Date:April 10, 1992
Class:Moral Reasoning 40, Harvard University
Comments: This is not that good of a paper, but reading it now is pretty funny. At the time, Japan's economy was the envy of the world, so the assignment at the time was to discuss what America could learn from the Japanese system. Now that Japan's economic collapse has dragged on for years, parts of this paper read like the a movie from the 1950's.
  The biggest problem with this paper is lack of support for the arguements it makes. A lot of it is more opinion that anything else. Basically I had enough ideas, support and research for a great seven page paper, with the only problem being that I had to write 10. To do this, I resorted to the time honored college tradition known as "bullshitting", and it shows.
Hook: This was the first time I really tried a big departure from the tone you would traditionally have in a paper, particularly with the section headings.

“Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.”
The Tempest, I.2

“I never enlighten anyone who has not been driven to distraction by trying to understand a difficulty or who has not got into a frenzy trying to put his ideas into words.”
The Ananlects, VII.8

“And I believe that all foreigners should be allowed into this country provided they speak our native langauge… Apache.”
   — Steve Martin

“Trouble vision for a sister, ’cause I know she don’t know, I quote
Her brains retrained by a 24-inch remote.
Revolution a solution for all our children,
But her children don’t mean as much as the show.”
   — Public Enemy,
She Watch Channel Zero


With the industrial and economic success of Japan and other countries in East Asia, the developed countries of the West are rapidly losing their position as the economic leaders of the world. The West should not seek to blindly emulate a more successful East Asia, but certain portions of the Japanese system will translate well into Western systems and address Western problems.

The first lesson to be learned is that there is a lesson to be learned; the West must realize its problems and understand that it must adapt to face them. Once that crucial step is accomplished, the United States and other countries of the West will benefit from selective borrowing of Japanese concepts of education, government and business.

“My name is America, and I’m an alcoholic.”

In solving all problems, the first step is to admit that it exists. Although the U.S. seems to realize that it does have serious problems—homelessness, violent crime and a growing disparity between the upper and lower levels of society, to name a few—it seems reluctant to take real action to correct them. The country possesses a complacent inertia in spite of the problem, as if assuming that the problems will sort themselves out: ‘We have a problem. Yep. A big problem. Problems, problems. Well…gotta run, bye.’ This is hardly surprising after such a long period of unrivaled prosperity and two centuries without a major change in government, but it is the most important facet of America and the West that must change as well as the clearest lesson from East Asia.

At the turn of the century, Japan saw that it was far behind in technology, manufacturing and power and began its unprecedented industrialization. Even as Japan became more and more successful, it always continued to analyze its institutions and improve them. Newspapers and the newspaper market, for example, have undergone expansion, change and redefinition nearly constantly since their introduction in Japan, with innovations like the “new journalism”, created after an analysis of some of the failings of the newspaper industry. (Westney, 177)

Like Japan, the West must understand it’s shortcomings and then act to correct them. In a world which changes a rapidly as this one does, no great nation can afford to be without an economy, a government, and a population which is constantly asking itself “What is wrong? How can it be improved?” It is asking these questions that facilitates adaption to new situations and evaluates response to old ones. The West must learn that acting on the answers to these questions may require a departure from accepted norms of political and economic behavior.

While a simple idea, this is likely the hardest to enact or force. It cannot be legislated in any real way; however, Japan has demonstrated that much economic success can be achieved with this constant self-examination forming the backbone of political and economic behavior.

It is important to note, though, that Japan was not afraid to borrow successful ideas from other countries. Much of its success came from expending energy in searching out already successful systems rather than attempting to invent their own. They borrowed the idea of newspaper and police from Britain (and later France and Germany), military policy from Germany and business acumen and concepts from major countries of the world. Even more importantly, they did not take an idea en toto; rather they played pick-and-choose and experimented.

To the Western way of thinking, this borrowing of concepts is almost anathema. As Vogel says, Americans “find it difficult to assume the posture of the student, even when such indifference to or casual dismissal of foreign success blinds [them] to useful lessons.” (Vogel, 4) This sets up a situation akin to a man trapped in an exitless glass cube who sees a hammer outside the cube; once he gets to the hammer, he can smash his way to freedom, but if he could get to the hammer he would would already be free. In the same way, the West must accept the teaching from East Asia that it can learn from East Asia, but the lesson may not start until the lesson is learned.

This situation is extraordinarily hard to escape from. The difficulties in learning from Japan, fortunately, are not quite at cut and dried as the man in the cube; in the West’s case, the ‘glass cube’ of assuming the role of student may be brittle enough to break with your fists, as it were. Government policy makers and high business officials can borrow at will, if only they will try. Business men are beginning to see the light, but government seems stuck in a rut of 200 years.

Only through determination and desire can the West shatter the glass.

“May I see your hall pass?”

One key area where America can learn from the Japanese is in secondary education. With its 99+% literacy rate, higher attendance and 90+% graduation rate, Japan is clearly superior at keeping its students in school learning. While a case could be made that it is Japan’s Confucian emphasis on the importance of education which makes their system work, it would be foolish to ignore the various facets of the Japanese system adaptable to the educational systems of the West, such as a nationwide set of high standards, a system of equalizing educational funding and the use of television for education.

Since the Occupation, the Japanese Ministry of Education has nationalized the curriculum of secondary education. More importantly, the level of expected knowledge is very high. The result has been an highly and evenly educated population who are receptive to more learning, a population who is much more well informed about events around them. “News commentators on Japanese national commercial television can assume that the audience has sufficient scientific understanding to use various chemical formulas when discussing pollution, nuclear plants, or other scientific questions.” (Vogel, 158) As odd as a media which assumes an intelligent audience might sound to the West, this objective (one of many) could be much more emphasized in a country that wishes to lead the world by example:

To have [the students] understand that there are various types of regional groupings…in [insert country name here] and the world, which are mutually interdependant, and think about the role of [the nation] in international society, thereby deepening their realization as a member of the nation and the world. (Vogel, 169)

“In the United States there is no federal agency that sets standards or even attempts to define what all students of a given age should know.” (Vogel, 175) For the countries in the West, making a curriculum nationalized is not nearly as important as setting a high standard. A national policy would help equalize disparity between schools of different regions, but all schools in the country could shoot for higher standards, especially in math and science. The SAT and ACT are really the only standards in America, and both require no knowledge of science and very little knowledge of math; neither require you to compose.

Currently, curriculum decisions are left to the local school board, which brings up a problem: how can the government declare national standards and still keep the school boards in control of their districts? The answer is for the government to define certain standards—and make them high—but allow the school boards to define how a curriculum meets these standards. Within this framework, the government might allow some flexibility (such as the slight slackening of one requirement in favor of another) and schools could avoid a Japanese pitfall and continue to foster the advanced track student.

A change to a higher standard would naturally not take place immediately. Either the change would have to be gradual, or it would have to start full blast with first-graders and work its way up the grades year by year. In addition, this places more of a pressure on teachers to perform. Apart from initial studies on determining a standard, there might well be a cost of teachers demanding more pay (which they really should get in any case) as well as the cost providing more training. Also, a system would have to be created for assuring that students make the standard. The Japanese test system might work, but a standard failing of American education is to teach the tests rather than the learning process. This system should be invented, or at least augmented, the the local school board.

Money is a real problem in American education. Much could be done by spending 10% of GNP on education, as Japan does, instead of 7%, but more crucially, this money could be distributed to equalize education. That is, give more money to poorer schools and poorer regions. In Japan, this naturally has contributed to the previously mentioned even education, and has probably helped lessen the problem of juku (private supplement schools, generally only affordable by the well to do, causing economic prejudice in education). It is hard to say whether this would actually help decrease the economic disparity in education in the West, but it could hardly make it worse.

Another Japanese lesson: they actually use television for education. Fifty-two hours of educational and cultural television are broadcast per week in Japan. “Although there is an effort to make these programs appealing, they are selected not on the basis of popularity but on the basis of meeting educational needs and conveying informative content.” (Vogel, 181) This last point is crucial, as television is a tool, one of the few which can be either highly effective or make no difference at all, regardless of how one uses it. Flip it on and watch. Nothing to it. But the difference between, say The Tempest (or even Sesame Street) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is night and day.

While deprogramming children from thinking that Michelangelo is the name of a turtle (much less a really fast, martially active turtle) will likely prove more difficult than just having more educational shows available, children of America are brought up on TV, so it is a very active way for them to receive information. Putting television into a standard part of the school day might motivate or enlighten more visually oriented students, as well as prevent the boredom which can cause students to lose interest in school. Additionally, with the invention and wide use of cable, more in-home educational viewing options could be made available.

“More champagne, Senator Kennedy?”

Since Japanese government is essentially a one party system, as well as somewhat more involved in business than the West, Western governments can only realistically borrow a few ideas from East Asian government. Some of these ideas deal with requirements for office, like tests for public officials, great expectation of experience, and more public public-accountability. Others deal with policy issues like how to allocate resources and how to handle monopolies.

In Japan, government officials are trained to be government officials. Before being considered ready for a really important position, a bureaucrat must hold many other offices, as well as proper university training and testing. “After an initial apprentice position in the ministry, the future leaders are commonly assigned to regional post, overseas study posts, and a variety of key sections within the ministry.” (Vogel, 57) They become very familiar with their ministry and those within it which fosters a unique communication between those of the same ministry and, to a lesser extent, those in other ministries. When bureaucrats reach higher offices, the connections needed to wield the office well have already been made and the transition period into the new office is very short. He can generally consider information from those around him as reliable, because he has worked with them for years.

Most offices in the West are either elected by the masses or appointed by those elected by the masses. Very few really have any sort of educational prerequisite, and none absolutely require previous government experience. Naturally, the West does have a bit of the “work-up-the-ladder” mentality, rarely electing to the Presidency, for example, someone who has not been a Governor or Senator. Still, with enough votes, nearly anyone can achieve any office. Better preparing government officials for their offices could greatly benefit the efficiency of the government.

Unfortunately, short of duplicating the Japanese system, this is likely impossible. The U.S. bureaucracy is to big to allow the sort of connections Japan enjoys and there is no easy mechanic to install into the system to encourage more “ladder-climbing” behavior than there already is; however, something can be made of the testing which Japanese bureaucrats must undergo before entering ministries. Create a system of tests which test basic problem solving, logic, and other subjects which are distant cousins of the three R’s for various offices. Require anyone running for a major office to take this test and make the results public. This would encourage politicians to brush up on academics a bit as well as give voters another gauge of a candidate.

A somewhat better idea is the Japanese version of public disclosure. Bureaucrats meet with press constantly for questions, ministry reports and so on, much as politicians in the West. The main difference is in the way these meetings are reported. “Japanese readers…expect the newspapers to present detailed information on the thinking of the bureaucracy, and if the bureaucrats clearly neglect the public interest, members of the press are expected to use their intimate knowledge or contacts with nonofficial sources to gain information.” (Vogel, 86) In the States, only this last is true. American journalism tends to focus on what a politician did rather than what he or she is doing. Except on major issues, American readers only know if the government neglected the public interest after the fact. This is a subtle change in media style that could at once make politicians in the West more accountable for their actions as well as prevent much of the retroactive policy making before it has to start.

As in education, money shows up in politics quite often. The Japanese spend money in a very un-American way. The federal government allocates funds various local regions, not for specific programs as America does, but for that region’s discretionary use. This allows the local governments to decide what the money is most needed for, a task that a local government is much more likely to understand and get right than the federal. “This has permitted more effective regional and metropolitan planning. It allows the national government to develop consistent, integrated plans for redistributing wealth to poorer areas.” (Vogel, 90)

The United States, on the other hand, puts great emphasis on specific programs aimed at a specific goal. This shows a typically Western tendency to target the problem instead of the cause of the problem. Allocating at least some major funds using the Japanese method would, in addition to the effects listed above, give more power to local government as well as hoist pressure from special interest groups upon it. As many special interest groups are regional in nature anyway, this would likely answer more problems more quickly. Los Angeles could use money for gang violence and education, while Butte, Montana might concentrate on improving its road systems more than usual. If Japan is any indication, general grants to local government causes locals to be more careful with money, to conserve funds and to avoid shoddy programs.

Lastly, Japanese government is intimately linked with industry and is very tolerant of behaviors which would smell of monopolies the West. America must come to grips with the fact that most of its anti-trust legislation is very archaic and ignores many facets of our more technological society.

“Hai, nihon de sigoto o sitai to nozonde imasu.”

Government is not the Western institution which can learn from East Asia. Since the region is such an industrial success, it stands to reason that many lessons can be learned in the business arena. For business in the West to continue to compete, its companies must realize their potential by creating a sense of identity, its ownership must focus more on the long run and its management must changes its strategy.

Basic to East Asian business success is the idea that a business is a unit. There is generally an “ideal of harmony and cooperation in relations among employees and between their firms.” (Okimoto, 105) Through spiritual and disciplinary training (often with co-workers) employees gain a sense of identity with the company. This plays a large role in Japanese dedication to work, and therefore, output.

Western corporations could stand to adopt the idea, but not the method. Much of Japan’s success in this area is due to its permanent employment policy, which puts pressure on a worker to join the club. Japanese, in a real sense, can’t leave a corporation is they want to remain successful. In the more flexible West, the goal should be to create a corporation which employees don’t want to leave.

This can be hard to do in the West, but it is possible. Companies like the Microsoft Corporation manage to achieve this feeling in their employees. “I want my company to do well,” says one employee. “My friends at other places go to work just to get it over with, but I want to come in every morning,” says another. (Personal conversation, March 21, 1992) Microsoft’s secret is a large communications system which allows and encourages feedback to everyone. It is common to receive messages from the president of the company. All workers have input into products and ideas are taken on merit rather than source.

Mircosoft also works in small groups, which is another strategy the Japanese have had success with. Japanese sections form a close knit group who can push each other to better and better ideas, as well as better put them into practice due to knowing each other well.

The West would do well to adopt a version of this structure, much as Microsoft has. The size is small enough to avoid most political problems of hierarchy and inertial problems of bureaucracy, but large enough to foster a dichotomy of ideas through debate and consensus decision. The small size of a section also allows much greater speed and adaptability when unfettered by to many controls from above.

Lastly, the West needs to develop a Japanese focus on the long run. East Asia has built its success by, over and over again, trying to maximize market share over immediate profits. With a greater market share comes eventual profit in that market, even if some immediate profits must be forgone.

To implement this change in the West, not only business strategy must change, but the attitude of the stockholder as well. Typical Westerners require almost instant gratification and demand return on investment. This is a major stumbling block which will require examples of successful application of this strategy to work, but this is almost like being back in the glass jar. All that is required is a little daring and a little skill. And a lot of capital.


Okimoto, Daniel I. and Thomas P. Rohlen. Inside the Japanese System. Stanford U Press, 1988.

Vogel, Ezra F. Japan as Number One. Harper, 1980.

Westney, Eleanor. Immitation and Innovation. Harvard U Press, 1987.

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