Chapter 16







From the moment the Japanese version of “The Japanese Tribe” book emerged back in 1978, I was being asked when the English language original would appear.

Simul had promised to publish it as soon as they had the Japanese version out. But then came that rather silly dispute with Muramatsu of Simul over royalty payments.

Japanese publishers like to pay a fixed rate regardless of sales volume. I felt the rate should fluctuate with sales volumes. At the time I did not understand properly the rationale behind the Japanese approach.

Simul being out of the picture did not worry me greatly. Some foreign publishers – Charles Tuttle of Tuttle Publishing in particular – were showing interest in the English original.

I would have liked to have said yes. And maybe I should have said yes. Tuttle were good publishers.

But there were problems, and not just the usual writer’s tristesse.


One was realizing that in trying to describe the Japanese value system I had been dabbling in dangerous academic waters. The sociologists themselves had not come up with the terms and concepts needed to describe a nation like Japan.

And I was no sociologist.

I also needed something better to explain Japan’s economic ‘miracle,’ a topic that was daily becoming more important.

I realized too that I was not simply writing about the Japanese. In trying to compare them to other peoples I was in effect trying to write about the entire human race – a topic for which I was, and remain, somewhat less than fully qualified.

Most of all, I was getting to be very busy on the lecture circuit. That helped me to clarify a lot of my ideas about Japan; as mentioned earlier, it made me realize that Japan was even more ‘tribal’ than I had thought.

But it also cut into the time I could write about those ideas.
My files are filled with drafts dashed off in moments of zeal after some speech or conference which had given me some new insight, and then allowed to languish as I headed off to the next assignment.


Meanwhile the reaction to the book was building up.

Most of the main Japanese papers and magazines gave it good reviews – though good reviews have little meaning in Japan since it is rare to find a bad review.

But there seemed to be a genuine interest in the fact that a foreigner who knew China and had some Japanese background was trying to explain Japan. In those days I had few competitors.

Indeed, there are still few Westerners who can do the China-Japan comparison properly.

There was also interest from US and European businessmen. They assumed, probably mistakenly, that anyone willing to write about the Japanese and get published in Japan must know something about how to do business in Japan.

I did not try to disabuse them, partly because it helped me get to know something about how they did business in Japan.

The World Economic Forum people also latched on to me for a while. After being dragged to a few of their rather vacuous conferences around Asia we lost interest in each other.

(The ability of that outfit to convince the world that it has some handle on global events is further proof of Western media herd instinct. That top business leaders pay large amounts to attend its meetings is also proof perfect of the vanity and vacuity in big business.)


But the foreign academic community was largely hostile.

Part of it was standard academic jealousy.

But many also saw me as playing up to the Japanese nationalistic desire to see themselves as unique (almost all of them were judging from the title of my book; I have yet to meet one who has actually read the book.)

I was to be victim of their knee-jerk reaction against Nihonjin-ron.

Curiously, in their books and articles pouring scorn on anyone, and not just myself, who tries to develop a theory, to explain Japan*, they usually then go on to give us their version of how to explain Japan.

In other words, their Nihonjin-ron is right, and everyone else is wrong.

One of the more notorious was a European journalist (yet another non-Japanese speaker) who having completed the ritual denigration of anyone who saw Japan as in any way unusual, then went on to tell us about some sinister System which could explain the alleged ‘enigma’ of Japan.

I realized I had to firm up my ideas about Japan.

*(In a turgid tract published by an American at Australia’s Monash university, mine and others’ statements about the obvious fact that the Japanese were groupist were pooh-poohed at length.

(It was claimed that at heart the Japanese were sturdy individualists like the rest of us, or even more so.

(The popularity of single contestant sports like sumo or golf, as opposed to the team sports like cricket or rugby that we non-Japanese craved **, was supposed to be proof..

(Said expert did not seem to know how each sumo contestant is tied in groupist, feudalistic bondage to one or other of the officially recognized stables. Nor did he know that most golfers belong to a gundan – literally, an army – centered on some older and once famous player.)

Amazingly, this anti-Nihonjinron nonsense finds great approval among many foreign academics involved with Japan. The highly non-academic determination to reject any idea that conflicts with their dogma about Japan runs deep.)

**(The popularity of team sports, especially amongst us Anglo-Saxons, could be because of the ease with which it give us an outlet for our own ‘locational’ group instincts.

(Japanese caught up in groupist rituals almost from birth have less need for such outlets. Whatever sport they indulge in almost always will have some groupist mould imposed on it.)


Gradually the ideas did begin to firm up.

A major breakthrough was the curve of progress described in the previous chapter.

But should I publish it somewhere? Or should I wait till I could present it in book form?

The curve seemed to have two important implications – one, that in terms of values the Japanese were much closer to us peoples of north European culture than they were to the Chinese or other older civilization peoples, and two that full feudalism could well have been the prerequisite for the autonomous industrial progress and the civil society found in Japan and North Europe,

What would I do if some bright academic were to run off with all this and publish it as his own idea?

But I need not have worried.

A few Western academics at the time were playing with the idea that full feudalism was the key to the growth of the civil society/social-contract democracy in north Europe. But they had not realized it could also be the basis of industrial growth.

(Historians usually are not very interested in economics.)

Reischauer had written about the similarities between German and Japanese feudalism, but as he admitted in later life he should have, but had not, followed up on the idea in a broader context.

It seemed as if I had the field to myself.

My first move was to have the curve inserted as appendix to the 1979 “Yuunikyu na Nihonjin” book, knowing that few Western academics would get even to look at the book let alone the appendix

With some trepidation I also put it into a slim 1983 English-language reader book for Japanese students “Understanding the Japanese.”

But the reaction was muted.

I decided I had plenty of time to get my ideas into proper print.

I was challenging the conventional wisdoms, not just about Japan but also about the bases for economic and social progress. Few others would want to follow me in a hurry.

Besides, I had more pressing things to do – mainly trying to raise a family, and to reconcile my university teaching duties with the ever-increasing demands of the lecture circuit.


A turning point for me was the early 90’s debate over the alleged collapse of communism. This was supposed to represent the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy over communist evil.

In fact, the emergence of Gorbachev marked the triumph of reasonably idealistic, i.e. good, progressive, communism over corrupt bureaucratic communism, as I had discovered more than twenty years earlier in the Moscow student cafes.

(That an intelligent humanitarian of Gorbachev’s quality could emerge as leader in the Soviet Union while the best the US could produce was a bumbling, militaristic ignoramus like Ronald Reagan also said a lot about the superiority of the post-Brezhnev political process in the Soviet Union over the corruption and theatricalism of US politics.

(Gorbachev’s downfall began with the failed coup by conservative communist ideologues – people from exactly the same ideological mould (love of nation and flag; dislike of free speech, libertarianism and pornography; the need for firm ideology* ) as Ronald Reagan.

(This was followed by the rise of an opportunistic and corrupt ex-communist called Yeltsin, who was welcomed by the West. Somehow he was supposed to represent the victory of democracy over communism.

But what really stirred me was the sight of the US academic, Francis Fukuyama, propagating a thesis about liberal democracy being the ultimate stage in human development – the end of history.

My own experience of politics, plus my curve of progress, had told me something very different – that the consensual, social-contract democracy in the West was a very fragile and temporary thing.

It relied on post-feudal communalistic pressures for people to behave honestly and fairly as part of a larger cooperative called the nation – the so-called civil society or social contract.

It was highly vulnerable to the rationalistic pressures that said why. Why be civil and cooperative when the power needed to control the nation, and its various sub-units, could be so easily bought, manipulated or imposed?

There was no need to rely on honesty and integrity to get to the top. The smart operators and petty dictators knew a much easier way.

(Already in Canberra I had seen close up the collapse of Australia’s former and attractive social-contract democracy, and the rise of Australia’s now-dominant power-at-all-costs, winner-takes-all ‘democracy.’

(The social contract? What’s that, mate?)

The same rationalistic pressures were also working to force the breakdown of the former and attractive instinctual morality – the sense of order, honesty, consideration etc that develops naturally in any communal society.

Thinking rationalistically, why should I abstain from shop-lifting for example if society has no effective way to punish me for shop-lifting?

The society and the shop-keeper may lose. But rationalistic I gain. In this situation the social contract is helpless. Systems of harsh laws, fire and brimstone religions and draconian punishments are needed. Consensual pressures are not enough.

Already we were seeing this in the West, with the US as an especially good example. Increasingly it had begun to rely on legalism, ideological nationalism and fundamentalist religions to hold itself together .

Its politics had degenerated into ‘power-at-all-costs’ democracy.

The conclusion seemed obvious: Far from being the end of history, our liberal democracy was in fact an intermediate stage between the communalistic feudal society and the authoritarian and ideological societies of the older civilizations.

The end of history was in fact the middle of history, with a very short lifespan and with a very predictable ending*

If anything, Japan was closer to the ‘middle of history’ ideal than many of our Western democracies already under threat and having to rely on tight legal systems or chauvinistic nationalism to hold themselves together, and fundamentalist religions to give their citizens a sense of meaning and security.

(We Westerners like to think we are free from ideological hangups. One of my larger shocks was returning from Moscow, turning on my radio on a Sunday morning and having to listen to hours of religious outpourings.

(Even the more secular amongst us are conditioned to see these outpourings as mere foibles, or hangovers from the past. But when you come back to them from years in a communist society you can see them for what they are - sociological props every bit as nonsensical as the ‘long live Soviet communism’ dogma on the Moscow media.

(Since then we have seen those outpourings harden into evangelistical dogma.

But Japan too would have only a brief time at the top. Already the rationalistic ‘why’ factor was coming to play. Why be honest when being dishonest promises gain with little risk of detection. And in Japan, even if detected, there is little risk of punishment for petty crimes like shop-lifting.

The growth of shop-lifting in areas where youth are major customers for me marks a watershed in Japan’s communalistic morality.

One watches on with immense sympathy as shop-owners initially try to tolerate the situation and then resort to placards begging people to behave properly. But eventually they will have to resort to the harsh measures used in the West.

Increased job-hopping is another rationalistic phenomenon (why be loyal to one employer all one’s working life when one can benefit oneself by changing jobs? ).

True in small groups the communalist ethic remains strong. But only in the small group. In the large group, especially the one called the society, it is breaking down. Offensive bike gangs (boszoku) impervious to any sense of shame or guilt for the nuisances they are creating for the society are the advance warnings.

* However if Gorbachev communism had been allowed to evolve naturally we might have seen a very interesting alternative to the religious or nationalistic ideologies now being used to hold Russia together.


Getting to see the flaws in the end of history theory was one thing. More worrying was realizing how the Fukuyama thesis would be used to justify even more attempts by the US to boost its national ego and justify its global hegemonism.

In short, I had to do something quickly. But if I wanted to explain my ‘middle of history’ thesis I would have to explain Japan.

And if I was to explain Japan I would have to write about it.


But how? If was to write, it would have to be in article form. I did not have the time to write a book. Could an brief article explain things in a form that readers would understand?

After some futile efforts to summarize the entire theory in 2000-3000 word pieces and get it published I gave up.

True, Foreign Affairs at least gave me the courtesy of a considered reply. Which they should have done, since they had done so much to launch the Fukuyama thesis.

But most of the other journals of alleged Western intellectual opinion were uninterested.

Only in the Japan Times, increasingly my journalistic sponsor in Japan, did I get some space. But there was little or no follow up.

As with my China and Vietnam anguish of the sixties, I was being forced once again to discover how hard it is to battle the conventional wisdom.

On the lecture circuit in Japan I would get good audiences, pointing out Japan’s similarities with North Europe and the differences with China. One or two intellectuals – Yamamoto Shichihei of “Japanese and the Jews” fame especially – also showed interest.

Yamamoto with his theory about how Japanese were dominated by the kuki – the emotional atmosphere surrounding people and events - fitted in neatly with my views about Japan’s mood-based emotionalism (though most of his other theories did not make much sense).

But the best audiences were the overseas Chinese in Hongkong and Singapore. They, more than most, could realize there was something unusual about the Japanese, and were keen to know what it was.

That, together with some major improvements in the ‘tribe’ theory, did much to encourage me to start serious writing, even if belatedly. In particular, I was keen to present the symmetries I was developing.



Symmetry and consistency in the empirical data help greatly to confirm deductive theories, and not just in the sciences.

The symmetry in the curve of progress was one example. I was beginning to discover others.

One of the first I mentioned earlier. This was realising that Japan’s puzzling contradiction between exclusivism towards foreign people and openness to foreign culture was matched mirror image by our non-Japanese exclusivism at the level of culture and relative openness at the level of people.

And the reasons could be related easily back to my original ‘tribe’ theory.

To recapitulate, we are all like the Japanese at the small group level. In our families we would hardly be upset if our children spoke a foreign language. But we would be upset if friends or anyone else insisted they should be regarded as members of our family.

(And if for some reason we want to adopt outsiders into our family, we insist they integrate totally. Japan’s formerly tough standards for acquiring Japanese nationality – including having to change one’s name - was an ‘adoption’ approach to nationality.

( Japan’s draconian integration policies in its former colonies – the demands that the foreigners speak Japanese, worship the emperor and even have Japanese names – were part of the same familial syndrome. *

In short, in our natural state - i.e. in small group situations - we all see group identity at the level of people rather than culture. To preserve that identity, we are all more exclusive at the level of people rather than culture.

(The classic example is the cargo cult of the Papua New Guinea tribespeople. We can be fairly sure they would not welcome outsiders as members. But they will wait for days on the tops of mountain tops for the promised silver plane which will bring them cultural ‘cargo’ from the outside world.)

The Japanese continue to do just the same at the national level – exclude foreign people rather than foreign culture. Indeed their hunger for foreign culture has cargo cult aspects .

But for us non-Japanese the nation is a group held together by the attribute of shared culture-ideology. So we are all more exclusivist at that cultural-ideological level than at the level of people.

Earlier I mentioned the French as a good example. They have a strong cultural identity. They are confident ( or at least they were until recently) that their superior culture would allow them to absorb foreigners easily. But they are afraid that if a few English words enter their language it will subvert their culture, and therefore their national identity.

The Japanese are the mirror-image opposite.They seem able to absorb any amount of English vocabulary, foreign ideas, etc. But they are reluctant to bring in foreigners, even when it is clear that foreign labor is needed *

To us the Japanese familial approach to nationhood seems abnormal. But the Japanese could say the same about our more rationalistic approach – especially now that it is clear that some Western nations, believing proudly in the ability of their culture/ideology to absorb foreigners, are finding otherwise.

The neat symmetry of this openness/exclusivist syndrome excited me greatly. But when I tried to put it down on paper in response to a request from the Japan Society of the US for an article for their house magazine back in 1978 I got a very negative response ( from an editor called Ruri Kawashima, I recall, and the daughter of the man who at Sophia had helped me gain my professorship there.)

They, like most other Japan-watchers, preferred to go along with the conventional wisdom that sees the Western approach as ‘normal’ and the Japanese approach as abnormal at best and racist at worst.

I was forced to realize once again that things that were becoming obvious to me were not going to be so obvious to others.

The pressure on me to get my ideas into order, and then into book form, was even greater.

* (Some see the forceful and shameful pressure on the Ainu and other distinct cultural groups in Japan such as the Okinawans to abandon their culture and become proper Nihonjin as proof of a powerful cultural arrogance. But in that case why do those allegedly culturally-proud Nihonjin tolerate the flood of foreignisms into their culture?

(Once again we see the familial approach to national identity at work, this time in a rather unattractive manner.

(People with a strong cultural or ideological identity do not have to behave this way. The Chinese are quite happy, proud even, to admit to different cultures within the bosom of the dominant Han civilization. Like the French, they feel this cultural tolerance helps to prove the cultural worth of their own civilization, and that the minorities will come of their own accord to appreciate the worth of Han civilization anyway.

(Ideological societies – Islam, the former Soviet Union – also tolerate different cultures, in the belief that the binding ‘culture’ i.e. the ideology will be dominant anyway.


Another exciting symmetry was the concept of rational instinctive versus irrational instinctive, and rational rationalistic versus irrational rationalistic (see previous chapter for a fuller description).

In other words, the rational, practical logic of the Japanese had its equivalent in the more scientific or intellectual logic of the non-Japanese world.

The irrational emotionalism of the Japanese (booms, moods etc) had its equivalent the irrational dogmatism of the non-Japanese world - our propensities to religious fervor, political (e.g.anti-communist) hysteria, Cultural Revolution chaos and so on.


Playing around with this rational versus irrational matrix I realized I could reduce everything to a single variable - the propensity or otherwise to rely on, or not to rely on, principle.

So if we add principles – good principles - to rational practicality we end up with scientific/intellectual logic. (Good scientists agree that close observation and experiment is the basis of most breakthroughs in scientific theory.)

Add principles – bad principles - to irrational emotionalism and we end up with the irrational dogmatism of the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, or any of the other mad orthodoxies that have racked our civilizations .

The ideal situation for economic progress was the combination of rational practicality with rational scientific/intellectual logic. It described well the impressive industrial progress of Japan and North Europe. It coincided with the apex my curve of progress.

Conversely, the worst of all worlds was irrational instincts combined with irrational ideologies – as we have seen in the brutality of wars and conflicts imposed by both Japan and the north European peoples. For international affairs it was the worst possible situation – particularly since the peoples endowed with irrational militaristic instincts also had the industrial might to allow them to indulge those instincts.

Being able to reduce everything down to a single variable – the attachment or otherwise to principles – meant I could relate everything directly back to my original theory as to the origins of Japanese/non-Japanese differences, namely development in isolation rather than in non-isolated, mainly continental peoples as the basis for the development of value systems based on instinctual feelings rather than rationalistic principles.

In short, I felt I had my ‘general theory’ to explain not just Japan’s development but also that of other societies. I was ready to publish something. But the lecture circuit intervened, again. And while it was time consuming, it did allow me to develop techniques to explain the theory, and its practical applications, more simply.



As the lecture circuit ground on I realized it would help a lot if I used the Japanese terminology – kansei (instinctive, feeling, emotional), as opposed to risei – (principled, reasoned, argued).

This was much easier to explain than the meanings of instinctual versus rationalistic.

I could also simplify everything with a right hand versus left hand analogy.

(Waving my hands around also made it easy to relate to audiences.)

Just as most of us also begin life with a bias towards using the right hand, as humans, I would say, we all naturally begin life with a bias towards kansei - towards the instinctual, communalistic approach.

The Japanese for reasons of history stayed with the bias.

Meanwhile most of the rest of us – the older continental civilizations especially – moved away from using the right hand and relying more on the left hand.

True, in our small groups we all retained and used that right hand, for the simple reason that it was natural to us. .

But when we non-Japanese move to create large groups – a society or nation for example - we feel the need to operate with the left hand i.e. on the basis of rationalistic principles. .

Meanwhile the Japanese had been able to refine their right hand approach and use it to organize larger groups such as the enterprise, the university, the society and the nation.

Management of the Japanese enterprise was ‘right-handed’ familial-style management. So too was university management – something with which I was becoming very familiar.

True, as groups grew larger, established rules were needed to replace more purely instinctual rules of the smaller group. In the case of Japan, those rules were simply a refined version of the human relations rules that develop naturally in any small group - haji, giri-ninjo, tatemae and honne etc. They needed no formal, ideological backup, other than the strictures of bushido .

But with the rest of us the rules did need the backup of rationalistic religion, law, ideology, conscience, logic. So the instinctual rules became reasoned, including religious, principles.

Nor was there anything wrong in moving to a more ‘left-handed’ approach. The techniques we used to hold our societies and nations together - principles, ideologies, laws etc - we often as good if not better than the techniques the Japanese used.

We had the advantage of a more top-down approach to government; on balance that was preferable to Japan’s more cellular approach with ministries and pressure groups competing to decide policies.

On balance that top-down approach was probably also more useful than the consensus approach in other larger social units - enterprises, universities etc. (as I had discovered earlier in Japan’s university system , where endless debates and arguments in the kyojukai – professorial committee – often blocked effective decision making.)

Our non-Japanese shift to rationalistic thinking also explained our scientific achievement.

But even at the level of society there were merits in the Japanese approach – the attention to detail, monozukuri and other technical skills, weakness of dogmatic religions etc.
The ultimate ideal was some combination of the merits of both approaches – the merits of the practical, human relations approach of the Japanese, and the more reasoned, principled approach of us non-Japanese.

(For effect I would hold up the cup of water usually placed in front of me to show that it could be held just as well by the left hand as by the right hand.)

(But the best and firmest way to hold the cup would be the combination of both the right and the left hands.

The Japanese had been quite successful in doing that in the past. They had begun with the right-hand approach of their original clan or village society. Some 1500 years ago they had begun to introduce the rationalistic products of the Chinese civilization– the systems of bureaucracy, economy, central government etc of the Ritsuryo period.

Then beginning 500 years ago they had begun to introduce the rationalistic products of Western civilization.

They had combined both right hand with left hand and had come close to the ideal, even if their natural bias remained towards using the right hand and at times there were confusions.

We non-Japanese sometimes tended too much to assume that the ‘left-handed’ approach was superior and to rely on it too much to solve problems. One result was our obsession with religious and other dogmatic ideologies. Another was a propensity for using the law to decide disputes, and the infestation of lawyers and law suits.

(Japan too has many law suits. But they are mostly technical - debt and gangster related. The true proof of litigiousness is willingness of customers to sue the firms and doctors that serve them. Here Japan comes well down in the list.)

By comparison, the Japanese system of court-supervised mediation before disputes are brought before the courts, for example, was good instance to combining the two approaches.

True, there were times when trying to combine the two approaches also caused problems. The same courts were an example since they still tended to decide disputes on a 50-50 basis (a right-handed approach) rather than try to do what they were supposed to do, namely to determine rights and wrongs objectively.

Diplomacy was another area where the left-handed approach of reasoned debate and argued principles was clearly needed, and where the Japanese, not surprisingly, were weak.

Enterprise management was an area where arguably the right-handed approach was superior, though it could be improved even further by bringing in some left-handed elements – merit promotion, greater labor mobility etc.

For there I would move on to the question of China.

The older civilizations, I would argue, had moved much too far to the ‘left’ with much too much emphasis on ideology and other principles (preference for bureaucracy and scholarship rather than hands-on manufacturing) to organize themselves.

But this was now changing rapidly. The combination of smart businessmen, an entrepreneurial and work ethic focused on gaining income for oneself and relatives, foreign investment, access to technology, cheap labor and a large domestic market would turn China into a formidable competitor. Yuan upvaluation was badly needed ( as I wrote in Japan Times article back in 2003).

India too was advancing on the same basis. It lacked the secular bias of the Chinese so its growth might be slower. Its talents would find more outlet in intellectual IT rather than hands-on manufacturing.

All in all it made for a neat, simple and symmetrical explanation of Japanese/non- Japanese differences.

The Japanese liked it because it was ‘wakari-yasui (easily understood, and a term also used constantly to praise simplistic books and politicians).

(This liking for the wakari-yasui is one reason why Japan was and remains weak to fascistic demagogues.

(But I should not complain. It also helped all this particular demagogue have a golden run on the Japanese lecture circuit for more than twenty years.)


Meanwhile the requests to give lectures were continuing to pour in - at the rate of three-four a week, despite the fact I was not using any agent to promote myself.

Somehow and for some reason the word had got round that I could keep an audience amused, educated or awake for the standard 90 minutes.

I was too enthused by the challenge and experience (and the money too, to be honest) to so no.

Meanwhile I was also trying to organize an increasingly complex daily life – university commitments, two young children requiring bilingual education, a new house, building plans etc.,

The internationalization (kokusaika) boom of the mid-eighties saw me get even busier.

Japan’s trade and other frictions with the outside world were mounting. The foreigners blamed it on Japanese cunning and duplicity.

The Japanese blamed it on their believed lack of kokusaika – on their inability to understand how we foreigners thought and operated. Suddenly I was in even more demand than before as a lecturer.

(In fact the trade frictions were due to a simple economic problem – Japan’s capacity to produce more than it could consume, an imbalance that continues to plague this economy.

(They were worsened by Tokyo’s inability to present its case logically.)

Here the right hand versus left hand analogy was useful in explaining the various misunderstandings.

I would say how both hands alone could perform the same operation quite well, e.g. raising the glass of water. But if one looked closely it was clear that even though the hands were doing the same thing, they were facing in opposite directions.

That in essence was Japan’s problems with the outside world. It was trying to tackle much the same problems as us non-Japanese - develop its economy, find trade partners, organize its diplomacy, etc.. But when it used the right hand rather than the left hand – kansei rather than risei - to do these things, it often seemed to be doing things 180 degrees back to front.

What seems normal to the right-hander seems abnormal to the left hander, and vice versa.

This slotted in neatly to a favorite Japanese saying, namely that Japan’s joshiki (commonsense ) was the foreigner’s hijoshiki ( non-commonsense), and the foreigner’s joshiki was Japan’s hi-joshiki.

What to do? One answer would be for the Japanese to try to become left-handed, I would say. But that was not easy.

The only other way out was for both sides to accept that there were merits, and demerits, in both approaches.


From here it was a small jump to pointing out that a problem for most of us Japan-watchers was explaining Japan’s many seeming contradictions – kind and selfish, gentle and cruel, harmonious and conflicting etc etc.

Here the concept of Japanese operating more in a kansei dimension, while we non-Japanese operated in a more risei dimension helped greatly.

As mentioned earlier, as human beings we all have the ability to operate in either dimension – the instinctual and the rationalistic (or the kansei and the risei).

And as human beings we all have the same desires, wants, phobias etc. We all seek or are prone to love, happiness, harmony, aggression, hatreds, group relations etc.

But while we all have the same goals as human beings, there is a crucial difference in the way we try to realize those goals. The difference is not so much one of ability. Rather it is one of propensity.

So it is not a matter of the Japanese or us non-Japanese being more harmonious or non-harmonious, more groupist or non-groupist, crueller or kinder, more progressive or more conservative, more moral or immoral, more racist or humanitarian etc than the other.

What differs is the dimension – instinctual or rationalistic, kansei or risei – in which we seek to do these things.

When the Japanese were trying to be harmonious in the kansei dimension, the result could by a very impressive harmony. Seeing that, some could conclude that the Japanese were a uniquely harmonious people.

But when they wanted to argue and conflict with each other, that too would be in the kansei dimension. The result would be an impressively emotional disharmony.

The Japanese being kind to others in the kansei dimension would lead some to conclude that objectively they were one of the kindest nations in the world - for example in their honesty or their willingness to guide foreigners to destinations or return lost property.

But their cruelty to others in the kansei dimension could make them seem like one of the most barbaric of peoples -for example, their wartime atrocities fuelled by total hatred, cruelty and contempt for people arbitrarily dubbed as enemies

Conversely, the harmony or disharmony, or the kindness or cruelty of us non-Japanese operating in the more risei dimension could also produce seeming extremes of behavior.


From there it was yet another small step to explaining value differences - the shame versus guilt factor, for example.

All societies had to impose restraints and punishments on wrong-doing. But in a communalistic society like Japan (and as in tribal societies) , it was natural to rely on shame – to insist that the wrong-doers had shamed themselves before other members of the society and should be punished by being made to bow their heads in apology, excluded from the society, or being disgraced in some other manner.

(During our feudal era we northern European peoples also relied on shame - putting people in the stocks was a good example. Feudal Japan had the same device.)

Meanwhile in more rationalistic societies, wrong-doers would be found guilty of having violated some principle of law. They would be punished accordingly - go to jail or be fined.


A major benefit of using the righthand-lefthand analogy was in explaining Japan’s poor diplomacy. So where the Japanese used feelings and practical details to try to resolve issues, we non-Japanese would rely more on argument, principles and theories.

I would often follow this up with a detailed outline of how Japan had wrecked its quite good case over the Kurile Islands dispute with Moscow by relying too much on distorted logic and sneaky attempts to deny facts.

Instead it preferred to speak endlessly about kokumin kanjo (national feeling or emotion), as if emotion was supposed to have superiority over dry logic and facts.

(Surprisingly, the audiences would often nod in agreement to my foreign policy criticisms. Many are conditioned to believe that Japan is weak in this area.

(The only bad reaction I received was trying to explain North Korea’s penchant for abducting Japanese citizens in the past and the possibly not returning some of them. Here audiences literally bristled. The human factor in this dispute seemed dominant.)

I would then move to point out the flip side of this reliance on kanjo. Under emotional pressures such as gaiatsu the same Japanese would back down from positions even when it was clear that the principles of international law or diplomacy were in the their favor – the car dispute with the US for example.

Here a good analogy in golf-crazy Japan was that of a right-handed golfer trying to use left-handed clubs.

The rules of diplomacy had been laid down over they years by us left-handers. But the Japanese preferred right-handled clubs, and when forced to use left-handled clubs they naturally enough were not very competent.

For Japanese brought up to believe their nation’s diplomacy was inferior, it was a neat explanation.

Even the economy could be explained in ways an audience could understand.

Despite the occasional emotional spending binges of the Japanese, the economy suffered chronically from excessive savings and a chronic lack of domestic demand since the 1970’s (see my many articles pointing out the mistake of supply-oriented economic policies in this situation). .

The savings excess was partly due to irrational fears about the future. But the main factor was people seeing their identity in terms of ba or location (which usually required limited expenditure) rather than attribute which, in the Anglosaxon societies especially, often required much conspicuous spending to acquire attribute status symbols – large houses, second houses, swimming pools, yachts etc.

These big ticket, lifestyle items were crucial to sustaining demand in advanced economies where people had already fulfilled most of their basic demands. The relative absence of demand for these items in Japan caused a serious demand/supply imbalance in the economy generally.

Once again I was getting the wakari-yasui response What’s more this was an explanation that did not make Japan look silly. Audiences liked that. And so did I, since it was a breakthrough in economic thinking of which I was quite proud.

But writings for foreign audiences on this theme met little response. The conventional wisdom about advanced economies said that demand was unlimited and that the main problem was coping with inflation and increasing supply.

Eventually the foreigners were to succeed in imposing this view on Japan, helping largely to cause the two ugly and dangerous recessions of the 1995-2005 period

The idea that Japan’s advanced economy could be fundamentally different from other advanced economies ran into the same problems as I had had with the anti-Nihonjinron people.

And in both cases the root cause was an inability to understand Japan’s very unusual value system.


Taken together – values, contradictions, enterprise management, diplomacy, economy etc. - I felt sure I had a solid explanation, not just of Japan but also of the rest of us. But could I convince others of all this?

A close friend, the Sydney Morning Herald correspondent in Tokyo, John Slee, was good enough to write a long feature outlining the entire theory.

John had earlier introduced me to the Dr. Tusnoda Tadanobu experiments showing right-left hemisphere differences between Japanese and non-Japanese (including Japanese brought up abroad). Both of us realized how this could be related to my instinctual versus rationalistic analysis.

Tsunoda’s problem was in explaining the difference.

I could, by saying that those brought up in an emotional, instinctual environment (the right hemisphere) would tend to want to develop connections with the more reasoning, left hemisphere.

The rest of us, would make clearer distinctions between the two.

But John’s foreign editor was a woman journalist, Margaret Smith, with whom I had had a minor run-in in Beijing a few years earlier (she was rather anti-China). She killed his feature.

Clearly both of us were having problems convincing the world.

Later I was to realize the parallels between Tsunoda’s Japan versus non-Japanese brain differences with developing research on male-female brain differences, with the Japanese matching the female pattern. Not only did this fit in with the claims that Japanese values and culture had feminine features. It also suggested the possibility that the male-female difference too was more the result of imposed environment than nature also emerged.

But a lot of this speculation depended on others following up on Tsunoda’s research, which did not happen. And as ever, on the one accasion I tried to write it up I met the usual deluge of abuse and distain from the anti-Nihonjin-ron crowd, even though many of them as save-the-world-all humans are-equal believers were also in the business of claiming that female qualities were more the result of nuture rather than nature – just as I was suggesting as a possibility


Meanwhile I was still laboring with various drafts of various chapters, hoping to get a final version ready for print.

But the constant evolutions of ideas and changes in terminology did not help. Nor did the changes in Japan help.

By the late eighties Japan was seen by many as a model for the rest of us – Japan As Number One. Pointing out Japan’s ‘tribal’ faults flew in the face of that conventional wisdom.

The trade frictions then led others to see Japan as some kind of sinister ‘system’ seeking to drive its economic partners into disaster. Once again, my ideas about Japan as a rather sloppily emotional and sometimes disorganized society did not match the conventional wisdom.

To counter or balance these distorted images I rushed off various articles for various magazines. None had much impact, though I am rather proud on one effort for the Amagi conference, later published in two parts in the Japan Times (See website).

Using the curve of progress, it allowed me both to explain Japan’s progress to date, and predict its later troubles.


I also rather foolishly answered several requests from Japanese publishers for books, only to realise a strange aspect of Japanese publishing.

For most publishers the effort to promote a book in Japan’s over-published society is too expensive and risky.

So they aim to make most of their money with very limited sales – 5,000 to 10,000, mainly to the author, his friends and the few readers or libraries attracted by one or two small ads run in the national newspapers.

(A very civilized aspect of Japanese newspapers is the willingness to run book ads in narrow columns at the bottom of their front pages.

(They see as both a public service, and as a form of news

Then if for some reason – a good review mainly or catching the mood of the moment (as I had done with the Japanese Tribe book) the book takes off and the publishers see themselves as jackpot winners entitled to keep the prize. It is one reason, and probably a good one, for their strange attitude to royalty payments.

The publishers provide a certain amount up front – say one million yen – to authors and leave it at that. It is rare to get any followup.

That at least was my experience with the three or four publishers I was involved with at the time. Needless to say, one million yen or less is little reward for putting out a book, especially in my case where there was also the very laborious work of checking and correcting the translation as well.

Even the best translators make mistakes, sometimes quite serious. (In one case even the title was wrong – the Haldeman book on the Nixon era “the Ends of Power” had ‘ends’ translated as ‘finality’ rather than ‘means’).

In 1990, at the peak of the bubble economy, I worked hard on a manuscript for Kodansha entitled “Gokai sareru Nihonjin” (the Misunderstood Japanese), Writing and correcting the Japanese translation took almost a year. I had included a lot of new ideas and research.

In particular, I had pointed out the absurdity of the then current land and share booms, and forecast their collapse.

But in the go-go mood at the time, Japan was not ready for such warnings.

Kodansha did almost nothing to promote the book. Limited sales meant few would know or remember later.

Trying to be a prophet ahead of the times is a thankless profession.

I was to suffer quite a few other setbacks, even if the lecture circuit did give me more freedom to indulge in the prophecy business than most.

Increasingly I began to think about another business. Instead of prophecy it would be property.