TOPICS > Nation

Reflections on Japan

May 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: They called themselves “The Boulder Boys,” an elite group of World War II Naval recruits selected for a crash course in Japanese. Based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, students were plunged into an intensive, 14-month Japanese language program to assist in the war against Japan. Although the teachers were Japanese and Japanese Americans, the Navy didn’t allow Asian Americans to participate as students in the program. Between 1942 and 1946, the school trained 1,100 officers in Japanese. At first all-male, in 1943 the school included women. Graduates served as interrogators, code breakers, and translators during the war. Many of the surviving veterans, now in their 70s and 80s, gathered recently at Pomona College near Los Angeles to share experiences, which included participation in the U.S. occupation of Japan.

THOMAS AINSWORTH, Former State Department Official: We found that our initial reception was extremely friendly. I think the one thing that was clear was that everybody on both sides was very much relieved that the war was over.

JEFFREY KAYE: After the war, many Boulder graduates specialized in Japanese and Asian affairs, and went on to become diplomats, journalists, and scholars.

AL WEISSBERG, Retired Educator: All of us became lovers of Japanese culture. We didn’t particularly like the Japanese government, the Japanese military, but the Japanese people and the Japanese culture were things which we acquired.

JEFFREY KAYE: Boulder graduates became bridges between the U.S. and Japan. Their expertise transcended language. Many became preeminent filters and explainers of the two countries’ cultures and politics. Among them, Frank Gibney, a prolific writer about Japan and Asia. Gibney became “Time” Magazine’s Tokyo correspondent, and now heads Pomona College’s Pacific Basin Institute. Robert Scalapino was director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and is the author of many books on Japanese and Asian politics. William Theodore Debary is professor of Asian studies at Columbia University and is considered a leading expert on Confucianism. Donald Keene teaches Japanese at Columbia University, and has translated dozens of Japanese books. And John Rich served as Japan correspondent for NBC News, and later as vice-President for RCA in Japan. We began our conversation about U.S./Japan relations with a question about a recent news event, the appointment of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in early April, following the former prime minister’s stroke.

JEFFREY KAYE: Thank you all very much for joining us. After the prime minister, himself had a stroke, there was a 22-hour news blackout, when he was in a coma. The fact of his condition was not revealed to Japan or to the world, and the transfer of power was made behind closed doors in secret. What does that style of doing business say about the difference between the United States and Japan?

JOHN RICH, Former NBC Correspondent: It’s the Japanese way. They’ve been doing it for a long time. If the emperor dies, it may be days before the people in Japan know about it. They’re just not quite as anxious to get everything right out on the table, as we are.

WILLIAM THEODORE DE BARY, Columbia University: Well, I wouldn’t see it as necessarily a problem that necessarily has to be judged simply in terms of American standards. I think the Japanese have their own way of doing business, politically, economically, and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that that was for the worse. They have survived rather well, through their own consensus mechanisms. Those mechanisms often operate behind the scenes, but eventually they do surface.

JEFFREY KAYE: But I think many of us in this country had the impression that things were changing in Japan. It was becoming a much more open society…

JOHN RICH: Certainly is, but it’s going to take time.

ROBERT SCALAPINO, University of California: I think that Japan is a combination of change and conservatism. I think the younger elements in Japanese society are showing many evidences of change — for example, moving into Internet and e-commerce, and making certain in an entrepreneurial sense that they regain some competitive edge. I think there is still a fundamental conservatism in Japanese society, measured in American terms. Remember, we are a very impatient society. Our sense of the proper pace does not necessarily go with the other cultures — not just Japan — my own reactions are mainly in terms of my own experience in Japan, and I’ve been astonished at how things have actually changed. For example, there are now Americans who are teaching Japanese literature at major Japanese universities, something which would have been inconceivable in the past and is difficult even to think of in American terms of having a foreign person teaching American literature.

JEFFREY KAYE: But isn’t it true that since the war, we have… The United States has been doing its utmost to try to bring Japan much closer to the American way of doing things, and I wonder to what extent Japan’s way of doing things stands in the way of mutual understanding and cooperation.

FRANK GIBNEY, Pacific Basin Institute: America is the “yes, but,” society. “Let’s go ahead, with a few problems.” Japan is the “no, but.” “We don’t want this, except let’s think about it.” And there are vast cultural differences between those two approaches. One problem that confuses us, I think, in analyzing Japan is, if you will, the difference between civilization and culture. Civilization, we think of arbitrarily, as an external thing: The clothes you wear, the cars you drive, the movies you see, and all that. In that sense, Americans and Japanese are very, very close indeed. On the other hand, if you dig deeper and go into the culture, the things… the baggage that nations accumulate with their art, and literature, and habit, over history, you find much greater differences.

WILLIAM THEODORE DE BARY: And one of the questions here is if you are talking about a genuine partnership, are we the only ones to set the standards, and is this simply a question of whether they meet our expectations, or to some extent, are we expected to meet their expectations?

DONALD KEENE, Columbia University: I think one should also point out, it’s not solely the Japanese are adapting our things, but we are adapting their things. To take a very simple example, in 1941 there was one Japanese restaurant in New York City. There are now 500. Japanese taste has become so much a part of ours. The idea of little is more, which we think of, perhaps, as our own tradition, is actually…comes from the Japanese. Look at what the houses of a hundred years ago looked like, the houses of the rich in New York City or in London, looked like. They looked… they were crowded full of things, and now they’re simple, bare, empty spaces, and so on. Japan may have been obliged to follow us in economic ways, but we have been obliged to follow the Japanese in many artistic ways.

JEFFREY KAYE: You’ve talked about literature and you’ve talked about architecture and food, what about work habits?

DONALD KEENE: Back in the 80’s we were very imitative of Japanese business, and to many extent, those lessons have sunk in. I mean, even though American cars are now doing very well, thank you very much, nonetheless we used the system of assembly line change that the Japanese innovated. The car business has not been the same since Japan.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the 1980’s I think we all remember the examples of what became known as Japan-bashing, and I remember vividly, auto workers smashing up a Japanese-made car. Circumstances have obviously changed to alter that perception, but there are other ways in which our perception of Japan has changed.

ROBERT SCALAPINO: I think, one ought to remember that was, at the time when there was a certain fear of Japan in economic terms in this country. That Japan might surpass the United States and become a dangerous competitor. The fact is that we’re more worried, in some instances about a weak Japan, than a strong Japan economically.

JEFFREY KAYE: How much of the residual fear of Japan, and perhaps a mutual fear… Fear by Japan and the Japanese society of the United States is… still exists, and how does that influence and shape, not so much policy, but the public perception on both sides of the Pacific?

JOHN RICH: I don’t think the Japanese fear the United States at all. I think they are worried. They’re in a very sensitive part of Asia, and I think they’re thinking more about what’s happening on the Mainland. If China militarizes, and gets very aggressive, then the Japanese are going to have to react, and I think that will keep them close to us, because they don’t have that many supporters out there.

FRANK GIBNEY, Pacific Basin Institute: I think from the American side one thing that has mitigated any fear that we have of Japan, is the increasing success and visibility of Japanese Americans. I mean, we’re a multiracial, multicultural society, you know, and it’s very hard to imagine an enemy coming from the same racial stock as the fellow you’re working with in the same company. So I think the Japanese Americans have done a lot to ameliorate that fear, if indeed it exists on our side.

JEFFREY KAYE: What role do you think the Boulder Boys have played in this opening up and this awareness of Japan?

FRANK GIBNEY: Until the Boulder people started sending their graduates out, we were, as far as contact with the Japanese or Chinese goes, relatively mute. And there’s nothing like being able to talk in someone’s language to establish communication, especially when the Japanese language is one so convoluted in its way, that it almost demands an understanding of the language if you want to understand the person.

DONALD KEENE: The American assumes that every intelligent person, regardless of country, will understand English. The Japanese has assumed that no foreigner, no matter how intelligent, will ever understand Japanese. And we have done something to break this assumption, that we understand them. We can talk to them, we can give lectures to them, we can write books about their own country which they will translate.

JOHN RICH: Those of us who studied Japanese back in World War II are getting older. What’s important is what’s happening in carrying on the future, and I’m very optimistic about that. The young people seem to be able to relate to one another very easily. When we began, we weren’t even talking to the Japanese. We were in a war with them. This is less than 60 years later, and when the young people meet other young people, they just meld in together, and I think that’s going on right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gibney sees a homogenization of the two cultures, in what he calls “the good sense of the word.”

FRANK GIBNEY: I think it’s brought on by continual contact. For example, people in the 1970’s, or so, used to say to me, “well, the Japanese are beating us in this business. What can we do to stop them?” I said, “why don’t you try hiring some, and find out.” People are hiring Japanese now and more interestingly, some of my Japanese friends in Tokyo are now hiring American special assistants. You wouldn’t have run into that 20 years ago, or even five years ago.

WILLIAM THEODORE DE BARY: I resist the thought that that unmitigated homogenization is a good thing. I would think that, rather than unrestrained, unimpeded homogenization of cultures, we ought to be talking in terms of cultural exchange, of sharing, of values, that preserves diversity.

JEFFREY KAYE: As to the future, there was agreement about the complexities of strategic and foreign policy objectives of the U.S. and Japan. But there was also an awareness that in the more than 50 years since the Boulder Boys’ wartime service, the two countries are much better able to understand and to communicate with each other.