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The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation Paperback – 27 Sep 1990

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Product details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Papermac; New edition edition (27 Sept. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0333529472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0333529478
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 13.7 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 564,733 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Japan perplexes the world. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By rob crawford TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 23 May 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book and powerful argument that, at its center, no one in Japan is really in control and no one can be. Taking a long view of history, van Wolferen does a better job at demolishing Japanese myths and pretenses than most other writers. I read this book when I had just arrived in Japan in 1990 - when Japan was in the ascendant with an asset bubble that was far greater than the US one that just burst - and was enthralled and repelled from page one to the very end. Once I understood what he was saying, I saw how much it explained that hitherto I had found completely unfathomable.

Unfortunately, read at one go, it sounds excessively negative and pessimistic: the Japanese appear feckless and weak, unable to rise above a history of division and obfuscation, etc. Even worse, as subsequent events have borne out, it appears truer than ever. Van Wolferen weathered extremely bitter attacks and smears because of this book. All I can say is, for many who have never lived in Japan, the bitterness of foreign residents towards that myserious country is a puzzle to them: they wonder if it can really be "that bad," if the attacks and vitriol are "racist" and the like. To his credit, though he finds little to admire, van Wolferen never lets the tone of this book descend to the level of polemic.

While dated now - van Wolferen fretted that the Japanese juggernaut would take over the entire world economy - it is still a great read. Get it, if you are interested in Japan. You must know the argument, even if you stridently disagree.
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Format: Paperback
I read this book while living in Japan in the 1990s and it explained so much about how the country worked. Yes, it is highly critical, but much of these are very deserved and have been borne out by subsequent events. The aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident were described in the official report as a result of Japanese culture:

"Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the programme'; our groupism; and our insularity. What must be admitted - very painfully - is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'."

If you want to understand how Japan became like this, read this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
41 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Amazingly Keen Perspectives to Our Culture. 11 May 1998
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
It is amazing that somebody who were not raised in our culture could see in such a considerable depth how Japanese culture and its system are operating. Mr. van Wolferen does have such a gift to have done this. A lot of people in my country see him as being highly critical of our culture, however, being as a Japanese myself, I believe that we could learn from him how we are, when measured by different value system. More importantly, we at least should know how much our innocently, or almost unconsciously, making divisions between "US" and "GAIJIN" could cause funny feelings outside of Japan. Cultures have an effect of brainwashing. When you are completely sunk in there since you were born, you tend not to see how much of your personality and behavior have been shaped by your culture. It is only when you encounter other cultures to compare that you could see this and doubt a little about your assumptions, bliefs, and judgements. I do agree with Mr. Wolferen that our country have the heritage from our previous period in large part; Feudalism. It is in every aspects of our society, much more than we think. I am not opposed to our current system though, I do appreciate my country for providing me with a safe place to grow up, and for giving me an equal opportunity to be educated enough to think and write like I am doing right now. However, what makes me sad is that today our country seems to be lost, not knowing where we should go. I believe what makes our society confusing in these days is the fact that the majority of Japanese, especially older people, are not aware of how much our thinking and conducts are influenced by feudalistic traditions, and are requiring our country to be democratic at the same time. Our goals and our conducts do not mix well. Mr. Wolferen's book is insightful for us to realize this conflicts, and I hope we have a courage to evaluate what he is saying, before labeling him as "GAIJIN" and assuming "GAIJIN can not unders! tand our way of doing the things," which is not true. Maturity comes from the strength to take critics and to accept diversities in opinions.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
All Encompassing, But Not Flawless 23 Jun. 2000
By o0mingmak - Published on
Format: Paperback
I have lived in Japan for 10 years, and yes, much of the book is quite accurate in its explanation of "the system" in Japan (it is likely the best attempt so far). Yes, this book is a must read for anyone who wishes to gain further insight into how Japan really works.
But as with any text that attempts to be all encompassing in scope, it does have its flaws. My biggest problem with the book is how Van Wolferen sometimes uses isolated, rare or extreme incidents to explain his theories. Sure, most of the events listed are well documented (his footnotes alone take up about 57 pages!), but do they represent a complete scenario? A person reading this book with little direct knowledge of Japan beforehand may come away believing a more extreme scenario.
I will give you one example: the documentation showing how Dentsu (Japan's largest advertising agency) is an all powerful entity which determines the quality of Japan's daily entertainment, and intimidates large firms and the media by producing corporate scandals and hushing them up again. He provides us with a couple of fascinating examples of how Dentsu was able to apply pressure for the media not to report damaging information about their clients, but is it really safe to assume that this takes place on a daily or even yearly basis? Looking closely at Van Wolferen's sources, the most recent event or incident that he lists with regard to Dentsu is from 1971! If we are to believe that this is an ongoing practice, I would like to see more recent and consistent documentation.
I am not saying that there is no corruption going on at Dentsu, or that they do not wield enormous power, but he leverages old isolated incidents to prove his point and make things sound as though they are more severe than they really are. I can go on with other examples, but I just wanted to let everyone know that as with anything, please read this excellent book with a grain of salt.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
No better available explanation of Japan. 26 Oct. 2000
By Daniel E. Albert - Published on
Format: Paperback
Enigma deserves all the praise you may read in this forum. Karl van Wolferen brings his extensive experience and keen insight to blow way the perfumed-scented, silk-screen interpretations offered up by the Reischauers, the Jansens and the Vogels. I have lived in Japan for seven years, have studied her language, her people, her history and culture and truly no explanation of Japan even approaches this work.
It is interesting that while Japanese propagandists and apologists have always attacked revisionist works on Japan (and their authors), they have largely ignored Enigma. Witness the controversy surrounding Changfs Rape of Nanking and, earlier, the total ruination visited upon Berkowitz. I suppose they have no effective counters to the arguments put forth by van Wolferen and hope that the book will just go way.
For anyone who is interested in learning about how Japan really works this book is an excellent place to start. For those who dont know the people of Japan, it could lend itself to a misinterpretation: most Japanese that I know are acutely aware of the failings in their society and are none too happy with them. However, they see little opportunity for change. As Patrick Smith has observed, theirs is a life of desire with out hope. It is the system that is the problem.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
I have lived in Japan for 6 years. This book is accurate. 29 July 1999
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
I have given this book five stars because I can not give it six. Karel Van Wolferen's "The Enigma of Japanese Power" is a brilliant, if often infuriating and depressing, analysis of the way power is wielded in Japanese society. Having lived in Japan for six years now and having heard every conceivable interpretation of this culture by both westerners and Japanese, I have found nothing that even remotely approximates the accuracy of Van Wolferen's insights. I have seen the "the System" he describes at work, as it crushes the spirits of the good men and women of this country, demoralizing them until they meekly accept their "proper place." Van Wolferen's cool, clinical dissection of the central myths of Japanese society was so uncomfortably close to the mark that "the System" could not afford to let it go unchallenged. In fact, shortly after its publication a Japanese diplomat approached Clyde Prestowitz, an American expert on Japan, and through the use of an oblique threat, tried to enlist him in an effort to discredit Van Wolferen. For anyone who is interested in learning about how Japan really works this book is an excellent place to start.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Japanese Power - Political Observations 12 Nov. 2004
By A. Bond - Published on
Format: Paperback
Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power presents to us a picture of the Japanese government as a corrupt and manipulative "System" in which individuals have few rights and are often ignored. What distinguishes this book from others in the area is the explanation given for how this came to be. Whereas Ruth Benedict and Chie Nakane use cultural and structural approaches to Japanese society, respectively, Van Wolferen views it from a political perspective. This allows The Enigma and Japanese Power to remain relevant even after the "bubble burst" of the Japanese economy.

One of Van Wolferen's central topics in this book is that not everything is as it appears in Japan - certainly not a new idea to the field. However, the political viewpoint he takes is refreshing. For example, he claims that there are two "Confusing Factors" (5) about Japan that cause problems when dealing with other countries. The first fiction is that Japan has a responsible central government. Note the word "responsible," since Japan clearly has a central government. Instead of a transparent government in which people are responsible for their decisions, Van Wolferen tells us that there is no one individual or group that has complete control over the country. Rather, power is divided among many ministries, politicians, and bureaucrats. At the start of the second chapter he tells us that, of course Japan has laws and regulations, several political parties, and unions workers can join. However, he then also explains that just because these institutions exist with our Western names attached to them does not mean they function in the same manner.

For example, Van Wolferen describes politics in Japan as a "rigged one party system" (28), even though there are quite a few opposition parties. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which is neither liberal nor democratic, is primarily "a vote-getting machine" (30) and a policy-oriented organization dead last. Through gerrymandering the voting districts to favor rural areas - where the LDP has always had strong support -, buying votes, and pork-barrel politics (making promises to help a city by funneling money to it if a certain politician is elected for the area) the LDP has managed to virtually monopolize seats in the Diet. Due to this tremendous amount of power, policy debates and outcries against LDP corruption "are performances that are democratically reassuring but with not the slightest influence on developments in the countries affairs" (30). Due to this overwhelming power, the people are virtually at the LDP's mercy.

The other fiction about Japan that Van Wolferen thinks causes problems is that Japan has a free-market economy. He quotes Chalmers Johnson in describing Japan and other Asian countries as "capitalist developmental states" (6). In this system the economy of a country depends on a good relationship between industry and bureaucrats. In other words, the industry "advises" the bureaucracy about what they should do and the bureaucrats make policies that reflect those "suggestions." For example, Van Wolferen points out the banning of oral contraceptives in order to "[prevent] any decline in the lucrative abortion industry" (53) as an example of this. The incentives for bureaucrats are top positions in big business after retirement (known in Japan as amakudari - descent from heaven).

Van Wolferen argues that the ability to say or present one thing and take a completely different course of action - and that no one seems to care - is due to a lack of any universal truths or beliefs held by the Japanese. He says that because the political elites were able to pick and choose what aspects of Buddhism and Confucianism were adopted by society, they were able to weed out anything that detracted from their power. In this way, religion came to be a tool the government used to project an image that those in power were beyond the law, yet were still benevolent rulers. However, in Western thought, the government is seen as a protector of the people, answerable to the same laws as the commoners. In other words, Van Wolferen states that the lack of "truths, rules principals or morals that always apply, no matter what the circumstances" (9) enables the Japanese to accept seemingly hypocritical viewpoints and stances without flinching.

I enjoyed reading The Enigma of Japanese Power. It is popular Nihonjinron at its peak - easily accessible, entertaining, and does not stray too far from the generally held views of Japan. Some would argue that this third fact detracts from the book, but I do not agree. By looking at Japan through a political viewpoint, rather than a cultural one like countless others, Van Wolferen is able to garner more validity. Reducing everything done differently in Japan to culture or tradition gets us nowhere. Instead, by looking at the situation differently we can see that there are specific reasons why the Japanese are they way they are. It is important to realize, however, that this political view has its limitations as well, which I believe Van Wolferen makes clear that he knows.
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