Japan is more and more looking like a Western democracy. The Japanese have stubbornly stuck to their American-dictated constitution which prohibits the establishment of armed forces. An affirmative foreign policy presupposes that Japan can get rid of its wartime stigma in the eyes of its neighbors. The participation of Japan is required to maintain the democratic momentum in the region in cooperation with other stable democracies.

An isolated nation

Japan and China as well as India have clung to their ancient core values, despite serious reverses and periodically debilitating stagnation. Japan’s stability is the most easily explained. The realm has been protected by geography; the country was never invaded before the defeat in the Second World War. In 1274 and 1281, the invasion fleets of Kublai Khan, the Mongolian emperor of China, were routed by a determined effort but even more by sheer luck. The population is ethnically and linguistically homogeneous, excepting a small remnant in the north of Ainu people, the original inhabitants.

The Tokugawa Shoguns (1603–1867) demonstrated how to isolate an entire culture from alien influence. In 1614 Shogun Iyeyasu officially condemned Christianity, which had been introduced by Portuguese Jesuits and counted 300,000 Japanese converts. Under his successors Iyemitsu and Bakufu the terror was intensified, and thousands of faithful proselytes suffered systematic torture and a futile martyr’s death. In 1638 all contact with the outside world was finally and categorically broken off. Japanese returning from abroad were to be promptly executed – a law that applied even to storm-driven sailors. The only exceptions were two strictly guarded trading posts in Nagasaki, one for Chinese and one for Dutch merchants.

Japanese values are an eclectic mix of Confucian and Buddhist imports from China, spiced with group loyalty and samurai morale of domestic provenance. Japan has endured its allotted share of civil war, but the country has enjoyed internal peace since the middle of the 17th century. Japanese organizations are committed to consensus and the team spirit is very strong, which makes the competition between corporations all the more vicious. Still, a strong national solidarity guarantees social stability.

In Bonds of Civility Eiko Ikegami uncovers the historical roots of Japanese culture. During the Tokugawa Shogunate Japan was unified but the rigid regime did not permit any political activity. The energies of the upper classes and eventually the middle class, too, were focused on etiquette and aesthetic refinement. A universal everyday culture became the unifying link between people from different parts of the country. In Japan, social capital acquired a national dimension; society was connected by a collective sense of good manners. The daily observances – mutual respect and politeness, personal cleanliness and neatness, the emphasis on quality and frugality – are manifestations of a concordant aesthetic sensibility.

Social bonding

Amae, a feeling of mutual dependence and obligation, is the cornerstone of human relations in Japan: individual arrogance must be suppressed at all cost. Intensive communication is accordingly the keynote of Japanese management at all levels. Even if decisions are actually made at the top, custom requires that they must be acceptable to everybody concerned. Traditional honorifics serves as a counterweight and thwarts any abuse of the system. Additional support is found in the Samurai tradition, another mainstay of Japanese society. The reciprocal loyalty of master and servant is embodied in the consensus-craving working team.

The Japanese work ethic has its roots in the village, which carried the joint responsibility for cultivating and mending the communal rice paddies. The Japanese employee is a born team-player, bent on beating the competition by perfecting products and working methods. The value system is pervaded by a Confucian sense of duty against a background of tolerant Shintoism and introspective Zen-Buddhism.

Over centuries of enforced frugality, the Japanese have acquired an almost religious abhorrence of waste or extravagance. Mottainai is the derogatory expression for such abuse which is regarded as close to blasphemy. Akio Morita, the founder and chairman of Sony, tells how he had to rescue a Japanese friend from a small hotel room in New York, where his dread of mottainai led him to pile up old copies of the New York Times until he was practically crowded out.

In East-Asia, business relationships are directed by an unwritten code of honor which is often more binding than a detailed contract. To approach a court is almost scandalous because the defeated party would inevitable lose face. Although the figures are not strictly comparable, the United States has twenty-five times more lawyers per capita than Japan; the output of law-schools is now increasing all over East Asia.

Historically, Japan never had recourse to impartial courts, which has created a business culture built on personal relations. A young Japanese engineer once appeared out of the blue in our head office. He was well received and guided around our modern sugar refinery. The contact was maintained and he became our adviser and representative in Japan. We never wrote a contract but became business partners and friends for life.

Enforced democratization

After the second World War Japan started from scratch – burnt-out cities, foreign occupation, near starvation, no raw materials – and finished bankrolling the rest of the world. The disgrace of the lost war made the Japanese receptive to radical change and was a spur to the most successful learning process of economic history.

An extensive land reform was executed by General Douglas MacArthur (1880−1964) without much ado. Legislation, including the major rules of the market economy, was taken over wholesale from the United States but applied with a Japanese twist. The mighty conglomerates (zaibatsus) were broken up while industrial democratization was pursued with gusto.

In the major corporations the principle of lifelong employment was extended from top management to all employees. In the factories, all visible signs of the class society, like separate entrances and cafeterias, were abolished and university graduates had to start their careers on the shop floor. This drive for equality has greatly contributed to the spectacular rise in productivity. President Goto of Daihatsu personally cleaned the toilets every morning at 6 am. This gives him a reliable feedback on the morale of the workforce, said he.

The young generation is not so stringently programmed. Lifelong employment is, for instance, not a matter of course any more, and women are increasingly active in the labor market. The Japanese are masters at adaptation and learning. The Meiji-revolution of 1868 and the forced democratization after 1945 were traumatic processes which, despite the radical changes, could be handled without renouncing basic traditional values.

Elements of economic success

Once producers of shoddy consumer goods, the Japanese obsession with cleanliness and due process now supports a quest for quality. Any complaint, neglect, breakdown or imperfection in general will fatally disturb the heavenly harmony and fill every employee with shame. This rampant perfectionism may obstruct creativity, which in its early stages always goes against the tide and strikes a startling discord. Thus far Japanese industry has not been a source of great innovation; its strength has been the skilled application of available knowledge amounting to superb execution.

By an ironic quirk of fate, the main guru of Japanese quality control was the American professor W. Edwards Deming, who introduced the key concepts in the 1950s. The practical success, however, builds on conscientious self-inspection; the shop floor worker is the unsung hero of Japanese productivity. Anyhow, the Deming prize is the highest award for quality in Japanese industry.

Trade unions are generally organized on a company-by-company basis, and many corporate executives have emerged from their ranks. The end result is a system of close and frequent consultations between industry, labor, research institutes, the administration and politicians, which provides all parties with the maximum amount of information. Unofficially, companies often co-ordinate their plans and sometimes the whole process has an air of official approval about it.

None of this in any way reduces the pressure of competition, either at the corporate or the individual level, but the zero-sum element in the market game is substantially reduced. Japanese companies are surprisingly open. As a rule, large corporations publicize their long-term plans, and market share data are freely available. MITI (Ministry for Trade and Industry) makes in-depth studies of the various industries, and then presents its recommendations. Several industrial crises were successfully managed by way of such “administrative guidance”, but official growth strategies have often misfired or been politely ignored.

The typical Japanese employee is a workaholic with few interests outside his workplace; workers and staff are all committed to the company, body and soul. Even so, the women are, in general, confined to the home or have menial jobs. But the high savings ratio is sustained by thrifty housewives who are habitually in control of family finances.

The Japanese have been forced to amalgamate Western values with domestic tradition and the concomitant stress is taking its toll. The inherent ambivalence has been reflected in murky politics but now the youth are increasingly reacting against the ingrained corruption. They feel constrained by the social straitjacket and opt in growing numbers for a freewheeling life style. How this will affect the fabric of society remains a very open question.


After the Second World War, Japan has concentrated on economic growth but today the economic outlook is bleak. A rapidly aging population well constitute a heavy burden on the shrinking work force. During Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership, the rigid structures of Japanese politics and economy were gradually adjusted and the positive effects of the liberalization have become apparent. Even so, long term economic growth will remain elusive.

The Japanese have kept a very low profile in foreign affairs and stubbornly stuck to their American-dictated constitution which prohibits the establishment of armed forces. Lately the interpretation of the law has been relaxed and an explicit change is in sight. Japan may eventually, like Germany, enter the international arena as a normal nation. But an affirmative foreign policy presupposes that Japan can get rid of its wartime stigma in the eyes of its neighbors.

Japan is more and more looking like a Western democracy. The participation of Japan is required to maintain the democratic momentum in the region in cooperation with other stable democracies. Russia, too, has a presence in the Far East but it will probably assume a defensive posture; a definitive peace treaty with Japan is still outstanding.