Harmony from conflict

"Aware of the danger of deadlock"

By William Wetherall

A review of three books

Ellis S. Krauss, Thomas P. Rohlen, and Patricia G. Steinhoff (editors)
Conflict in Japan
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984
xi, 417 pages, softcover

Tetsuo Najita and Victor Koschmann (editors)
Conflict in Modern Japanese History: The Neglected Tradition
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982
x, 456 pages, hardcover

George De Vos (editor)
Institutions for Change in Japanese Society
Research Papers and Policy Studies Number 9
Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1984
x, 244 pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 130(44), 7 November 1985, pages 76-77

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

Japan is so often described as a country where harmony is the ideal and consensus guides all change, that the eye is jarred by a book which bears a title that starts with "conflict". But two have been published in recent years, and a third deals with institutions that channel conflict toward change.

All three publications are the products of conferences held in the United States but also attended by Japanese scholars. As such they suffer from lack of balance and focus, and some articles are not as readable as others. But taken as a trilogy, the books enable the fastidious reader to pick and choose from an impressive smorgasbord of articles, while they give the cover-to-cover peruser a view of the whole spectrum of conflict in the land of harmony.

The authors of Conflict in Japan agree that the ideals of harmony, hierarchy, loyalty, cooperativeness, collective unity, and consensual decision-making "exist to a significant degree in Japan", but then argue that the "prevailing paradigm" is inadequate (as certainly all stereotypes are). "Anyone who knows Japan will agree that it witnesses conflict like other societies, that is has known periods of extraordinary conflict, and that much of the dynamic of change stems from conflict."

Thirteen contributions are grouped into five parts. The two introductory articles discuss conventional conflict theory in the context of Japan. The main articles cover (1) interpersonal conflict between individuals and within families and villages, (2) conflict in labor, education, and women's movements and organizations, and (3) conflict involving political parties, the bureaucracy, and interest groups. A concluding article summarizes conflict and its resolution in postwar Japan.

Conflict in Modern Japanese History examines the civil disorder that led to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the role of social unrest from the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 to the militarism that re -emerged in the mid 1920s. An introduction gives an overview of the historiographical issues that preoccupy the book's sixteen main articles. An epilogue attributes the lack of consensus among the articles to an "agreement to disagree" in which various "interpretations of conflict" result in a "conflict of interpretations".

The general reader will not be attracted by the jargonist tone of the preface, which states that "the overall framework advanced, that conflicts in this history are clustered around discontinuous and synchronic systems of events, is provisional at best and will, no doubt, require additional discussion and refinement." But most of the articles are more lucidly written, and many offer fresh insights into how certain pivotal incidents (such as the Tengu Insurrection of 1864) and key individuals (like the world renowned microbiologist Kitasato Shibasaburo) challenged the status quo and pushed or pulled Japan in new directions.

Other articles deal with peasant uprisings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, millennial movements in the late 19th century, and problem of authority and legitimacy in Japan's modern bureaucratic state, growth and conflict in higher education, the transformation of the Japanese labor market, Japanese tenant unions in search of equity, and the contribution of liberal intellectuals to social conflict.

Institutions for Change in Japanese Society focuses on the processes that harness disenchantment for reform. Twelve articles are divided into two parts. Part I is about trends toward social democracy in Japan, and Part II is about the police as an institution for change.

Part I, about trends toward social democracy in Japan, covers the postwar court system as an instrument for social change; environmental pollution movements and cases; change brought about through social protests by "farmers, students, workers, peace marchers, residents of threatened neighborhoods, housewives, burakumin [outcastes] , environmentalists, Koreans in Japan, leftist politicians, nihilist radicals"; human rights issues and the status of Koreans in Japan and burakumin; and the role of the press (though not always favorable) in mustering support for anti-pollution causes.

Part II, on the police as an institution for change, looks at police, crime, and the community in Japan; the social impact of postwar law enforcement; comparative trends in Japanese criminality; and a discussion of "structural and cultural considerations" in comparing police in Japan and the United States.

None of these books gives "class conflict" explicit emphasis. Conflict in Japan concludes that there is an absence of strong class consciousness in Japan. Many proletarian groups have had to downplay their ideologies in order to attract more support, while the intellectuals who advocate a class view of Japan tend to be isolated elites.

Conflict in Modern Japanese History devotes an article to the Hibiya Riot which began on "the exceedingly hot day" in September 1905 when the peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese war was signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "In three days . . . more than 70% of the police boxes in the city . . . were either smashed or burned down . . . [in] the is major metropolitan riot whose suppression required martial law for the first time in modern Japanese history."

But the author debunks the "class-struggle interpretation" that some postwar historians have imposed on the riot, calling it instead "little more than a blind outburst", though one whose "historical significance" lies in "its basic orientation . . . toward nationalistic chauvinism." The riot was sparked -- and generally fuelled -- by ultra-conservatives who resented the government's acceptance of the "humiliating" peace which not only "abandoned the fruits of victory" but "gravely damaged the well-being of His Majesty's nation."

Emperor Meiji, who could hear the riot from the Imperial Palace near Hibiya park in central Tokyo, composed this poem: "Directions may differ / but the sincerity of Our subjects toward the state / must be one." The progressive intellectuals had their day, but many of them were "converted" to imperialism by the "revere the emperor and expell the barbarian" militarists who emerged from the shadows of Japanese democracy a generation later and continued from where the Hibiya rioters had left off.

Institutions for Change in Japanese Society also balks at endorsing the class-struggle version. Most of its contributors prefer more sophisticated (and realistic) psychocultural or sociopsychological explanations.

Another recent study in English shows that Japan is comparable to the US and Europe in terms of the frequency and level of violence in popular disturbances (Yoshio Sugimoto, "Popular Disturbances in Postwar Japan"). But Sugimoto, a Japanese sociologist educated at the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaching in Australia, also concludes that Japan has class lines, contrary to the official dogma according to which an alleged homogeneity ("one race, one language, and one historical experience") has bred in all Japanese people an unusual sensitivity that enables them to communicate through some kind of non-verbal intra-ethnic telepathy.

A common shortcoming of the books under review is their failure to point out that "harmony" is idealised in Japan precisely because (and when) there is conflict. It was Prince Shotoku Taishi in the 7th century who admonished his people to "regard wa [harmony] as noble, and non-contrariness as honourable." The prince had good reason to promote symphony and accordance, for he lived in an age when emperors were being assassinated and their sons battled over the throne.

Japanese today, some thirteen centuries later, are still invoking wa whenever they have internal problems. So if an emperor, prime minister, or company president exhorts his subjects, rivals, or workers to exemplify wa, there is sure to be real or potential conflict at hand.

"Foreigners are in danger of confusing a Japanese ideal with the actual practice in society," according to Chalmers Johnson, a political scientist at Berkeley. "There is a great deal more conflict in Japanese society than is commonly appreciated. One almost thinks that norms of consensus have at sometimes been invented by the Japanese because they are all too aware that the danger of absolute deadlock sometimes exists in their society."


In 1990 Yoshio Sugimoto published a book in Japanese called Nihonjin o yameru hoho [How to quit being Japanese], from which I learned that he apparently became an Australian citizen. If Sugimoto renounced his Japanese nationality before this article appeared, then the phrase "a Japanese sociologist educated at the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaching in Australia" should have been "an Australian sociologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne". Or, since his nationality is irrelevant, just "a sociologist at La Trobe University" would have been more than enough.