Chapter 14


1. The Original Theory

2. On Contradictions: Emotional versus Practical

3. On Rationality

4. Finding Terminology

5. The Deciding Role of ‘Principle’

It was in the mid-1970’s that I came up with my ‘Japan-is-a-tribe’ theory. At the time I thought it was quite revolutionary.

I still think it is revolutionary. Events since have also proved it was a lot more accurate than much of the ‘Japan is Number One’ hype at the time.

The ‘tribal’ flaws in the Japanese system are a lot more apparent now than they were then, when Japan seemed to be conquering all before it.

But there were also some flaws in my rather brash attempt to define Japan.

Now, after many years talking about it and writing about it, I think I have been able to refine it into something better than the original.

But to go back to the original:

1.The Original Theory

I had begun by trying to explain the differences between the Japanese and the Chinese.

From there it was but a small step to realizing that when compared with the Japanese, the Chinese were quite similar to us Westerners - individualistic, argumentative, opinionated, ideological etc.

From there it was only another small step to realizing that the peoples of other older civilizations – the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent – were also similar to the Chinese, and ourselves, at least in comparison with the Japanese.

I was impressed especially by the weakness of ideologies, both political and religious, in Japan.

We take it for granted that all culturally advanced societies must have some kind of basic political or religious ideology to provide binding and give direction. Why was Japan so different?

Origins of Differences

I had come to see history and geography as key factors.

The older and more continental societies of the Eurasian mainland, southern Europe included, had endured long histories of constant conflict, competition and contact with each other. To survive they had needed to create strong ideologies to compete with the foreigners and to hold themselves together.

Exposure to ideology and its doctrines in turn had led them to embrace value systems that emphasized argument and debate, principles and reasonings. This in turn had allowed them to create the bureaucracies, technologies, economies, strong central governments etc that had underlain their impressive civilizations.

We north Europeans had come to be influenced by those older civilizations, and by our own experience in competition, contact and conflict with foreigners. We too had moved in the same direction.

Japan had missed out on most of this experience. Its long history of island isolation had allowed it to retain the more emotional and groupist values of its original tribal, clan, village and then feudal society.

True, the move to feudalism had done much to help refine and codify those original tribal/village values. But it did not change their basic essence.

Japan also had had enough contact with the outside world to be able to borrow the concepts of central government, bureaucracy, law, economy, science and technology developed by the more ideological, continental civilizations, first from China and later from the West.

It had combined these borrowings with its original value system. On this basis it had been able to create the modern industrial society we see today.

But deep down it remained basically as it had been. Its values were emotional and groupist.

It was the ‘tribe’ that had become a nation, and a very successful nation at that.

Emotional Japanese

In describing the Japanese as ‘emotional,’ I was not saying they indulged in the open display of emotions.

They were not like Italians, for example.

Instead, I was using the word ‘emotional’ in the sense of people putting feelings and human relations ahead of the demands of reasonings and principles.

Even in the brief period I had been in Japan (the Japanese Tribe book was written back in 1976) I had seen often how situational and subjective factors seemed able easily to outweigh logic and principle in much of the political, economic and foreign policy debate.

True, there was no shortage of raw emotion - wild festivals, slobbering drunks, weepy politicians.

In slogans and advertisements, firms constantly liked to use sloppy, emotional terms like ‘nice feeling’ or ‘heartful service.’

(“The Bank with a Heart” was the slogan of the former Daiichi Kangyo Bank even as it was up to its neck in shady deals with developers and gangsters.)

The booms, moods and fads which swept Japan constantly were part of the same emotional picture.

While there was still nothing to compare with the absurd land and share boom of the late 1980’s – a boom whose irrationality could only be matched by the tulip and South Seas bubbles of the 17-18th centuries – I had seen enough during the Tanaka Kakuei land boom of the early 1970`s, not to mention the irrational share market movements of the mid seventies, to convince me that the Japanese seemed to lack a liking for reasoned analysis of price movements.

Then there was the childishly emotional side of the Japanese – adults devouring comic books, prime-time slapstick TV shows, male mother complexes….

General McArthur probably went too far when he said the Japanese had mentalities of 12 year old children. But clearly he had seen something immature and irresponsible in the makeup of Japan’s wartime leaders.

Finally there was the refined emotionality – the perfection and balance of the traditional Japanese house, the refined sense of beauty and expression (NHK nature films, female actresses in TV dramas for example), advertisements that emphasize feeling rather than crude price differences, the sensitivity in human relations.

But precisely because these sensitive human relations were so important for the smooth working of Japan’s society, the rules of those relations sometimes had to try to control open or raw expression of feelings.

One result is that many had come to see the Japanese as highly unemotional.

They were wrong, or at least so I argued.

‘Tribe’ Theory Problems

But while Japan’s borrowings from the more ideological civilizations could explain some of its progress, both as a society and as an economy, why was it able to challenge and even exceed (as it seemed at the time) our advanced Western societies?

Like many others I was floundering for an explanation. The then popular theory – that Japan like Germany was fortunate to have had most of its factories bombed and therefore had had to start out again with new equipment – did not make much sense (though later I was to realize a more plausible Japan-Germany connection).

At the time I had focused in on what I saw as the intense informationalisation of Japanese society. I had seen that as a product of the groupism (see my article in Britannica, Book of the Year, 1972 ).

But I soon realized that it could only be a partial explanation.

While there are areas of Japan’s society where information flows more freely than in the West, there are walls too.

In any case, I soon came to realize that much that was crucial to Japan’s success - the trains that ran on time, the high standards of manufacturing excellence and so on - had little to do with information flows.

They had much more to do with a kind of grassroots, day-to-day practicality – attention to detail, in particular

Emotionality and practicality are supposed to be contradictory qualities.

How could I get round that problem?

2. Contradictions: Emotional versus Practical

Nor was this the only Japanese contradiction I had to face.

Progressive and conservative, gentle and cruel, sensitive and insensitive, moral and immoral, disciplined and undisciplined.…… and these were just some.

As someone once said, you can say anything you like about Japan and it is very likely it will be true.

But to begin with, it was the emotionality/practicality contradiction that concerned me most.

In my original Japan is a Tribe book I had already mentioned Japan’s practical attitudes to sex, abortion, alcohol . I had seen this as a result of the Japanese not letting themselves get caught up in the dogmatic, moralistic principles of our more ideological, non-Japanese societies..

I still see this as an important factor, particularly when it comes to comparing Japan to older civilizations still dominated by rigid religious ideologies, and increasingly with the US bible belt.

Japanese Perfectionism

But there is no rigid moralistic principle in our non-Japanese societies that says trains should not run on time. Why are the Japanese so perfectionist about making sure they do run on time?

Or that cars and machines should operate faultlessly?

One reason has already been suggested, namely the liking for order and perfection. Could this be an emotional quality? Certainly the displeasure the Japanese get from a lack of order and perfection seems to be more a matter of feeling than logic.

Shoes in a genkan (entrance way to a house) left disordered, cars not parked correctly in line, garbage not sorted properly - all these things seem to cause genuine pain.

Walk down a street with an untied shoelace or a bag left open and some conscientious citizen is bound to want to let you know about it.

Nor is it just shoes and shoelaces. It is almost impossible to find a misprint in newspapers or magazines, even those of inferior quality.

Even quality newspapers in the West will carry the occasional misprint. Poor quality Chinese publications are rife with mistakes.

One reason for the perfectionism and care could be Japan’s group ethic.

Keeping the trains running on time and producing goods of fine quality could be seen as an emotional obligation to another and very important group called customers.

In Japan, if a local train simply fails to stop at a designated station it not only becomes media news. We are given detailed figures of the number of passengers inconvenienced as a result.

The extraordinary efforts that most Japanese suppliers make to keep customers happy and to service faulty equipment often goes well beyond what more hard-headed suppliers in the West would see as needed to guarantee profits.

Strangers worrying about my shoelaces could also be part of the same syndrome.

Some see this passion for order and neatness as the result of a strict Prussian-style ideology demanding social discipline.

But in that case, how can we explain the lack of discipline in so many areas of Japanese society – the bike gangs, the ugly building developments, the ease with which people dump garbage by other people’s roadsides for example?

Ideologies lay down principles that are supposed to be across-the-board, i.e. universal.

Clearly the Japanese demand for order and discipline operates at very short range, limited largely to the individual’s immediate environment, or what the Japanese call the shiya – literally the range of sight (attention).

Within that range people will focus intensely on creating order, symmetry, kindness, beauty or whatever it is that they think is important.

But things outside that range receive much less attention (unless the media decide to bring them within range, in which case they can end up with severe over-attention).

This close, almost obsessive, attention to one’s immediate surroundings and specific responsibilities, while ignoring the more distant and abstract is yet another, and so far unexplained, contradictory side of the Japanese personality.

(One such contradiction is the ability of the Japanese to show so much care and attention in daily human relations, and yet show such little remorse or regret for the behavior of their soldiers in recent war situations.)

(Another example is Japan’s intense anger over the fate of a few Japanese citizens abducted from Japan by North Korea during the seventies and eighties while ignoring Japan’s much more barbaric behavior to the tens of thousands of Chinese abducted and Koreans conscripted for wartime forced labor in Japan a few decades earlier.)

With most of us more ‘principled’ non-Japanese the contradictions work the other way. So we worry long-term strategies, our ideologies or more abstract issues like smoking rights or the Vietnam War. Whether or not the trains run on time is less important.

The ultimate in this contrast is the image of the absent-minded professor for whom untied shoelaces and disheveled appearance take a very second place to devising a new theory of the universe.

We assume that this broader view of things is superior:
Does it really matter if the shoes in the genkan or the cars in the car-park are not all neatly arranged in parallel and facing the same direction?

But the Japanese could be quite entitled to ask why we do not pay more attention to the small, day-to-day practical details needed to keep the trains running on time or to produce defect-free goods.

Later I was to come to realize that there is a neat duality in this and most other seeming Japanese contradictions.

If we non-Japanese are strong in one direction, we will be weak in the other direction.

If the Japanese are weak in that direction they will be strong in the other direction.

Mirror image opposites.

The Japanese approach would have its merits and demerits.

But then there would be our non-Japanese approach with its almost perfectly matching list of demerits and merits.

It was all rather like the binary strands of the DNA molecule, running virtually through the full gamut of Japanese – non-Japanese differences,

Anyone interested in how societies develop should take a much closer look at this social DNA molecule.

True, there is also a small army of nit-picking, mainly academic, Japanologists who like to insist that Japan is no different from any other society.

But even they must have noticed the almost complete absence of misprints in the newspapers and magazines they read, in the detailed preparation for the conferences and meetings to which they are invited, and the lack of glitches in TV shows they watch.

Do they have an explanation for all that?

3. Rational Emotional versus Irrational Emotional

From realizing the DNA-style duality in values, it was but a brief step to realizing the duality in the rationality and the irrationality in the respective value systems.

Usually we see the emotional as tinged with the irrational. But if it underlies the extraordinary attention to detail that we find in Japan it is hardly irrational if it means defect-free manufacture.

If Japan’s emotional group ethic says that people should work together cooperatively, and the result is higher work productivity, is that irrational?

Indeed, for a long time in the eighties our management experts used to see Japan’s cooperative ethic as a model of rationality for us all , even if they did not understand its origins.

True, the ‘emotional’ can also have its ugly or irrational sides - the booms and the busts, wasteful services due to excessive concern for customers, the particular brutality of Japanese militarism.

We can call that emotionalism.

Practicality is rational reliance on feelings. Emotionalism is irrational reliance on feelings.

They are flip sides of the same ‘emotional’ coin – with ‘emotional’ now defined as reliance on and sensitivity to feelings and instincts, rather than outbursts of feelings and instincts.

(The tribe too can be both practical and emotionalist. Irrational taboos and wild outbursts combine with highly rational efforts to get crops planted in time, organize stable social systems, distribute food fairly.)

(The very fact that the tribe survives, often in adverse circumstances, is proof that, like Japan, it does some things right.)

Rational Principles versus Irrational Principles

Realising that practicality and emotionality were related was an important breakthrough.

From there it was but a short step to realizing that those of us who operate more in the area of principles and reasonings harbor a similar contradiction.

When we handle our principles and reasonings correctly (i.e. rationally) we end up with an attractively logical and scientific approach to problems.

When we handle them wrongly we end up with a very unattractive dogmatism – something far from unknown in many of our non-Japanese societies.

We become too attached to our principles and reasonings, even when they are mistaken or divorced from reality.

In short, if rational practicality and irrational emotionalism are flip sides of the same ‘emotional’ coin, then scientific rationality and dogmatic irrationality are the flip sides of our non-Japanese ‘principled’ coin.

Almost every day we see this scientific/dogmatic contradiction in our own societies. We take it for granted.

But the Japanese puzzle over it, in much the same way as we puzzle over the combination of practicality and emotionalism in their society.

(Interestingly females say much the same about us males - smart logic matched by irrational hang-ups and dogmas. The feminine aspect of Japanese psychology – sensitivity to relationships, openness to language and ideas - is a controversy we can look at later.)

4. Finding Terminology

Increasingly, I was having a problem of terminology.

I had described the Japanese as ‘emotional.’ But if I was to recognize the many practical aspects of the Japanese ethic, I needed some other word.

My first move was to try to use the sociologist’s concept of the ‘particularistic’, as opposed to the ‘universalistic.’

Particularistic versus Universalistic

The particularistic – the propensity to operate on the basis of particular relationships, feelings and situations - seemed to say something about the Japanese personality.

Attention to details, tactics, particular feelings and particular human relationships were part of that particularistic picture. It was matched by the lack of attention to broader issues – strategies, ideologies, strategic foreign and economic policies etc .

In the same way, the concept of ‘universalistic’ – the propensity to operate on the basis of principles and reasonings that have broad application – also came close to what I had already been saying about the non-Japanese personality.

But particularistic versus universalistic had implications of inferiority versus superiority, backwardness versus progress.

And clearly the Japanese were not backward, or lacking in progress.

Traditional versus Modern

Then there were the even more pejorative concepts of ‘traditional’ values as opposed to ‘modern’ values.

Western Japan-watchers had liked to see Japan as struggling to move from the traditional to the modern. In the postwar years, many progressive Japanese had embraced the same terminology

They too had advocated a move to more ‘modern’ values while conservatives tried hard to defend the ‘traditional.’ That progressives also stood to gain politically from this debate by marginalizing the conservatives was also relevant.

(In the introduction to her early seventies book about Japan as a groupist, ‘vertical’ society, the mildly progressive sociologist Nakane Chie feels the need to apologise to her readers for seeming to defend traditional values.)

But by the late 1970’s Japan was well on the way to catching up with the West. If ‘traditional,’ values were so inferior to ‘modern’ values, why was ‘traditional’ Japan doing as well if not better than many of our more ‘modern’ Western societies?

The conservatives seemed to gain a new lease of life.

(Unknowingly, I got caught up in the debate. )

(In Australia I might have been seen as a wild-eyed radical for having opposed the Vietnam War. But by the late seventies my theory about Japan progressing while retaining its original value system was seen as confirming the’ traditional’ approach of the conservatives.)

(One result was that I was largely shunned by the political and social progressives in Japan, despite having agreed strongly with them over Vietnam, China and a host of other foreign policy issues.)

(But I was embraced by the political and social conservatives.)

(In some ways that was an unplanned blessing since it gave me access, at least for while, to many of the inner circles of business, academic and even political power and thinking.)

(However, I did find myself welcomed by the economic progressives, for a most interesting and curious reason.)

(It appears that prewar conservatives had been so caught up in the idea of agriculture as the source of good values and a strong economy that they saw manufacturing as peripheral.)

(To counter this obscurantism, my father’s concept, developed in the 1930’s, of the three stages of economic development – primary, secondary and tertiary – was welcomed by progressives since it proved the central role of manufacturing in Japan’s future development. )

(Some even told me how my father’s books had had to be translated and distributed furtively during the war years to avoid conservative disapproval.)

Rationalism versus ?

In short, whatever way I went – collectivist versus individualistic, emotional versus principled, particularistic versus universalistic, traditional versus modern - I was having problems describing the Japanese in relation to other peoples.

For a while I toyed with the Germanic concepts of gemeinschaft versus gesellschaft.

They seemed to match closely the concepts of emotional/particularistic versus principled/universalistic.

They also matched the concept of primary, small group values versus secondary, large group values.

(That the Germans could relate to this difference so well was yet another of the Japan-Germany similarities I was to discover later.)

But all this was in German. My language was English, or Japanese . I still had some way to go.

The solution to part of my problem came from a simple change in wording.

‘Universalism’ is usually defined as an attachment to ‘principles that have universalistic validity.’ But if we change that definition so it becomes an attachment to ‘principles that CLAIM universalistic validity’ then a lot of things fall into place.

If our principles have the validity claimed for them, then well and good.

But if they lack that validity? Then we are back to the world of economic, religious, political dogmas that can do such harm to our allegedly advanced universalistic societies.

‘Rationalism,’ I decided, would replace ‘universalism’.

As those familiar with the English language will realize, rationalistic does not mean rational.

It means the attempt to be rational relying on principles and reasonings that seek or claim to be valid.

If they have that sought-after validity then well and good. But there is no guarantee they will have that validity.

In short, the term ‘rationalism’ encapsulated neatly the concept of rational principled and irrational principled which I had developed earlier.

However, while ‘rationalistic’ seemed a good word to use in English, there were problems in Japanese.

‘Rational’ in Japanese is gori teki, i.e. in accord with the principle . It is a Chinese origin word. In China, predictably, being rational meant being in accord with principles.

‘Rationalistic’ becomes gori shugi, i.e. the ideology of seeking to be in accord with the principle. To me that is different from ‘rational.’ .

But most Japanese seemed to assume that the two – gori teki and gori shugi - have virtually the same meaning.

Interestingly, gori teki in Japanese does not necessarily have the positive meaning that ‘rational’ has in English and other languages.

It can have overtones of a cold, excessively cerebral approach to problems.

Rikutsu-poi – the propensity to emphasise logic and principles in one’s approach to life can be seen as a personality fault, childish even.

The mature adult is supposed to be able to go beyond reasonings to take account of other factors, both practical and emotional.

Rirutsu-nuki – avoidance of logic and principles – is not necessarily seen as a fault– especially if it implies a reliance on jocho (warm feelings and emotion) which is very definitely a virtue.

During the eighties boom in Japan’s stock market, rikutsu-nuki was a term often used to describe irrational bursts of enthusiasm for speculative stocks.

If anything it seemed to encourage even more foolish, follow-the-leader purchasing of those stocks.

Also relevant is the way 19th century nationalist thinkers of Japan’s Mito School even managed to condemn the Chinese for excessive emphasis on ri. They saw it as too cold, calculating and mechanical.

They saw Japanese culture as superior because of its emphasis on jo - feeling and emotion.

They were to have a strong influence on the right-wing ideologists of the thirties, and perhaps even postwar.

Footnote;  Some years after I had developed my tribe theory and was trying to refine the terminology, I came across the text of Yukawa Hideki's address to a 1964 University of Hawaii symposium on the Japanese mentality.

Yukawa discovered the meson and is one of Japan's more deserving Nobel Prize winners. If only for that reason his views on the mentality of his compatriots are of interest.

They also closely matched my own views, even if he tended to over-emphasise what he saw as faults in the Japanese mind. He also identifies rationality with what I call rationalism.

Some quotes: 'The Japanese mentality is, in most cases, unfit for abstract thinking and takes interest merely in tangible things… '

'Originally speaking, rationality takes an interest in the permanent and universal order transcending the narrow scope of space and time. But Japanese thought is concerned mainly about the local and the temporary order ….'

'The peculiarity of the Japanese mode of thinking lies in its complete neglect of complementary alternatives. This we may term Japanese irrationalism. Of course, this is completely foreign to any form of scientific spirit. …It has the tendency to sidestep as far as possible any kind of confrontation.‘

Yukawa also confirms closely my own thoughts about the Chinese influence on Meiji Japan:

' As was seen in the instances of the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism, the Japanese were very progressive in the assimilation of their high-level cultural assets.'

'But among these, only the ones were appreciated that were effective in regulating the existing social and political order. Hence, a thoroughgoing rationalism, such as the philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, escaped general comprehension and found sympathy in the intellectual minority alone.'

Yukawa was one of that rationalistic minority, hence his scientific success perhaps. His father was an expert in the Chinese classics.


But while in English, at least, ‘rationalistic’ was a good substitute for ‘universalistic’ in describing most non-Japanese value systems, I still had the problem of finding a term to describe Japanese values.

“Particularistic’ did not seem a good choice, especially since in translation– kobetsu shugi - it was almost meaningless in Japanese.

Increasingly I found myself drawn to the term ‘instinctive’ as an alternative.

At times our instincts can lead us in the right, i.e. practical, direction. At other times they can lead us in wrong i.e. emotionalist directions.

That seemed to match closely what I was trying to say about the Japanese.

But once again there was a problem in Japanese since the direct translation of instinctive – honno-teki - can imply animalistic instincts.

In speeches about Japanese management I often had to borrow the term ‘jinpon shugi’ – which can be translated roughly as ‘taking the human factor as all important.’

Japanese audiences could relate to that.

Kansei versus Risei

Only later did I realize that I could summarise it all neatly in the Japanese concepts of kansei versus risei. Kan means feeling, ri as we have already seen means principle.

Add the suffix ‘sei’ to both words and it means the quality of relying on kan versus the quality of relying on ri.

Japanese audiences had no problem with that either.

5. The Deciding Role of ‘Principle’

Later I realized that in defining the difference between what I call the Japanese approach and the non-Japanese approach, I could reduce everything to a single variable – the propensity or otherwise to rely on argued principles (used in the broad sense to include reasonings).

To begin with, we are all creatures of instinct, with a propensity for what I call the emotional. Deep down we all prefer to operate on the basis of feelings rather than principles.

But some of us like to rationalise those feelings. We look for reasons and principles to explain them.

For example, all humans in their original state seem instinctively to want to believe in a supernatural presence.

Those who do not feel any need to rationalize those feelings will be happy simply to stay with them as they are. They may try to convert them into some form of animistic religion; Japan’s native Shinto belongs to that category. But lacking any strict body of doctrine it remains what today we would describe as ‘primitive.’

Those who seek to rationalise those feelings will add principles and reasons, and end up with one or other of the world’s organized religions, with clearly defined doctrines.

Another example: All humans have instinctive likes and dislikes of other peoples .

If they do not try to rationalize those feelings they end up with the highly personalist approach of the Japanese – they like some foreigners and dislike others very much on the basis of personality, achievement, or accidental contacts .

Black people in Japan especially see both sides of that particular syndrome. So too to some extent do the rest of us, with some allegedly despised Chinese or Koreans enjoying very high status in Japan.

The inferiority complexes towards white foreigners (gaijin) in the postwar years, mainly because of our stronger economies, was another example.

We non-Japanese operate differently.

As in most things, we have the same likes and dislikes as the Japanese. But we will try to rationalize those feelings.

Towards those we dislike we will decide that our culture, ideology, race or economic achievement makes us superior.

And it will be an across-the-board, universalistic assertion of superiority, sometimes coupled with forced racial separation (apartheid)

And because it is a principle (i.e. universalistic) no exceptions can be allowed, as we saw so clearly in the former South Africa.

Certainly we could never admit to any feeling of inferiority. Even if economically backward, we will convince ourselves that out culture or something else makes us equal or superior to others.

Another example: We all tend to have an instinctive attachment to the national collective in which we were born and raised,

If we are Japanese we just stay with the instinct . It is unexplained – ware ware Nihonjin (we Japanese, as opposed to the rest of the world).

Even wartime nationalism are more instinctive than argued, or at lest logically argued.

We non-Japanese try to rationalize the instinct, and end up with our various nationalistic ideologies.

We all have a group instinct – a need to feel linked to other humans. It is something we inherit from primitive times. IN this sense we are all groupist, and not just the Japanese.

But Japanese groupism remains simple and localized – the ‘locational’ group of Nakane Chie which I mentioned earlier.

We non-Japanese use the principle of attribute to rationalise our group instinct. The nation with its distinctive language, culture etc is the ultimate ‘attribute’ group.

(Could this explain our stronger sense of public morality as compared with the Japanese – at least when it comes to discarding litter in public places? )

The simple addition of ‘principles’ or ‘reasons’ – i.e. rationalisation - to basic feelings can make a big difference in results.

Similarly in the area of values.

Add principles to Japan’s instinctive ‘shame’ morality and you have a rationalistic ‘guilt’ morality.

Add principles to the instinctive Japanese concepts of giri (obligation) and ninjo (compassion) and you end up with Western doctrines of responsibility and humanism.

Add principles to the sense of hierarchy that exists in all society and you end up with class and caste structures.

The Japanese like familial management. Rely more on principles and you get Western ‘scientific’ hire and fire management.

And so on.

In this very simple way, I found that almost all the differences between non-Japanese and Japanese values could easily be explained by the existence or otherwise of rationalising principles.

Another breakthrough came when I realized I could do the same with the practicality/emotionalism syndrome versus the scientific/dogmatic syndrome.

Practicality plus principles creates the scientific approach.

Emotionalism plus principles creates the dogmatic approach.

A sensible, practical observer will note the differences between the various animal species.

But if he/she then looks for principles to explain the differences, he/she can end up creating or embracing the science of evolution.

Meanwhile another person with an emotionalistic belief in an all-powerful and all-wise God will rely Biblical principles dogmatically to ‘prove’ there is no such thing as evolution, that it is all the hand of God.

Another example: the sensible economist sees the practical merits and demerits of free competition and devises theories to explain and regulate both the merits and demerits.

The less sensible economist is caught up in rightwing, free market ideologies. He/she then devises the dogmatic theories now known as market fundamentalism to champion the merits while ignoring the demerits

Another economist caught up in leftwing ideologies will advocate across-the-board protectionism and state control regardless of the demerits.

And so on.

Practical feelings plus sensible principles create scientific rationality. Emotionalistic feelings plus bad principles create dogmatic irrationality.

When I hit on that equation (some time in the mid eighties) I felt I had explained a large slice of human nature.

But as always I had problems getting others to see the neat symmetry of it all.

One or two of my friends showed interest (John Slee of the Sydney Morning Herald; Emiko Magoshi, now at a university in Nagoya). But to say that the rest of the world shared the excitement would be a great exaggeration.


The Japanese propensity for what someone once described as phenomenalism is part of the same picture. They will concentrate intently on the phenomenon put before their eyes, but forget to seek out the reasons for it, or its consequences.

Japan’s many scandals provide examples. The media will focus in for days, even weeks, on some unfortunate accused of breaking the rules, without any consideration of the reasons why it may have been necessary to break those rules.

The so-called Recruit scandal was one such example, with the media and then the public quite uninterested in the background to that unique and highly progressive firm’s activities– why as a company trying to force reforms in Japan’s education and employment policies it had had to break the rules sometimes.

Indeed, once the demonizing began, even the Recruit company’s obviously progressive deeds – for example, trying to bring some order to the recruitment of university graduates, making sure IPO profits went to company supporters rather than to the gangsters and corrupt securities companies as was the rule in those days – can be made to look sinister.

The Japanese do not share the Socratic belief that phenomena need to be explained. They are often quite happy to leave them just as they are, or rather as they appear to be.

It is a major reason for what often seems to be Japanese irrationality.

Blurred Borderlines

A further point is that the distinction between what is rational and what is irrational can be very blurred. Usually we can only judge by results.

When the Japanese convinced themselves emotionally that the spiritual strength of the Japanese nation would allow them to defeat the USA, we judged them to have been highly irrational.

(In fact they could well have gained a victory over the US navy early in the Pacific War if their codes had not been broken. In that case, we would have agreed that they behaved very rationally and practically. )

But when the Japanese in the postwar years ignored US advice and decided they could rely on the emotional strength of the Japanese nation and worker to rebuild their industrial might, we had to admit they were right – that they had been both practical, and rational.

Similarly with our side of the equation. The reasonings and principles of our politicians, economists, businessmen and so on can lead to good results at times. But usually it is only after the event that we know for sure. .

The same reasonings and principles can also lead to bad policies and business decisions. The US Great Depression is the classic example. And once again, we have to wait till after the event to decide.

We can only judge by results.

Realising the dualities – the yin and the yang - in the world around us did more than explain Japan.

It helped me understand what for me at the time was the greatest mystery of them all – the factors behind Japan’s economic progress, and the relative progress of other societies.

More on that in the next chapter.