Ramseyer on Researching Japan

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Harvard law and economics scholar J. Mark Ramseyer on researching Japan, from his book Odd Markets in Japanese History (Cambridge University Press, 1996):

After decades of dissertations on the subject, few self-respecting scholars any more start their analysis of Japanese behavior with an analysis of Japanese culture. They do not avoid the subject because they find no cultural differences between Japan and North America. Obviously, they do. Neither do they avoid it because they find the differences unimportant. Obviously, many find them vital.

Instead, modern scholars avoid the culturalist approach because starting with culture too often stops the analysis. Once we look for cultural differences, we can too readily take surface variations as fundamental, and explain artifacts of institutional differences as cultural. As those of us in Japanese studies know but seldom admit, it is precisely because of this easy reference to culture that we are now saddled with so much of what is so bad in Western accounts of Japan — that Japanese never sue because they value harmony, for example, or that there are no takeovers because Japanese see the corporation as a family, and that bureaucrats are powerful because Japanese defer to authority. One can use culture to explain almost anything about Japan, and at one time or another we in the West have done just that (7).

W. David MARX (Marxy)
September 29, 2005

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

8 Responses

  1. alin Says:

    This is good, good for the analyst.
    Practically speaking what follows ? if interaction is to occur quite likely something aggressive or reductive.
    Apply the same logic to aesthetics then.

  2. alin Says:

    in other words i do see his point and basically agree as far as it signifies some sort of expansion of consciousness to the self-respecting observer of japanese behaviour who already understands a lot about the culture – yet this kind of stuff can easily become a carte blanche for silly stuff. .

  3. Momus Says:

    After decades of dissertations on the subject, few self-respecting scholars any more start their analysis of economics with an analysis of wealth. They do not avoid the subject because they find no difference between wealth and poverty. Obviously, they do. Neither do they avoid it because they find the differences unimportant. Obviously, many find them vital.
    Instead, modern scholars avoid the financial approach because starting with money too often stops the analysis. Once we look for financial imparities, we can too readily take surface variations as fundamental, and explain artifacts of cultural differences as capital. As those of us in economic studies know but seldom admit, it is precisely because of this easy reference to capital that we are now saddled with so much of what is so bad in our accounts of culture – that litigants sue because they value cash reward, for example, or that takeovers happen because corporations are hostile to other corporations and prefer to own them than compete with them, or that the rich are powerful because the poor defer to their superior spending power in the market system. One can use money to explain almost anything about a culture, and at one time or another we in universities have done just that.

  4. Chris_B Says:

    looks like momus aint nothin but a sed script

  5. nick Says:

    Ok, my 2 favorite things about Japan research:

    1. Expectations have a remarkable habit of coming true. As in, if you expect to find that Japan looks like a closed monoculture, you’ll remarkably find this. You think that Japanese society is the reason for why they build better cars? I’m sure you can come up with 50 such arguements which can’t be disproven. I think alot of liberal-arts/soft science research is marked by this, through unintentional ignoring of data and tunnel-vision.

    2. I’ve met Japanese people who read these opinions and take them as gospel, resulting in a strange infinite loop of self-reflexivity. For example, I met a Japanese kid who looked like a gay punk-rockabilly manga character tell me with a straight face that “well, i’m japanese. i don’t like to be different, i like to follow everyone else.”

  6. alin Says:

    build better cars?

    i thought the ‘better cars’ idiom was history. (gee,,, better cars, Manga, japanese punks, was he wearing a swastika Tshirt?, quite a paradigm for analysis .. ) what’s written on shinkansen these days: ‘ambitious japan’. (quite far from japan #1) the bubble’s long over, left behind and the wounds pretty much healed. still there in the mind of the analyst maybe.

    uncanny coincidence (the self-respecting scholars’ change of approach) unless there’s a point to momus’ find and replace

  7. alin Says:

    nick, i just did what i habitually do here. i don’t actually disagree with what your saying, just find the discussion here looping onto itself because of too much us-and-them-ness.

  8. alin Says:

    which is really just us-ness