Book Review: "The Enigma of Japanese Power"

Karel van Wolferen’s book deals with the sociopolitical dynamics of power in Japan. His core concept for interpreting the society is ‘The System’, the complex of ministry officials, bureaucrats, business and political leaders and other state and pseudo-state actors which make up the nexus of public power in Japan–depicted in chilly and often totalitarian terms. van Wolferen’s thesis is that these power groups form

a truncated pyramid. There is no supreme institution with ultimate policy-making jurisdiction. Hence there is no place where…the buck stops. In Japan, the buck keeps circulating. (p. 5)

One of van Wolferen’s greatest contributions to understanding Japan is his demolition of the argument that culture ultimately determines behaviour: he points out that culture is shaped by—and hence chosen by—society as much as the other way around, and putting something down to ‘culture’ alone is a non-explanation that hinders analysis of its actual roots.

Much of the book is taken up with the alleged extreme relativism and fundamental disregard for logic found in the Japanese consciousness, and van Wolferen’s negative comparison between this and Western thought-patterns is expressed in strongly ethnocentric undertones. That said, his description of a society which has beaten itself into submission and paralysis in order to defend against external threats certainly rings true today.

There are two particularly important sections of the book from the perspective of mission leadership; the first is the ‘Management of Reality’ chapter, which argues that, while, as most cultures, Japan operates a consensus system of reality, appeals to objective standards of reality are regarded as unnecessary and troublesome. This provides the occasion for the expression of power in Japan: the authoritative construction of reality, supported by unquestioning social consent; contradictions are generously tolerated, and awkward questions which puncture the veil are left unasked.

Above all, ethical judgement is suspended: van Wolferen quotes Motoori Norinaga, one of the most respected authorities on the native Shintō religion, that ‘[Shintō] does not contain a single argument that annoyingly evaluates things in terms of good or evil, right and wrong.’ (p. 241) This ideological flexibility, we are told, was key to Japan’s modernisation—there is no resistance to a shift in the framing of reality, so it was never tightly grasped in the first place; for van Wolferen, the reason that the Japanese System remains unchallenged and all-powerful is that there is no higher reality to contrast it against.

Many missionaries have been challenged by these situationist tendencies in Japanese morality (Green and Baker, 2000:153ff.), particularly in communicating the concept of sin. One counter-reaction is the attempt to enforce an absolutist mental landscape as a form of pre-evangelism, but van Wolferen’s book raises questions about the effectiveness of this idea—if such a moral reality-frame were constructed by a missionary, would it ever be fully owned by the convert, or merely submitted to for the sake of maintaining social harmony? Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the dependence relationship between Japanese Christians and pastors.

The second important aspect is the following chapter, “Power in the Guise of Culture,” which deals with how a System without a single authoritative core can produce the famed Japanese degree of social compliance: the answer is that power actors establish, through propaganda, cultural norms of ‘what it means to be Japanese’; van Wolferen charts how government powers adopted and then rejected ideologies as a means of social control, including the self-denying Zen Buddhism, the feudal codes of Bushidō and the Education Rescripts of the Meiji Restoration. Nowadays, works of exceptionalist-nationalist philosophy (nihonjinron) form (and hence enforce) stereotypes of the Japanese consciousness, and the media, push-polling, and the character-moulding properties of education and corporate initiation serve to inform Japanese people as to who they ought to be.

This picture is clearly extreme; the nation is not actually a collection of mindless drones, and creativity, disobedience and independence do exist in Japan. But the slippery nature of truth and reality, and the feedback loops which enforce cultural orthodoxy, remain barriers to the Western missionary and demonstrate that in Japan, power is certainly an enigma.