In This Review
The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History

The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History

By Walter Lafeber

W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, 508 pp.
Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation

Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation

By Michael Schaller

Oxford University Press, 1997, 299 pp.

Politicians and analysts in the 1980s recited the line, "The Cold War is over, and Japan won," but now that seems ridiculous. "The Cold War is over, and Japan vanished," seems more accurate today. Japanese companies are no longer feared, and Japanese management inspires not envy but ridicule. Books and movies like Rising Sun relied on an audience's perceptions of Japan as ominous and exotic. It is nice that the West no longer feels threatened, but unfortunate that an unthreatening Japan comes across as such a bore. America's future could be stamped, in large part, "Made in Asia." Most thoughtful people are aware of the huge stakes riding on China's evolution, but Japan's direction is also important for the future of the West.

Think of the uncertainties about Japan in the coming decades: Is Japan abandoning its postwar peacenik role and returning to a more muscular military policy? Will Japan deploy nuclear weapons? Is its economy, the world's second-largest, beginning a recovery that will pull the country out of its quagmire and again inspire awe around the world? My answers to those questions (yes, no, and yes) are just guesses. One can make a cogent argument for the opposite conclusion in each case, and America's own prospects will depend partly on the answers.

Publishing is one of the few sectors that is still devoting attention to Japan, and the result has been a series of good books over the last year or so. Frankly, I suspect that this is because of the time lag in publishing; these books were probably planned in days when Japan seemed sexier. Recent entrants include Sheldon Garon's Molding Japanese Minds, Kent Calder's Pacific Defense, and Michael Armacost's Friends or Rivals? The two books reviewed here can be added to the list. Both are engaging and worthy works of history, and that history is a starting point for looking at Japan's future.

Altered States, a meticulously documented diplomatic history of postwar Japan by Michael Schaller, a professor of history at the University of Arizona, is a distinguished work of scholarship, painstaking and eminently reliable. Schaller focuses on the period from 1945 to the early 1970s, with a brief section taking U.S.-Japanese relations to the present. This is not exactly virgin ground, but Schaller covers it comprehensively and stylishly, with new details throughout.

Walter LaFeber's history, The Clash, is a bit different -- and a better read. LaFeber is a historian but not a Japan specialist, and there are a few minor mistakes as a result (at least in the advance review copy that I read), but he brings a fresh eye and a wonderful historical sweep to his work. Indeed, he writes so knowledgeably without the benefit of the Japanese language that I wondered why any of us ever bothered to slave away over it. LaFeber covers the period from the 1850s to the present, recording the drama of the opening of Japan, the Meiji restoration, the victory over Russia in 1905, the buildup to World War II, and the upheavals since. Japan's rise from the sealed-off island nation of the nineteenth century to one of the world's great powers today is an extraordinary story, and LaFeber tells it with gusto. The Clash emphasizes that Japan and the United States have regularly been drawn into conflict, often because they operate by different systems of capitalism, the chaotic American kind versus the centralized, heavily regulated Japanese variety. He emphasizes that China has always added an unstable element to U.S.-Japanese relations and predicts that Washington and Tokyo will continue to clash.

I tend to disagree. My best guess is that the era of Japan as a prime bogeyman is over, partly because Japan's economy is becoming more open and trade disputes are now more abstruse. Washington and Tokyo are battling it out over trade issues like complex Japanese port practices, which are not the kind of thing that figures easily into American campaign speeches or the six o'clock news. Moreover, as Japan's population ages, its savings rate should drop and its current account surplus is expected to decline, further easing the tension. But more important, Americans are not just monotheistic but also monodemonic. They like to have an evil force out there, but only one at a time. The United States had Japan audition for the role as the Soviet Union collapsed from Evil Empire to Pathetic Empire, but now China seems more likely to get the part and seems better cast to stir an American audience. China's trade surplus is becoming more ominous and Beijing is indisputably protectionist, so that the Chinese government can be perceived simultaneously as a trade, human rights, and arms proliferation villain. So while LaFeber is right that there will be clashes in the future, my guess is that they will be more subdued in the coming decades.


These two books are serious and scholarly, the kind that you can put down. Yet both are gracefully written, with an eye for an amusing phrase or colorful quote, and they are sober in their judgments. Indeed, one wishes they had been a bit less sober, perhaps, a tad more inclined to make arguments instead of simply recounting the past. Both are conventional histories, recording dates and facts rather than presenting a major new argument or interpretation. Still, both have benefited from materials released in recent years, such as declassified American documents about CIA payments to the Liberal Democratic Party in the 1960s.

The history of U.S.-Japanese relations is important because America and Asia have always talked past each other, attracted to each other and seeking approval but quarreling nonetheless. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Asians and Americans are from different galaxies.

That is how history can help. Above all, the clear lesson of Asia is humility. Bilateral history is full of extraordinary misjudgments, beginning with the first accounts by Japanese of Westerners. Japanese noticed that Westerners wore heels on their shoes and concluded that this was because their heels, like those of dogs, did not quite touch the ground. Indeed, some Japanese concluded that European men lifted one leg when urinating.

Americans came up with their fair share of misjudgments, as when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles predicted that Japanese products had "little future" in America because they were just "cheap imitations of our own goods." Holding up a brightly patterned American flannel shirt and a Japanese copy on cheaper cloth, Dulles scolded his hosts for believing that Americans would ever buy the copy. It is perhaps for the best that Dulles stayed in diplomacy and did not try his hand at business consulting.

Premises that were just plain wrong have formed the basis for America's policies toward Japan (and vice versa). The United States has not done anything quite so self-destructive as Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, but the focus of American policy toward Asia from the late 1940s through the 1960s was on preventing Japan from becoming communist. Schaller makes this particularly clear. Eisenhower warned Congress in 1954 that unless the United States opened its markets to Japanese goods, America might "lose Japan." Then "the United States would be out of the Pacific and it would become a Communist lake." Eisenhower told another audience that unless the United States helped Japan and boosted trade with it, "What is to happen to Japan? It is going to the Communists."

This fear of a communist takeover of Japan was not a minor part of the equation. It was at the core of policymaking, leading Washington to its famous "reverse course" in the late 1940s. The initial impulse of the American occupation of Japan had been remarkably socialist, but fear of strikes and communism pushed the United States to go in the other direction, cracking down on communists and labor organizers and releasing war criminals who had the virtue, at least, of being conservative. Prime Minister Yoshida teased: "You Americans are very difficult. We had all the communists in jail when you occupied the country in 1945. Then you told us to release them. Now you ask us to find them and put them in jail again. A very cumbersome process."

The communist phobia prompted American officials during the occupation to encourage Japan to anoint a Ministry of International Trade and Industry as the central organ of industrial planning. This phobia explains why American officials later helped Japan send its exports to the United States. As Schaller writes, "Japan's Government-guided, export-driven economy, later described as a 'capitalist development state' or, less charitably, 'Japan, Inc.,' was nurtured by American directives."

Of course, it is easy to say in retrospect that communism was never a real threat in Japan. But it should have been pretty easy to say then, too. Japan is in many ways a deeply conservative country, hierarchical and respectful of tradition and authority, so that while feudalism or fascism were perhaps possibilities, communism was not. In Asian countries in which communism did take hold, such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam, it was fundamentally a spasm of nationalism. But Japan had nationalistic symbols, like the emperor, that were antithetical to communism.

Paradoxically, the main force that bolstered communism in Japan was not plotting in Moscow but arrogance in Washington. It was precisely because the United States kept treating Japan as its puppet in the 1950s that leftists began to gain nationalist credentials and the elected leaders began to look like quislings. The 1960 riots against the security treaty that America imposed on Japan created such upheaval that the historian John Welfield wrote, "Japan showed every indication of emerging as America's Hungary." While a communist revolution was almost unimaginable in Japan, if it had happened, Khrushchev could have sent the State Department a thank-you note.


I have one complaint about both books. It is perhaps unfair, but it goes to the heart of what is important in Japan these days. These books, particularly Schaller's, are both diplomatic histories, and I question whether diplomacy is really as important to postwar Japan's history as most people think. The books are filled with prime ministers doing this, foreign ministers doing that, which is how most scholars approach Japan. But focusing to such an extent on politicians and diplomats is really not fruitful in the case of Japan.

Fernand Braudel and other twentieth century historians have reshaped our understanding of what history can be by emphasizing not only reigns, dates, and generals but broader trends. They look at how people live, at demographics and agriculture, and their work underscores that the best history is sometimes about peoples and not just persons. Indeed, some recent Japanese-language history books have offered this kind of broader look at the nation's social history.

Both social-economic history and also the more traditional political-military history are necessary to understand the past. But in the case of modern Japan, history books have been overwhelmingly devoted to cabinet ministers rather than the people, and I feel a twinge of regret that two more books by such fine historians should focus on what is arguably secondary. The need for a different historiography is particularly important in the case of Japan. In Europe, the centuries are full of extraordinary leaders who changed the lives of their peoples. But in Japan, the last few centuries have more often produced extraordinary people who changed their leaders.

The essential point is that for historical and cultural reasons, Japan is not a country that spawns powerful leaders who single-handedly pull the nation in one direction or another. The last individual who really shaped Japan in his own image was Ieyasu, the warlord and seii tai shogun ("barbarian-subduing generalissimo") who lived 300 years ago and founded the Tokugawa shogunate. Since then, Japan has shifted course and made momentous decisions, but usually through a process of consensus or nemawashi -- the same cycle of endless discussions and meetings that characterize decision-making in Japanese companies and ministries today. In the war years, Hideki Tojo was regarded by many in America as the villain in Japan, but he was a weaker leader than Roosevelt or Churchill, and certainly far weaker than Stalin or Hitler.

In the postwar period, particularly after Prime Minister Yoshida, who was an unusually strong leader, Japanese leadership has been even weaker. As Henry Kissinger noted, "A Japanese leader does not announce a decision; he evokes it." More than leaders elsewhere, Japanese leaders are engaged less in action than in reaction; the national agenda is shaped to a great extent by unexpected events that affect public opinion and thus constrain the options for political leaders.

As a result, the main forces that have shaped postwar Japanese life, I would argue, are not politics or individuals, but the economic boom, urbanization, demographic change, the shifting status of women, and various unexpected incidents. One can argue that in the 1950s the most important factor in U.S.-Japanese relations was not Liberal Democratic Party politics but the death from radiation of crew members of the Lucky Dragon, a Japanese fishing boat that happened to be near the American nuclear test at Bikini. The Lucky Dragon episode helped create the enormous hostility in Japan toward nuclear weapons and led to tremendous distrust of American officials. It also helped breed annoyance among Japanese that their government always seems to follow the United States so loyally, behaving, as they say in Japanese, like kingyo no unko -- a goldfish's poop. It is not a simile that is intuitively obvious to Americans, but it arises because a goldfish's droppings trail after it. In fairness, both books discuss the Lucky Dragon episode, although perhaps not so thoroughly as they should have.

LaFeber mentions in a lone paragraph the rape of a sixth-grade Japanese girl on the island of Okinawa two years ago by several United States marines. Yet that incident was not just some peripheral news story but an episode that profoundly shook bilateral relations and still reverberates. It generated rage at the American military presence in Japan and Okinawans' frustration at their treatment by the rest of Japan. It helped end the taboo in Japan against discussing security issues and provoked a far-reaching debate about military ties with the United States. It forced the United States to announce the consolidation and closure of some of its facilities on Okinawa, and it led the Japanese government to explore ways to treat Okinawa more equitably. One can make the case that no one has affected U.S.-Japanese relations more in the last few years than those marines.


Diplomacy is one chessboard that engages America and Japan, and so it is worthy of historical accounts. But countless other chessboards help determine the relationship as well. Americans and Japanese visit each other's countries, watch each other's movies, and marry each other, creating direct ties that shape the overall relationship greatly. Ambassador Walter F. Mondale, perhaps because of his political experience, has an acute sense of the importance of these ties. I remember seeing him once just after he had lunched with Kunihiko Saito, then the top Foreign Ministry official, now ambassador to Washington. Mondale laughed, "We talked it over and decided that neither of us will have nearly the influence on bilateral relations that Hideo Nomo will." Nomo pitches for the Dodgers.

To be sure, one can argue that all of today's chessboards, however important, are possible only because of Japan's aggression and defeat in World War II -- that the social history is mere detail arising from the political-military framework. That raises the question of whether the political-military structure is again in transition, leading to a new kind of Japanese society. But such a perspective is too narrow. It looks at only half the seesaw, noting the way politics shapes society without acknowledging the reverse process. In fact, the two interact constantly.

While political science was perhaps the most useful field for analyzing the Soviet Union, economics or even anthropology are more helpful in Japan. Politics matter, but other factors matter more. Nothing will shape Japan more in the coming years than demographics; the country's population -- and influence -- will shrink over the next century if current trends continue. The Japanese government predicts that the country will have 55 million people in the year 2100, down from 125 million today. Japan is unlikely to be as important to America when it has one-quarter of America's population, in 2050, as it is today when it has half. And no one knows how far the trend will go: a popular magazine calculated that at present rates Japan will have a population of 45,000 in the year 3000. At that point it will have the diplomatic significance of the island nation of Kiribati.

It would be wrong to accuse these books of neglecting areas on which they chose not to focus. Both are stimulating histories. But it is worth remembering that while Japan's prime ministers are important actors, they are often reading other people's lines. They have much less authority than leaders in other countries to ad-lib and take the drama in new directions. They are constrained by bureaucrats, business leaders, media, and a desire for consensus in their Japanese audience. And so it seems that in examining history, as in forging a relationship with Japan, one must remember not just the leading actors but the society as a whole.

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