Mount Fuji

Intellectual alienation spawns hazy policy 

by JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN

(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of Jan. 20, 2003, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

WASHINGTON — The main purpose of my visit to Washington at the beginning of 2003 was to carry out discussions on U.S. perspectives, policies and strategies for the Doha Development Round, in particular, and global economic policy in general. Meetings were held with U.S. government departments, foreign embassies, international organizations (including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Finance Corporation), academic institutions, think tanks, research institutes and the editorial offices of foreign-policy publications.

In all of these discussions Japan was conspicuous only by its absence. A few of my interlocutors included people well acquainted with Japan, who nevertheless all asked the same question: "Why is Japan so paralyzed?" And, as they all emphasize, it is not just paralysis at the policy level, but also, with very few exceptions, at the intellectual level.

Early January saw the publication of the A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index. The index is based on four main criteria: political engagement, technology, economic integration and personal contact (international travel, international telephone traffic, etc.). Out of 61 countries, with Ireland in first place and Iran in last place, Japan is ranked 35th, between Botswana and Uganda.

Of course, one can quibble with the methodology, as one can with all such indexes. The point, however, is that there is an overall pattern in all such exercises where Japan invariably scores very low on globalization. Japan is an outlier.

In identifying the causes of Japan's increasing self-imposed alienation from the international community, the intellectual dimension is critical. It is the intellectual climate that is the most alarming aspect of Japan's current crisis and future dismal prospects.

In many of the columns in this series [Ed: 36-part series "Japan in the Global Era" for the Japan Times] I have drawn attention to the parochialism and mediocrity, with a few exceptions, of Japan's universities. This condition equally applies to its think tanks and research institutes.

One "good" example, among many, of the reactionary intellectual scapegoatism that defines a considerable amount of Japanese thought and writing these days can be found in an article that appeared in the magazine Seiron in March 2002 by Yutaka Ohama.

Ohama stridently argues that globalization is the "imperial standard" of the United States aimed at destroying the Japanese system. Of course, one finds kooks of this nature all over the world. The sentiments expressed by Ohama are ones that would find considerable sympathy in, for example, France, either among extreme rightist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen or fanatical antiglobalists such as Jose Bove.

In the case of Ohama, however, the problem — indeed the cause for alarm — is that he is a senior research fellow at the Tokyo-based Institute for International Policy Studies, or IIPS; has worked for trading firm Mitsui & Co.; and has degrees from Tokyo University and a masters in business administration from Stanford University. In other words, he is someone whom one would expect to be a force for globalism rather than a spewer of chauvinistic claptrap.

Not only Ohama himself, but indeed IIPS as an institution illustrates what is dangerously wrong with Japan in the global era. Albeit supposedly focused on international policy issues, the entire research staff of IIPS is composed of Japanese nationals.

The late founding director of IIPS, Seizaburo Sato (whom I knew quite well), used to appear fairly regularly in international forums, but the current members hardly ever seem to venture intellectually outside Japan.

At the IIPS Web site, Ohama is said to be undertaking research on "global trade issues." Well if he is, he is keeping the fruit of his research very much to himself. No one outside Japan seems to have heard of him, and I have certainly never come across him in any international trade policy discussion forums. Nor is it at all clear what the IIPS position is in respect to trade policy.

Ohama is representative of the sclerotic Japanese system in many ways. The fact that an institution such as IIPS should be so intellectually sloppy no doubt in part arises from its origins.

The chairman of IIPS is former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Nakasone is, of course, a stalwart of the Liberal Democratic Party, which many people hold accountable for the mess Japan is in at present. This is a view I also subscribe to — for many reasons.

If Nakasone is a "liberal democrat," then I am a Benedictine nun! In other words, the "liberal" and the "democrat" in the LDP are entirely empty and meaningless labels.

One is accustomed to this kind of dishonesty in totalitarian societies: For example, the erstwhile German "Democratic" Republic had nothing democratic about it, ditto with spades in respect to the "Democratic" People's Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. But in pluralistic open societies, words are supposed to have meanings.

Every member of Parliament among the British Liberal Democrats would be able to define what the party's core values and beliefs are. The Japanese LDP has no core values or beliefs — and I challenge anyone to tell me the contrary. It is instructive to compare the two parties' Web sites: www.jimin.jp for the LDP and www.libdems.org.uk for the Liberal Democrats. The latter includes a good deal on beliefs and principles, the former nothing. As the LDP has ruled Japan for close to six decades and the words "liberal" and "democrat" do not mean anything, why should anything in the policy realm mean anything?

Political dishonesty, cynicism and skullduggery are not, it goes without saying, limited to Japan, but they are not as blatant elsewhere as in Japan. The quote from the Economist I have frequently used applies: "Nothing in Europe or America — nor in most other democratic countries — approaches the rot in Japan."

The LDP along with the other pillars of the postwar Japanese establishment — the bureaucracy, the universities, the media and big business — crafted an intellectual and moral climate based on linguistic vacuousness and dissimulation. The fact that for close to six decades no substantial intellectual challenge was posed to the LDP to articulate and adhere to core principles of "liberalism" and "democracy," especially from those who would consider themselves to be liberal democrats, explains the political paralysis the country finds itself in now.

Thus Ohama, a prominent member of IIPS — supposedly an institution adhering to the principles of liberalism — can publicly take a quite reactionary line without any sense of discomfort and also without much risk of being challenged in what has become an intellectually "challenged" society. Thus reactionary utterances such as those of Ohama are now everyday Japanese intellectual fare.

Where are the genuine Japanese voices of globalism and liberalism? They do exist, but they tend to be found in peripheral corners of Japanese society and often abroad.

An article by a Japanese that directly and forcefully challenges the reactionary woolly kind of establishment thinking appeared in November last year, where, among other things, the author wrote: "the long-term global risk from the continuing death spiral of the Japanese economy could be more serious than any threat posed by Iraq." The author is Hiromi Murakami, a Japanese woman based in Washington.

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Editor's note: Jean-Pierre Lehmann is professor of international political economy at the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) and a founding director of the Evian Group, Lausanne, Switzerland. He has authored and co-authored several books on Japan. I would like to express sincere thanks to Prof. Lehmann for kindly allowing me to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.