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New Left Review I/200, July-August 1993


Karel van Wolferen

Japan in the Age of Uncertainty

How did you come to write The Enigma of Japanese Power? The book was published in 1988, but you’d been living in Japan for a long time before that. What was your experience of the country?

I left Holland for adventure at the age of eighteen, to hitch-hike through Asia, with a hundred dollars in my pocket—working my way from Turkey to India, then to South-East Asia, and finally to the Philippines. There I did some photography and writing that enabled me to go to Japan—at that time just another country for me. In Tokyo, I found I could earn my living teaching English rather easily, and I soon realized this was in many ways a more complex and interesting Asian society than others I’d seen. In 1970 I wrote a study on the student revolutionaries of the sixties in Europe and the usa. Then I published a couple of essays on Japan in a Dutch monthly, and I was asked by the daily newspaper nrcHandelsblad to become their Tokyo correspondent—which I remained for some sixteen years, till the publication of my book. In my job I covered much of Asia, spending a lot of time in India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Korea as well. As I came to know Japan better, I realized two things. The first was that the terms that most foreign journalists employed to describe the country bore little relation to what actually was going on in it. The Japanese often use the distinction between tatemae—the official presentation of something, and honne—the real processes or motives hidden behind this facade. In taking so much of the surface presented by Japanese political and economic institutions at face value, I found the international press distorting a great deal of the reality of Japan.

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