Teaching About Japan #2

In this edition of our series of bulletins on Teaching about Japan, we review T.R. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West. We also briefly describe a resource that can give you intelligible and updated information on Japan’s economy.

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West. New York City: Vintage, 2000. 249 pps. (paperback and hardcover)

Washington Post journalist and NPR commentator T.R. Reid studied East Asian History and Philosophy as an undergraduate and spent several years in Tokyo. All of this is apparent in his book, a highly useful and informative examination of Japanese society for high school teachers, students, and the general public. Reid is an engaging writer, and the book is an easy read.

Reid’s major thesis is that while post-war Japan’s so-called economic miracle received widespread attention, Japan has also experienced a social miracle that deserves more attention in the West. Reid defines the Japanese social miracle as the creation of a highly tranquil society by world standards. Examples of the social miracle’s components include low rates of violent crime, theft, drug use, and divorce rates, coupled with an educational system that produces highly literate and numerate high school graduates.

The author argues that the Japanese have achieved high levels of domestic tranquility primarily by practicing Confucian teachings on a daily basis. Reid devotes an entire chapter to Confucius and his core teaching. Anyone who teaches about East Asia is obligated to begin with Confucius. Even if high school teachers are not in a position to deal with contemporary issues relating to Japan, I highly recommend this chapter as reading material for World History students. It is the single best succinct introduction to Confucian teaching for lay people I have ever encountered.

Reid also includes chapters in his book on education and Japanese business practices that provide support for his basic thesis. In the latter portions of the book, the author argues that core Western teachings are not that different from Confucian values. Western religious and philosophical teachings have also emphasized stable families, education, and moral obligations we all have for others, but the Japanese and other East Asians have simply done a better job, at least since World War II, than Westerners in applying those values in everyday life.

Reid has a positive but not overly idealistic view of Japanese society. He examines the negative aspects of Japanese society as well.

The chapter on economics, however, is seriously flawed. Reid explains, correctly, that the Japanese have so feared the negative effects of unemployment that they have created a situation where large companies will sacrifice productivity to keep unneeded labor employed. He then goes on to argue that, in the long run, this is a better approach than the American one, where companies cut costs by reducing employment. As someone who follows the Japanese economy and is witnessing the end of the twelfth year of economic malaise with no immediate end in sight to Japan’s economic problems, I disagree with Reid. One of the reasons the Japanese economy is in such seriously bad shape is that resources, including labor, are not free to flow to more efficient uses. Economists concur that Japan must either move toward an American-style system where the market is allowed to work more efficiently regarding labor and capital, or adopt an extensive European social safety net for unemployed workers or some combination of the two systems. It is simply dysfunctional for the Japanese to continue to practice corporate welfarism through the employment of unneeded workers.

That said, teachers will want to consult the resource described below for information on the Japanese economy.

The Oriental Economist Report, Toyo Kezai America, inc. (monthly) 450

Seventh Avenue, NY, NY 10003. Peter Ennis editor. https://www.orientaleconomist.com/

Japan remains the second largest economy in the world, and, yet, it is widely misunderstood. Back in the 1980s a significant number of Americans believed the absurd notion that the Japanese were going to take over our economy. Now, a large number of Americans seem to think that a better understanding of the Japanese economy is no longer important. We can use the Japanese economy to teach our students about a number of important economic concepts, including international trade, different applications of capitalism, and the influence of culture on economic practices. The problem for most busy teachers is getting access to current and readable information on Japan’s economy. The Oriental Economist Report is an excellent source for information not only about the Japanese economy but Japanese politics and U.S.-Japanese relations.

This 16-20 page publication is a gem and has been around in one form or another since 1934. Sponsored by one of Japan’s largest business publishers, the OER is independent and, although basic knowledge of introductory micro and macroeconomic concepts is probably needed to understand some of the articles, this is a non-technical publication. It is also lively and includes interviews with key economic actors in Japan, and an “Off the Record” column that includes political news from Japan. Although the primary focus of the publication is the Japanese economy, there are also pieces on U.S. and Japanese policymakers’ attitudes toward each other and articles on such topics as U.S. and Japanese policy stances on North Korea.

A subscription price is $100.00 annually. If your school library can afford this, by all means order the hard copy. However, if this is not the case, visit the web site monthly. The site includes archives of past issues, a free sample issue. great English-language links, and a “Latest News” column. If you really want to understand what the current problems are with Japan’s economy, go to the latter column now. You will find a U.S. Scholars’ Declaration on Japanese Reform that came out of a series of meetings convened at Harvard by noted Japan specialist Ezra Vogel. If you don’t read anything else about the contemporary Japanese economy in 2003, this is the one piece not to miss.

Education About Asia. For those of you who are newcomers to EAA, it is published by the association of Asian Studies, the largest professional association of Asian specialists in the world and its purpose is to improve the teaching of Asia in middle schools, high schools, and undergraduate university level classes. Forthcoming pieces on Japan that should appear sometime in 2003 include articles on the Occupation, contemporary Japanese society, and a series of articles on teaching about the arts of Japan. Many EAA articles are useful for high school students as well as teachers.

Because of cost increases beginning in 2003, EAA’s new subscription rates will be as follows: Non-AAS members, annual subscription-$25.00; Organizations-$31.00. If you become an AAS member, you can receive EAA for a discounted price of $15.00. If your school library does not have a subscription to EAA, you can help promote the teaching of Asia and Japan by having the librarian purchase an organizational subscription. To subscribe, email Ann Beard, AAS director of publications at Abeard@aasianst.org or write Association for Asian Studies, 1021 East Huron Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48104-9876. See the EAA Web Site: https://www.aasianst.org/eaa-toc.htm.

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