Murray Sayle's Atlantic article on Japan

Barbara Laurence cns at
Thu Jun 18 14:54:07 PDT 1998

I think Sayle's article is well done and recommend that all Doug's Raiders read it. But Sayle is a kook, defined as someone with one good idea who doesn't know that there are a couple of dozen other good ideas in the world. 1. China, too, is a country without a civil society (Western-style) hence business in China, and among Chinese in Asia outside of China, is conducted through family and family connections. But China ain't no Japan. 2. Many other factors enter into Japan's economic growth since WW II. External economies of scale are important in that tight little island. Export policy based on increasing market shares, which would be the case even if Japan wasn't organized in accordance with familist values, has played a key role. Flexibility in producing for the domestic market vs. export markets is a crucial factor. The Japanese learned flexibility because every time the US has changed its line on the role of Japan in Asian and world economy, the Japanese have had to adjust in a hurry. E.g., in the crisis of heavy industry, esp. petrochemical, in the early 1970s, Japan easily shifted from production for domestic market to export production. As a matter of fact, and this doesn't jibe with Sayle's thesis, Japan was the _first_ major country to restructure and get more flexibility in production, sales, etc. during and after the crisis of heavy industry, which was a world-wide phenomenon in the early and mid-1970s.

Control of the cost of wages, including the value content of the average consumption basket in Japan, has also been important. For example, for a long time the government kept meat and other "luxuries" out of working class food markets. Another positive factor has been political consistency, i.e., a consistent economic policy by the center-right ruling party, whose power is based on taking good care of small business and farmers, who, in turn, vote for the ruling party. Japan also has excellent regional planning, better than any other major industrial country, as well as local, regional, national tax structures that favor capital accumulation by region. It's no accident that urban economist Bill Tabb was the most popular American on the Japanese academic economics talk circuit.

Once, in Japan about 10 years ago as a guest of Kyoto University's economic department, I asked every economist I met for their opinion re: the sources of Japanese economic successes. Most had different answers. One reason, however, was expressed this way: "In the US, the family takes from the state and gives little in return; in Japan, the state and capital take from the family, giving back little in return." This is the Sayle thesis, although he doesn't put it that way. In Japan, the family is crucial in the production of surplus value; in the US, the family is key in consuming surplus value and/or realizing surplus value. The Japanese family is productionist, the American family consumptionist. But this is due not only to the "Japan is one big family" ideology, but also to the fact that many of Japan's economic policymakers are or were self-defined Marxists, strongly influenced by US feminism, with its stress on the role of the family in the production and realization of surplus value.

It's always interesting to see how people who stress cultural over other factors in explaining economic growth and development are generally ignorant of the problem of "mediations" and tend to draw causal arrows directly from cultural features to the economy, growth and accumulation, etc. Still, I liked Sayle's article a lot, since it does highlight some of the ways that the positive features of Japan as one big happy family have turned into negative features in the 1990s. While Sayles does use the word, his approach is dialectical in the sense that he shows how positive cultural features can turn into their opposite once the economy gets itself into deep trouble.

Jim O'Connor

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