OSU Navigation Bar

The Ohio State University

University Libraries


A. Thoughts on the Relation of Japanese Culture to Economic Development

What was it in Japanese culture that helped to bring Japan to her current state? Certainly the Occupation reforms--but then the very acceptance of these reforms by the Japanese was the crucial factor. The old Japanese shibui and wabi-sabi aesthetic had no direct influence, although it has been used by the Japanese in selling their distinctiveness and success abroad. The famous "aesthetic poverty" of Japan helped to accommodate the disappointments of the masses in not acquiring a large share of the profits, allowing for an extraordinary rate of internal investment. Perhaps the most significant factor was the feudal past: its social organization and motivational system which emphasized achievement--and along with other aspects of bushido went social etiquette and restraint--behavior patterns which also helped accommodate deprivation and promote dedication to the task. All these things underlay the beginnings of socioeconomic development in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and their survival well into the present [i.e., the 1960s] helped to accommodate the Occupation and its reforms. Another way to put it is simply that structurally Japan was, in the mid-19th century, on the verge of modernization, much as was Germany at the same time. And the Occupation was simply the final step in this process.

Through the process of economic development can the developing society choose to retain their old culture? Once lost, the old culture cannot be regained. There is very little chance of recovering it because its economic base is destroyed and additionally people have become impatient with it as a symbol of an impoverished under-developed past. If economic development could be carried out coolly and rationally, fine, but this seems very difficult in free enterprise institutions. A value has to be placed on wealth and development for its own sake, and this can cause trouble. A society cannot turn the clock back and appreciate the old culture as it has become shabby and undesirable.

The new middle class of Japan looks, dresses, and talks like the analogs all over the world: with energy, enthusiasm, cultural ignorance, wealth, display, and entertainment. Even voice intonations of Japanese are beginning to sound American--less guttural, more open-throated--especially among young people. I found it easier to understand Japanese this trip, but then maybe I have learned more of the language.

The booming consumer economy, that I saw beginning in 1949, fulfils many long deferred gratifications. I see now tatami chairs or backrests; propane heaters and other forms of efficient room heating; better diet and clothing; records for indulging in various musical tastes. No one begrudges the Japanese here, and Japan is a better place to live in. At the same time, a consumer economy is not designed only to provide sensible, deferred gratification, but simply to sell, period. It requires people to buy in order to produce even more to keep wages high in order to buy more in order to increase profits, etc. Once this cycle is attained, then the consumer economy is out of control and no amount of public planning or restriction short of war can curtail it.

Women have lost their innocence, I am afraid. This has some advantages: they are more sophisticated, know the world better, more poised, less hazukashii. But it also means more self-consciousness about appearance and accomplishments. Their dress is same as in any large world capital, but there is a slight crudity and cheapness about some of it--like American low-priced imitations of high style--it doesn't quite come off. When I left Japan in 1951, girls wore the simplest clothes, their hair falling in a plain fashion down their back, very little makeup--refreshing after the overdressed and striving American girls, who, in the Occupation offices, suffered by comparison. Now the pattern is mixed: the secondary school girl is still fresh, often, innocent: but she is quite likely to change into an overdressed and overpainted young lady in a year or so--she loses her innocence as she gains the self-esteem of a modern urban girl, sensitive to fashion in Paris, New York and Rome, free of the tyranny of the tatami and the mother inlaw. Free, but at the same time a new kind of prisoner.

Faces are beginning to exhibit the same inauthenticity as in the US. A chambara [samurai adventure] film actor: face plump, pink, smooth--eyes contorted and blank, at peace: how can this actor play the role of a Spartan warrior? He cannot, no more than Tony Curtis can become a convincing rough hombre. Ten years ago privation and destruction lent an authenticity to such faces and such roles. Now they are obviously play-acting.

Kabuki still has spirit--but here, too, there are signs of change. Subtle--probably beneath the awareness of the actors, but they emerge as revealing little things: a faint jazzing-up, obvious dramatizing (an influence from the big Tokyo nite clubs, where kabuki elements are Broadwayized?) Such moments in kabuki can be a revelation: one knows for certain that the actor may speak some English, sees American movies. The old kabuki was absolutely authentic-straight. There was no possible way to separate the actor from the tradition--he was part and parcel of it. Now he does, for a brief moment or two, leave the role, the style, to inject a note of objective "interpretation" of the role.

The tendency fully flowers in the nite clubs and movies, of course--save in the best films, like Kurosawa's, where nh, kabuki, folk dances and traditional rural vaudeville and shibai [modern drama] are transformed into nite club acts--acts which might by seen in Las Vegas or New York as a special novelty, like Italian jugglers or Czechoslovakian clowns. The cultural context of the performances is lost completely, however correct are the gestures, costumes, etc.

A kabuki expert confirmed all this to me. He said that the future of the onna gata is very uncertain because you cannot get young men to go into training for it. They are too responsive to world values and are hesitant enter a field that requires them to impersonate females. Also, he said too many kabuki people are seeing movies, reading modern books, in general spoiling their interpretations by gaining an external perspective. Obviously kabuki will undergo great changes in coming years.

B. The New and Old

Ten years ago I left a "new" Tokyo: with its new buildings, its hope, its relative innocence. I came back to the "New Japan" to find an "old" Tokyo: bustling, but rather shabby, dirty, confused, overbuilt. Even the new office buildings look old (except for one or two, like the Tokyo To office building ["city hall"]), are tasteless and immobile, old before they are finished. Great tombs for the furiously active. An old friend of mine, Ted Cohen once remarked, "The Japanese specialize in building old buildings".

The Japanese are becoming more like Americans--seeking identity in other people's things, customs, ideas, styles--and never really finding it, so continuing to seek. Bigger and better--use of material objects to measure value because no other standard exists any more. People learn about themselves--become socially and psychologically sophisticated, but disillusioned and frustrated as well like Americans and like the rest of the industrial world. The innocence is gone, the wonderful absorption in an indigenous way of life and with only a limited knowledge of other alternatives. Now the alternatives are not only known about, but actually available. This tears the cultural fabric wide open.

The process is not subject to control or will. If everyone in Japan would like to preserve traditional gardens, they could not do a thing about it unless they get out there and do it themselves. The gardeners will no longer work for peanuts and will come only when asked. Wages have risen: so out go the gardens. Nobody in Japan wants to see gardens disappear, but disappear they may--except for specially protected areas. However, at the same time the "lostness" of early postwar Occupation employees is not evident. No longer a wistful hungering for American or Western power or things--no eager rush to learn and practice English on every available American. The Japanese now seem much more self-confident; they have their feet on the ground, although the feet are running, not gracefully strolling. They appear to feel they have their own America and are rushing with it somewhere. The level at which identity-seeking is taking place has risen; when we were here in the 1940s it was primitive: the first postwar attempts to get bearings after the disaster; the need to re-assess the whole stance of Japan. Now the stance has been taken; there is no doubt of the posture and direction, and the anxieties now flow not from seeking, or searching, but out of experience of the new world that has been created. The anxieties of alienation and conformity. The Japanese have lost a soul but gained a self.