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IV. LETTERS FROM JAPAN: AN UNFINISHED DOCUMENT

NOTE: The material to follow was written in 1950 at the suggestion of an editor connected with the New Yorker magazine, but I never had time to really finish it. Reading it over many years later (2002) I am struck by the note of nostalgia and pessimism that runs through the letter. It looks to me as though my two years in Japan had sold me on the order and beauty of traditional Japanese culture, but that culture was rapidly disappearing under the impact of the Occupation and the Japanese determination to join urban-industrial society. I think that I am saying here that the Japan Occupation was emphatically Japan's final push toward modernization. The letter is also interesting for the comments on the Korean war which was going full blast at the time of writing.


Written in Tokyo, early 1950

This letter has been long in the making. Started lord knows how long ago, I have pecked away at it from time to time, trying to give it some particular form or quality, or at least make it hang together. But I have given that up and so here you have it, a rather disjointed thing with a few comments and interpretations but mostly just observations.

A. Letters from Japan: Some Sour Reflections Concerning the Korean War

First, some general views of life and the world from our perspective over here. It seems strange to write these rather detached and chatty phrases while the world is about to burn up [reference to the atomic bomb]. That provides the first note - that most of us over here have gotten used to the idea of being in a war. It came suddenly--the realization, I mean. During the summer and early Fall (1949) one felt that the Korean show was serious, but something apart--our job was SCAP [the Occupation] and Japan. But in the past few months the whole thing has gradually changed, until we now find ourselves working principally on tasks related directly to the war, and we (some of us) see Japan no longer as the main topic, but as part of the war. This of course is not true for all offices. Many are still concerned with Occupation affairs exclusively, and certainly at least half of our daily activities concern our research. But we have certainly lessened our domestic concerns. Our job has been to make constant assessment of the reactions of the Japanese people to the whole international crisis, and to the participants within it.

So you see as far as we are concerned this is the war--it is not something that is coming, or might come- we are in it, now, and fighting it from day to day. Not only in the problems we try to solve, and the assignments we get, but in the fact that our office is an inevitable port of call for everyone from home who gets over here on special missions connected with research or intelligence on the fighting and its consequences--and that includes various people representing government agencies, universities doing secret government projects, special research institutes, and lord knows what else. The attitude of stateside people is that we represent some kind of outpost--this adds to the feeling that we are in a war, and not waiting for one. When someone here says he is going home to Washington to get a war job he receives a queer look--where the Occupation ends and the new war administration begins is not easy to discover.

Yet in spite of all this the outward form of the Occupation remains the same. A certain deliberate effort, I suspect, goes into the maintenance of this front. It would be dangerous to Japanese morale to see the Occupation fall apart--to see people leaving by the hundreds, the services stopped, the stripping down for a different job--not to mention the effect it would have on the morale of the Occupation people themselves. So the PX is fuller than ever of goodies and luxuries; the cars are newer; the radio just as "stateside," the activities and social affairs just as lush and full of ostentation, and half-mocking reverence for Japanese customs. Underneath all of this is, of course, considerable jitteriness, and even farther down a note of deadly seriousness and fatigue, visible when you visit the hospitals and see the endless lines of wounded, and talk to people who have to keep the blood coming, and the dressings ready, and the ammunition flowing. And down Avenue A, past our office in Radio Tokyo, and past the Dai Ichi Building, where the General has his office, and past the old Imperial Palace, go the giant tank lorries with burned out hulks of tanks, and long lines of Japanese trucks loaded with equipment, preceded by MP jeeps with sirens. Every day I look out of my first floor window, over the heads of a line of farmers waiting to be taken through Radio Tokyo on a guided tour, and watch them turn their heads and see the groups of vehicles and sometimes troops or ambulances go by, and see them turn the heads back straight, with the worried blankness on their faces...and then from that turn to the public opinion data on the desk and see the worry and fear of war involvement, and the dislike of positive commitments coming though from all over the nation.

Who are we, sitting here in Japan in our fine houses with our servants and our cars and our cameras and our anxieties? What are we doing here, and how long can we last? One feels uneasy, and above all, one begins to make some reevaluations of America and the meaning of American life. The pitiful and confused inadequacy of most of our propaganda and informational programs (at least the ones made public--there are some internal materials that are pretty good) strikes one immediately. When one is sitting on top of a nation with a standard of living which, while miles above the rest of East Asia, is likewise miles below ours, and with the consciousness that just over the horizon is the vast Spartan griminess of the communist world, reaching out with deadly seriousness to pluck our own big soft apple--well, suddenly you feel yourself to be terribly temporary, and terribly inexcusable. You know damned well what They want--they want America's productivity, and America's wealth, and They are going to get it one way or the other--either by coming in and taking it, or by forcing us to give it up because we must prepare against Them.

Now what is Japan like these days? Tokyo is a bad example, because it is the jewel in the crown--a jewel covered with new neon signs, winter smog, jerry-built houses and cheap stores, ugly new concrete office buildings, cars and cars and cars, girls and girls, open sewers, gigantic movie houses, and policemen. Tokyo is closer to the American model in many ways than any other city in the world, and certainly the Far East, but it is an America gone mad, a kind of nightmarish America. Imagine a street lined with neon signs for three solid blocks--does that sound like America? Yes, but imagine the signs only five feet apart, and one for each of the tiny shops just five feet wide, and also imagine each sign exactly alike-- except for the characters on it! And then imagine the narrow sidewalk lined with pastel-painted posts each with a couple of lanterns hanging from it, and with bamboo poles/and straw ropes festooned between the poles (and, yes, Christmas trees)--and then include a few signs like these: (sometimes in English) Big Holiday Cleanout Sale; American Style Clothes; Fashion; Neat; Cleaning and Dyeing; Moulin Rouge; New York Bar; Fresh Girls Wanted; Antiques. This is a standard picture of a shopping and entertainment district at a electric interurban station not far from our house--a sight duplicated all over Tokyo.

In Tokyo there now [early 1950] is everything--big advertising agencies, strip shows, chain stores, chain restaurants, bars, museums, big department stores, movie palaces, government buildings, parks, slums, sleek middle class suburbs (mostly full of Occupationaires and foreign traders), and endless miles of winding alleys with thousands of tiny shops and vast gay quarters. Life is fast and full of spirit and energy--it is American in the sense of pace and drive and display. But it is also something else--the Japanese love of garish color and of tiny, self-enclosed entities, of the outdoor-indoor blur of living, of senseless and mixed up alternation between Oriental and Western ways and manners, of a desire to cheat the stranger but love your neighbor.

Away from Tokyo the scene changes. Most of the country is poor, suffering from a deficiency of capital and obsolescence of equipment, and above all, of too many people. On one of my recent field trips I took a long tour through the heart of the old Yamato country--the area known as Kiishu, the fat peninsula-like projection southeast of Kyoto and Osaka. This area has one of Japan's great forest and lumber industries, and is as relatively prosperous as any part of Japan can be. But outside the cities it is poor, very poor. Towns are drab and shabby, even those that escaped bombing. Nothing has changed here for 50 years, one feels, and the gaiety and pace of Tokyo is lacking. Nothing has taken the place of the old Japanese way of life, and that way of life is dying on the vine for want of capital and of too many mouths to feed. The great rural shrines and temples, once the destinations of thousands of pilgrims and internal tourists every year, now attract fewer and fewer people--it costs too much to get to them, and the fever is waning. It is too hard to make a living, and taxes are too high. One is content with the festival in his own village or ward. Or perhaps the radio and the multitudes of magazines provide enough stimulation.

Where is Japan headed? I am sure her politicians know as little about that as American politicians know about our own course. So let's ask the people. (This is something we [PO&SR] are experts on). On the international issue it is possible to say that a minority of Japanese are definitely pro-American on all issues; another minority are definitely pro-Soviet; and the majority are, to use a "neutral" term, neutral. This really means that they see Japan's role in a kind of nationalistic way--not the old militant nationalism of the propagandists, but a guarded, anxious, play-our-cards-our-own-way attitude. I think we should be thankful for the substantial minority of friends that we have, because when you consider the objective position of Japan, why we have any friends at all becomes a substantial mystery. When America suffers military reverses in Korea, the general tendency is for the neutral majority to increase--the Soviet does not pick up any more friends, and of course a few previously-neutral people slip over into the pro-American minority out of sympathy. A Japanese might, when receiving news of American defeats, at one and the same time feel delighted that the cocky Americans are taking a beating, become convinced that Japan's role must be a guarded and cautious one toward both the Soviet Union and the U.S., feel scared to death over the future, and also feel warm sympathy for the few American G.I.s he came to like who are over there taking it.

Toward specific issues one finds a similar distribution of opinion. Opinion concerning American military bases in Japan after the treaty is not crystallized--we find "don't knows" as high as 46% on this one issue. On the issue of Japanese rearming a majority is in favor, but it hedges and qualifies its choice to mean that the army must stay in Japan for defensive purposes only. Toward the relative strength of America and the Soviet Union, one finds that a majority put their bets on America--but this fluctuates considerably by military fortunes and diplomatic news. And so it goes.

Above all we can say that the Japanese people don't want war--war of any kind or any shape or any temperature. They are sick to death of war and destruction and family disorganization, and hate militarism. This is a truly de-militarized people; of that there is no doubt. A better chance for a really peace-loving nation has rarely existed in the modern world, but perhaps the tragedy is that they cannot stay out of it. They must rearm, and fast, risk or no risk. They hope that Russia will be content with a friendly, neutral Japan, but they know in their hearts that this cannot be, and so they anxiously and reluctantly face the prospect of another military future.

Now let us turn to matters more remote from international immediacies. Somehow in addition to all our "war work" we also find time to plug away at our Occupation research. There are several things under way here, but I want to talk about one type of project only. We have tackled what we regard as perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Japanese social-economic structure--its "particularistic" character. Now this term covers a wide range of phenomena. Briefly, what we mean is this: The prevailing tendency in all socio-economic relationships in Japan is to define the status and role of the persons in the relationship in terms of shifting, informal criteria. This is not a new idea, and certainly is familiar to anyone who knows about the medieval-modern transition in the West, but in Japan the process takes special forms. For example, it becomes another way of talking about the oyabun-kobun (boss-follower; patron-godchild) system which saturates Japanese life from University departments to labor groups to criminal gangs. This is a system of personal loyalties and controls in which a boss contracts for the services of the men under his control with the employer, the boss relaying wages (minus his cut), and acting in general as a source of social security and also as a tyrant to his men. On one end of the scale you find rural groups in which a great amount of traditional ritual surrounds the relationship of the oyabun to his kobun, and the traditional garb is worn, and on the other you find the urban labor boss who functions as a legal labor contractor to a steel mill or shipyard. [See our later publication, Bennett and Ishino, 1966]

Another special Japanese shaping of particularism appears in the use made of the system by the "sharp operator"--the exceedingly rationally-oriented (insofar as goals are concerned) businessman who corners a large part of the domestic market, and utilizes, in addition to his modern business skill, a system of personal loyalties and obligations to build up a machine. He will also utilize family connections--another old Japanese custom. You have here some fascinating material on means-end schema. In Japan, the man who is "rational" as far as ends are concerned, will generally use non-rational or particularistic means to achieve these ends. This differs from America, where in the long run rational means must be applied throughout if success is to be attained.

And into this whole problem intrudes the ever-present population situation. Because you find upon investigation that a particularistic system of socio-economic relationships where everyone has his "place" defined by non-rational status criteria, with too many mouths to feed. There are too many people for the jobs available; in a rational economy you simply don't employ them, but in particularistic economy you do employ them. You build up obligations with them, and keep them working in some way or another at small tasks, at low pay, but you keep them working. People don't have the abstract right to work and make a living, but it becomes someone's obligation to see to it that they have a job. As one of my lumber-dealer informants told me, "I feel toward my workers like a father feels towards his children. They are really family members of mine. There isn't really enough work for them, but it is necessary for me, as a matter of ninjo (human feelings) to keep them working." And this is the Japanese economy--except for the most rationalized-industrialized segments--in a nutshell.

And so where are we with democracy? Certainly this isn't democracy, as we know it; it isn't the concept of the individual right to live and work, and be happy, the right to a wage calculated on the job you do, nor the right to change your job when you want to. But what else can we have in the country of too many people and few natural resources, and a low standard of living? We can have, and the Occupation has helped to guarantee, more plain civil rights and less downright exploitation, and we can see to it that certain classes of women get a better break, and we can attempt to give taken a better chance [sic]. But it is hard to see how a mass social security system can ever function as efficiently as this informal system of obligation and loyalty in its most positive aspects. Social security in the Western sense is another product of a rich country; it takes a high national income and a great deal of national homogeneity. There isn't a high income and there is a lot of local variation in Japan, which the national treasury will never be able to handle separately. These things must be taken care of by the local community and its own meager resources. And you can be sure that by and large, everyone will have some kind of job.

I suppose that in a sense we have been trying to erect a solid sociological and socio-economic skeleton on which to drape the colorful Ruth Benedict cultural interpretations you can read about in Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Talk of obligation, and human feelings, and familism, and politeness and loyalty and obedience is all well and good, but without some attempt to explain its functional matrix it remains as just one more collection of ethnographic curiosa. The Japanese have worked out an interesting system of a technologically-modern economy on the basis of a non-Western or former feudal social organization--it was this combination that permitted Japan's astonishing development in the past 60 years, and also her decline. For by synthesizing feudal hierarchy and obligation with industrial techniques her leaders were able to erect a modern nation in a very short time, with a large population and few natural resources. A wholly unique and admirable achievement, dangerous or not. This means that there is something very stable and very wiry in Japanese experience; it needs direction and let us hope that we have given it some.

Japanese intellectual currents, or at least thought patterns, deserve some treatment here. There are many things I could write about, but in the general atmosphere of crisis it is the anxieties that come to my attention. I want to tell you about the tremendous national soul-searching that has been going on in Japan for the past few years. The Japanese have been giving themselves a thorough examination--their beliefs, institutions and potentialities, and of course most of this has revolved around the meaning of America and the example it sets. Everything American is "good" and "progressive" (of course there is an important undercurrent of jealousy and hostility, but I don't intend to discuss that here): currently, everything Japanese is "bad" and "feudal". This general attitude is not only a journalistic one, but is also paramount in most academic circles. A large proportion of social science research is devoted to proving that Japanese customs are our of date and undemocratic, and much of this research is directly related to proposed legislation on welfare matters.

But aside from the academic and legislative aspects of the matter, it has been more informal sectors of the thinking public which catch one's attention. Japanese newspapers are probably unique in the world for the amount of space devoted to public fretting about national deficiencies, and reporting of social legislation and reforms. What things are particularly important: Population is one of the big ones. And here lies something very typical in the climate of opinion. While everyone recognizes the cold economic dangers of too many people, there is equal attention given to its cultural aspects.

That is, with a large, swarming mass of people, Japan cannot become a "truly cultural nation". Standards of living will be depressed, people will be too concerned over survival, and besides poverty and shabbiness is unpleasant and something to be ashamed of. The Japanese are terribly concerned over appearances, and it comes out on the population issue very clearly. The unanimous concern over the matter, and the complete agreement on needs to control growth, stands in sharp contrast to the pre-war and wartime attitude that a large population means a vigorous, healthy society.

Another thing that worries the newspapers and magazines is violence. Violence in any form-- riots, strikes, sabotage, murder--is deplored as such, in addition to being given specific condemnation. Violence, again, is not the mark of a "cultural nation"; it betrays disunity, lack of direction, and a confession that problems are not solved. And most important, it is a confession that somehow people are slipping out of control. This is to be feared--not only in light of the traditions of order and obedience, but because it means that a danger exists to a carefully balanced and generally marginal economic situation. There is no flexibility in Japan--if a cog slips there might be serious trouble all around. And then violence is also an insult to the Occupation and to the General, it results in a certain loss of prestige, and this is not to be borne by an exceptionally sensitive people.

Another thing that concerns the publicists is the general issue of social welfare and security. Now this is complex, because it is all bound up with the thing that many Japanese regard as the core to Japan's whole problem: the family system. The "family system" becomes the root of all evil for a large sector of informed intellectuals. What is it: Well, at root it is a way of describing a constellation of interpersonal patterns...[and there the manuscript ends].