Marius Jansen and Edwin Reischauer have explored the major issues connected to contemporary Japan. In The Japanese Today; Change and Continuity, they explain why Japan has come to be regarded as one of the three of four most important countries in the world. More than anything, the authors concentrate on the Japanese people, their society, political institutions, business organization, and increasingly complicated and significant relations with the rest of the international community. They show that, in one very important sense, the success of Japanese society has almost been a miracle in the context of the defeat in World War Two.

Indeed, the manner in which Japan has risen up after its conquest at the hands of the United States has truly been remarkable. One of the central issues that the reader is left pondering after reading this book is the phenomenon of Japanese homogeneity and its consequences for Japan's future. Indeed, in our multi-cultural world, Japan remains a society where discrimination continues to be practised. As a world power, Japan simply has no choice but to confront this issue. Indeed, the ethnic and racial discrimination that is institutionally entrenched, and even sanctioned, in Japan is unacceptable today in the Western world. Japan, however, faces a serious dilemma in this issue, since the collectivism which has marked its success has been closely connected to its homogeneity.

All of the issues that the authors deal with tend to lead to this contemporary problem. Culture, in the end, is the core of any nation's survival or downfall. The challenge remains for the Japanese to work on retaining their culture, with all of its strengths, and yet opening up their mentality to be able to perceive the world through the lens of other cultures. This is crucial for Japan, since today it has no choice but to integrate immigrants into its society, since there is a high demand for foreign workers. Yet abandoning ethnocentrism has its own risks, since by accepting all the ingredients of multiculturalism poses the risk that Japan will have to sacrifice the culture that gives the society the very survival instincts that it needs.

Overall, the authors give a structured background to modern Japan. In Part One, the authors discuss the Japanese land, agriculture and natural resources. In Part Two, they provide the historical background, from Japan's early periods to its postoccupation era after the Second World War. Part Three deals with Japanese society. Part Four deals with Government and Politics while Part Five examines the world of Japanese Business. The sixth and final part deals with Japan and the international community. A history of its foreign relations is given. Throughout all of this history, the reader absorbs one main theme: the success of Japan in becoming a modern nation since 1945.

One of the major issues that are at the core of the authors' discussion is the reality of how Japan fully recovered her former status as a great power in the second half of the 20th century. This has had obvious implications for Japan's place both in the Asian and the world balance. Indeed, in recent years Japan has begun to possess close to a tenth of the world's total GNP, even though it has less than a fortieth of its population.1 In other words, in a certain context, Japan is more successful economically than almost any other nation on earth.

The authors show how this economic success had its origins in Japanese business dealings in the postwar world. By 197O, the Japanese had renewed their industrial base and had moved with great success into new areas of manufacture such as electronics and motorcars, of which Japan made more than any country except the United States. This reality manifested the diversity that was ingrained in Japanese economic know-how, as well as the initiative of its people.

In many respects, Japan was long favoured by fortunate circumstances. These were greatly helped by strong Japanese attitudes as well. The authors show how postwar Japan was able to deploy intense pride, and an unrivalled willingness for collective effort among her people. We learn that both of these sprang from the deep cohesiveness and capacity for subordinating the individual to collective purposes which had always marked Japanese society. This issue is directly connected to the problems connected to the issue of homogeneity today. As the authors write,

Certainly no difference is more significant between Japanese and Americans, or Westerners in general, than the greater Japanese tendency to emphasize the group at the expense of the individual….They like to insist that what counts is not one's abilities, not one's kone, an abbreviation of the English word "connections." 

This dedication to the collective undoubtedly helped lift Japan out of its ruin and defeat. Yet today, it has also become a thorn in the side of Japan, since it also discredits its reputation in the eyes of the world in the context of how Japan treats its foreigners.

Quite surprisingly, this cultural collectivism survived the coming of democracy. Yet even though Japan accepted a democratic system with political parties, the authors of The Japanese Today demonstrate that Japan has successfully blocked its own Westernization, since many Japanese viewed the pace of social change in the 196Os to appear to be too fast. "Japan," the authors emphasize, "has not been Westernized." Indeed, it has not. It has been Westernized in one sense, perhaps in an economic and political sense, but by no means in a cultural context.

Indeed, there has always been mounting uneasiness among the Japanese over what was happening to their traditional values and institutions in the postwar world. The costs of economic growth, for instance, strained Japanese customs. This is why, in a reverse sense, when there was some slowing of the rate of growth and change in the 197Os and 198Os, there was an increased sense of stability and general feeling of well-being. The authors note that, "Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that old political tensions with Japan relaxed, and the country became even more orderly and smooth-running." Indeed, economic growth had tremendous advantages, but the japanese were always afraid to pay the price that came with it: a diversification of how it viewed culture and different ethnicities.

The authors also tie in how economic progress has also helped to change the context of Japanese foreign policy which, in any case, moved away in the 196Os from the simplicities of the preceding decade. Economic strength made the Japanese dollar an important trading currency and drew Japan into the monetary diplomacy of Europe. Moreover, prosperity involved her in the affairs of many parts of the world. This was, in many respects, an unprecedented development. The authors point out that with the maturation of Japan's economy and society, "internationalization" became a preoccupation. Departments of international affairs sprouted up on campuses across the country.5 The paradox here, of course, was that while Japan was internationalizing in the world, it was not internationalizing at home, especially in the context of the homogeneity of its own society.

More than anything else, Japan had become a significant world power only two decades after the end of the Second World War. Indeed, Japan assumed in the 196Os an important position in relation to other countries. Australia, for instance, which was once hostile to Japan, began to look toward Japan as its chief market. It adopted an attitude of "warm interest" very similar to that of the United States.6 Korea, meanwhile, was Japan's second biggest market (the United States was the biggest), since the Japanese had started to invest there again after 1951. By the 198Os, "made in Japan" signs epitomized Japanese excellence in every field. Many nations in the world wanted to do business with Japan, and also wanted to learn from the economic miracle that had occurred in this country. In many respects, Japan was an example to the world. As the authors note,

Japan was universally recognized as being not only a genuine economic giant but also a world leader in every type of industrial production. It had more than drawn abreast of the West. In the eyes of many people it was a model of economic success and a harbinger of the future.

The authors show how in the 198Os Japan remained the world's third largest economic power. As her industrialists turned to advanced information technology and biotechnology, and talked of running down car manufacturing, there was no sign that she had lost her power of disciplined self-adaptation. In many respects, this was closely connected to the withdrawal of American direction. This began, symbolically in a sense, when Okinawa (one of the first of Japan's overseas possessions to be re-acquired) was returned to Japan in 1972. In many respects, it was due to the symbolism of this event that led Japan to acquire more self-confidence than ever. 8 This reality is directly connected to the vital importance of land, and how a society associates its greatness with the repossession of any land that was once taken from it.

The authors focus on this issue of return of land and how it affected Japanese confidence. There remained, for instance, the question of the Kuriles, still in Russian hands, and of Taiwan, in the possession of the Chinese nationalists and claimed by the Chinese communists. Japanese attitudes on all these matters have remained somewhat reserved. There was, for instance, also the possibility that the question on Sakhalin might be reopened, especially when Gorbachev visited Japan in April 1991. There, however, no progress, since Gorbachev's position was, at that time, weakening extremely quickly.9 The authors' point is well taken, however: that Japanese success was very much associated with its land, and perceptions of land that was owed to it. The restoration of confidence had much to do with healing the psychological wound that had come with the second World War.

The authors also touch on a subject that has proven to be a new phenomenon challenging Japan. Over the last several decades, there has been a new problem of immigration into the country. This development has triggered many new social and economic problems for Japan. The foreigners who enter Japan are often not taken care of by their new society. All of these issues have presented many serious challenges to the Japanese nation. In this context, it has become clear that Japan needs to work on imbedding multicultural principles into its society. As the authors note, with its assumptions of homogeneity, Japan remains "more inhospitable to immigration than almost any other country." This is an issue that Japan obviously has to deal with, since its reputation in the eyes of the world is crucial to being a member of the international community.

Japan has always sought to minimize the presence of foreigners, and therefore keep its society homogenous. But it was hard to enforce this policy. Because of the rising income, educational status, and expectations of Japanese, there was created a need for blue-collar labor that has been met, in part, by foreign workers. The problem has been that Japan has given preferential treatment to those workers who have Japanese decent. In 199O Japanese law gave permanent resident status to those who came with Japanese blood from South America, where their forebears immigrated after the United States closed its doors in the 2Oth century. Immigrants without Japanese decent continue to fight for their civil rights. The recession of the early 199Os, with its diminished opportunities for employment, made legal status more difficult to attain for all non-Japanese. This is a serious problem, because non-Japanese residents in Japan are discriminated against, not only socially, but also by law. In order to have a functional society, and a society that has respect in the international community of nations, Japan has no choice but to deal with this problem connected to the homogeneity of its society.

Related to this issue is the crisis that exists today from the immigration of foreign workers that remain illegal workers in Japan. As the authors note, there are probably as many or more illegally present workers from other Asian countries, particularly Bangladesh and the Philippines. An interesting phenomenon in this matter has been how many Japanese males have started efforts to recruit spouses from the Philippines, Thailand, Korea and as far away as Sri Lanka. In other words, more and more foreigners are entering Japan, and yet little is being done on the question of how Japan treats the increasing amount of its immigrants.

The significant root of these problems is the discrimination that continues to be inherent in Japanese society. Ethnic and racial discrimination is institutionally sanctioned to a degree in Japan that would be unacceptable in Western countries. This directly affects the lives of foreign workers. There is a serious problem in that Japan is a mostly homogenous society that has been almost completely isolated until the end of the Second World War. Japan also protects its homogeneity and gives the outside world the impression that it is a closed society. In many respects, there is a very serious paradox here, because Japan has survived and rebuilt itself precisely because of the strength that it has received from it cultural tenet of collectivism, which is directly connected to its homogeneity.

Thus, the challenge remains for the Japanese to work on viewing life through the lens of diversity. Today, Japan has no choice but to integrate its foreigners and guarantee them the same rights it grants its other citizens. But this means also changing the society. This would gain Japan more respect and confidence in the international community. At the same time, it would pose a very serious risk in that Japan's very identity could be sacrificed. It is by no means insignificant that a nation that has to change in one respect might be abandoning the very ingredients that give it cultural and social pride and meaning.

Overall, the authors do a commendable job in exploring the issues that face contemporary Japan. If anything, one weakness of the book seems to be the authors' lack of focus on literature, art, drama and other cultural achievements. These receive little treatment. This is somewhat strange, especially in light of the fact that culture plays such an important element surrounding the debate over contemporary Japan.

More than anything else, the authors leave the reader of the book questioning how Japan will be able to face the international community, and become more internationalized, if it needs so much to remain a homogenous society. The way Japan treats its own immigrants is a reflection of a certain isolation and closed-mindedness. There is no denying that fact. Yet at the same time, this isolation and closed-mindedness is the foundation to the Japanese cultural tenet of collectivism that, as the authors have shown us, have helped Japan to survive and grow into a great nation. Japan's greatest weaknesses, therefore, are also its greatest strengths. The question remains how Japan will deal with this paradox. Recognizing how Japan has coped with the circumstances it has faced in this century, it remains pretty clear that it will deal with this particular paradox the way it has dealt with the tragedy and difficulty of defeat and destruction: with wisdom and success. Read more at


  • Jansen, Marius and Reischauer, Edwin. The Japanese Today; Change and Continuity 11 (London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995)