Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy

Shackles cover

Japan and the Shackles of the Past
By R. Taggart Murphy
Oxford University Press, New York, 2014
472 pages,
ISBN 978-0-19-984598-9

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

The publisher summarises this book as ‘A penetrating overview of Japan, from a historical, social, political, economic, and cultural perspective.’ This is a book by an American author directed primarily at American readers. It makes many good points and Japan specialists will want to read and carefully consider some of his analysis of modern Japan. But the author’s knowledge and understanding of pre-war Japanese history is shaky and towards the end he allows his irritation with aspects of US policy especially over Okinawa to run away with his arguments. British readers looking for an introduction to modern Japan would do better by reading David Pilling’s book Bending Adversity.

Taggart Murphy’s reading of Japanese history seems to have been limited. There are many good American historians of Japan, but it is a pity that he does not seem to have read anything by Sir George Sansom or Professor W.G. Beasley. If he had absorbed Sansom’s Japan: A Short Cultural History or Beasley’s Japanese Imperialism his first hundred pages might have provided a better and more rounded historical summary. Sex was an important element in Edo culture but it was not as central to Japanese life in the period as Murphy makes out. The British reader can safely skip through these pages.

Murphy is much better when dealing with modern Japan where he has lived for many years and is at home in the culture, which he has encountered in Tokyo. He is often perceptive about Japanese society, economy and politics and lives up to the summary of his book as expressed by his American publisher assuming the disguise of the OUP, which used to be regarded as the epitome of the British establishment.

As the best British investment managers have realised, the most successful Japanese companies are nowadays medium sized specialist firms, which deal in upstream components. Murphy fingers Keyence, Fanuc, Hirose Electric, Pacific Metals and Union Tool. But he also draws attention to those large firms, which seem to have lost their way and allowed Korean companies to capture parts of the market, which they had dominated.

He gives a helpful overview of Japanese employment practices and corporate governance issues, which have led to some of the social and economic problems Japan faces today. He notes the way in which the so-called black companies (burakku kigyo) have exploited young Japanese seeking permanent rather than temporary positions.

He rightly emphasises the success of Japanese investment in other countries, but notes their failure to bring non-Japanese into decision-making roles leading to failures and misunderstandings.

His description of the changes taking place within Japanese society in his Chapter 9 makes interesting reading. He introduces the reader to various types of modern Japanese women and explains the Japanese terms used to describe them under the generic ‘gyaru.’ He defines Japanese neologisms such as obatarion and sodaigumi, which will be new to some readers who may be more familiar with terms such as otaku and hikikomori in the context of the problems of Japanese young people. He notes ‘the re-emergence of class’ (I never thought it had disappeared) and deplores ‘the decline of Japan’s leadership class’ with its ‘inability to confess error,’ which was so apparent in the context of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and in the Japanese failure to come to terms with its militarist past.

His account of modern politics is also worth reading. He is clearly fascinated by the roles played by such powerful puppeteers as Tanaka Kakuei, Kanemaru Shin and Ozawa Ichiro, although I suspect that he may have overestimated Ozawa’s influence. His comments on rightist politicians are pointed. I was particularly struck by the following sentence (p. 273) about their attitude to the past: ‘Acknowledging the scope of the Rape of Nanking, the terror bombing of Chongqing, or the atrocities committed by Unit 731 is literally [for the rightists] intolerable, for it threatens to besmirch the only ontologically grounded sense of the sacred to which they have access – “Japaneseness’ and their status as members in good standing of a holy race living in a holy land.’

Of Abe’s first term as prime minister he comments (p. 311) that ‘all his rightist talk had the effect of making him come across as particularly tone deaf or k.y. (an acronym for kūki yomenai, literally, “cannot read the air” – the slang acronym actually uses the Roman letters)’.

In the last and longest chapter, ‘Japan and the World’, Murphy is highly critical of the policy of the Obama government towards Japan and ‘the New Japan hands’ in the US Embassy in Tokyo and in the State Department who advised the President to snub Prime Minister Hatoyama in a way which speeded the latter’s downfall. He also attacks the Pentagon and the US marines over US bases in Okinawa. He draws attention to ‘Japan’s agents of influence’ in Washington. He concludes (p. 371) that ‘the United States does not fundamentally care about Japan.’ In his view (p. 373) ‘The American Empire is doomed to failure because it is structurally and institutionally ignorant of the wider world.’ He thinks that ultimately (p. 374) ‘the US-Japan “alliance” will crumble,’ leaving Japan alone and friendless. He concludes (p.387) that ‘within a reasonable time-frame the last American base in Japan [should] be closed’ but this requires a leader, a Japanese ‘de Gaulle,’ capable of establishing a regime which would re-establish Japan as a ‘normal country’ in East Asia, that could be relied on to play an influential but peaceful role. Murphy clearly does not think that Abe, of whose actions (e.g. over the secrecy law pushed through the diet without proper scrutiny) he is suspicious, is capable of filling such a role.

The polemical tone and dubious logic of this final chapter and the personal animus in it directed at US officials such as Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye detract from the impact of Murphy’s often cogent and perceptive points about modern Japan.

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