First published in East Asia (Campus Verlag, Frankfurt), Vol. 2, 1984
JAPAN IS WIDELY talked about today as a model for other societies, including those of Western Europe. This is not entirely surprising given the extraordinary success of the Japanese economy since the 1950s and the great competitiveness achieved by many Japanese industries. More surprising is that Japan should now be seen as a model for the West, which used to provide models for Japan. An interesting reversal of roles appears to have taken place. When one surveys the contemporary literature on Japan, however, it is clear that the lessons to be learned from Japanese practice and institutions are sought overwhelmingly in the field of management. Improvement engineering, quality control circles, zero defect policies, egalitarian relationships between labor and management, permanent employment contracts, payment by seniority, enterprise unions, trading companies, planning for long term rather than short term profit maximization and maximization of market share rather than profits, cutting of inventories to the bone, subcontracting by oligopolistic large firms to dependent and vulnerable-but highly competitive-small ones, in-house training of carefully selected labor whose education has been rigorously technological-all these things are presented as a package worthy of study and emulation by hard-pressed managers in recession-prone Western industries. Indeed, the impact of the Japanese model of industrial management in the United States appears already to have proved quite profound, though the response to it now combines emulation with attempts to reassert the value of 'American' rather than 'Japanese' management techniques.
It is not quite true, of course, that management is the only sphere of activity considered, or that it is presented in isolation from other aspects of the entity called 'Japan'. Many writers present cultural explanations of Japanese managerial practice, while others cite a variety of institutional and historical factors which have contributed to the system developing as it has. In particular the way the economy is managed is held up as worthy of emulation, though differences of opinion can be seen in the literature concerning the question how far the government 'manages' the economy and how far the economy manages itself. 1
One area, however, which in this context has been paid relatively little attention is that of politics and the political system. To some extent there is a sense in