Away on the western brink of the Pacific Rim lies a land so mysterious to most Americans that it might as well be mythical. There, according to popular understanding, thrives a breed of 122 million fantastically rich people who through black magic have siphoned off the wealth of the Western world. They need no sleep. They work 24-hour days the week long. They have mastered technologies we may never see. They replace their stereo systems and televisions once a year. They are the shortest and most dangerous people on earth.

The trouble with mysterious places is, of course, that most mysteries dissolve when someone bothers to look at them up close. In the case of Japan, closer looks are exactly what is most needed. The literature, from Ruth Benedict’s bizarre (if useful) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to James Clavell’s potboiling novel Shogun and Michael Crichton’s xenophobic thriller Rising Sun, is hopelessly fabulistic, part of a great disinformation campaign waged by both nations. For whatever reason, very few Americans have taken the trouble to look carefully at the land whose economy and industry is bound up with our own, whose future will inescapably shape ours. With the Atlantic century drawing to a close and the Pacific century just dawning, a better understanding of Japanese culture—and of the ideas that lie behind Japanese actions—is essential.

Four years ago, the Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen gave interested readers a fine start at such an understanding; his The Enigma of Japanese Power is still the best book on Japan in recent literature. In it. Van Wolferen revealed a Japan alternately awed and disgusted by the world beyond its shores and governed by a puppet emperor in the service of the zaikaijin, a gerontocracy of businessmen (women do not figure in the scheme of Japanese power) who control the national economy and maintain an inflexible hierarchy that embraces every citizen from cradle to grave. Despite its present democratic facade, Van Wolferen argued, Japan’s power structure was scarcely altered by the Second World War; while the state’s religion remains Shintoism, its de facto ideology is an offshoot of the same Nichiren Buddhism that propelled the martial caste toward the conquest of Asia, a war that proceeds today by economic means.

Simon Winchester, a British journalist and longtime correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, continues Van Wolferen’s alarum. In his Pacific Rising, Winchester argues that the Atlantic century is truly finished, basing his conclusion on such facts as: that since 1985 the Pacific powers have constituted our largest trading bloc, exceeding Europe by billions of dollars; that Los Angeles will soon become the world’s busiest port, taking the lead from New York, while Rotterdam has given way to Hong Kong as the world’s busiest container port; that Taiwan’s economy is growing at a rate five times faster than Germany’s and many more times faster than our own; and that while the United States has become the world’s leading debtor nation, Japan is its leading creditor.

Though Winchester surveys the whole of the Pacific Rim, his gaze rests firmly on the Japanese islands. He is full of pointed lessons, some of which underscore the fact that Japan owes much of its success to America. The Datsun automobile, he reminds us, was originally designed by an expatriate American engineer, William Gorham. Douglas MacArthur gave the Japanese a constitution that freed them from the burdens of self-defense, eventually freeing vast sums of capital for other purposes. The Bank of America essentially revived Japan’s postwar economy—an act of generosity that was remembered 40 years later, when a consortium of Japanese investors bailed the San Francisco institution out of a near-failure. And the United States continues to dominate much of the world’s manufacturing and informational technologies.

Still, Japan stands as our formidable economic rival. Its practice of dumping steel on the American market, to name one instance, can only bring further damage to a weakened national industry; a steel town in western Pennsylvania was so devastated by the unfair competition that its McDonald’s restaurant was the only one in the chain’s history ever to close. Japan finances one-third of our national debt, meaning that billions and even trillions of dollars in interest will flow across the ocean in the years to come.

But there is no evil cabal at work, Winchester—disputing Karel van Wolferen—tells us; no latter-day yellow peril. Japan is a modern success and will shape the future economy of the world, including those of other Asian nations, because its people work hard, because they are willing to sacrifice, because its electorate is well-educated and forward-looking. Two salient facts speak to all these points: even in the face of recession, Japanese salaried workers save 16 percent of their take-home pay, against an American’s 4 percent. And Japan graduates ten engineers for every lawyer; the ratio is exactly the reverse in the United States. Call it the Pacific century. Call it the Decline of the West. The game has moved to another court, and it will take something a little short of a miracle for the Occident to reclaim the title in our time.

Bruce Feiler is decidedly upbeat about Japan: his Learning to Bow, an account of his year as a high school teacher in a Japanese provincial school, takes the spirit of Goodbye, Mr. Chips against Pierre Boulle’s and David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet it, too, is a useful corrective of popular misapprehensions. Feiler may have come to the storied islands of Japan wide-eyed and mouth agape, as he cheerfully admits, but his months of living in the countryside (he later became a reporter for a Tokyo news agency) brought him to earth:

Before coming to Japan, I had often heard that Japan is the wealthiest country in the world. I had read stories about toilets that talk and robots that answer the phone. . . . I half expected to find an island paradise overflowing with expensive ears, spiral escalators, and extravagant buildings that the Japanese already owned. But in Sano I found a world quite different from the polish and poshness of Tokyo and far closer to the disheveled tinroof towns I remembered from my childhood in the American South. . . . My apartment had no heating, no insulation, no hot water running in the sink, and no overhead lighting. My toilet had no seat. Still, my Japanese friends told me that I had the nicest apartment they had seen in town.

Feiler spent his days alternately trying to teach over-regimented young Japanese in the freestyle manner of an American and trying to penetrate the minds of his colleagues and supervisors, who, at least by Feiler’s lights, daily sent out mixed signals, hi the end he could not, he admits, understand how the Japanese could make rigid distinctions between work and home, between colleague and friend; how a woman who had been rude to him the night before could be charming the next, how men who had soaked with him in a communal tub could be coldly rigid, clad in suits and seated behind their desks. I suspect that the author, however talented he may be (and Learning to Bow is a thoroughly well-written book), might have been less naive had he spent time in the American business world before going to Japan. It is axiomatic that the Japanese run every aspect of their society as a business, but men and women in gray flannel suits are not confined to far-off islands.

Feiler’s may be a Japan of baseball and Beatles, of muddy lanes and tin roofs, but in the end it is also a Japan that aims to win. All of his students graduated from high school—nationwide the graduation rate is 95 percent, 30 points higher than America’s. Their teachers open each day with a faculty meeting that ends with the entreaty oneigaishimasu: “Please do me the favor of working hard today.” All of them, students and teachers alike, had made a pledge to their nation. No one dared break it. Few ever had, and their names are damned from memory.

Nicholas Bouvier is little known to American readers, but in his native Switzerland he is highly regarded as a travel writer. He is also knowledgeable in the workings of Japanese culture, a quick study who has lived in the country on and off over the last three decades. His ideal Japanese, it would seem, is Basho, the great 16th-century haiku poet whose trampings up and down the islands’ rocky spines are celebrated in The Narrow Road to the Far North. Bouvier takes the hobo road a little less often, but his accounts of wandering to places like a brothel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district and remote Shinto temples along the southern coast of Hokkaido take on the meditative air of a monk errant:

What can a person do in a park? Parks don’t seem real to me. I am bored stiff, and then I remember the adage of Lao-Tzu: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I start to jot down notes (thoughts without coherence, at the tip of a brush), the way the Japanese so willingly do—they have never believed in rigorous sequences nor in demonstrations to prove. . . .

Bouvier is especially good on revealing obscure elements of Japanese folk life; for instance, he explains that peaches are considered lucky in Japan because the creator god chased away monsters by hurling the fruit at them. (This small bit of information makes the second act of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams comprehensible.) He gathers proverbs, traditional remedies of the aboriginal Ainu, the occult choreography of the Noh theater, and folksongs, weaving them into an impressionistic, erratically organized narrative that reflects, in its own small way, the chaos that Japan presents to the foreigner. Karel van Wolferen is probably no fan, but other readers should take in Bouvier’s book, both for its good nature and its many flashes of insight.

John Elder first came to Japan, like Bouvier, under Basho’s influence. As a professor of both environmental studies and world literature, however, he also came to it in the hope of solving a riddle, at least to his own satisfaction: Why would a people who love nature as much as the Japanese do work so hard to destroy it? After reading as much as he could on Japanese culture and studying the language, Elder and his wife and three children settled in Kyoto, the ancient capital, to have a look at the place for themselves. Determined, like so many Westerners before him, to enter the Japanese mind by studying traditional arts under the tutelage of local masters, he became enthralled by the ancient game of Go (a martial metaphor played with stones), which took him farthest into what he takes to be the real spirit of Japan:

Despite their formidable powers of analysis, even Go masters cannot comprehend the entire game in logical terms. They must also rely on their aesthetic faculties, responding to a configuration in one corner of the board with a stone in another corner like Constable used touches of red intuitively. Because of its challenges to the whole person. Go has traditionally been considered one of the four essential Zen arts of Japan, along with calligraphy, painting, and music.

Were the rest of Following the Brush so straightforward, John Elder might have greatly helped us to appreciate how a nation’s arts shape its life (and vice versa). But there is too much of the enthusiast here, not enough of the hard-nosed observer. Elder is determined to emulate Japanese modes of prose, and his language will sound strange at many turns to American ears—not good, not bad, but strange. Elder does not quite come out and say it, but a game like Go, unlike its near neighbor chess, draws heavily on the irrational. Japan’s flirtations with the dark side of the brain are what drove the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War, and they doubtless propel whalers and clear-cutters today as they hack and butcher their way across the globe. Too often Elder hints that so long as the work is beautiful, by no matter how warped an aesthetic standard. then (in Japan at least) anything is permissible.

But, Elder suggests more usefully, the Japanese approach environmental matters in miniature: with bonsai trees, rock gardens, and flower arrangements. Westerners, on the other hand, come to environmental issues with big ideas: let’s save the earth. We may simply be talking past one another, East and West, and if our misunderstanding continues to overshadow our comprehension, it will be too bad.


[Pacific Rising, by Simon Winchester (New York: Simon & Schuster) 512 pp., $14.00]

[Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan, by Bruce S. Feiler (New York: Ticknor & Fields) 321 pp., $10.95]

[The Japanese Chronicles, by Nicholas Bouvier (San Francisco: Mercury House) 240 pp., $11.95]

[Following the Brush, by John Elder (Boston: Beacon Press) 176 pp., $12.00]