What Makes a Nation: Japan

What Makes a Nation: The Case of Japan
by Steven Howell

September, 1991

Let us be honest: The Japanese have left us behind. Americans are bad losers and prefer not to admit it, but in nearly every way, Japan puts us to shame. Whether it is crime rates, literacy, GNP growth, investment rates, life expectancy, or even the yearly number of patents per capita, Japan is well ahead of us and of nearly everyone else.

Unlike the United States, which is worried about the future, always slipping behind and cutting back, Japan is optimistic. Only 45 years after B-29s nearly destroyed it, Japan is bursting with energy — investing, building, expanding, ready for the future. Before long, a few rocky islands in the Pacific could be the dominant economic and cultural force in the world. How have the Japanese done it?

People who visit Japan are tempted to think that the Japanese are just like us. They dress like Westerners, they build skyscrapers, they believe in efficiency, and listen to Beethoven. Many of them even speak English. Virtually every analysis of Japanese success therefore concentrates on such things as fiscal policy and management techniques. This is no more useful than explaining American ghetto poverty in terms of federal jobs programs.

Not Like Us

I have spent many years in Japan. The Japanese are not like us. In some ways, they are as we used to be, and in others they are unlike anything we have ever been. But the essential thing is that Japan is, and will always be, Japanese. It has an almost 19th century sense of nationhood, and a fierce resolve to maintain its national traditions, come what may. Unlike Americans or common-market Europeans, Japanese have a near-instinctual sense of who they are. This gives Japan the community and purpose that will carry it well into the next century.


Japanese have an almost touching, "Wogs-begin-at-Calais" conviction of their own uniqueness. No people in the world spends as much time meditating on, glorying in, or apologizing for its singularity. There is an entire publishing genre one might call "theory-of-the-Japanese," in which authors agonize happily over how inscrutable Japanese are to everyone else.

Naturally, a highly developed sense of uniqueness requires a sharp distinction between Japanese and others. Even in the 17th century, Japanese were so determined to keep their land untainted by foreigners that they closed themselves off to the world for two centuries. Their forced re-entry into international affairs in 1853 did not essentially change their sense of separateness. The rule is simple: The only way to become Japanese is to be born that way.

The best illustration of this is the way Japan treats resident Koreans. Many Koreans migrated to Japan between 1910 and 1945, when Korea was part of the empire. There are now thousands of third-generation Koreans, who look, act, and sound just like Japanese. They have permanent legal residency but they are not citizens. They cannot vote or hold government jobs, and most Japanese would rather not marry or employ them. Lately, there has been some liberal clucking in the press about this, but the general feeling is that if Koreans don't like it, they can always go back to Korea, which is where they belong.

The word "nation" comes from the Latin natio, meaning "race" or "breed," and from nasci, meaning "to be born." Japanese feel this vividly. No matter how "Japanese" a third-generation Korean may seem, his cultural pedigree is alien. I have asked Japanese how many generations it would take before Koreans would really be Japanese. They look at me as if I were stupid, and say, "They'd always be Korean."

Japanese are just as suspicious of their countrymen who have emigrated. Someone who has left Japan to live in Brazil or the United States has forever renounced his status as a Japanese. Should he or his descendants ever want to come back to Japan, they would be just as unwelcome as Koreans. Japanese who emigrate know this, and they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the culture of their new homeland.

Japanese and Race

Since Japanese feel so distant from people who are racially and culturally indistinguishable from themselves, it is not hard to imagine how they feel about people who are obviously different. In 1986, the then-Prime Minister of Japan, Yasuhiro Nakasone, casually mentioned to a group of journalists that large numbers of blacks and Hispanics were a drag on the American economy and made the country less competitive. Although the remark provoked outrage in America, in Japan, it was accepted as obviously true.

In 1990, when a cabinet minister congratulated the police on clearing the sex trade out of a residential neighborhood, he likened the arrival of prostitutes to the appearance of blacks in an all-white neighborhood. They lower the tone, he said, and the solid citizens clear out. American commentators choked with anger. Of course, whites have fled a thousand American communities that were turning black, but Japanese cabinet ministers are presumably not supposed to have noticed.

A distaste for blacks is nothing new. One of the consequences of the post-war occupation of Japan was a crop of mixed-race children, left behind when the Americans went home. The half-white children were grudgingly tolerated. The ones who were half-black were bundled off to Brazil, along with their mothers.

Linguistically, culturally, and racially, Japan is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. This means that it never even thinks about dozens of problems that are worrying America nearly to death. Since Japan has only one race, no one ever uses the word "racism." There was no "civil rights movement," no integration struggle, and no court-ordered busing. There is no bilingual education, and no affirmative action.

There is no tyranny of "political correctness." No one is clamoring for a "multi-cultural curriculum," and no one wants to rewrite history. When a company needs to hire someone, it doesn't give a thought to "ethnic balance;" it just hires the best person for the job. No one has ever been sent to a reeducation seminar because of "insensitivity."

Japan has no Civil Rights Commission and no Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It has no Equal Housing Act or Equal Voting Rights Act. No one worries about drawing up voting districts to make sure that minorities get elected. Japan has no noisy ethnic groups trying to influence foreign policy. Japanese haven't the slightest idea what a "hate crime" could be. There is no end to the things Japanese don't have to worry about.

And put that way, one wonders what half the people in America would do for a living or what journalists would think to write about, if it weren't for the looming presence of race. The time, money, effort, and agony that Americans lavish on race doesn't tighten a single bolt or bake a single bun, and Japanese can put the effort to productive use.

"Progressive" Americans believe that a great deal of racial scurrying around is somehow good for us, and they work themselves into self-righteous frenzies over the Japanese compulsion to draw boundaries between themselves and others. Of course, an insistence on boundaries is one of Japan's greatest and most obvious strengths. Though Americans have been trained to pretend otherwise, it is a natural part of any healthy society. Nothing in Japan would be the same if Japanese did not draw such a firm line at the water's edge.

One of the greatest differences between Japan and the United States is that at some basic level, Japanese are like the three musketeers: all for one, and one for all. Whatever it is that Japanese are up to, they are in it together.

This sense of shared purpose appears in a thousand pleasant ways. One is the virtual absence of crime. Anyone can walk anywhere in Japan at any time. If a shopkeeper has excess inventory, he puts it out on the sidewalk. No store in the whole country bothers with elaborate security systems that sound an alarm if someone makes off with the goods.

The cost of crime, jails, and law enforcement is a heavy burden not only on the American economy but on the American soul. In a country where people feel a duty to their tribe, the costs are far lighter.

Another result of homogeneity and national solidarity is the relative absence of social conflict. Since all Japanese come from the same stock, receive much the same education, and absorb the same traditions, they have the same expectations of each other. There are far fewer doubts than in America about what is proper and what is not.

One consequence is that most Japanese go to their graves without ever meeting a lawyer. In per capita terms, there are only one 20th as many lawyers in Japan as in the United States, and Japanese do not spend their time suing each other. When businessmen need a contract, they sit down and write it. They don't need lawyers to help them. If there is a disagreement later on they work it out. People who never have to "celebrate diversity" actually have a good chance of understanding each other.

Another sign of how much Japanese have in common is the willingness of most adults to act in loco parentis when they see a misbehaving child. Only in a community of common values, where there is no doubt about right or wrong, do people bother to rebuke a stranger's child. Japanese would want their own children scolded by strangers if they needed it; everyone benefits from well-mannered youngsters.

Many things would be impossible in Japan without a sense of common purpose. Lately, the country has been spending huge sums on enormous infrastructure projects. The four main islands of Japan have been linked with bridges and tunnels longer than anything else in the world. Networks of super express train tracks are constantly being laid, and skyscrapers are going up everywhere. With a land mass one 25th that of the United States and a population density 12 times greater, where does Japan find room for all this?

It makes room. When people have a larger view of the interests of society, they are willing to move out of the way of a super highway. Americans used to build bridges and dig canals. Now, any large-scale building project is likely to be paralyzed by noisy interest groups. About the only place left where American engineers can really flex their muscles is outer space, and budget cuts may soon put an end to that.

One of the best examples of how Japanese can all put their shoulders to the wheel and push together was the national campaign against pollution. In the 1960s, there was a real fear that the country would smother in its own industrial waste. Japan woke up to the problem, spat on its hands, and cleaned up the mess. It was a fine example of what a people can accomplish when it acts together.

Japanese understand perfectly that national solidarity grows out of what Japanese have in common with each other. They prize their homogeneity, and don't want it diluted. Japan therefore takes no immigrants. Virtually the only way to become a Japanese citizen is to marry a Japanese, and even then citizenship is not automatic. The authorities look very carefully into the alien's background and character, and give him every opportunity to change his mind. The process takes years, and is not complete until the alien is, in effect, adopted by a Japanese family and takes a Japanese name. Usually it is the in-laws who do this, but there is little recourse if they won't.

Occasionally, Japan is pressured into taking in foreigners. Back in the 1970s, the United States practically forced it to accept a handful of Vietnamese boat people. It didn't take the Vietnamese long to realize that they weren't wanted, and most of them eventually moved on to America. The Japanese were quietly delighted.

In public, and in any international forum, Japanese mouth the expected clichés about one-worldism and borderless bliss, but they don't believe them. They know that their smooth-running society requires a degree of national solidarity that can come only from racial and cultural homogeneity.

High-class Bums

Japanese solidarity might have led to a Scandinavia-style nanny state, with government cosseting at every turn. It did not. The Japanese family, which has always demanded loyalty and promised protection in return, has looked after the losers. This means that Japanese cities have nothing like the hordes of welfare-bred derelicts that are rapidly filling up every public space in America.

Japan has miles of underground arcades and covered shopping streets. In New York or Chicago, they would be rank with scruffy urban campers, and customers wouldn't dare come around after sundown. In Osaka or Tokyo, one can go for days without seeing a single "homeless" person, and even Japanese bums are a cut above the rest. After all, it is a nation of 100 percent literacy, and I have seen vagrants curled up in a corner, reading a scavenged copy of the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal.

In the public places of American cities, half the people on the street may be bums and half the rest are dressed like bums. In Japan, virtually no one is poorly dressed, and if there is someone in a summer crowd wearing shorts and a T-shirt, it is probably an American tourist. Japan now has a sleek air of prosperity about it that makes even the swankiest American city seem ragged by comparison.

Keeping Japan Japanese

At a time when fashions slop from one country to the next as if there were no borders, it is a wonder that Japan has managed to stay so resolutely Japanese. It is a great help to be surrounded by water; anything that gets into Japan has to cross the ocean. Even with this advantage, Japan has been remarkably successful at quietly violating many of the rules that Americans have set up as moral imperatives for the planet. (Of course, there are countries no one cares about. Mauritania can even practice slavery since no one can find it on the map, but we have all heard of Japan.)

Along with its unself-conscious racialism, it is Japan's insistence on separate sex roles that most provokes excitable Westerners. Men and women operate in different spheres and almost no one makes a fuss about it. Many companies have separate job tracks for men and women. Women are likely to quit working as soon as they marry anyway, so why train them for management?

At the same time, being a Japanese housewife is no idle lark. Most husbands hand over the entire pay packet to their wives, and live on an allowance. Women decide where the children will go to school, where to go on vacation, and whether to buy a house. Most important, they see to it that Japanese children keep doing enough homework to score at the top of every international competition. Japanese mothers are so single-minded about schooling that they are known as "education moms."

All this housewifery is a deep insult to American feminists. They regularly march over to Japan, guns blazing, and explain to their Japanese sisters how oppressed they are. The Japanese listen politely and go on being oppressed. They don't seem to mind living in a society with no latch-key children, very little juvenile delinquency, no illegitimacy, and a divorce rate less than half that of the United States.

Japanese also take a traditional view of homosexuality: they don't like it. There is no trace of a "gay rights" movement, and plenty of Japanese sincerely believe there are no homosexuals in Japan. One thing of which there is very little is AIDS. At last count there were about 400 cases of AIDS in the whole country; the United States, with twice the population, has about 125,000 cases and over one million people are thought to be infected. In Japan, infected foreigners are promptly kicked out of the country, and Japanese are kept under close watch to see they don't give the disease to anyone else.


Yet another Japanese trait that is unfashionable but obviously good for the country is a firm belief in hierarchy. Although Japan is extremely homogeneous, there is little loose chatter about equality. Japanese accept that some people will end up at the top and others at the bottom, and they are generally cheerful about it. The old get the respect of the young, teachers get the respect of students, the boss gets the respect of his employees, and customers get the respect of everyone.

A visitor to Japan gets a whiff of this when be becomes a customer in a hotel or restaurant. Japan has a tradition of service that has none of the surly air of "I'm just as good as you, Buster," that is so common in the United States. A waiter or bell hop's job is to serve you, and he puts everything he has into his job. No one thinks it the least bit demeaning to treat customers as if they were princes. It is Japan's way of doing a good job.

This yeoman love of a job well done is everywhere. In factories, on farms, and even in government offices, Japanese do their work with touching earnestness. Even the garbage man puts his heart into his job just as the company president does. And since Japan is a meritocracy, with none of the complications of a racial spoils system, the garbage man can dream that his son will grow up to become the company president.


Of course, it would be a mistake to think that homogeneity cures all woes or that Japan has no problems. Many countries, including our own, have problems that homogeneity cannot cure, and Japan has its own special troubles. My point is not that Japan has built a society that Americans or anyone else would necessarily find congenial. It is that they have built a society that Japanese find congenial.

There is much about it that only a Japanese could love. Japanese men have a nudge-and-wink attitude about sex that most Americans leave behind in junior high school. When they are drunk — and even when they are not — they can be some of the most childish, self-indulgent people on earth. Difficult as it may be to imagine, Japanese television is even more vulgar and inane than American television. A roomful of tittering women and leering men passes for a talk show, and on an especially unlucky evening one might find oneself watching a group of men trying to see who can break wind the loudest.

Only now are Japanese getting over their post-war sense of inferiority towards Caucasians. There is still a ritualized and increasingly empty admiration for the "American way of life," and older Japanese still believe that America is a mighty nation that can do anything it sets its mind to. Younger Japanese suspect it no longer has much of a mind. Still, one undiminished object of admiration is the Caucasian esthetic. White models help sell everything from diamond rings to instant noodles. Plastic surgeons take the slant out of eyes and enlarge noses, and never the other way round. Some of those half-white children that America left behind have traded on their looks and become models and actors.

One of Japan's most serious problems is one that a healthy society should not have: It has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Each Japanese woman has an average of only 1.53 children, well below the replacement level of 2.1. At a rate of 1.5, each generation is 25 percent smaller than the one before, and morbid statisticians have been trying to figure out how many generations it will take before there are no Japanese left.

It is important to note that neither this low birth rate nor an acute labor shortage have gotten anyone but socialists talking about immigration. There is some discussion of the possibility of bringing in carefully supervised work gangs from South East Asia, but most Japanese are against the idea. Instead, there is talk of raising the retirement age from 65 to 75.

The Price of Nationhood

From a conventional American perspective, this is foolishness. Without immigration, Japanese labor costs will be higher, and some things will be more expensive. That, however, is the point. Nationhood has a price. What sets the Japanese apart from Americans is their willingness to pay it.

No doubt there are many talented Japanese women who are frustrated to stay home with children rather than run companies — but each new generation of Japanese is more carefully reared than perhaps any other in the world. No doubt Koreans are unhappy to be disfranchised — but Japan does not have a foreign policy that is paralyzed by different internal ethnic groups. No doubt it is a misfortune to lose one's house to a bridge pylon — but the whole nation may benefit from the bridge. No doubt there are Malays digging ditches in Sumatra for 25 cents a day, who could afford indoor plumbing and a motorscooter if they dug ditches in Japan — but long-term national cohesion requires that Japan's ditches be dug by Japanese.

To be sure, there is frustration in Japan. Cohesion has its costs, and some Japanese will always be out of step. Nevertheless, this is a small price to pay for the blessings that today's Japanese can expect to pass on to their grandchildren: unity, cultural integrity, family ties, love of country, and a uniquely Japanese national character. Japan is certainly "racist," "sexist," "homophobic" and "nativist" — and perhaps the most successful society on earth.