"Look, Mom, No (Japan) hands!"
Dr. Hajime Fujiwara is a commentator on international politics who resides in
Palm Desert, California. Fluent in French and English, in addition to
Japanese, Dr. Fujiwara is the author of over 30 books and a frequent
contributor to magazines and newspapers, often covering the topic of
In the following article, Dr. Fujiwara examines the current status of the
United States' Japan experts. This is an important matter for an era in
which relations across the Pacific will play an increasingly important role
in the realms of politics, trade, and global stability.
It should be noted that all opinions expressed in the article are those of
the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Mid-America Guide.
The United States once boasted a gifted group of "China hands" - true
experts on China, fluent in Chinese, with many years" experience living
in that country as government officials, missionaries, scholars, or
businessmen. There used to be a number of savvy "Japan hands" as well,
seasoned observers of Japanese affairs with top-level personal ties with
Japanese officials, businessmen, scholars, journalists and interest group
Harvard-educated E.H. Norman was a vintage "Japan hand." Mr. Norman combined
his thorough knowledge of the Japanese language with extensive personal
links to top Japanese political leaders, scholars, businessmen, and
journalists to write many insightful studies on Japan. The generation of
Japanologists following Norman, many of whom learned first-hand of Japan
during the American Occupation period as military officials, contributed
ably to the field. Sociologist Herbert Passin and historian Robert Butow are
but two examples.
Succeeding generations of would-be "Japan hands" have been beneficiaries of
this legacy, in addition to being amply blessed with advantages their
predecessors lacked: five-digit foundation grants for language study in
Japan, invitations to prestigious academic conferences, computer-based
technology, and a mountain of information as tall as Mount Fuji. This
cornucopia of tools, one might think, would have catapulted present-day
Japanology to a new, loftier plateau.
Again this perspective, I looked forward with much anticipation to driving to
San Diego to attend a September seminar on US-Japan relations sponsored by
San Diego University and the University of New Mexico's fledgling "Japan
Center." The conference showcased a star-studded group of vaunted Japan
experts. While individuals' names are omitted here to avoid any impression
of ad hominem criticism, suffice it to say that the assemblage include
several of America's most famous Japan studies gurus and assorted other
second-tier Japan analysts of some note. Surely, I thought, these much-
quoted and much-published Japanologists would qualify as the "Japan hands" of
the 1990s. Just as surely, they would have some answers to- or a useful
intellectual framework for addressing- the vexing problems facing the two
"Where's the Beef?"
Alas, when I attended this conference, the reality of the state of
Japanology in the United States hit me on the head like the proverbial 2 X 4.
While the speakers' titles and institutional connections were impressive,
their conference papers and seminar presentations were not.
A close look at the experts' background papers raised gave questions about
their level of scholarship. Where was the field work, the primary
documentation, or the in-depth personal interview results one would expect
of first-rate analysis? Where was the hypothesis - evidence - conclusions,
approach allegedly at the heart of serious social science research in the
United States? Were these not the best and brightest? Did they not hail from
America's premier institutions of higher learning? Were not their books
published by leading University presses?
These Japan scholars' research seemed based on the notion that anything can
be proven if only enough beans are counted. However, when I visit a four-
star restaurant, I want to savor the cuisine, not have the chef recite the
names and amounts of each ingredient in every dish on the menu.
Following an old personal habit of jotting personal reactions in the
margins of the materials I read at the conference, I scrawled such comments
as: "Get a dictionary!"; "Where's the source?"; "superficial"; "childish
nonsense"; "Is this a joke?"; "Can't you do any better than this?" and so
on. Deciding to assign letter grades to the papers, I was unable to award
any better than a "C-minus" mark to any of them.
Ye Olde Language Barrier
At best, a few papers suggested their authors' ability to read Japanese
daily newspapers - hardly the touchstone of accuracy, objectivity, or
reliability - but little else.
Another warning light flashed at the conference reception, when I tried to
open conversations with participants in Japanese. My Japanese-language
conversational gambits met only blank expressions or tortured, primary-school
level responses. Could these "experts" - armed with rudimentary-level
Japanese language skills at best - actually carry out serious academic
The problem extended beyond verbal skills, or lack of the same. Over the
years, as a sort of "field research," I have checked Japanese language books
in several major university libraries to see which books and how often
certain books are checked out. I have found that a great many standard works
by Japanese scholars have just sat upon the shelves gathering dust - their
insights ignored by American Japanologists.
Admittedly, Japanese is a tough language to learn. But should not so-called
Japan experts be fluent in Japanese? Should not their work reflect a
familiarity with leading Japanese authors? To the extent that Japanese
writers are referred to at all, they are well-known sensationalist popular
authors like Ken'ichi Ohmae, Missing entirely are references to untranslated
Japanese scholarship by such figures renowned in Japan as Yonosuke Nagai and
What special contribution do these "experts" make without these basic,
essential linguistic skills? Many of their works, translated into Japanese
and published in Japan, have become best sellers. Without Japanese
translators to do the job, could these would-be Japan hands write anything
publishable in the Japanese language?
Japanologists or Dogmatists?
Most troubling was the atmosphere of the conference. Part of the price of
admission seemed to be acceptance of a pseudo-macho crusader's creed
including these key tenets; Japan is a "free rider" on defense; Japan's
markets are closed to foreign goods; Japan has a calculated global economic
strategy; and Japan poses a grave threat to American national interests.
Participants seemed buoyed by the idea they had unmasked Japan's nefarious
intentions and policies. This chest-thumping, self-righteous tone was
chillingly McCarthy-esque. One of the yuppie Japanologists' harsh
denunciations of Japan reminded me of one of Japan's own Turks of another
era - the demagogic firebrand of the militarists 1930s, Yosuke Matuoka. The
seminar itself seemed reminiscent of the Chinese Communist party cadres
reciting from Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" during the Cultural
This mindset was reflected in the conference papers. Always sensitive to
footnotes, I noticed how much American Japanologists (especially
revisionists) like to base their accounts on quotations from each other's
books and articles. After one Japan hand cites one of his colleagues, the
second Japanologist will return the favor by later quoting the first as his
own reference, and so on. If this conference is indicative of a trend, as
sadly it seems to be, Japanology generally and "revisionist" Japanology in
particular seem almost Marxist-Leninist and cult-like in character, with
closed-minded, stereotypical thinking the rule rather than the exception.
Dr. Norman's generation of Japan "hands" were inquisitive. The current breed
seems part of a mindless anti-Japanese inquisition.
A Few Recommendations
What lessons can be drawn from all of this? Japanese corporations,
foundations, and government agencies have funded many programs over the
years to aid American Japanology. While the sums expended have been huge, the
results have not. Therefore, the ball, this time, is really on the American
side of the court. What can be done? First, American universities ought to
undertake a serious review of their resident Japanologists' qualifications.
Second, publishing houses, especially university presses, should closely
scrutinize the "scholarship" underpinning works submitted by Japanologists.
Finally, and most important of al, the Japan hands themselves should take a
close-up look at themselves in the mirror and remember the old adage, "if
you point a finger of blame at someone else, three fingers point back at
you." If progress is made on these three fronts, perhaps American scholars
on Japan can contribute to the challenges facing the US and US-Japan
relations in the coming era.
Dr. Hajime Fujiwara