JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 4 (April 1999)
Bread, Circuses, and U.S.-Japan Issues
by E. Barry Keehn

The Uselessness of Local Autonomy
by Chalmers Johnson

Bread, Circuses, and U.S.-Japan Issues
by E. Barry Keehn

Most of us who ponder U.S.-Japan affairs commit the same fallacy: we believe that decision-makers in the United States spend as much time thinking about Japan as Japanese decision-makers spend thinking about the U.S.

In fact, little currently happens in Japan that gains the attention of the American public. This, in turn, means that most American decision-makers have correspondingly little incentive to spend their time on Japanese issues. With the issue of Okinawa tucked away for the time being, there are no major agenda items between the two countries. True, trade issues still resurface with clockwork regularity. Steel is under discussion and the Super 301 threat has been paraded in front of the Japanese media. But under the Clinton presidency this ritual is driven by the Democratic Party's need to please organized labor. It does not capture the attention or imagination of the American public.

This lack of American attentiveness to Japan does not connote isolationism, even though a similar inattentiveness exists in nearly all of America's important bilateral relationships. It is about something else--two other things, to be exact: the relatively poor entertainment value the American news consumer currently perceives in international affairs, and the present American fascination with the "new economy." These two factors are not unrelated. They are the contemporary version of bread and circuses.

The Circus

Political theater, although it began in earnest during the Reagan years, evolved from political diversion to political imperative during the years of the Clinton presidency. As a creative civic art-form it was actually thought of as a Japanese preserve by most Japan specialists. Japan's elites long ago perfected their own brand of political theater, in which elected politicians engaged in ritual behaviors that created the image of power, while real decisions were usually made elsewhere. This resulted in a stable society and a booming economy for several decades, but it has not served Japan well in the 1990s.

American political theater is more media-savvy than its Japanese counterpart, and, unlike the Japanese version, is not intended to distract the consumer from the true origins of decision-making. Japan's political theater requires an acceptance and dedication to a deeper political reality, something that is absent in the American version.

The American version has recently been analyzed in Neal Gabler's 1998 book, Life, the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. In Gabler's analysis, Americans now organize their experience--and it seems to me, especially their experience of politics--into "life movies" or "lifies." Strong and simplistic central characters and clear plot lines are required for us adequately to "experience" the world beyond our immediate concerns. Gabler believes that entertainment has become "the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time--a force so overwhelming it has finally metastasized into life." It has moved Americans from post-modernism to post-reality, where we have "politicians without policies," a comment that would strike a familiar chord with many Japanese critics of their own political system.

Clinton's impeachment trial certainly defined the most obvious American political 'lifie' in recent months. As the U.S. Senate knew from the beginning, the president's faults were too trivial (and too common) to require impeachment. This was especially true when compared with the last Senate trial of a president, Andrew Johnson, where the case was about post-Civil War national reconstruction and the deaths of 620,000 Americans. However, the U.S. Congress believed the Clinton case was compelling enough to make good political theater.

A minority of Americans were fascinated by the impeachment process for traditional reasons. They were concerned with how it affected the institution of the presidency, its impact on America's international leadership role, and how it will influence future legislative agendas and the next presidential election. These traditionalists include journalists, academics, and independent intellectuals, who remain rooted in the world of ideas, policy debates, and consequences.

However, if opinion polls are anything to go by, most Americans are energetically uninterested in such serious concerns. There is a feeling that unfettered economic forces are now the only thing worth paying attention to. With an absence of any life-altering political issues for the average American, politics have devolved into an entertaining sidebar that accompanies everyday life. The pursuits and interests of a more traditional civil society have become a distant concern.

The Bread

A second reason why Americans have lost interest in Japan is economic, but it is not related to the end of the bubble economy and Japan's interminable recession. It is a belief that Japan has either refused or is simply incapable of joining the "new economy." This is compounded by the rising belief that the U.S. has moved to a new hi-tech economic model, much as the British were the vanguard in the industrial revolution of the 18th century.

There is considerable debate about what the structure of this new economy actually is, or whether it is even new. Yet no less an authority than Alan Greenspan suggests there is something to the notion. In his view, "important technological changes have been emerging in recent years that are altering, in ways with few precedents, the manner in which we organize production, trade across countries, and deliver value to customers." Information technology is at the hub, allowing a level of international integration of business practices that results in gains in productivity of historical proportions. These gains allow firms to increase profits while continually lowering prices and simultaneously producing the sort of full employment for which Japan was once famous.

One aspect of success in the new economy that may have serious consequences for Japan is that first entrants into a new product area gain significant market share from which they can build a nearly unassailable market position. As the Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong points out, the old rule, where being first to a market was often dangerous, and where late comers learned from the mistakes of market pioneers, no longer seems to apply. Japanese firms have often been successful under the old rules, but they may be less successful under the new ones.

Another aspect of the new economy is the worth of an employee to the firm, as based on company market capitalization. Under this equation, each Yahoo! employee was worth about $13.7 million to the firm at one point in 1998. At Microsoft the value per individual was about $9 million. At Ford Motor, a traditional manufacturer and therefore very similar to the majority of Japan's greatest firms, the average value per-employee was about $143,500. Japanese firms know how to compete with Ford, and know how to add value through a constant evolution of traditional manufacturing processes. Japanese firms, as yet, do not add the sort of value per employee experienced by Yahoo! Basing an employee's worth to a company on market capitalization may seem faintly ridiculous, but so are stocks trading at more than 100 times earnings--not at all uncommon in the hi-tech sector.

A Conclusion (sort of)

The arrival of 'lifies,' combined with the advent of the new economy, creates a rather complex mix of factors to consider when pondering the future of U.S.-Japan affairs. If Japan wishes to remain engaged as a positive contributing force to America's international policies--and fully engage its politicians, diplomats, and lobbyists--it will have to spend time absorbing the media logic of Hollywood. These lessons will be particularly important if the current rage for the "new economy" turns out to be a term for nothing more than an American-style bubble economy. With U.S. consumers spending 103% of their income, we can expect a great deal of market-induced social pain in the event of a severe and sustained market downturn, a situation that will certainly lead to a search for foreign scapegoats. With Japan's trade surplus at historic highs, it is not difficult to imagine where Americans will find at least one of their scapegoats.

But it may take nothing more than a new American president, one who combines a feel for foreign affairs with a flair for 'lifies,' for Americans and their leaders to rekindle their old love-hate obsessions with Japan. At that point we may find that the American use of political theater is capable of quickly mobilizing massive negative feelings toward Japan. If this combines with a deep belief that the U.S. and Japanese economies now share little in common and that the American economy is unique, this new American dedication to political theater could seriously damage U.S.-Japan relations before Japan had even begun to craft an adequate response. This is just one potentially serious consequence of this latest American version of the old Roman penchant for bread and circuses.

E. BARRY KEEHN is President of the Japan America Society in Los Angeles. Previous to this he taught Japanese politics at Cambridge University. A longer version of this article is available on the web at

The Uselessness of Local Autonomy
by Chalmers Johnson

In these post-Cold War days, the governments of the United States and its allies still routinely expose their citizens to the risks of death and destruction in the name of national security. The people of northern Italy complained for years about low-flying American military aircraft but Rome simply ignored them. In February 1998, when a U.S. plane sliced through a ski-lift cable and plunged twenty people to their deaths, the pilots argued that their charts were inaccurate, their altimeter did not work, and they had not consulted U.S. Air Force units permanently based in the area about hazards. They hit the cable at 360 feet whereas they were supposed to maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet (2,000 feet according to the Italian government). They were also not supposed to go faster than 517 mph but were actually travelling at 621 mph. Nonetheless, the American court-martial exonerated everyone involved and called it a "training accident."

Since 1975, Japanese municipalities, like those in Northern Italy, have also tried to protect their inhabitants from the menace of U.S. forces, particularly by trying to prevent U.S. warships from entering their harbors with nuclear weapons on board. Kobe began by asking incoming foreign vessels to submit certificates that they do not carry nuclear weapons. The United States refuses to do this but allows the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to fax letters to local authorities saying it is convinced that a particular U.S. vessel is not carrying nuclear weapons. The Ministry, however, knows the opposite to be true. In 1997, the National Security Archive at George Washington University released a highly classified U.S. government document dated April 29, 1969, stating that "Japan now acquiesces in transit by naval vessels armed with nuclear weapons" (see When this document was released, the NHK devoted a television special to it (May 14, 1997).

The Japanese Diet is currently debating new Japan-U.S. Defense Guidelines--treaty-like commitments that if enacted will allow U.S. forces to occupy and use Japanese ports and airfields at times of a U.S.-designated security "emergency." In response, many Japanese localities have started to require Kobe-style documents. The most important case is Kochi Prefecture, where Governor Daijiro Hashimoto, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Hashimoto and no left-wing firebrand, has asked the prefectural assembly to pass a law requiring "non-nuclear certificates" before allowing warships to enter Kochi ports. He claims that he is merely following the national government's three non-nuclear principles.

Needless to say, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Agency, and the LDP--urged on by the American Embassy--have all replied that Hashimoto cannot do this. They have also started to squeeze Kochi financially, just as they did last year to Okinawa in order to defeat Governor Masahide Ota. The Asahi's vox populi, vox dei column (February 25, 1999) retold in its entirety the Hans Christian Andersen fairly tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes," known to Japanese children as the tale of the hadaka no osama (The Naked King). When the small child cries out from the crowd, "The emperor is naked," the Asahi wrote, "The emperor and his men are the Japanese government. The small child is the Kochi governor." But judging from the current policies of the U.S. and Japan, there will be no change until an incident like the one in Italy brings people to their senses.

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