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Letter from Japan: Ah, Remember When...
Japan fans are living in the past

October 15, 1999
Web posted at 4 a.m. Hong Kong time, 4 p.m. EDT

Why is it that the people who think they know the most about Japan live the farthest away? While traveling outside Japan recently, I was taken to task for everything from how to wear slippers to not differentiating between fermented soy beans and fermented tofu.

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Here's the problem with this overseas army of natto-loving Japan aficionados: while more and more Japanese are annoyed at tiresome cultural habits and obligations that they feel hold them back, Japan's fans abroad tend to view the country through rose-tinted glasses. When it comes to interpreting Japan, they are living in the past. Without knowing it, they help foster the sense of complacency that progressive forces in Japan are trying so hard to disrupt.

Most guilty is a large body of so-called Japan experts that can still be found in academia, government and the media. They trace their intellectual lineage to the uncritical views of Japan promoted by the late Edwin O. Reischauer, distinguished Harvard professor and ambassador to Japan. Reischauer asserted that, after World War II, Japan needed only "a slight readjustment of the rules."

Reischauer's circle became known as the Chrysanthemum Club, named after the seal of the Japanese Imperial household, and for half a century they have sought to whitewash the stark realities the Japanese must face. For example, they made sure that Emperor Hirohito was not tried as a war criminal, in part to maintain a sense of social cohesion in war-shattered Japan. Perhaps they had a point. Japan, after World War II, needed stability.

But today, Japan is paying a steep price for 50 years of complacency. And America's established Japan experts are doing nothing to discourage the old ways and habits. Instead, they continue to view Japan through the clouded prism of an antiquated cold war military alliance.

Thank goodness there is a new rabble of ignorant foreigners who are finally beginning to shake this place up. Ironically, these are people who don't give a hoot about Japan's past. Aggressive financial firms like GE Capital, Merrill Lynch and AIG only care about what the future can offer. Many are led by expatriate executives who wouldn't know the difference between Fukuoka and Joey Buttafuoco (to borrow a classic line from my old Newsweek colleague Jon Alter).

Companies like these are changing the way ordinary Japanese live, by doing everything from introducing mutual funds for the masses to putting a Starbucks on every corner. And more and more Japanese are embracing these fundamental changes. Just walk into any Tokyo Starbucks and listen to orders of double skinny lattes roll off Japanese tongues.

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