. We end up with bread-and-circus democracy, with politicians willing to make any promise or concession needed to gain office and any slander needed to defeat opponents. The social contract disintegrates as the educated classes - the elites of Christopher Lasch* - realise how easy it is to exploit the weaknesses - the amgibuities and the implicit nature of obligations - in that contract.
As disillusionment with the democratic political process increases and social
problems persist, many in the West will begin to turn to stronger ideologies - probably
of a religious or rightwing nationalistic nature - to hold themselves together. The
curious outbreak of political correctness and religious fundamentalism in the US
especially is a harbinger of what is to come. As we emerge from the wreckage created
by these ideologies we will be less critical of the nationalism and fundamentalism
in other societies. We might even begin to realise that Communism - a botched attempt
to turn collectivist Utopianism into an ideology - was not so evil after all. Democracy
is not the end of history; it is the middle of history, and a very ephemeral middle
[*FOOTNOTE: The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, W.W.Norton, 1995]
Similarly with our prized individualism. That too could be a highly transitional
phase, one that exists briefly as we move from the instinctive groupism of the past
to the rationalistic groupism of the future. When societies can combine both instinctive
cohesiveness with democratic cohesiveness, they can afford the luxury of allowing
individuals to do as they choose. But as individuals abuse their freedoms, societies
will grope for ways to impose order - draconian punishments, harsher ideologies etc.
Japan is still entering the golden moment. It retains the instinctive cohesiveness and restraints from the past. And thanks to US-imposed democracy, it is also discovering that people do not have to be bound forever by feudalistic impositions and rules. Individual freedoms are growing. Police and other authoritarian powers are weakening. Job mobility is expanding. Women are gaining rights. Discriminations are being eased. The result is a remarkably tolerant society, even if many Westerners (mainly of the non-Japanese speaking variety) like to insist otherwise. Even the politics are improving, away from the feudalistic domination by one party and towards a flexible two party system.
But Japan's golden moment has probably come too early. It is still not a mature nation-state. Its nationalists are still much too dangerously crude. It lacks the rationalism to handle emerging social problems. The collectivist ethic is beginning to fray and there is little to replace it other than conservative mumblings about a return to past moralities.
The Japanese talk of the kuki or atmosphere than holds the society and keeps it moving in certain directions. But when atmosphere disappears only a vacuum remains, and already some are talking of the 'moral vacuum' afflicting the youth. Some Japanese like to complain about the onset of the 'British' disease. They may be right. In Japan today we are just beginning to see a breakdown similar to that of England in the fifties, with city-bred youth realising how easy it is to shortchange trusting customers and to shoplift from Japan's wide open stores.
The continental north European societies avoid this problem somewhat, since they
can try to turn to a concept of European Christian civilization to hold their societies
together as the past collectivism weakens. Japan and the Anglosaxon societies do
not have that option. Asked by a British journalist what he thought of British civilization,
the Indian leader Nehru is supposed to have
paused and said: "Yes, it would be a very good idea." Many educated Chinese and Koreans would say the same about Japan. It was precisely this lack of 'civilization' that allowed both Britain and Japan to prosper and to try to conquer others. Ironicially it could also be the factor guaranteeing their social decline.
Industrially Japan could also be in trouble. In the service and information industries it now lags badly, mainly because the collectivist ethic that works so well in manufacturing has discouraged the individualistic creativity needed elsewhere. Japan's weakness in computer-software - an area where freeminded individualism is crucial - is a cause for special concern. Interestingly, Japan is now trying to borrow the talents of Chinese and Indian software designers, to fill the gaps in its own ranks.
Japan also lacks the planning abilities needed for the modern post-manufacturing economy. Muddling through British-style on the basis of ba-atari (handling problems only as they arise) and imitating the West is no longer good enough. Its emotional land and share booms of the 70's and 80's did enormous harm, as much to the work ethic as to the economy. It still does not realise properly the harm it has done both to itself and to others by its primitive trade policies. And now the scandalous excesses of its corrupt and decrepit financial systems are finally coming home to roost. Increasingly the future could lie with the societies that have a sensible rationalistic ethic, one that avoids dogmas and which actively tries to use logic to solve economic and social problems societies not dissimilar to what we see in Confucian East Asia today.
Japan as a model? There is still much in this unusual society that we can learn from. But Japan is where we came from, and it is doubtful whether any of us can return there properly. Singapore could be where we are headed, if we are lucky.