Japan as a Manipulated Society

by Tetsuo Kogawa

While the success of the Japanese economy is widely discussed, the thrust of the analyses have recently changed. In the late 1970s they were critical in the sense that this success was seen as based on cheap labor, employees' self-sacrifice, substandard housing and sewage systems, people's thrift, a "conspiracy' among government, big business and finance, and so on.1 In the 1980s, such explanations have turned to a reappraisal of "Japanese management" and other similar factors.2 Nonetheless, it remains that Japanese economic growth has been achieved <at the expense of the folk tradition>. A high degree of conformity and homogeneity in Japanese society and a banzai collectivity of corporate institutions have facilitated economic prosperity. But such social attributes are qualitatively different from the real folk tradition:3 the living dynamics of self-transforming (revolutionary) and self-preserving (reactionary) potential. Japanese conformity and homogeneity can be seen as the products of conscious and unconscious control of the economic and political system. As Gramsci put it, there is no "pure" spontaneity. Japanese economic success is not the outcome of an accidental convergence of the renovated economic system and a pre-existing spontaneous socio-cultural tradition. In fact, no country other than Japan has succeeded in developing so exhaustive a system of controls. Even the Third Reich failed in its naked attempt to control so totally. Of course, Japan has had a long history of political control over its culture and society since the fall of the Tokugawa in the late l9th century. Yet, socio-cultural diversity survived even the heavy centralism of the Tokugawa period. Afterward, the modern state established its homogenizing apparatus by revitalizing one of the oldest ruling traditions with the help of feudal anti-Tokugawa forces, especially Satsuma, Choshu and the Western, or more properly, the Prussian, principle of domination: the emperor system (<Tenno-sei>). Although the emperor (<tenno>) was historically a rallying point for the anti-establishment nationalist movement, he was not the total system of culture, society and political institutions until the Meiji restoration of 1868, when the 1889 Meiji Constitution was drafted on the model of the Prussian Constitution.

<Tenno-sei> was achieved through the reorganization of the artificial patriarchal familialism, the monopoly of Shintoism and destruction of religious folklore, military indoctrination, mass primary education, mass media, and the use of violence to coerce people into submission. As early as the turn of this century, every facet of life was systematized by <Tenno-sei> and Japan became a "Tate society," 4 with <Tenno-sei> constituting a special pattern of behavior, relations, feelings. This pattern has been so deeply imbedded in the people that it has almost become the Japanese national character. Today this structured unconsciousness is evident in national campaigns such as the "economic growth policy," the Olympic Games, the World Fair, the oil crisis in 1973, and energy conservation programs.

Yet, the "Japanese character" developed by the <Tenno-sei> was not originally widespread. For the subordinate classes, patriarchy was less common than matriarchy and the horizontal relations were more the case than vertical-hierarchical ones. In the <Tenno-sei> campaign, the emperor was depicted as the patriarch of his people, who had kept his place in the Samurai class family. A father in principle rather than in person, an unseen, anonymous, monadic authority -- the <Tenno> becomes akin to Husserl's transcendental subject.5

With the 1947 Constitution, the emperor was redefined as the symbol of the state. The monad of the emperor is not necessarily represented by the father of the family: any member of the family can be a micro-emperor! This may explain why one of the main themes of modern Japanese literature has been the escape from the family rather than patricide. Although orthodox analyses of Japanese literature saw the conflict of enlightened sons as a struggle against feudal residues, the novelists' artistic intuition unknowingly pointed out that the real problem was in the <Tenno> system itself and that assassination of the emperor would have been ineffective.6

After World War 1, Japanese capitalism began to develop the heavy chemical industry, urbanization, mass media, mass consumption, and a liberal outlook (<taisho> democracy). Since Japan had to rapidly catch up with the more advanced capitalist countries, its economic system was unable to develop evenly in accordance with a "healthy" model of mass consumption and mass democracy. <Tenno-sei> totalitarianism thus provided the alternative that could mobilize society for accelerated productivity. Consequently, a number of emerging liberal and leftist movements of <taisho> democracy were soon suppressed. The great earthquakes of 1923 gave the authority and the right wing an opportunity to normalize the situation. Thereafter, <Tenno-sei> was so rapidly and completely embodied in Japanese society that it came to be regarded as the real folk tradition. This intensive internalization resulted in various traumas in people: not only the notorious kamikaze spirit of the military, but also a self-humbling and shy personality.

To the extent that <Tenno-sei> was fabricated, the <Tenno-sei> period between the Meiji restoration and the collapse of the empire had both homogenizing and destructive effects on all real traditions. Although the consequence of this was the formation of a self-destructive war machine, such an extreme homogenization also facilitated the reconstruction of the Japanese capitalist system and the development of monopoly capitalism after the surrender. Since <Tenno-sei> was a total system of politics, legislation, society, family, custom and communication, the society that it had once permeated retained a homogeneous network through which cultural capital and information could circulate. In the post-World War II period, this very convenient circuit was fully utilized to produce an Americanized consumption-oriented society. This socio-cultural change has been so drastic that pre-war travelers would not be able to recognize Japan today.

Americanization began in Japan in the mid-1950s, when American advertising and marketing techniques were introduced by Dentsu Co. and a television broadcast company (NHK) began operating in 1953. Thirty years ago, no one would have imagined that Japanese society would be filled with more Americanized commodities than the United States itself. Why has everyday Japanese life been so rapidly Americanized7 The main reason is that the hidden network of <Tenno-sei> has survived its explicit collapse. Since the 1950s "the American way of life" has taken over the homogenizing functions of <Tenno-sei> and continued to shape subjectivity and institutions that were ready to be colonized. This Americanization of Japanese society does not necessarily entail a similarity between Japanese and American societies, but the realization of the American ideal whereby the logic of capital becomes predominant in everyday activities.

Today in Japan even the family has become a micro-corporation. Fathers have been known to sacrifice their families to their business and a recent trend is that mothers spend a great deal of time in the office or at night school and children do so with their classmates in private "after-schools" (<juku>) in extreme cases, in fact, children go to several "after-schools" during the day and have dinner with their families only on Sunday. In addition to this socialization of the family, television colonizes the unconscious of all family members. Economic prosperity has enabled every member of the middle class family to have his or her private room and personal television, and the living room is no longer a communal space. Married couples without children and unmarried singles are growing in numbers and are forming a new market for housing, leisure activities, daily necessities and cultural commodities. One of the most promising commodities is the narcissistic-hedonistic "individualism," embodied in the character of a recent bestseller, <Nantonaku Kurisutal> (Somehow Crystal) by Yasuo Tanaka. Popular magazines -- especially women's magazines -- strongly advocate "creative divorce" and the single life.

These trends are in opposition to the previous conventional trends that stressed communal relations, so that it may lead Japan beyond the notorious banzai collectivity and kamikaze paranoia that formed the basis not only of corporate activity but also of the leftist movement during the intensive economic growth period. Consequently, a new "individual" might emerge. However, the system has erased people's diversity (i.e., the folk tradition) to the extent that it may be irredeemable for the new individual. Recently, the marketing division of Dentsu, a company that is very influential in setting Japanese socio-cultural trends, published a source book, <Kurosu Inpakuto Jidai o Ikiru> (Living in the Cross-Impact Age) forecasting new trends in values, consciousness and needs. Apparently the aim of this book is to provide an instructive set of projections for the near future rather than a scientific analysis. The book suggests that "since Japan consists of a single race and language, few are interested in the subculture on which Japanese culture is based. However, to the extent that cultural diversity is growing, it will be necessary to reconstitute the subculture." It is ironic that several types of subculture that Dentsu studied and listed have nothing to do with historic Japanese folk traditions but are artificial formations brought in exclusively by television. Apart from the possibility that such an artificial subculture might form an organic negativityÑthe basis for a self-emancipating subjectivityÑit is obvious that the present system needs something to dismantle the increasingly homogenizing system.


1. For an approach of this type, see Tetsuo Najita, "Must We Copy japan" in <The New York Review of Books>, Feb. 21, 1980, pp. 33-35. 2. This is a function of the recent reputation of such books as Richard Tanner Pascal and Anthony G. Athor, <The Art of Japanese Management> and William G. Ouchi, <Theory Z>.

3. Although Kunion Yanagida, a founder of Japanese folklore studies, already researched and pointed out this divergence in the pre-war period, Shoji Saito, <Nzhonteki Shizenkan no Kenkyu> (<Studies on the Japanese Outlook on Nature> -- Tokyo, 1979), and Masao Takatori, <Shinto Izen> (Before Shinto -- Tokyo, 1979), provide the more critical and convincing approaches. 4. Chie Nakane provides this notion by means of expanding such an artificial "tradition" as if it belonged to a real unchallengeable tradition. Cf. her <Japanese Society> (1970).

5. Of course, this is a negative side of the transcendental subject that Husserl deals with in The Crisis ¡f the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology and The Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity. For a positive interpretation of this notion, see Paul Piccone, "Reading The Crisis" in <Telos> 8 (Summer 1971), pp. 121-129, and "Phenomenological Marxism," <Telos> 9 (Fall 1971), pp. 24ff.

6. In this sense, Naoya Shiga's <Wakai> (Reconciliation), published in 1917, which deals with a son's troubles and compromise with his father, is a function of this dilemma.


TELOS, no.49, Fall 1981, pp.138-140.


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