The Writings of Bertell Ollman
to the Editor
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method
Reviews of Ollman's Books
Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives
Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech
Video: Marxism and Progress
Marxism (the cartoon version)
From Theory to Practice
Recommended Web Sites
NYU Course Bibliographies
Not To Dare
Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations
Why Does the Emperor Need the Yakuza?
Prolegomenon to a Marxist Theory of the Japanese State
By Bertell Ollman
On June 5, l999, a Junior High School principal in Osaka was stabbed and seriously injured by a member of the Yakuza (Japan's Mafia), because of his refusal to have the Hinomaru (Rising Sun flag) raised and the Kimigayo ("Let the Emperor Rule Forever" anthem) sung at a graduation ceremony. In February of the same year, another principal of a high school near Hiroshima committed suicide under conflicting pressures from the Ministry of Education, which ordered him to use the flag and the song at graduation, and his own teachers, who urged him not to. Showing such respect for the flag and the anthem was made mandatory in schools in l989, but only seriously enforced by various administrative penalties in the last couple years. What is going on here? And why has what seems like a minor cultural dispute become a major political controversy, with such dire consequences for some of the participants?
It is an odd controversy, for while those who oppose the compulsory use of the flag and anthem have shown no hesitation in giving their reasonschief of which is these symbols' close association with Japan's imperialistic and militaristic practises before l945the Government, though responding to most criticisms, has been strangely silent about what has led them to precipitate this crisis in the first place. What did they hope to achieve? Why is it so important to them? And why have they acted now? The one-sided character of this exchange together with the overheated manner in which it is conducted, have led many foreign observers to put it all down to Japanese exoticism. But mysteries, even Japanese ones, generally have explanations. My attempt to unravel this political mystery will proceed through a Marxist analysis of the Japanese state, for I believe it is in the distinctive requirements of this state that we will find the reason for the Government's actions.
The Japanese state has never been easy to understand. For example, in the l3th century, Japan was ruled by an Emperor, who was really the puppet of a retired Emperor and his courtiers, who in turn responded to the orders of a military dictator, or Shogun, who was himself completely under the control of his Regent. The play of mirrors to deflect direct empirical inquiry continues to operate even today. Can the Marxist theory of the state effectively explain what one of the best books on this subject has reluctantly come to view as "the enigma of Japanese power"?1
The typical Marxist critique of the state in democratic capitalist societies, however, treats the Government as the chief instrument of the capitalist class, and plays down the role of the bureaucracy. It generally considers only overtly political institutions as parts of the state, and views democratic institutions and practises, like the Constitution and free elections, as the main sources of legitimation. For most democratic capitalist countries, including the U.S., this approach serves quite well, but in the case of Japan it is grossly inadequate.
What sets Japan apart from virtually all other democratic states in the capitalist world isl) the elected Government is extremely weak; 2) the higher state bureaucracy dominates both the elected Government and the corporate sector; 3) a large number of top positions in Government and business are held by retired bureaucrats; 4) many essential political functions are performed by what appear to be non-state bodies; and 5) the main legitimating agency for the state, for both the form it assumes and its actions, is the Emperor system, a hangover from Japan's feudal past.
There is no dispute on the first point, though it never ceases to shock when people encounter examples of it. Shortly after assuming his post as U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Walter Mondale remarked, "In the Diet, when you see bureaucrats also participating in the debates, answering questions, preparing amendments, preparing the budgets, you realize that this is a society in which the publicly elected side is very limited".2 When he was a U.S. Senator, Mondale had a personal staff of about fifty (it is about twenty-five for members of the House of Representatives) to provide him with the information and expertise he needed to be an effective legislator. His equivalent in Japan has a staff of one or two, and Cabinet Ministers have only a few more. An incoming American President appoints several hundred high ranking civil servants, who, given the method of their appointment, owe their first loyalty to him. An incoming Japanese Prime Minister appoints a few dozen. Lacking the means to arrive at well reasoned positions, it is not surprising then that weekly Cabinet meetings take only ten to fifteen minutes, and consist mainly of rubber stamping what the in-house bureaucrats have already decided upon. Only once since l955 has the Diet amended a budget presented to it by the civil service. The rapid turnover of Prime Ministers (on average one every two years) and Ministers (on average one every year) also contribute to an elected Government that is more shadow than substance.
When Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi became incapacitated after a stroke in early April, 2000, it was his chief Cabinet Secretary, Mikio Aoki, a civil servant, who became acting prime minister, and who seems to have played the decisive behind-the-scenes role in choosing Yoshio Mori to succeed Obuchi when the latter finally died. The elected Government's dependence on the bureaucracy may have reached its nadir in Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's (l994) unsuccessful efforts to have the bureaucrats get rid of the cockroaches in his official residence and buy him a T.V. that worked.3 His successor took matters into his own hands and paid for the needed improvements himself.
In the past, when I taught courses on the Soviet Union, I devoted one month to the Communist Party and one week to the Supreme Soviet and Council of Ministers. The official Government may not have deserved even that much attention. The case of Japan is not very different, except here, of course, the ultimate source of power is not, as in the former Soviet Union, a political party (or part thereof) but the higher state bureaucracy, particularly in the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (M.I.T.I.), and the State Bank. Some have questioned how this could be given the fact that the civil service in Japan is between l/2 to l/3 as large as its counterparts in western capitalist countries, but this only shows that its considerable power is more concentrated and less diluted by checks and balances of various sorts. There is a shadow or separate budget (Zaito) controlled by the Ministry of Finance, for example, that is 2/3 the size of the official Governmental budget. The money, which comes from the Postal Savings System and public pension assets, is used for favored political projects wholly at the discretion of the bureaucrats in this Ministry. Before Japan's defeat in World War II, of course, the short list of powerful ministries would also have included the Ministry of Defense.
A comparison might be useful: Japanese bureaucrats are not formal advisors to top politicians; they do not move freely between administration and politics, or run for office while remaining bureaucratsall of which happens in France. They do not sit in Parliament while serving as bureaucrats (as happens in Germany), or serve on Presidential commissions (as happens in the U.S.). These are all ways in which bureaucrats in different countries influence their Governments. Japan's leading bureaucrats don't have to do any of these things, because they are, in effect, the Government. This is the second major feature that sets Japan apart from other capitalist democracies, and, again, there can't be many who would disagree, though few seem to be aware of the extent of the bureaucracy's power or to have worked out its full implications for the rest of Japanese society.
The bureaucrats' stranglehold over politicians is matched by their domination of the business community. Even mainstream scholars recognize the unusual degree of interdependence between private and Governmental activities in Japan. But the bureaucracy's role goes beyond supplying helpful legislation, needed capital and expertise to serving as the planning arm for the capitalist class as a whole, developing strategies and setting priorities for all sectors of the economy. It is the state bureaucracy, and not the owners of industry or their much touted managers and workers, who are primarily responsible for what Japan, Inc. is today. Rather than simply tell businessmen what to do, Japan's ministries have perfected the old Mafia tactic of making people an offer that they can't refuse. They call it "administrative guidance". Should individual businessmen prove recalcitrant, the bureaucrats have a variety of means ranging from new laws and regulations to licenses, subsidies, loans, and tax benefits offered or refused to exact compliance, but it is generally unnecessary to carry out such threats.
In actual fact, there are probably fewer conflicts between the bureaucracy and the business world than there are between different sectors of the former, so part of the enigma that needs to be explained is why capitalists cooperate with the state as fully as they do. Some have suggested that the higher civil service in other capitalist countries, such as France, exercise similar power over their private sectors, but this is to miss an important difference of kind as well as of degree. With the elected Government effectively neutralized, Japan's leading bureaucrats, unlike their equivalents in other capitalist countries, are simply without rivals as the chief strategists and enforcers of their country's economic efforts.
The easy acquiescence of Japan's businessmen to "administrative guidance" goes back in the first instance to the origins of capitalism in Japan shortly after the Meiji Restoration in l868. The section of lower Samurai who came to power at that time established profitable business monopolies and then sold them at a pittance to a privileged few families, mainly from their own clans. It was privatization rather than capital accumulation that gave Japan its first Zaibatsus (business empires). Unlike Western Europe wherebroadly speakingcapitalists came before capitalism which, in turn, preceeded a state dedicated to serving their interests, Japan seems to have reversed this process. Wishing to catch up with the technological and military achievements of the overbearing foreigners who had just forced them to open their ports to trade, the new Japanese state created capitalists in a manner not very different from how the feudal state in Europe had created knights and barons. 4
From the start, the Japanese state has done whatever it could to protect its economic offspring and to ensure their growth and prosperity. How could the primary beneficiaries of these policies not "cooperate"? The hostile international business environment in which Japanese capitalists as late starters were operating along with their increasing dependence on foreign sources of raw materials further strengthened their team (national) approach to resolving business problems and their reliance on the strategic leadership of the state bureaucracy. As if all this weren't enough to insure business compliance (they prefer to call it "consensus"), the bureaucracy also plays a role in key top level promotions in the private sector. In choosing a C.E.O., many of the banks, for example, comes to M.I.T.I. with a short list from which the latter makes the final selection.
There have been sporadic attempts, especially in recent years, by a few Prime Ministers and major corporate owners to reduce their dependence on the state bureaucracy, but little seems to have changed. The bureaucracy's continuing control over Japan's economic and political life raises a major theoretical problem for Marxists regarding how to conceptualize the relations between the top bureaucrats, the heads of corporations and banks, and Government leaders. It is not an empirical problem, for the main facts, as we have seen, are well known. Rather, it is a conceptual problem. If the bureaucracy does indeed dominate the other two groups, in what sense can we speak of a ruling capitalist class? And if the capitalists don't rule, in what sense can we speak of capitalism?
An answer to these questions is suggested by the factalso well knownthat a large number of top bureaucrats take up leading positions in business and to a lesser extent in politics after they retire from the civil service, which usually occurs between the ages of 4555. In Japan, where people remain active till quite late in life, that gives them another twenty years or so to pursue their new careers. This practise, which is the third major feature that sets Japan apart from the rest of the captitalist world (with the possible exception of France), is so widespread that the Japanese have a word for it: "amakudari", or "descent from heaven", though the landingshould anyone worryis invariably very soft. Today, there are several thousand ex-bureaucrats holding jobs as president, chairman, director, and manager of corporations, banks, business associations, and public corporations, usually in the same area in which they worked earlier as agents of the state. 5 This is the elite of the Japanese business community. The U.S. Department of Defense probably holds the record in our country for having its retired bureaucrats join the private sector, but the main purpose here is to win defense contracts for their new employer and hardly ever does the fledgling businessman become the C.E.O. In Japan, where top bureaucrats are concerned, this happens far more often.
To appreciate the importance of this difference, we should add that the managers and directors of Japanese corporations have considerably more power in relation to their stockholders than do their counterparts in the U.S. This is the result of the large amount of interlocking stock ownership between Japanese corporations and of their having a much lower equity to debt ratioand therefore less dependence on public offerings for their capitalthan American corporations. Hence, the influence of state bureaucrats on corporations is less watered down by various market forces than is the case in the U.S. And the person in the corporation who is most responsible for heeding the "administrative guidance" from the bureaucracy is likely to be a former bureaucrat himself, often from the very ministry to which he is now responding.
The situation in politics is only slightly less incestuous, with the majority of all Japanese Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers since the war having come to politics by the bureaucratic route, and the readjustments that followed the breakup of the once hegemonic Liberal Democratic Party has done nothing to alter this process (though the number of exceptions has increased somewhat since l980). Nothing like this existsnot in such numbers, and not as regards positions of this prominence (again, with the possible exception of France)anywhere else in the world.
A major effect of amakudari is that most of Japan's leading bureaucrats benefit directly and personally, if not immediately, from the success of Japanese capitalism. The widespread and systematic character of this mid-life change in careers also means that they know that the decisions they make as bureaucrats will determine their future "posting" and the fortune that comes with it. Where the transition from state functionary to capitalist is so well known beforehand, the interests of the capitalists also become the interests of the bureaucrats. As for Japan's leading businessmen, many of whom are former bureaucrats, knowing the trajectory that the current cohort of top bureaucrats are on, they can be confident that the decisions which are made in the state sector are in their best interests. But if so many of Japan's leading capitalists are former bureaucrats and most of its leading bureaucrats future capitalists, it seems to make as much sense to view them all as members of the same classseparated only by a temporary division of laborthan as members of different classes. The same reasoning can be applied to include the ex-bureaucrats in the elected Government, who also benefit greatly from the largesse of big business, in this class. The common educational background (in l993, 88% of the top bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance came from the University of Tokyo, chiefly from the Law School) and frequent intermarriage between these three groups also argue for stressing this shared identity over their equally apparent differences.6 If some saw the possibility of class differences in the meritocratic origins of the bureaucracy, the high cost of good cram schools that start in kindergarten, without which it is virtually impossible to get into Tokyo University, has proven very successful in limiting the better bureaucratic jobs to a privileged few.
It is evidence such as this that allows Karel Von Wolferen, one of the most insightful writers on Japan, to claim that the top bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians in Japan form one ruling class, which he dubs "class of administrators".7 While this label highlights the extraordinary role of the bureaucracy as an incubator of future capitalists and politicians, it occludes the pro business pattern that emerges from the activities of what appear to be quite different institutions and the common interests and purposes that give rise to this pattern. When all this is taken into account, it is clear that a more apt name for these people is "capitalists".8
According to Marx, capitalists are those who personify or give human form to and carry out the dictates of capital, understood as self-expanding value, or wealth used with the aim of creating still more wealth. The contrast is with wealth used to satisfy need, or serve God, or expand civil or military power, or obtain glory or status. With capital, wealth becomes self-centered and concerned only with its own growth. Those who control wealth, use it in this manner and benefit personally from the process, whether they are the legal owners of the means of production or not, belong to the same collective capitalist class. It is simply that in Japan some capitalists work in what are formally state institutions and others in what are formally private ones, though, as we have seen, most of the leading members of this class divide their lives between the two. The essential thing is that they all function as embodiments of capital, serving its (and, consequently, their own) best interests in whatever way their current positions allow. They all work to expand surplus value and benefit materially when that happens, though when they are bureaucrats and politicians this is not immediately obvious.
Other countries, of course, have capitalists who become high civil servants (sic) and/or major politicians without ever ceasing to be capitalists. The outstanding example in the U.S. is Nelson Rockefeller, who was a capitalist, an ambassador, and a Vice President. But most such figures, who are the exceptions in their countries, start by being owners of corporate wealth. In Japan, where this career pattern is much more widespread, corporate wealth generally comes later. What appears to be the state's domination over the capitalist class, then, a view that I myself seemed to adopt at the start of this paper and something that is often cited as a reason for the inapplicability of Marxist analysis to Japan, takes on an altogether different meaning once the boundaries between the principles are re-set in this manner.
The qualities that distinguish one as a member of a class can be acquired over time. Class membership, like classes themselves, evolves; one can become part of a class in stages. And in Japan, the process of becoming a capitalist for most of the leading members of that class begins with their entry into the state bureaucracy. Recognizing that Japan's top bureaucrats belong to the capitalist class does not mean that we can no longer distinguish them as that part of the class which functions at present in the state bureaucracy. But we now have a clearer sense of what they do there and why, and also why they receive the degree of compliance from both corporate and Governmental leaders that they do. We can also better understand why capitalists in the private sector occasionally perform Governmental tasksas when Nomura Securities drafted the legislation that was meant to restrict its own behaviorwithout blowing a mental fuse in the way we think about public and private worlds. In Japan, the boundary between capitalists in and out of state service is simply not as clear or as rigid as their respective institutional forms of power would have us believe.9 It is important to recognize, too, that the aim of Marxist class analysis is not to arrive at some a-historical classificatory scheme where no one and nothing moves, but to explain the workings and dynamics of whole societies, and this allows for and even requires a certain flexibility in drawing and re-drawing class lines.10 In order to capture the distinctive character of Japanese capitalism, I have thought it necessary to extend the notion of capitalist class to include the higher state bureaucrats and the leading politicians in the pro-capitalist parties.
If in this situation the bureaucracy is generally allowed to take the initiative for the entire class, it is only because the other members of this class recognize that those currently working in the state ministries have the requisite expertise as well as the best overview and clearest focus on the interests of the class as a whole. Their view is not compromised by the interests of a particular corporation or industry (as happens with managers and directors) or by those of a party or faction (as happens with Government leaders). Freed from such temporary and partial distractions, the bureaucrats are in the best position to serve the general as well as the long term interests of Japanese capitalism and to mediate between rival factions of the ruling class whenever that is necessary. From its work as mediator, it may appear as if the state is neutral, if one doesn't notice that it is always a faction of the same class that comes out on top.
The capitalist state, particularly in Japan, is forever tipping its hand as regards its true role on behalf of the capitalist class, and, while radicals have documented this again and again, for most people the connection is always being made as if for the first time. Chiefly, what is missing are the categories of thought to hold fast what they are learning. One of the main aims of this study is to supply such a category for the peculiar case of Japan. That category is "collective capitalist". Japan today remains a Shogunate, but the Shogun is not a military figure. It is the collective capitalist, which divides its time between bureaucratic, business, and Governmental functions. The Samurai who made the Meiji Revolution refused to become new feudal rulers (as happened after earlier successful revolts), opting instead to make themselves into a capitalist ruling class. But, before they could do that, they had to create capitalism and a capitalist class of which they could be part. Their success in establishing this new social formation with themselves as the core of its ruling class is undoubtedly one of the greatest feats of social engineering in human history. In most fundamental respects, and despite all the changes brought on by World War II, Japan continues to operate inside the mold cast by these founding fathers.
The fourth major feature that distinguishes Japan from other democratic capitalist countries are the many essential political functions performed by what appear to be non-state bodies. This practise, of course, can be found elsewhere. What stands out in the case of Japan are the large number of instances and their importance. To determine what these are, we must first understand what it is that states do. It is not enough to know that the state is the prime locus of political power. We also need to know how and for what this power is used. In all societies based as a social division of labor, the class or bloc of classes that control the surplus, or wealth over the minimum required to keep alive and functioning those who produce it, need society-wide help to legitimate the means by which they extract this surplus and to repress those who refuse to go along. Hence, in one way or another, all states engage in repression and legitimation. Given the way that wealth is produced and distributed in the capitalist epoch, our capitalist ruling class requires two additional kinds of help from the state, and that is in the accumulation of capital and in the realization of value. The first involves securing the conditions that underlie the exploitation of workers and the production of a surplus as well as creating profitable investment opportunities where they otherwise wouldn't exist. The second is mainly a matter of finding and establishing markets in order to make sure that what is produced gets sold. Therefore, every capitalist state has to provide these four functions: repression, legitimation, accumulation, and realization. Not to do so simply means that its ruling class would not be able to survive as the ruling class. It is not only a matter of being unable to serve their interests effectively; the capitalists would not be able to reproduce the conditions that are responsible for their very existence as a class. Having established these functions as essential functions of the state in capitalist society, it is possible to view a body that performs any one of them as part of the state. The state here is simply the sum of these bodies, even where some of them also engage in non-political activities, in which case they are both parts of the state and parts of something else at the same time.
What is crucial to Marx's theory of the state is not this or that quality of political institutions, or the power that they possess, or even the privileged position of one class, but rather the relation between all these and the requirements of the particular social and economic system in which they are situated. The procedure moves from the whole inward. The first thing is to establish the nature of the whole as a class society, or, in this case, as a capitalist class society. Marx calls the state "the active, conscious and official expression of the present structure of society", and, elsewhere, "the form of organization which the bourgeoisie necessarily adopt both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests".11
As we see from these citations, the state can be viewed as a dimension of the whole, which is capitalism, but also as an aspect of the capitalist class, as something this class does. The one takes us into the realm of "capital logic" (which relates structures to processes inside a historically specific whole), the other into the realm of capitalists' class interests (which connects people's place inside these structures to their activities). The two together represent the objective and subjective sides of the same complex relation. With what the state does (and the historically specific forms it takes on to do it) internally related to what its ruling class is (and, therefore, what its interests require), Marx considers the state in class societies (in all class societies and whatever the degree of democratic content) a "dictatorship" of its ruling class. This is not to be understood instrumentally, with its suggestion of arbitrariness and of there being an external relation between a state and its ruling class, but expressively, as the set of institutional forms through which a ruling class relates to the rest of society, as part of what it means for a ruling class to rule, that is, as an essential feature of the class itself.
By coming at the parts of the state from the vantage point of the whole, we can also avoid getting lost in the parts and mistaking their ideological self-presentations as reality. In the case of Japan, despite the torrents of official propaganda, we have no trouble recognizing that the elected Government doesn't govern, that democracy doesn't give citizens any power, that administrators don't simply administer, and that overtly political institutions don't do all the political work. We are also given the flexibility to redraw the boundaries of what is ordinarily taken as the state to include various institutions and groups that perform essential political tasks.
Ask a practising economist what are the boundaries of the firm, and he will give one answer today and another a few days later when he is working on another problem. It is the problem that is decisive. The same is true of the state where the problems to be solved are those of its ruling class, andby extensionof the means, institutions and the like, that are used in dealing with them. As the problems requiring immediate or greater attention vary, and as the means for solving them become more or less available, the boundaries of the state will also change. The state remains, as in the popular view, the repository of ultimate social power, but it doesn't have to refer to the same set of institutions in every society, or to imply that these institutions are fixed, or that they can't at the same time have other roles. There is simply no need for the various elements of the state to be housed under one roof, either functionally or conceptually. Indeed, there are often practical advantages for the ruling class to organize its state in another manner.
Since the elected Government in Japan is so weak and the bureaucrats who have extensive power were never elected, the Japanese state has been forced to incorporate a number of bodies that play little or no role in other states to serve all the functions required of it by Japanese capitalism. Among the more important of these bodies are major business associations (run by former bureaucrats) who often participate in planning and coordinating the economy to help in the accumulation of capital and the realization of value. The Chairman of one of them, Keidenren, is popularly referred to as the 1st Prime Minister of business. Another is the U.S. Government, particularly its military arm, which still occupies l50 bases in Japan and has the legal right to quell internal disorder. This should not be surprising when one considers that colonial Governments have always been part of the state in their colonies, and for several years after World War II Japan came very close to being an American colony. Another is the Emperor system which plays, as we shall see, a crucial role in legitimation. Still others are the major media, educational institutions and foundations, religious organizations, the main trade union, Rengo, and, again as I hope to show, organized crime, the Yakuza.
If the state is not restricted to a particular geographical space or certain institutional forms but includes all bodies that perform essential political tasks for the ruling class, there should be no difficulty in viewing this strange amalgamalong with the elected Government, the courts, the cops, the armed forces, and, of course, the bureaucracyas the Japanese state. This doesn't rule out recognizing that there are major differences and disputes between these bodies (and, indeed, within each one); or that one of them, the bureaucracy, possesses by far the greatest influence; or even that subaltern classes can occasionally use this disarray to score minor victories in some of the state's more distant outposts.
The fact that political power in Japan is distributed among so many bodies (and in some cases, like the bureaucracy, to different and often competing elements within them) has led to the complaint that the Japanese state is plagued by an absence of accountability. But, if the statepartly through this very distribution of functionshas succeeded as well as the Japanese state obviously has in serving its ruling class, the absence of a clear center to which those who wish changes can make representations and against which they can bring pressure should be viewed instead as one of its major strengths.
What, perhaps, emerges most clearly from this collection of political odditiesthe exceptionally weak elected Government, the extraordinarily powerful higher bureaucracy that is at the same time one with the capitalist class, and the distribution of essential political functions among many apparently non-political bodiesis that the Japanese state is in dire need of legitimation, or a clear and compelling reason for why one should obey the state even if one disagrees with its policies. Without such a reason, no amount of military and economic power can secure a state against the possibility of being overturned.
There was no difficulty in feudalism recognizing that the state belonged to the ruling social and economic class, but, operating under one or another version of the Divine Right of Kings / Emperors Theory, people generally accepted that this was the way it was supposed to be. The capitalist ruling class enjoys the same relation to the state under capitalism. Without the same access to religion, however, it is much harder for capitalists than it was for feudalism's rulers to identify their class interests with the general interest, and have them accepted as such. For the state to serve capitalists' interests effectively under these conditions, it is necessary to have the state appear separate from and independent of the capitalist class, and concerned with everyone equally. The appearance of neutrality is usually achieved by halving political from economic functions and getting the former performed by people who are not themselves part of the ruling economic class. But if the class that benefits most from capitalism also makes and administers the rules by which they benefit (as distinct from the state's simply being heavily influenced by capitalists or following an objective logic inherent in capital), the biased character of these rules stands out in sharp relief. Typically, capitalists can only succeed in replacing aristocrats as the ruling class where the state appears to be independent of all class ties. In Japanwhere leading state bureaucrats, who are also capitalists, make the major economic decisionsthis process is very incomplete. While this helps explain the Japanese state's ability to act in such a decisive manner on behalf of the capitalist class, it also accounts for its greater vulnerability to fundamental criticism and outsized need for effective legitimation. Some readers might find it odd that an avowedly Marxist work gives such a crucial role to the problem of legitimation, a problem usually associated with Webberian analysis, but in the absence of effective popular rule legitimacy becomes one of capitalism's major contradictions, and unraveling itas we shall seeoffers an unusual opportunity to expand both socialist theory and practise.
The three main sources of political legitimation in the U.S. are the Constitution (especially as interpreted by the Supreme Court, itself of course a creature of the Constitution), free elections, such as they are, andto a lesser degreethe office of the presidency, as the main locus as well as symbol of national unity and power. Most Americans accept the right of our political authorities to rule over us because we have chosen themboth by adopting the Constitution and by voting, especially for the president, in recent elections. None of these sources of legitimation are available to the Japanese state, where the Constitution was drafted by nameless foreigners and forced upon the country after its defeat in World War II, and where elections, though as "free" as our own, bring to office a Government that practically everyone knows has very little power.12 The Japanese state must find its legitimation elsewhere, and it does. Some of this legitimation comes from the widespread belief that the bureaucrats, who do have power, are simply the smartest people around and that they do their best to serve the national interest. Some legitimation came from the state's success in helping to build a prosperous economy, when that economy was still prosperous. I also think the fact that so much in the Japanese polity reflects what exists (or what people take to exist) in the U.S., still popular as a model of democracy among many Japanese, contributes to the legitimacy of the political order. The media, schools, major unions, and religious institutions also add their bit to legitimation by playing up the team aspects of Japanese life and pretending there is no legitimation problem to be resolved. But even after the effect of all these means have been added up, there remains a very large legitimation deficit. Enter the Emperor System (and our fifth point).
Before discussing the role of the Emperor System in the Japanese state, I would like to spike a misunderstanding that may arise from my frequent comparisons between the Japanese and American political systems. I do not believe that the U.S. is more democratic than Japan, only differently democratic, ormore in keeping with the tenor of my remarksdifferently undemocratic. If the U.S. has elections for posts that have real political power (whereas Japan does not), Japan has more than one party, including anti-capitalist parties, participating in elections as serious contenders (whereas the U.S. does not, the Republicans and Democrats being two factions of the same capitalist party). Japan also has higher voter turn-outs, which is another popular indicator used to measure degrees of democracy. As dictatorships of the capitalist class, however, American and Japanese democracies are equally biased on behalf of their ruling class and equally concerned to hide this bias. Consequently, whatever the differences in how they perform these functions, neither can be viewed as morally superior to the other.
Japan, though formally a democracy, is largely governed by a small group of people whom no one has elected. Their decisions benefit one class far more than others. To the extent that the Japanese people know this, and most do to one degree or another, why do they accept it? Why do they go along? The answer one hears most often is that this is what the Japanese are like, meaning either culturally or psychologically, or both. But this is to introduce as the main explanation what itself is in great need of being explained. Where does this element of Japanese culture or psyche come from? Who benefits from it? How does it work? And how do those who benefit manipulate it to help them deal with their most pressing problems? Without dismissing either culture or psychology (or, it should be added, accepting a particular version of them) and without refusing them a place in the total explanation, these questions redirect our attention to the rational dimension of our inquiry, to the kind of account that people give (or could give) as to why they willingly obey the established authority.
Japan's rulers never had a popular mandate. That's why the Shoguns, Japan's traditional military rulers, retained the more popular Emperor as figurehead. After the Meiji Revolution in l868, that was carried out by elements of the lower Samurai from only one section of the country, the need for legitimation was especially severe. No less important at the time was the need to unite all Japanese in order to present a common front against the latest exactions coming from the West, particularly the U.S. Recall the role that divisions in India played in opening up that country to British imperialism. Solidifying the ties between the Japanese people and the Emperor must have seemed like the ideal solution to both problems.
The new rulers of Japan began by bringing the Emperor from Kyoto to Tokyo, the center of Government, and issuing all their decisions in his name. They reinvigorated a largely dormant Shinto religion that added divine stature to the Emperor's already popular role as father of the Japanese people. Then in l873, they promulgated the Kokutai (National Essence) doctrine which asserted that the Emperor embodied in his person the will of the nation. Thus, he knew just what the Japanese people needed, what was good for them, and, of course, how they should live. The new political arrangements that the Government drew up were presented as a gift from the Emmperor, a manifestation of his perfect wisdom and benevolence, and for which people were expected to be eternally grateful and loyal.
All criticism of Kakutai was made illegal, and it became the centerpiece of education both in schools and in the military. There is little evidence to suggest that the Emperor was viewed as such a benevolent figure before the National Essence doctrine was declared, or that people reacted to his supposed benevolence with the same fervent gratitude that they demonstrated subsequently. So much for explanations of Japanese exceptionalism that prioritizes cultural or psychological phenomena. With state Shintoism and Kakutai firmly in place, the legitimation of Japan's real rulers was secured for almost a century.
In l945, with Japan's defeat in World War II, all this came to an endor did it? One of the first acts of the American occupiers was to have the Emperor announce to the Japanese people that he was not divine and that the war for which he was at least partly responsible was a tragic mistake. At a stroke, two mainstays of the Emperor's hold on the Japanese peoplehis pretended divinity and his inability to err in matters of public interestdisappeared. The Allies also took great care not to give the Emperor any political role in the new Constitution, where he is only mentioned as a "symbol of the Japanese state and of the unity of the people". The position itself is said to derive "from the will of the people with whom resides sovereign political power".13 Even though unnamed bureaucrats succeeded in mistranslating the term "will" here as "integration" in the Japanese version of the Constitutionleaving the relationship between Emperor and people more ambiguous than MacArthur intendedmost students of Japanese post-war politics have treated the Emperor as a simple anachronism, even less important than the British monarch, with no necessary function in the operation of the state.(Unlike his British counterpart, for example, the Emperor plays no role in appointing ambassadors; he has no right to see state papers; and legislation does not require his seal.) I consider this a major misunderstanding.
In my view, the Emperor remains the main source of legitimation for the Japanese state in its current form, and especially for the heavy tilt in the use of its power on behalf of the capitalist class. Despite all formal changes to his status, the Emperor continues to do for Japanese capitalism what the Constitution and free elections cannot do, and what the other sources of legitimation mentioned above can do only in small part. How he does this is also rather unique. As titular head and most striking symbol of the Japanese nation, the Emperor is in a position to get people to accept existing political arrangements and their biased outcomes by eliciting a transfer of sentiments and especially the loyalty people feel toward the social community, to which they belong as members of an ethnic group, to the political community, or state, to which they belong as citizens and members of different social classes.
Marx makes an important distinction between these two communities: the social communityin which the division of labor establishes a mutual dependence of all parties for the satisfaction of their needs, and where the cooperation this engenders leads over time to a high degree of identification with other members and an appreciation of what they have contributed to one's own well beingand the political communityin which one class, pursuing its narrow class interests, exercises power over everyone else. Marx calls the latter an "illusory community", because, unlike the former, it neither belongs to everybody nor does it serve everybody.14 Yet, it is of crucial importance to those who control the political community that the mass of the people believe otherwise. By presenting the Emperor as standing astride both social and political communities, Japan's rulers hope to conflate the two in the popular mind, to confuse, in effect, what has constituted the Japanese as a people with the form of rule that has been constituted over them, with the aim of having people react to the latter in ways evoked by the former.
The Emperor achieves this remarkable feat not by anything he says or does, but simply by virtue of what he is (or is taken to be) and the importance people attach to their relation to him as members of the Japanese ethnic community. Then, once he assumes his position as head of statethe actual title used is less important than the nature of the connection that is conveyed (hence, the relative unimportance of the actual wording used in the Constitution)it requires but a small shift in focus to mistake the state as the political embodiment of the social community, as the necessary means by which it acts on the world. In which case, citizenship in the state merely formalizes the rights and duties that each individual already possesses as a member of the ethnic community, and belonging to one is equated with belonging to the other. Regrettably, for all too many Japanese, it also follows that non-ethnic Japanese can never become full citizens (witness the discrimination against Koreans who have lived in Japan for generations), and that ethnic Japanese who have become citizens of other countries are traitors to their "race".
The Chinese character for "state", which is used in Japan, means "family of the country", with the suggestion that the state is a natural rather than artificial construction, and puts the head of state in a position similar to that of the father in the family. To enforce this link, the father's special role in the family is even mentioned in the Japanese Constitution. An Emperor, of course, is in a better position to make use of this analogy than a President would be. The American President, for example, can be fatherly, but both his partisanship and impermanence makes it impossible to present him as everyone's father and to give assurances that all members of the national family are of equal concern to him.
The Chinese character for "bureaucracy", which is also used in Japan, also lends support to the legitimizing role played by the Emperor. It originally meant "to serve the Emperor or heaven", where the Emperor simply stood in for the Japanese people. Today the bureaucracy is supposed to serve the people. The total acquiescence to their rule by the Emperor, no longer equated with the people but still viewed by many as a kind of father (with all the fairness and benevolence that this conveys), is easily mistaken as an assurance that the bureaucrats are doing a good job for everyone, and not just for the privileged few.
No other royal family can point to origins as ancient as those of the Japanese Emperor, and in the popular mind what is very old is often equated with what is natural. As the presumed father of the Japanese people, in a relation that is supposed to go back over 2,000 years, the Emperor does not need to hold formal political power in order to exercise the influence I have attributed to him. Since the kind of obedience he exacts can never be taken, only offered, it may even be that the lack of formal power actually aids him in the accomplishment of his task. Thus, when Lycurges, a king in ancient Sparta, wanted his people to adopt a new Constitution, his first move was to resign as king, so that no one was constrained to accept what he was about to give them. Only then, he believed, would it be possible to obtain their unqualified support for the new Constitution. Similarly, the Emperor's influence on people's sense of who they are and what the state is in relation to them could only reach as deeply as it obviously does because he has no apparent means to impose his will. From his position above the political fray, standing apart from all factions, without any responsibility for particular Governmental policies, and lacking the power to enforce his views (should he have any), the Emperor has been distilled by his handlers into a pure concern for the well being of the Japanese people.
This was not always the case. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Emperor's admission that he is not divine and that he had made mistakes, together with the rise of egalitarian and republican ideas and their spread particularly in the schools, made it very difficult for the Emperor to resume his pre-war role as chief legitimator for the established order. The political turbulence that Japan experienced in the first decades after the war had many causes, but one that has not received the attention it deserves was the inability of the regime to obtain the legitimacy it required without the degree of help traditionally supplied by the Emperor System. With the formal end of the American occupation in l952, Japan's bureaucratic rulers set about to reestablish the authority of the Emperor in whatever ways they could, given the relation of class forces at the time. The main aim was to bring people to think of the Emperor once again as head of state. This involved frequent attemptsin violation of the Constitutionto have the Emperor act as head of state on various ceremonial occasions, and pressure on the schools to introduce more traditional ideas about the Emperor into their program. It is only in this context that we can make sense out of the importance Japan's nominally democratic Government attaches to having students sing a national anthem that presents the country as still under the rule of the Emperor.
Have I made too much of the Emperor in my account of Japanese politics? Many, if not most modern Japanese, after all, will say that they are indifferent to the Emperor. I consider this claim suspect, however, especially if made to foreigners. Most Japanese will also say that they don't believe in Shintoism, but many of these same people will recite a Shinto prayer before constructing a building. Religious conviction has waned in Japan, but superstition of all kinds is alive and well. So while no one still considers the Emperor divine, his status as father of the Japanese people is reasonably secure, and given the strong sense of ethnic identity that prevails in Japan, this is more than enough for him to perform his role as chief legitimator of the state.
Reestablishing an irrational tradition in an increasingly rational world, where people are also aware of the high price their country paid for following that tradition, is not an easy task. The regime's first line of defense against criticisms of the Emperor System is utter contumely and, when possible, refusal to recognize its very existence. The ruling party's unwillingness to even hear such criticisms produced a procedural crisis recently in the Okinawa Prefectural (state) Assembly when a Communist Party deputy referred to the "brutal Tenno (Emperor) System" in a speech on Japan's role in World War II. This resulted in a five day halt in legislative business as the conservative majority tried to get him to withdraw the "insulting remark" and apologize. He refused, and in the end, the Speaker of the Assembly deleted the offensive words from the minutes of the meeting.
The second and, undoubtedly, more effective line of defense is outright repression. It helps enormously if those inclined to criticize the imperial tradition are afraid to do so. In Japan, the task of making them afraid is performed by the Yakuza, who threaten, beat up and even kill anyone who makes public his opposition to the Emperor System. The Yakuza member who stabbed the Junior High School principal for failing to raise the Rising Sun flag and have the "Let the Emperor Rule Forever" anthem sung at graduation was only too pleased to give his motive: "I want all the Japanese people", he said "to respect the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo. If I killed the principal, and this were reported in the mass media, it would serve as a warning to those organizations which oppose the Hinomaru flag being hoisted and the Kimigayo song being sung in the schools".15 Who can doubt that this messageand others like ithave had their effect?
This is not something any official governmental agency could do, not as systematically and therefore not as efficiently, not as long anyway as the state pretended to be a democracy. Involvement by the Government would also make it appear that the Emperor, as putative head of state, has something to do with the extra-legal violence, and this would detract from his presumed neutrality to say nothing of his benevolence. But the Yakuza, with its many ties to the far right in Japan and its well known conception of honor, can carry out this task and in such a way that the Government escapes most of the blame.16 There is, of course, an ultra-nationalist right in Japan that exists apart from the Yakuza, but the overlap between the two is far greater than what one finds in other countries that also have a far right and organized crime. The Japanese Yakuza is simply so much more than a bigger version of the Mafia.
The great latitude that the Yakuza enjoys in repressing criticism of the Emperor as well as the remarkable freedom with which it carries on its more traditional criminal enterprises could not exist without active Governmental approval, and argue for a more functional conception of the Yakuza's role in Japanese society than is usually offered. Given the Yakuza's heavy involvement in the construction industry, the extraordinarily high Government spending on public works (currently higher than the U.S. Defense Budget) might also be viewed as partial payment to the Yakuza for services rendered.17
The Yakuza's ties to the state go back to the late l9th century when they did strong arm work for local conservative politicians, controlled labor unrest, and served as spies and assassins for the Government, going so far as to murder the Queen of Korea in an incident that triggered off a war with that country in l895. The close collaboration between the Yakuza and the new bureaucratic rulers of Japan was no doubt facilitated by the fact that both groups emerged out of the lower samurai of the previous period. Their cooperation continued into the 20th century, where the list of victimsoften at direct Government requestbroadened to include communists and radical students. In World War II, the Yakuza helped the Japanese army organize and rob occupied Manchuria and China, forcing drugs on the Chinese in a replay of British policy in the l840's.
After the war, with the introduction of a republican constitution and democratic elections, a new era had begun, but the political role of the Yakuza does not seem to have diminished. The Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated electoral politics since l945, was founded largely with the money of Karoku Tsuji, who liked to call himself the "Al Capone of Japan".18 Yoshio Kodama, the most important figure in the Liberal Democratic Party until the late l970's, also had wide Yakuza connections, as did several Prime Ministers and a host of Cabinet Ministers. In l963, in the midst of internal squabbling between the different factions of the L.D.P., a coalition of Yakuza chieftains felt sufficiently concerned with what was happening to their party to send a letter to all L.D.P. members of Parliament urging them to end their infighting as this could only benefit the Left.
But perhaps nothing reveals the Yakuza's close ties to the Government better than a speech that Bamboku Ohno, Secretary General of the L.D.P. from l957l965, gave to 2,500 Yakuza at a reception for the new Godfather of Kobe, in which he said, "Politicians and those who go by the way of chivalry [Yakuza] follow different occupations, but they have one thing in common, and that is their devotion to the ways of giri (obligation) and minjo (human feeling)...I offer my speech of congratulations hoping that you will further exert yourself in the ways of chivalry so as to make our society a better one".19 In so far as the newly revived respect for the Emperor has something to do with earlier expressions of Yakuza chivalry, it appears that Ohno's congratulations were well merited.
In the U.S., it is the priestly caste of lawyers that make sure that people show the proper deference to the Constitution and Supreme Court, along with "free elections" and the presidency the main legitimizing forces in the American system. Without this deferenceaided and abetted by as much mystification as that associated with the Emperor Systemthe Constitution and the Supreme Court couldn't do their work of legitimation. It is only appropriate, therefore, that 2/3 of all the lawyers in the world practise in the U.S. In Japan, this role is played by the Yakuza, which, again appropriately, is four to five times the size of the American Mafia. As far as legitimation is concerned, the Yakuza are Japan's lawyers. And, in so far as the Yakuza provides the ruling class with an important element of the repression it requires, this also qualifies iton the criteria I have establishedfor inclusion as an integral part of the Japanese state.
In summary, Japan's ruling class has been very successful in transferring its rule from one political system to another. With the exception of a handful of generals, there was no purge in Japan in l945 as there was in Germany and Italy. Many figures sullied by their war records continued to play leading roles in the bureaucracy, elected Government, and business. A class-A war criminal even became Prime Minister soon after the American military occupation came to a close. It is no wonderthough foreigners never cease to wonderthat the Japanese Government has never been able to offer a full apology for its numerous war-time atrocities, or that it feels so attached to the flag and anthem used at that time (while both Germany and Italy have adopted new flags and anthems).20 Similarly, it is not surprising that the leaders of the old system should try to reestablish its essentials as soon as they had a chance. But how does one put a genie back into the bottle? The American occupiers removed the Emperor from politics, abolished the army, democratized the election process, broke up the Zaibatsus (economic conglomerates), gave rights to trade unions, and did away with the nationalist curriculums and rituals in the schools.
The ruling class' answer was to reestablish as quickly as possible and with the indispensable help of the Yakuza the prestige of the Emperor. The legitimation he offered was then used to rearrange the pieces on the board that they had inherited from the Americans. In due time, the Emperor has once again become the head of state (in all but name, and with a new Constitution in the offing even that is likely to be corrected); the army has been renamed the "Self-Defense Force" and is considered the third most powerful army in the world; the democratic electoral process has been bypassed by leaving most power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats; the Zaibatsus have changed their name to "Kereitsu" and are as economically dominant as ever; most of the trade unions have become company unions, often with company managers as their presidents, with all that that implies; and gradually but surely the schools have been forced to adopt a more nationalist oriented curriculum with accompanying rituals and symbols. With the economy currently in doldrums, however, and people's dissatisfaction with their worsening conditions on the rise, the state's need to legitimate its capitalist agenda is greater than ever. Hence, the intensification of the Government's efforts to bolster the Emperor's prestige in the schools and among the public generally, and the backlash this has produced among those who object to where this process has taken them and rightly fear where it is heading.
The latest salvo in the "Emperor Wars" was fired by the new Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, on May l5, 2000, when he said, "Japan is a country of Kami (Gods) with the Tenno (Emperor) as its core", at a meeting of the Association of Shinto Shrines. This is the organization that has been trying to get all Cabinet ministers to pay official visits to the Yakasumi Shrine, the burial site of many World War II war criminals. For a prime minister, Mori's nationalist outburst was a first. All the opposition parties immediately demanded a retraction and an apology. They got neither. Another sign of what lies ahead in Japanese politics was the appearance for the first time in a L.D.P. election platform (June, 2000) of a call to revise the Japanese Constitution. Though the L.D.P. did not specify particular reforms, no one doubts that one of the major changes they would like to introduce is making the Emperor official head of state, which would then serve as a springboard for nationalist propaganda of all sorts. It appears like the battle over the Emperor System is about to enter center stage in Japanese political life.
The Japanese bureaucrats who negotiated Japan's terms of surrender in World War II clearly knew what they were doing when they adamantly refused to allow the Emperor to be tried as a war criminalwhich the U.S. initially demandedand insisted that he remain on the throne, even if deprived of all Constitutional authority. In saving a mayonnaise that has failed to reach the right density, one works on a small bit of it until it takes. Then one gradually incorporates the rest of the mixture into the part that has taken until all the mayonnaise has reached the desired state. The bureaucrats knew that the Emperor, and only the Emperor, could play the role of this bit in reconstituting the Japanese society they had lost in the war, and have proceeded accordingly.
If legitimation occupies as central a position in Japanese society as I have indicated, then the politics of delegitimation should be given far more attention than it has. Essentially, delegitimizing the state is to make it abundantly clear that it is run by one class for that class, that it is a class dictatorship, and that everything else it does and says is meant to hide this, or, occasionally, is a compromise forced upon one of its bodies in extremis. Delegitimation generally proceeds by two routes: l) the actions that the state takes in serving capital, particularly as regards its four major requirementsrepression, legitimation, accumulation, and realizationbecome so harmful to the interests of other classes and so transparent that what needs to be hidden and rationalized away simply overwhelms the means that have been used for these purposes. Economic and political crises offer many examples of this happening. 2) The institutions, or groups, or conditions that serve as the main sources of legitimacy lose some or all of their ability to provide this service.
In the case of Japan, radicals both in and out of the Communist Party have been very active trying to unmask the class biases of the capitalist state. Relatively little attention, on the other hand, has been given to trying to undermine the authority of those forces, particularly the Emperor System, that legitimate this state in the eyes of most of the general public. No doubt the reasons for this are many and complex, in which fear of retaliation from the Yakuza must figure prominently. Still, on the basis of the analysis offered here, criticism of all the sources of legitimation and particularly of the Emperor System should be given a higher priority than it now has. The long and careful efforts that the state has devoted to reconstructing the Emperor System is testimony not only to its importance for the ruling class but also to a brittleness in this legitimating authority that has not been exploited as effectively as it might be. With the Japanese economy in serious doldrums and almost certain to get worsewith unemployment (4.7% nationally, but 25.5% for recent college graduates), bankruptcy (debt of bankrupt companies hit a postwar high in July, 2000), workers' suicides chiefly from loss of work (30,000 in l998), and death from overwork (so significant that the Japanese have a special word for it, "karoshi") all on the risethe capitalists' dependence on the Emperor's unique contribution to maintaining the status quo has never been so great. The threat is that once people recognize they have been repeatedly lied to and manipulated, nothing will keep large numbers of them from turning on those they worshiped just moments ago. Without the legitimation provided by the Emperor system, Japan Inc. could come apart at the seams very quickly.
While in no position to offer a full set of tactics for carrying out a politics of delegitimation, I cannot help but note that the Emperor's tie to the Yakuza only succeeds in serving the purpose of legitimation if it remains implicit and appears accidental, the result of an irrational patriotic streak in these criminals, and is not recognized as an organic requirement dictated by essential state functions. But once this tie is rendered explicit and made to appear necessary, what was an advantage to the system quickly becomes a major disadvantage. There is no place in the neo-Confucian image of a wise and benevolent Emperor that still exists in Japan for collusion with organized crime. The question that Japanese radicals should encourage everyone to ask, then, is -Why does the state use the Yakuza to squelch all criticisms of the Emperor? Or, more sharplyWhy does the Emperor need the Yakuza? Trying to answer this question would take people a long way down the road toward delegitimizing the capitalist state in Japan.
The major debate among Japanese Marxists during the 1st half of the 20th century dealt with the nature of Japanese societywas it feudal or capitalist? A great deal depended on the answer, including the kind of revolution (democratic capitalist or socialist) that one considered necessary. The fact that the Japanese state still uses a traditional feudal institution to provide such a large part of its legitimation may suggest to some that this old debate has yet to be resolved. My own position is that Japan is clearly a capitalist society, and its state a capitalist state, albeit one that for peculiar historical reasons is able to use a major pre-capitalist form to serve one of its essential functions. The revolution that Japan needs is not a bourgeois democratic one but a socialist one, but struggling for the democratic reform of the Emperor system could prove an important step in this direction.
|Copyright © Bertell Ollman 2004-2019. All rights reserved.|