Book Review: The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence

by tigermanifesto

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“The tide of golf courses, ski resorts, and marinas that now rises over the land is striking for its irrelevance to the needs and problems of local communities, many of whom now see the whole process as a contemporary form of the enclosure movement, in which public land, forests, mountains, and beaches are enclosed by private interests for corporate profit. While corporate Japan thrives, they say, the people suffer. Hence the recently coined slogan: fukoku hinmin (Enrich the country, impoverish the people). It is a phrase that points to the poverty at the heart of affluence.”

McCormack’s book, the very volume we are looking at today, turns 20 years old this year. Despite being removed from us by two decades, Japan’s problems have only deepened and expanded. Economic stagnation, environmental disasters, a bloated construction industry, stagnant and alienated politics, and a troubled relationship to nearby nations in East and Southeast Asia are all relevant issues in Japan today. Specifics might differ, but one could easily draw depressing comparisons between the bureaucratic mishandling of the Kobe Earthquake addressed in McCormack’s book with the recent 3/11 disaster. Or the abortive social democratic governments of the 1990s and the recent and ephemeral DPJ ascendancy. What helps McCormack’s book remain relevant even today is that it is not merely alerting its audience about specific symptomatic problems but addresses some of the core structures of the Japanese state and society that condition these issues.

Specifically, McCormack formulates his analysis of Japanese malaise into an analysis of Japanese political economy, problems of Japanese identity, and war guilt. He covers the metastasizing construction state and its key role in the proliferation of massive corruption in the Japanese state throughout the last several decades. He diagnoses severe problems with GATT rationalization of Japanese agriculture and the opening of rice markets––one sign of a maturing neoliberal consensus even among Japanese elites who have coveted the rural vote since the end of WWII. And so on. The list of maladies would stagger a general practitioner.

His mode of presentation varies little between the chapters. First, he presents the case for a particular issue, lists off empirical evidence, and gathers some Japanese and Western analysis of the question. Finally, he laments the extent of the problem and notes some possible openings for alternative solutions. For the chemically addicted, degraded rural Japan, he recommends re-ruralization and a more traditional approach to agriculture that takes advantage of the islands’ natural productivity. Golf courses have to go, in other words. In the chapter that touches the most on my own work, the one about “New Asianism” in Japan and the country’s relations with its neighoburs, he argues that, given what he calls the end of 500 years of European global hegemony, Japan can strive for “a role as mediator, assisting the birth of a truly global civilization rather than participating in sterile…confrontations between civilizations.” In his more prescriptive moments, he often resorts to such vagaries, content to catalogue Japan’s ills while offering strong if nebulous remedies.

Of course, there’s no sense in trying to offer packaged solutions to such complex issues, especially given McCormack’s status as a non-Japanese person, one who is able to participate to some degree in discourse about the country in its native language but who is also embedded in the Western academy rather than ordinary life in Japan. Given its English-speaking audience, it’s likely that the book was largely read by those in a similar position. These are people who are neither exactly spectators nor instrumental in any project to produce alternative politics in Japan. Given that, I actually admire its willingness to merely outline and present existent, possible avenues of reform and change present within Japan. I also admire the book’s preference for an internal analysis of Japan’s problems rather than an external ones. It does not, in other words, simplistically replicate complaints about how Tokyo policy might be “directed from Washington,” and treats Japan both as an autonomous entity as well as a member of an international community with particular historical responsibilities. Best to simply state known truths rather than preach on what one does not know.

Though the nature of a single book is limiting and McCormack’s range of topics quite broad (necessitating a merely schematic analysis of each subject), I would recommend The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence as a survey look at Japan at a particular historical moment. It’s well-argued and bold where it needs to be and restrained elsewhere, shedding needless speculation or the use of rhetoric to mask ignorance. Though I would have appreciated fewer nostrums about peace, love, and democracy in the ending, I get the sense of McCormack as a person who truly feels a passionate interest and love of the Japanese people rather than just a cold observer. His arresting indictment of the Japanese state and the degradation of human life under capitalism ––and, indirectly the entire imperial order in which Japan is lodged––carries the book more than far enough.

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