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 Certainly, the future proved the book “wrong” to a certain degree, and today it is little more than a quaint historical document without much contemporary relevance.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.