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Japan as Number One! - Part One


In 1979, Harvard professor and eminent Japanese Studies guru Ezra Vogel published his seminal book Japan as Number One: Lessons for America to uproarious commotion in America and enormous sales in Japan. For the decade after the book’s release, Vogel’s premise perfectly conformed to the global reality: America for all its power and hubris was in aimless disorder, while Japan was rising majestically from the ashes of WWII to an august seat in the international economic order. When Japan’s economy self-destructed in the ’90s, Number One became a lightning rod for the “Revisionist” school of academics who accused Vogel of pandering to the Japanese government and glossing over the negative sides of Japanese life. Certainly, the future proved the book “wrong” to a certain degree, and today it is little more than a quaint historical document without much contemporary relevance.

I personally thought it would be interesting, however, to step out of my normal critical milieu and try to follow the logic behind Vogel’s appraisal. I very much agree with his main point: America would benefit from learning about the Japanese socioeconomic model in that all nations should fight an arrogant adherence to traditions and learn from other nations in a mutually-progressive manner. So in this spirit, I aim to calmly discuss the book’s main points and what they mean for Japan today.

The Japanese Miracle

From the get-go, Vogel’s main argument primarily focuses on comparisons of Japan and the United States’ industrial manufacturing potential. For example, he notes that Japan had fourteen “modern blast furnaces” for steel production while the U.S. had zero (10), and Japan supposedly “edged past the United States” in production technology after 1973 (11). In the late ’70s, this certainly spelled trouble for American steel companies, but now in 2004, steel production has gone the way of the agricultural economy and the quill pen. In other words, this technological edge turned out to be a short-term advantage but ultimately worthless in the new information economy. Japan still makes a lot of steel, but the leading position in the ’70s and ’80s only shows modest promise for the future.

On the information-technologies front, however, Vogel warns that Japanese computer systems and media technologies are quickly outpacing American ones. For example, videotape recorders caught on in Japan way before the U.S., starting almost two decades of speedy diffusion of new technology in the Japanese market (16). And here’s an odd warning about a proto-Internet:

The idea of putting all books and magazines on computer tapes and having this information available through a telephone or television system to every household in a nation is not unique to Japan, but Japan is far ahead of the United States in working out the organizational, technical, and legal problems. It is not impossible that Japan might begin to implement this system in not much more than a decade, far ahead of the United States (17).

Vogel was probably right about this at the time, but looking back at the last twenty years, it was America saved by the Internet explosion, not Japan. With industrial production, Japan eventually lost some of the action to its cost-competitive neighbors South Korea and China, but why did Japan drop the ball on a leading edge in information technology? I have a gut feeling that Japan’s “mediocre” universities (Vogel’s words) did not provide the fertile nesting ground for the Internet’s rise. And even though companies like Nintendo were poised to create modem-based data networks in the mid-1980s, the monopolistic NTT’s high prices and restrictions on second phone lines killed the market potential of all such projects. Supposedly, the Japanese links to the Internet started as a grad school project at Keio University without government support.

Now in the 21st century, sluggish Japanese entry into the mp3 player and hard-disc recording markets suggest Japan has lost its one-time IT advantage. In the next installment, we’ll look closely at Japanese information-acquisition habits to see whether Japanese culture still provides the positive cradle for IT growth that Vogel suggests.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

12 Responses

  1. graham Says:

    Since this entry is next to one about a new keitai, I wonder if the late adoption of mp3 and TiVo-esque technology is really a good indicator. Seems to me the keitai has been more transformative in Japanese social situations than mobile phones in the U.S.

    I would say the late adoption of PC-based (or generally highly usable) internet is more indicative of Japan’s lost edge. Does this mean the English Complex, or whatever, is an effort to catch up in a world where there’s more online in English?

  2. db Says:

    One thing that Japan will always have going for it is the world’s most kick ass art tradition, unbroken from the Jomon era, which as it turns out in this day and age is worth more than steel:

  3. marxy Says:

    Seems to me the keitai has been more transformative in Japanese social situations than mobile phones in the U.S.

    You raise a good point – does an edge in cell phone technology lead to an aggregate technological edge? Are the Japanese moving ahead on a different path, oppposed to the wrong one?

    My generally feeling has always been that the keitai are a shortcut to the Internet and an eventual dead-end, seeing that all the latest and greatest technologies are spinning off computers – mp3s, bit torrent or legal film downloads, etc. It seems that the Japanese are catching up with the computer-based Net at this point, but I still feel that there’s some kind of block keeping the Internet from really nestling in Japanese culture. I would suspect that low computer literacy and a reluctant media structure unwilling to give up power don’t help. But also, perhaps, the Japanese use media in a way that doesn’t lend itself well to the Internet – namely, an authoritarian top-down information distribution system that names absolutely what’s in and what’s out.

    One thing that Japan will always have going for it is the world’s most kick ass art tradition,

    I hope you are being ironic, seeing how much time this site spends debunking Gross National Cool. I very much doubt that all Japanese pop culture put together makes more money than industrial manufacturing. And seeing that Japanese internal cultural markets are falling apart, I don’t think they will be able to become stronger exporters in the near future. The cultural industries surely can be one-leg of a table, but can’t hold the entire economy up.

  4. farley Says:

    Talking about exporting culture… just went to see “Little Boy III; the revenge of the recycled otaku crap”… Spoke to the staff who said there are no plans to bring it over to Japan. No wonder as I’m sure the average Japanese would be pretty unimpressed by all the fawning over Doraemon merchandise (none of which is actually for sale) and expensively-framed soft-core porn (I was there with my mom – sheesh! – plus I noticed that vaginas are acceptable as long as they are in softly-brushed oil, but “MR”‘s erect member was eclipsed by a bowl of rice – yay for censorship!). I was surprized to see that Murakami could find another huge collection of art-junk that conforms to his rigid definition of superflat, or whatever he is calling his overblown theory this time. No offense Murakami – things were displayed in an interesting way – with well-writen texts that appealed to both complete beginners who wouldn’t know the differnce between Gundam and Akira but with details that might interest even grizzled old war-horses such as myself (a joke!). Plus the 1983 video “Daikon IV” is an absolute gem – all the elements that make animae great; girls in skimpy bunny outfits, radish-shaped spaceships, spiderman, batman, robin, exploding robots, exploding cities, exploding planets… it has it all. BUT, how can the show be subtitled; “the art of Japan’s exploding subculture” when most of the stuff is mainstream culture? Does knowing about Hello Kitty grant you an member’s card to Japan’s (non-existent) Left Bank? (For my mother; no, it doesn’t…) Exploding Mainstream culture would be more apt, and kind of has a nice ring to it, but it would expose the basic lie behind the show; Where is the EXPLOSION of culture that we are promised? I am not saying that Japan’s culture is crashing and burning – it seems to be progressing… steadily, but I haven’t noticed any golden era of brilliant cultural production except in Murakami’s mind. Can’t we just watch cartoons without calling them high-art and putting them in museums? Not that I don’t think his theories about how losing the war and the horrible destruction Japan experienced influenced the culture aren’t true… But I know there are a lot of people who would know what I was talking about if I said, “By the power of greyskull – I have the power!” but I never saw that in a museum. And while I find his theory about Godzilla being linked to the experience of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki interesting (though not original – although he doesn’t claim to be), I find the juxtaposition of this with Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (which “forever renounces war”) printed in histronicly stark letters on a glossy black wall to be chotto offensive. In the opening text Murakami restates that Japan is “apolitical” – well has it ever occured to him that maybe this is just his way of seeing things? If he looked at history, or experienced Tokyo the way I did (or anybody could really) he might see that there are lots of people, even young people, who are politically minded. Is this show not giving at least lip-service to subculture? Does the politically active subculture not count because it is does not neatly fit into a superflat, postmodern, detached or mindlessly consumerist culture? Did it ever occur to him to look at the government critically and attempt to enact positive change? Isn’t this part of what artists have been known to do? As a cultural heavyweight could he not throw his weight behind anything other than apathy? Can it really be said that the mayors of Hiroshima have been apolitical about nuclear proliferation? In the context of this show, and with Murakami’s own death’s-head/mushroom-cloud painting hanging directly opposite, this quotation seemed awfully distastful. Are we expected to subsume this experience into the culture of handbags and manga? And how can you bring up lolita-complex as this amazing cultural gem one minute and then talk about the rape and kidnapping of schoolgirls the next minute and not even try to make a critical connection? And how about women? Girls are allowed to be represented and to represent themselves as powerful in this show as long as they are skinny, naked (or at least in tight enough clothing so as to leave little to the imagination), and if there is pink at least somewhere in the composition… Murakami seems to be a great FRAMER of art, but we need to see more than a scarce handful of ARTISTS whose work he deems worth seeing – even I can name a few contemporary Japanese artists who got screwed missing the hiroppon factory boat – with his position in the art world he must be aware of more interesting young artists. With true respect to the curator and artist, it is the THEORY that needs to be EXPLODED. One more pro and con then this rant is through. PRO: the catalogue (while not reasonably-priced – though I didn’t have to pay – thanks, Mom!) seems to be an excellent source of images and information, chock full of obscure pop-culture and interesting interviews, plus the rice bowl comes off…(though how cool would it be if it included a DVD with some of the better clips from the videos), heck, maybe after I read it through I will realize that I judged poor Murakami too harshly, maybe. CON; the staff, especially the security guards at the Japan Society have their heads shoved so far up their ketsu no anas that it makes me wonder if they regard it their mission to protect Japanese culture from all the people who are trying to steal it away (I won’t share the sordid details here). True, I did speak to some very nice people, and I must point out that all of the people who offended me were sadly 100% American. Anyway – for 14 bucks I would expect more from this show.
    Come on! Tell me how I’m wrong – this was just a “training” show for future American otaku (recruitment conspiracy for Nova?), and I am completely missing the boat trying to apply my critical morality to postmodern Japanese art…

  5. nate Says:

    maybe the american internet based tech boom is just a matter of overworking and underpaying the right people at the right time (or somehow getting them to volunteer their services in the name of a better world)… when things were going economically right for japan, the people dying of overwork were in the right jobs to move the economy forward, whereas now, the technologically skilled workforce is still elite in Japan, and demanding decent wages.
    In the states, tech/software people are completely overworked (compared to many others) and disposable.

  6. marxy Says:

    I don’t understand your argument: booms stem from an underpayment/exploitation of skilled workers?

    Don’t American tech workers make a bundle more than Japan tech workers – who are generally paid through a
    age-based hierarchial structure?

  7. Dave Says:

    Of course on the other hand Toyota is now the #2 car maker worldwide (and profitable to boot, unlike the entire US industry.) There’s nothing to sneer at in several industries that have been successfully mastered by the Japanese.

    However, it *so* USA to say ‘oh, that’s not important any more’, as GM and Ford did when other manufacturers mastered the small, medium sized and large car market. Now that they are being beaten in the truck/SUV segment as well it would seem that it will be harder to find a next thing to worry about.

    What I really don’t understand is why nothing is happening among all of the rest of the underperforming Japanese companies – except banks, which are apparently now running scared after that big takeover attempt recently.

  8. Chris_B Says:

    nate: go read “Where Wizzards Stay Up Late”

    marxy: “our” Internet beat “theirs” because of 1) proprietary standards, 2) top down control. Both lead to non interoperability and thus failure. If any Japanese company did well back then on getting terminals into homes, it was Nintendo. They did several modem systems as well as satelite download systems in the 8 and 16 bit days. But as you say, phone costs proved their undoing.

  9. marxy Says:

    Chris: thanks for chiming in. I knew you would be able to explain this story a lot better than I can.

  10. marxy Says:

    Of course on the other hand Toyota is now the #2 car maker worldwide (and profitable to boot, unlike the entire US industry.) There’s nothing to sneer at in several industries that have been successfully mastered by the Japanese.

    True, but things seem to have stablized for the mature industries (cars, steel, turbines), gotten bad for the consumer electronics industries, and gone nowhere with the new industries.

  11. Dave Says:

    Things have consolidated in the mature industries, but I wouldn’t say they have stabilised or that there is a lack of opportunity there. The situation in the USA for steel and auto industries is anything but stable – I expect most of them to file for bankruptcy protection in the next few years. On the other hand in other countries certain companies in steel, for example, are becoming more and more efficient and profitable.

    You may not have noticed, but the Japanese model of 7-11 would be an excellent example of how the Japanese have changed a retail market. 7-11 or shops like it are all over Asia now, substantially different to the US format, and (to my understanding) even though it’s a US brand, a lot of the Asian business is owned through 7-11 Japan as well.

    It’s true that most Japanese companies don’t seem to have been able to grow past dominating their local markets though (with a few large exceptions.) On the other hand you could say the same about the UK, the Netherlands, or Germany.

    Overall I guess what I’m saying is that there’s actually a lot still in the mine if you’re willing to walk past the entrance and have a look around inside.

  12. katie Says:

    I also went to see Murakami’s exhibition at the Japan Society last Friday with my husband and two of my Japanese girl friends. Some of the works were hard to understand for me but one thing I really loved and was impressed was the bunny girl animae Daikon IV which was made by four or five students in Osaka. They were only a students and not even professional. It is well made by a student and the year that the video was showed is more than twenty years ago, 1983!! I was playing the ELO “Twighlight”, the main theme music of the video, on the piano three days before when I saw that video…..