Best Books On Japan: A Second Opinion

I have had occasion to  second-guess a recent list of best books on Japan.

An old joke has it that a newspaper editor is a person who separates the wheat from the chaff, and then prints the chaff. On this basis the Tokyo-based Japanologist Jeff Kingston shows promise as an editor if he ever tires of academe. A list he recently posted of best books on Japan  contained some notable omissions — and commissions. It appeared in the house magazine of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. The magazine has now published a letter from me.  My letter, plus Kingston’s commendably collegial reply (he is evidently a scholar at heart!), can be accessed  here. For convenience sake I have also included the former, sans Kingston’s reply,  after the jump.

To the Editor of the Number 1 Shimbun

Dear Editor:

Jeff Kingston appears to have led a sheltered life. Not one of the seminal modern works on Japan appears on his list of top ten Heisei-era books (Number 1 Shimbun, August 2011). Where is James Fallows’s Looking at the Sun, Pat Choate’s Agents of Influence, Ivan Hall’s Cartels of the Mind, Iris Chang’s The Nanking Massacre,  Karel van Wolferen’s Enigma of Japanese Power…?  Meanwhile Jeff’s arbitrary Heisei stipulation automatically rules out Chalmers Johnson’s MITI and the Japanese Miracle, a book that still today is of far more relevance to Tokyo-based correspondents than most of those Jeff listed.

Perhaps most surprising is Jeff’s inclusion of Bill Emmott’s The Sun Also Sets: The Limits to Japan’s Economic Power. To his credit, Bill was among those of us who foresaw the financial crash. But the central point of his book was very different. The setting sun of the title was Japan’s trade surpluses, which as Bill pointed out were the key to its power and would, he imagined, disappear by 2000. Supposedly Japan was throwing its markets wide open to imports as it became “a nation of consumers.”

The book helped to parry American efforts to open the Japanese market.  This is how the New York Times reviewer in 1989  summed up its message: “The book’s central thesis is that change in Japan has taken on a momentum of its own. Reveling in their newfound affluence, the Japanese are beginning to act like the rest of us. They buy BMW’s, vacation in Hawaii, play the wild Japanese real estate and stock markets and prowl the department stores of New York and Los Angeles with credit cards. The new affluence, the author argues, will lead Japan to behave like other wealthy countries: to become more open to imports, to foreign influence, even to the sins of excessive consumerism.”

It is past time to revisit Bill’s suggestion that the current account was “moving more rapidly towards balance than anyone realizes.” Far from disappearing, Japan’s current account surplus has multiplied more than threefold since — from  $57 billion in 1989 to $194 billion in 2010. As for the United States, in  the same period its current account deficit ballooned more than five-fold — from $104 billion to $561 billion.

As for Bill’s suggestion that Japan was sincerely opening its markets, perhaps Jeff should check with Renault. More than a decade after Renault  took ostensible control of Japan’s second largest car distribution network (via its purchase of a major stake in Nissan), top Renault executives cannot get their own French-built cars into their own Japanese showrooms.

Eamonn Fingleton

Shiba 3-chome

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