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What can Japan teach us?; :Japan as Number one: Lessons for America, by Ezra F. Vogel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $12.50

This book reportedly has sold more than 450,000 copies in Japan since it was published last year -- even though it was not intended for a Japanese readership.

Why are the Japanese so eager to read the "lessons for America" of Ezra F. Vogel, chairman of the Council of East Asian Studies at Harvard, and professor of sociology at that university? Perhaps because they are always curious to know what eminent outsiders think of them. (On an approval scale of one to 10, the Japanese come out in his book somewhere between nine and 10 -- high marks indeed.)

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And the lessons that Vogel thinks the United States can learn from Japan?

In general, he credits Japan's remarkable success in becoming an economic leviathan -- while maintaining its social equilibrium -- to the following factors: the close cooperation between the government's meritocracy and the nation's private sector in running the economy; a system of education that stresses the society's quest for knowledge for the sake of consensus attainment; a communitarian social structure and spirit that ensures popular cooperation with law enforcement; and an ethos that emphasizes not self-assertion but submission as bespeaking a person's strength.

Vogel cites many specific examples that demonstrate how the various instruments of this Oriental orchestra blend, and he also recognizes the occasional sour notes. But he ends by calling on America to look closely at Japan, at its structure of state-sponsored industrial and trade policy, its small body of high-level, professional civil service, its "communitarian vision, " and -- in the jargon of his discipline -- its techniques of "aggregation of interests."

Where I have problems with Vogel's arguments is his recognition that the Japanese system is extremely harsh on the deviant, the eccentric, the alien, and the misfit, that it does not foster creativity. While he seems to suggest throughout the book that the Japanese system is excellent for mobilizing human and societal resources, and therefore has superior merit to the American way, he does not show how America can adopt the positive and avoid the pitfalls.

As one who is neither Japanese nor American, I believe strongly that it is in US society that answers to the world's contemporary and future problems will be found. The support that this society has traditionally given to the misfits and the eccentrics is the kind of support that often lights the sparks of creativity.

As a teacher of Asian history with much interest in Japan, I am fascinated with that country. And I admire it, too -- in some respects. But I think that the totality of Japan's experience is so unique that relatively little is exportable, or should be.


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